For the first time ever, the UFC will land in St. Louis for a special Sunday night card headlined by two of the most ferocious fighters in the featherweight division, as Jeremy Stephens takes on Dooho Choi in what should be an instant classic.
Stephens is well known for his heavy-handed style and vicious knockout power, but he's going to meet his match this weekend as Choi looks to put on another Fight of the Year type performance like he did in his last fight against Cub Swanson.
Also on the card, former Ultimate Fighter finalist Uriah Hall looks to add a legend to his resume as he faces off with Vitor Belfort, while Paige VanZant makes her first appearance in the new UFC women's flyweight division as she takes on Jessica-Rose Clark, who picked up her first win inside the Octagon back in Nov. 2017.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these matchups and several more to see who has the edge going into Sunday's card and if anybody is primed for an upset at UFC Fight Night: Stephens vs. Choi.
These are the fights that are just too close to call, but a few minor differences between favorite and underdog could lead one fighter to victory and the other to defeat.
Uriah Hall vs Vitor Belfort
In a battle between two notable strikers, Uriah Hall will look to build on his last performance inside the Octagon when he takes on a legend in Vitor Belfort.
Hall has certainly dealt with his fair share of ups and downs in the UFC, but he still remains one of the most skilled standup fighters on the roster, one who has knockout power at any range and has shown incredible heart in the past to gut through tough moments. Hall's most recent losses have only come to elite fighters in the middleweight division, including a defeat at the hands of current champion Robert Whittaker. Hall seemingly feasts on any fighter outside the top 15 and that's what he'll try to do against Belfort, who has been on a roller coaster ride of his own lately.
Belfort is coming off a win in his last fight, where he battled back and forth in a grueling affair with recently retired UFC veteran Nate Marquardt. Belfort is still dangerous with his knockout power, but he's not quite the same speed demon he was several years ago, when he was tearing through the best middleweights in the world. Still, Belfort packs a serious punch and he showed a better ability to avoid damage in his last fight, which will be crucial for his matchup against Hall.
Belfort cannot allow Hall to dictate the pace in this fight or he could be in trouble early. Hall is most dangerous when he's allowed to set his feet and begin throwing combinations at his own leisure as opposed to competing against those fighters who put pressure on him early and never allow him to get comfortable on his feet. Belfort has to close the distance and then make Hall work for every single shot he lands from the outside.
Of course, that's easier said than done, and while Hall does get tentative from time to time, he's also very good at seeing an opening and exploiting it during a fight. Belfort's defense has been a problem in recent fights and that could be his undoing in this matchup as well. Hall just has to show patience while also being willing to engage because he can't just wait for Belfort to attack before he launches his best offensive output.
MORE FROM ST. LOUIS: Hall embraces inner bad ass | Reasons to Watch | Explose main event set for Sunday night | Three fighters On the Rise | Free Fight: Choi vs. Swanson
Prediction: Uriah Hall by TKO, Round 2
Paige VanZant vs Jessica-Rose Clark
Following a loss in her last fight and a brutal weight cut to boot, Paige VanZant will test the waters in the new 125-pound women's division where she will make her debut this weekend against Jessica-Rose Clark.
The book on VanZant is well known from her numerous fights inside the Octagon. VanZant is a pressure cooker on the feet and on the ground who will look to constantly bring the fight to her opponents, rarely giving them a moment to breathe. VanZant has shown great versatility with her ground game while also constantly improving her striking, as she showed with her knockout against Bec Rawlings. The real question in this matchup will be how VanZant adapted to the bigger weight class while also engaging in her first fight since leaving Team Alpha Male and training with a new team in Oregon.
Meanwhile, Clark will definitely be a tough test for VanZant with her gritty, in-your-face style, where she employs a similar strategy with a lot of pressure on her opponents and an ability to constantly push the pace from the start of the fight until the finish. Clark doesn't do anything particularly flashy, but instead she shows off incredible grit and determination in every one of her fights. Plus, Clark got those infamous Octagon jitters out of the way in her last fight, so she'll be ready to go for this main card matchup on Sunday night.
So how has VanZant adjusted to the extra weight while performing at 125 pounds? While the benefits of not going through a rigorous weight cut will certainly help, VanZant will still be giving up size and power to a bigger fighter in Clark, who has also competed for a big part of her career at 135 pounds. VanZant loves to outwork her opponents, especially in the clinch and on the ground, and if she can't get Clark down or keep her there, it could spell trouble. Ultimately, this fight is a tossup, but given Clark's recent activity, as well as her size and power advantage, she maintains a slight favorite to pull off the win.
Prediction: Jessica Rose-Clark by unanimous decision
Darren Elkins will look to build on his recent five-fight win streak when he faces off with a perennial top 10 lightweight in Michael Johnson, who will be making his featherweight debut on Sunday night.
Elkins has shown incredible improvement over his past few fights while working with Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, and he's now put himself in a position where he could be knocking on the door of a top five fight if he can get past Johnson. Elkins is a tenacious fighter with top-notch wrestling and an iron chin. While he did get one of the best finishes of 2017 with his victory over Mirsad Bektic, Elkins is best known for his gritty style inside the Octagon, where he likes to grind his opponents into dust by absolutely breaking their will round after round. Elkins typically sticks to the basics when it comes to his approach to the fight, and the last place Johnson wants to be is locked against the cage, defending takedowns all night.
Of course, Johnson will present plenty of problems of his own, especially if he can keep this fight standing and force Elkins to strike with him. Johnson has long range, insane hand speed and knockout power in both hands. Johnson also has wrestling in his back pocket as well, but he'll typically use that defensively more than trying to outwork an opponent with his grappling. There's no doubt that, on paper, Johnson has a lot of weapons that can win this fight for him, but the real question remains how he will do cutting down to 145 pounds for first time.
Johnson is making his featherweight debut and there's just no telling until right before the fight begins to know how much that might affect his performance. If Johnson did the right things in his training camp to ensure his weight cut during fight week will go as planned, he could pick up a big win here over Elkins and set himself up for a run at the top 10 in the featherweight division. The flipside would be Johnson suffering from the weight cut and dealing with a fighter in Elkins who can put the pressure on and won't let up until the final horn sounds. Assuming Johnson can manage the cut down to featherweight, he should be able to pick his shots and outwork Elkins over three rounds. Elkins didn't get his nickname "The Damage" for nothing, because he has no problem absorbing punches and then launching a counter attack of his own. Unfortunately, that tendency to eat shots could backfire in a big way against a rangy, knockout striker like Johnson.
Prediction: Michael Johnson by unanimous decision
Thiago Alves will look for his second win in a row when he takes on tough-as-nails welterweight competitor Zak Cummings this weekend.
Alves is one of the most experienced fighters on the UFC roster, with a laundry list of fights against the best of the best in the 170-pound division. Alves is a power puncher with devastating leg kicks and some of the best striking the welterweight division has ever seen. Alves has also showcased tremendous takedown defense throughout his career and that will be a huge asset for him against a big, strong wrestler like Cummings.
Cummings averages just under one and a half takedowns per fight, but his threat of putting an opponent on the ground can sometimes open up opportunities for him over the course of three rounds. Cummings is a powerhouse at 170 pounds and he will also enjoy a whopping five-inch reach advantage in this fight so he'll need to use that to keep Alves on the end of his punches before swooping into look for the takedown. Cummings has to know that standing on the outside and turning this fight into a kickboxing bout is dangerous considering Alves' knockout power and nasty combinations on the feet.
If Alves can force Cummings to stand and trade with him, he'll look to chop the giant down round after round with his powerful leg kicks before going up high to look for the knockout shot. Alves can't underestimate Cummings' striking ability, but he also has to come after him with aggression and power to stave off those takedown attempts. If Alves is able to land with volume and accuracy at the start of the fight, then he'll set the tone for the entire three-round affair and with each leg kick landed, it becomes harder and harder for Cummings to plant his feet for a takedown. Over three rounds, that sort of attack will take its toll.
Prediction: Thiago Alves by unanimous decision
These are the fights that appear to be a little more one-sided, but remember that this is MMA, where anything can - and usually does - happen.
Kamaru Usman has quickly become one of the most talked about fighters in the welterweight division in large part due to his dominant win streak and a skill set that continues to get better and better with each fight. Usman comes from a wrestling background, but he's shown off huge strides in his striking game as he put on display in his last fight when he knocked out Sergio Moraes. When Usman decides to wrestle, he's nearly impossible to stop as he plants his opponents on the mat and then proceeds to dominate them until he decides to let the fight get back to the feet.
That's a very dangerous fighter and part of the reason why Usman is such a heavy favorite going into his bout against Emil Meek.
Now make no mistake, Meek is going to give Usman a fight, especially if he can keep this fight standing for the majority of three rounds. Even in the clinch, Meek could give Usman problems, as he's developed a devastating elbow strike similar to what Travis Browne did at heavyweight when he knocked out several opponents from inside the clinch when locked up against the cage.
Still, Usman's relentless pressure and ability to pick his shots when it comes to whether he wants this fight standing or on the ground gives him a huge advantage. So as long as Usman doesn't make any big mistakes, he should be able to plant Meek on the mat and then maul him on the ground, where he's seemingly unstoppable with his top game.
Prediction: Kamaru Usman by TKO, Round 3
Jessica Eye will make her long awaited return to the flyweight division as she takes on Kalindra Faria in the featured bout of the early prelims on UFC FIGHT PASS.
Eye has been a top 10-ranked bantamweight for most of her UFC career, but she's also been undersized in pretty much every fight she's had inside the Octagon. Before coming to the UFC, Eye was recognized as arguably the best 125-pound women's fighter in the sport, but without the flyweight division in the UFC, she opted to move up to a new division. Now Eye will go back to 125 pounds, where she hopes to put her name into title contention sooner rather than later.
As for Faria, she will be making her second appearance in the UFC after suffering a submission loss in her debut last Oct. Faria stumbled in that fight but she's still defeated a slew of good fighters during her career. That being said, Faria has also struggled against elite competition, including current UFC fighters Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Jessica Aguilar, and now she'll be moving up to 125 pounds against one of the best fighters that division has ever known.
Eye is coming off several losses in a row, so there's no doubt she's in a must win situation here, and it's tough to know for certain how many chances she'll be willing to take to get the win. That being said, Eye has incredible boxing and a very underrated ground game, and now she'll be facing opponents the same size again. Skill for skill, Eye is just the more well rounded fighter and should be a fighter to watch in 2018 when it comes to this new women's flyweight division.
Prediction: Jessica Eye by unanimous decision
Jeremy Stephens vs. Dooho Choi
While it's never easy to predict what matchup will earn Fight of the Night at any event, the safe money will be on this main event showdown between Jeremy Stephens and Dooho Choi.
Choi is one of the best young talents to join the UFC roster in recent years thanks to his devastating knockout power, high output and serious durability to weather any storm that comes his way. Choi pours on the offense with just under six significant strikes landed per minute at over 52 percent accuracy. That kind of volume is going to be tough to deal with, as Choi always seems to put the pedal to the metal and doesn't stop until the fight's over.
Where Choi may struggle in this fight is with his inability to get out of the way of punches, as his defense has been woefully bad during his UFC career. Choi actually gets hit with over six strikes per minute, which is more than he lands in return. That's a dangerous game to play with somebody who has as much knockout power as Stephens possesses.
Stephens will enjoy a slight reach advantage and he's got the Octagon experience to know when to turn this fight into a slugfest and when he can exploit some of Choi's defensive liabilities. Stephens showed off a ferocious leg kick in his last fight against Gilbert Melendez and he's likely to use that same weapon to take out Choi's foundation in this fight as well.
Look for Stephens to show poise under pressure early while chopping away at Choi's legs and then he'll start opening up more with his hands as time ticks away. If Stephens can connect with his best punch, Choi may not get back up again, but his iron chin has kept him in fights before and it may work again this weekend. Stephens will definitely go for the knockout but he'll also stay calm and composed to ensure he gets the win above everything else and that's why he's primed to pull off the upset in this main event.
Prediction: Jeremy Stephens by unanimous decision