A grudge match that's festered for over a year will finally come to a head on July 8 when strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk meets rival Claudia Gadelha in The Ultimate Fighter Finale at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Jedrzejczyk defeated Gadelha by way of a very close decision in their first fight in 2014, but the two strawweights have been at each other's throats ever since. For the past season of The Ultimate Fighter, Jedrzejczyk and Gadelha served as coaches on the reality show and once again renewed their rivalry over six weeks while mentoring the next crop of light heavyweight men and strawweight women to possibly join the roster.
Now Jedrzejczyk and Gadelha will finally settle the score in the TUF 23 Finale’s main event, a card that features a stacked undercard with a slew of top names, including former Ultimate Fighter winner Ross Pearson taking on highly-touted Will Brooks, who just recently signed with the UFC.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine some of these key matchups to see who has the advantage in some of the toughest fights to call and who might be primed for an upset when the night is over at The Ultimate Fighter 23 Finale: Jedrzejczyk vs. Gadelha.
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.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk (-170 favorite) vs. Claudia Gadelha +150 underdog)
The first fight between Jedrzejczyk and Gadelha saw the future strawweight champion score a close decision win. Ever since then, Gadelha has targeted Jedrzejczyk for a rematch and now she'll finally get her shot at redemption. In that first bout, Jedrzejczyk dropped Gadelha early with a big punch before the Brazilian contender powered back in rounds two and three.
This time around, Jedrzejczyk has to know that her biggest weapon will still be her striking, while the best defense will be avoiding Gadelha's ground game.
Jedrzejczyk has defended over 84 percent of takedowns attempted against her and that will be a key in stopping Gadelha from mounting any offense against her. Jedrzejczyk is emotionally invested in this fight, but she has to be careful not to let her anger towards Gadelha overshadow a smart, tactical attack against a very dangerous ground specialist.
Gadelha averages over five takedowns per fight with over 61 percent accuracy. She's also managed to land with over four significant strikes per minute on the feet with good accuracy as well. Gadelha is extremely well rounded, but she can't allow Jedrzejczyk to get comfortable at a distance or she'll pay for it as the fight pushes into the championship rounds.
For Gadelha to win, she needs to get Jedrzejczyk down early and often through the first few rounds. If she can't get the fight to the mat, Jedrzejczyk will start to pick her apart on the feet and she's even more dangerous now than when they first met in 2014. Jedrzejczyk is a punishing brute on the feet and as long as she doesn't get locked into a clinch fight with Gadelha, she should be able to rack up enough points to eke out a decision. The last bout was close and this one could be just as much of a nail biter, but Jedrzejczyk is the reigning champion and still has a very slight edge heading into the rematch.
Prediction: Joanna Jedrzejczyk by split decision
Ross Pearson vs. Will Brooks
Highly touted free agent pickup Will Brooks will make his UFC debut at The Ultimate Fighter finale, where he'll face a daunting task in veteran striker Ross Pearson.
Pearson has been bouncing back and forth between wins and losses over his last eight fights while trying to find some consistency in his performances. At his best, Pearson is a lethal striker with dynamite in his hands and an incredibly durable chin. When he's off his game, Pearson is uneven at best while trying to find a rhythm inside the Octagon. In this matchup against Brooks, it's likely Pearson will look to keep things at a distance while attempting to out box his opponent over three rounds.
This is a big proving ground for Brooks, who was regarded as one of the best lightweights in the world outside the UFC, but now that he's performing on the biggest stage in the world, expectations are very high. Brooks is a powerful wrestler with dynamic, explosive takedowns and a punishing style where he can batter opponents on the feet or on the ground. Brooks has also been in a number of championship bouts, so his conditioning could be a big weapon during his early UFC fights, where he's only going for three rounds. As long as Brooks doesn't allow the notorious UFC jitters to get the best of him, he should be able to showcase his skills, especially if he can endure a fast start from Pearson.
Brooks might drop the first round just getting his feet wet, but once he starts to feel at home inside the Octagon, look for him to pressure Pearson, put him on the ground and then work from there over the final 10 minutes. Pearson won't go away easy, but his inability to string together multiple performances where he looks as good as his last fight leave plenty of concerns when it comes to picking the British slugger. If Pearson can't stop the takedown, he's going to be in trouble by the time the final horn sounds.
Prediction: Will Brooks by unanimous decision
An early dark horse for Fight of the Night could be this featherweight clash between Dooho Choi and Thiago Tavares. Both of these fighters are known for explosive finishes, and chances are the judges can probably take the night off when these two step into the Octagon together.
Tavares has looked fantastic at featherweight thus far, with his only loss at 145 pounds coming in an absolute war with undefeated prospect Brian Ortega. Outside of that, Tavares has been nothing short of dominant, both on the feet and on the ground, in his new division. In the matchup with Choi, Tavares will deal with one of the most powerful young strikers in the weight class, one with huge knockout power in both hands.
Choi is a blitzing style striker, who currently averages more than 15 shots landed per minute on the feet. Now those statistics are inflated because he's blasted through his early UFC opponents with such force that he still hasn't even made it out of the first round. Chances are Choi will have to show a little bit more stamina in this fight because Tavares isn't an easy fighter to finish and he'll likely have to battle deep into the second or maybe the third round to get a win in this one.
The good news is that Choi hits with speed, power and accuracy, and as long as his aggressiveness doesn't end with a takedown from Tavares, he should have the advantage on the feet. Tavares is no slouch when throwing hands with an opponent, but exchanging shots with Choi is a very dangerous game. Choi has shown good takedown defense thus far in his UFC career, and if he blocks an early attempt from Tavares, his confidence will likely blossom. From there, it's just a matter of Choi landing the right strike to put Tavares away.
Expect a real battle and a crowd-pleasing affair, but Choi should be able to get the job done before the final horn.
Prediction: Dooho Choi by TKO, Round 3
Cezar Ferreira will look to pick up another win over an accomplished striker when he faces Anthony Smith on July 8. Ferreira had taken a couple of tough losses before returning to the win column in his last fight against Oluwale Bamgbose, where he picked up a unanimous decision win. Against another knockout striker like Smith, Ferreira will have to showcase great defense before attempting to drag this one to the ground to get the win.
Ferreira seems much healthier now that he's back competing at middleweight, where he can use his powerful ground game to keep Smith from landing his signature strikes. Smith is deadly with his hands and feet, but he might not want to throw as many kicks this time around out of fear of being taken to the mat. Given Ferreira's 56 percent takedown accuracy, he only needs Smith to make one mistake and he'll plant him on the ground.
If Ferreira can do that early, Smith will probably be a little more defensive about over extending on his strikes out of fear that he'll end up on the ground again and again. That kind of tentativeness often backfires and that should allow Ferreira to rack up enough points over three rounds to get the win.
Prediction: Cezar Ferrreira 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.
John Moraga will return from a year away when he takes on former Ultimate Fighter Brazil competitor Matheus Nicolau, who makes his move down to the flyweight division for this fight. Nicolau was very impressive in his debut, pulling off a late submission win over Bruno Rodrigues, but he's taking a decided step up in competition against a former title contender like Moraga.
Moraga is an offensive machine who powers through his opponents with both wrestling and striking, and the only fighters he's lost to at 125 pounds have been the best of the best in the division. Moraga has lost to current champ Demetrious Johnson and former two-time title contenders John Dodson and Joseph Benavidez. Otherwise, Moraga has run roughshod over the competition and he should do the same with this fight.
Moraga is a punishing brawler who will bring the fight to Nicolau from the moment the fight starts until the final horn sounds. Look for Moraga to put the pressure on Nicolau early and never let up off the gas as he pours on the offense over all three rounds. Nicolau could threaten with a submission or land something unexpected on the feet, but otherwise he's going to be playing defense for the better part of three rounds.
Prediction: John Moraga by unanimous decision
This matchup at 155 pounds between Jake Matthews and Kevin Lee isn't a lock by any means, but there are several reasons to believe the young Australian prospect will get the job done.
Matthews seems like a real star in the making for the lightweight division and as he continues to grow in experience, his ability inside the cage will only get better as well. Matthews has shown an incredibly well rounded game thus far in his early UFC career and he's the kind of fighter who will be featured in main events sooner rather than later. Matthews is a confident striker with good power on the feet and who is a very dangerous brawler on the ground with nasty punches and elbows on top.
Lee is no slouch and he could absolutely give Matthews headaches with his quick hands and versatile wrestling attacks, but it just seems like over three rounds the young Australian will find a way to win. Look for Matthews to mix up his attacks both on the feet and on the ground, and that could frustrate Lee as he tries to find an opening. Matthews is a star on the rise and this should be a golden opportunity to showcase his skills on a big stage outside of his native country.
Prediction: Jake Matthews by unanimous decision
It's been over a year since former title contender Gray Maynard last fought, and now he returns as a featherweight for the first time in his career. Prior to his time off, Maynard had dropped four fights in a row, including three ending by knockout. It's been a rough road for Maynard and it's awfully hard to pick him in his first fight back, especially now that he's moving down to a weight class where he's never performed before.
Bruno is a solid prospect out of Brazil, and while he may not have the skills to make a run at the top 10 in the division right now, he's still serviceable enough to hold his own against Maynard in this fight. Bruno has slick submissions on the ground and solid accuracy on the feet. More than anything in this fight, however, Bruno has just been more active and has fewer question marks surrounding him than Maynard.
Perhaps Maynard returns and looks like the fighter who once battled Frankie Edgar for the lightweight title on two occasions. Still, given his last couple of performances coupled with a drop down to a lower division, it's hard to pick Maynard going into The Ultimate Fighter Finale.
Prediction: Fernando Bruno by unanimous decision