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The next top contender in the featherweight division will be crowned on Saturday night in San Antonio when Cub Swanson meets Jeremy Stephens in a five-round main event with title implications on the line.
Swanson and Stephens are both on winning streaks and looking to cement their place atop the division. Both are also considered the cream of the crop when it comes to striking in the division, so expect fireworks when these two step in the cage.
Also on the upcoming UFC Fight Night card, former Ultimate Fighter season 17 winner Kelvin Gastelum looks to keep his undefeated run intact when he faces Swedish prospect Nico Musoke, while Ricardo Lamas tries to get back on track after losing in his bid to capture the featherweight title when he takes on Hacran Dias.
There are a number of great fights on the upcoming card, and in today's fantasy preview we'll focus on the main card, including the headline bout, to see who has the advantage going into San Antonio this weekend.
CUB SWANSON (-240 FAVORITE) VS. JEREMY STEPHENS (+205 UNDERDOG)
With a five-fight win streak in the division, Cub Swanson has been on an absolute tear as of late, but to get to the featherweight title he'll have to go through an 18-fight UFC veteran in Jeremy Stephens, who has gone undefeated through three fights since dropping down to 145 pounds. This will be a matchup of two of the most powerful strikers in the division as well, so don't be surprised if things start a little slow as they find their range, but once the fire starts, expect an inferno.
Swanson has the second most knockouts in UFC/WEC featherweight history with four KO/TKOs to his credit, while also opening up his game with volume, as he lands nearly three and a half significant strikes per minute. As great as his striking has been, Swanson also manages to take opponents down with great success, hitting on 57.1 percent of his attempts, so don't be fooled into thinking he's not good everywhere just because he's known for knocking people out.
As for Stephens, since he's dropped down to featherweight he's been nothing short of a monster. He knocked out former TUF Brazil champion Rony Jason in 40 seconds before dominating Darren Elkins for three rounds in his last fight in January. Stephens has an eight to two knockdown ratio, not to mention three Knockout of the Night awards. Stephens has the kind of power to put a fighter away with one punch or one kick and he doesn't need much follow-up to convince the referee his fights should be stopped. Much like Swanson's wrestling, Stephens doesn't need to use it often, but when he does he's shown excellent grappling skills, taking his opponents down at 50 percent accuracy while also showcasing nearly perfect defensive skills since dropping down a weight class. Facing a noted wrestler and grappler in his last fight, Stephens stuffed all nine of Darren Elkins' takedown attempts, and that's no small feat.
What may be the difference in this fight is the activity the two competitors have had in the last year. Stephens' tear through the division has been a constant flow of activity over the 12 months while Swanson has been on the sidelines since July 2013. In the same time Swanson was sitting out, Stephens finished Jason and beat Elkins and now he looks to make it four in a row overall with this fight. Stephens always had a ton of potential while competing at lightweight, but he failed to pull the trigger in some of his biggest fights against Anthony Pettis and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. At featherweight, his confidence is riding high and it looks like the early hype is really starting to materialize into performance.
If Stephens can get his hands going early to back Swanson down and make him fear the power, this could be the veteran UFC fighter's chance to finally break the ceiling into title contention. Swanson is ultra-dangerous from the outside, however, and he's quick to react with his strikes, so the last thing Swanson can do is sit back and wait for something to happen. Stephens' best defense is a good offense and if he can put together his combinations and land that one punch to the body or head, this fight could be over before the 'championship' rounds late in the fight.
KELVIN GASTELUM (-380 UNDERDOG) VS. NICO MUSOKE (+315 UNDERDOG)
On paper, TUF 17 winner Kelvin Gastelum and Nico Musoke are extremely similar fighters. When you break down their statistics both standing and on the ground, the two welterweights possess many of the same skills. Gastelum's output with strikes is 3.21 per minute, Musoke is 3.15, with both landing at 44 percent accuracy. Musoke's takedowns are landing at 2.48 per 15 minutes in the cage with 50 percent accuracy, while Gastelum is also at exactly 50 percent accuracy with 2.31 takedowns per fight.
What statistics don't tell you, however, are the other facts that display why Gastelum is such a heavy favorite and why he'll walk out of San Antonio with a victory on Saturday night.
The TUF veteran fought at middleweight while competing on the reality show, finishing two fights in a row to make it to the finale before knocking the hype off of heavily-favored Uriah Hall to cap off his improbable run. Since dropping down to welterweight, Gastelum has dusted off Brian Melancon and Rick Story, which is no easy task considering how tough of a test that would be for anyone at 170 pounds, much less a relative newcomer.
And the scary part? Gastelum is only getting better.
Musoke is no pushover and he won't just fade into that good night because he's an underdog. He's a game fighter with better than average submission skills, coupled with a long reach that will give him a three-inch advantage over Gastelum.
Still, this should be another big moment for Gastelum to shine as he overpowers and out matches Musoke for three rounds while cruising towards a three-round unanimous decision. Don't be shocked if Gastelum puts this fight on the ground early, even if he doesn't even pull off a submission win before the third round starts.
RICARDO LAMAS (-190 FAVORITE) VS. HACRAN DIAS (+165 UNDERDOG)
Former featherweight title contender Ricardo Lamas looks to get back on the horse when he takes on Brazilian Hacran Dias in a pivotal bout for both men in this rapidly expanding division.
Lamas fought long and hard to finally earn his shot at the featherweight belt, but once he got there, champion Jose Aldo beat him in every facet of the game until the final horn sounded. That kind of one-sided loss can either force a fighter to adjust and get better or crumble and fade after a dream died when the title didn't come home with him. If Lamas is part of the former group of competitors, this should be a golden opportunity for him to come back and shine on Saturday night.
Lamas has been a beast since moving down to featherweight after spending most of his career fighting at 155 pounds. Prior to the fight with Aldo, Lamas had crushed the competition, winning four bouts in a row, including finishes over Cub Swanson and Erik Koch. Lamas is a wrestler who loves to put an opponent on his back and beat on him until the fight is stopped or he locks on a submission. Lamas is no slouch on his feet either, as witnessed in his fight with Matt Grice, but this time around a clinch and ground attack is his best weapon for victory.
Dias is a submission specialist training out of Nova Uniao, the same camp that produced Aldo and former bantamweight champion Renan Barao. Dias is methodical with his attacks like a boa constrictor slowly wrapping around its prey until he finds just the right position and then he crushes an opponent with his world-class grappling.
Where Dias likely falls short in this fight recalls the same problem he had in his last bout. Dias just couldn't get free of Nik Lentz's wrestling, and over three rounds the frustration just mounted as he struggled under the raw strength and power of the American. It could be a similar fate this time around, although when it comes to finishes, Lamas is way ahead of Lentz in that category. As long as Lamas uses his wrestling and clinch work to frustrate Dias, by the time the third round is upon them, the fight will essentially be over already. Lamas should coast to a decision win while handing Dias his second loss in a row.
ANTONIO BRAGA NETO (-150 FAVORITE) VS. CLINT HESTER (+130 UNDERDOG)
If you're looking for another potential upset pick on the card, look no further than this middleweight bout between submission expert Antonio Braga Neto and former Ultimate Fighter hopeful Clint Hester.
Neto is another in a long line of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu champions hoping to find success in the world of MMA, and he certainly looked impressive in his debut when he took out Anthony Smith by kneebar in June 2013. It's been a year since that fight and Neto has been on the sidelines since that time dealing with various injuries.
If Neto gets this fight to the ground early, all bets are off. He's world-class with his submission and grappling and his best chance to win is getting Hester to the mat in the opening minutes and locking up a hold before the fighters are really sweating and warmed up. But Hester is no easy fighter to get to the ground, and he's got nasty power in his hands coming from a boxing background.
Hester stuffs 64 percent of his opponent's takedown attempts and counters with 4.24 strikes per minute landed, and he's got fight-finishing power in both hands. Hester just has to stay out of Neto's grappling range in the opening minutes, but if he counters effectively he can light up the Brazilian on the feet. Hester can't get relaxed because one mistake puts him on the ground and it's a mismatch with Neto in his world, but on the feet it might produce the same kind of lopsided result. Expect Hester to keep to his game plan, avoid the takedown and counter with big punches. As a boxer, Hester already doesn’t use kicks very often and that will benefit him greatly as he puts combination after combination together and beats Neto up over the course of three rounds to get the win.