Two of the division's rising stars meet Friday night.
International Fight Week is always one of the biggest destination events for the UFC each year, and 2018 is no exception.
Twenty-four hours ahead of UFC 226, The Ultimate Fighter: Undefeated will come to a close with a new lightweight and featherweight winner being crowned, as well as a middleweight main event with fireworks written all over it.
Brad Tavares has won his last four fights while looking better than ever as he's managed to climb into the top 10 at 185 pounds. Meanwhile, upstart prospect Israel Adesanya is wasting no time taking a huge jump up in competition as he faces Tavares in the main event.
Also on the card, two women's flyweight contenders will look to get back into the title hunt when Barb Honchak meets Roxanne Modafferi, while Alex Caceres takes on fellow Ultimate Fighter veteran Martin Bravo in a featherweight showdown.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to examine these fights and several more to see who has the edge and who might be primed for an upset at The Ultimate Fighter: Undefeated finale from Las Vegas.
Brad Tavares vs. Israel Adesanya
Right out of the gate there's an upset brewing in the main event, where Israel Adesanya is actually a heavy favorite over No. 8 ranked middleweight Brad Tavares.
Now make no mistake about it, the hype around Adesanya is for real, as he's proven through his first two fights in the UFC. Adesanya is an extremely creative striker with dynamite in his hands and feet and more than enough swagger to lure opponents into his combinations. Adesanya's confidence carries him through a lot of situations during his fights, as he refuses to back down from any opponent while mixing together a nasty bunch of striking techniques that have rarely been seen inside the Octagon.
All that being said, Adesanya is only two fights into his UFC career and he's shown flashes of brilliance, but still not the type of flashy finishes that you might expect from such a dynamic striker.
On the flipside, Tavares has looked better than ever through his past four fights, as he has seemingly put together the most well rounded arsenal he's ever shown throughout his UFC career. Tavares largely grew up inside the Octagon after appearing on The Ultimate Fighter, so he's faced his share of ups and downs. Still, in recent fights, Tavares has looked calm and composed on the feet, with striking combinations that are as explosive as they are technically sound. Tavares also has an underrated ground game that doesn't get used all that much, but he's certainly got miles on the mats compared to Adesanya.
It's a little surprising that the odds are so much in favor of Adesanya going into this fight considering his relative inexperience compared to Tavares. Adesanya has all the makings of a future title contender, but this matchup feels like too much too soon. The best comparison would be Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson taking on veteran welterweight Matt Brown in his second UFC fight. Thompson definitely showed flashes of brilliance in that fight, but ultimately Brown's experience and in cage savvy carried him to the win.
The same scenario might play out in this fight with Tavares having so much more experience, especially inside the Octagon, than Adesanya has gathered in only two UFC fights. Tavares has also shown real growth and evolution in his complete mixed martial arts game lately and this might just be a bad time to draw him for a fight. Adesanya might find that out the hard way on Friday night.
Prediction: Brad Tavares by unanimous decision
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.
Joe Giannetti vs. Michael Trizano
The lightweight final for The Ultimate Fighter: Undefeated features a matchup between Joe Giannetti, who worked under Daniel Cormier during the season and Michael Trizano, who was a standout under heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic. On paper, this fight seems like the classic “striker versus grappler” fight, with Giannetti being an experienced ground specialist while Trizano is best known for his standup skills.
Giannetti — nicknamed “Skeletor” for his long, lanky body — is a very slick submission stylist whenever the fight hits the floor. He's very dangerous with his chokes, where he can use his long arms and long legs to set up moves like the D'Arce choke from the top or the triangle choke from the bottom. While submissions seem to be his best weapon, Giannetti has also worked tirelessly to develop striking skills to take advantage of his long reach. During his semifinal fight on the show, Giannetti showcased a nice lead jab and a series of kicks that he used to pepper his opponent to the legs, body and head throughout the fight.
As for Trizano, the Tiger Schulmann trained lightweight is definitely molded more from a striker's background, although he's no stranger to submissions either. Trizano is a technical kickboxer, similar to his teammate Jimmie Rivera. Trizano won't wow you with his power but he's very good at applying pressure at the right moments and putting together strong combinations to do maximum damage. Trizano is also a workhorse — he won't slow down from the first minute to the last and he'll keep charging until the fight is over.
Perhaps Trizano's best weapon will be his own size and reach, where he will only be giving up one inch to Giannetti, who is typically the much larger fighter in his bouts. Trizano's ability to keep the fight at his own distance while stuffing any takedown attempts from Giannetti will go a long way towards getting him the victory in this fight. Trizano also has great boxing, which will certainly help him avoid throwing too many kicks that could result in a takedown from Giannetti.
Coming off the show, Giannetti definitely had the most hype around him due to his flashy finishes and dynamic performances, but Trizano has more experience at a higher level in the past and he's the more technical fighter overall. Trizano has more ways to win, particularly if he can take away Giannetti's best weapons on the ground.
Prediction: Mike Trizano by unanimous decision
Katona was definitely one of the more underrated fighters going into the season, with an unassuming look and a career spent mostly fighting at bantamweight. Still, Katona managed to pull off two of the more impressive wins on the show, including his third-round submission over heavily favored opponent Bryce Mitchell.
Katona trains out of SBG Ireland, the same team responsible for former two-division UFC champion Conor McGregor, and he'll have both head coach John Kavanagh and former Ultimate Fighter finalist Artem Lobov in his corner this weekend. That kind of experience should help Katona prepare for the pressure-filled situation that will surround The Ultimate Fighter Finale.
Meanwhile, Cucciniello actually earned his way to the finale after losing his first fight of the season and then returning due to injuries suffered by another competitor. Cucciniello made the most of his second opportunity by eliminating one of the favorites to win the entire show when he took out Tyler Diamond in the semifinals.
Cucciniello is a well-rounded fighter with solid hands and a good ground game to compliment his steely resolve. Cucciniello is a former soldier who spent several tours of duty in the Middle East while serving in the British Army, so he's no stranger to dealing with intense situations on a daily basis. That kind of mental fortitude certainly helped Cucciniello get past his first loss in the house and then return with a huge win in the semifinals.
In terms of the matchup, Katona is very slick on the ground and a tough, all-around competitor who will not fade away in the face of adversity. Even if he's behind early, Katona will not be out until the fight is over. As for Cucciniello, he will be the bigger, rangier fighter in this matchup, but he has to showcase his entire skill set over three rounds if he wants to get past Katona. Cucciniello has solid striking and a good enough ground game that he could survive on the mat with Katona, but that's probably not the way he wants this fight to play out.
If Cucciniello can use his range to keep Katona on the end of his punches while showing real patience during this fight to not get frustrated when his opponent refuses to fade away, he should be able to earn enough points on the scorecards to earn the win. The real threat could be Katona's ability to forge a comeback out of nowhere because he will absolutely seize on the slightest mistake that Cucciniello makes.
Prediction: Jay Cucciniello by split decision
Related: On The Rise TUF 27 Finale Edition
Roxanne Modafferi vs. Barb Honchak
It's been seven years since Barb Honchak submitted Roxanne Modafferi, and now the two flyweight contenders will meet again as each of them look to establish their place in the new UFC women's 125-pound division.
For several years, Honchak was considered the top of the class at flyweight, where she was the reigning and defending champion in Invicta FC. Unfortunately, time off damaged her career and she never quite captured that same magic when she returned during The Ultimate Fighter season 26. Honchak then lost a heartbreaking split decision in her UFC debut when she took on former housemate Lauren Murphy last December.
When she's at her best, Honchak is a very dangerous fighter to deal with in all facets of the mixed martial arts game. She's a game wrestler with good takedowns and incredible ground control. Honchak has also shown off a versatile striking attack with a willingness to engage with anybody on the feet if that's what it takes to get the job done.
As for Modafferi, she's at her best when she's able to control the pace of the fight, whether that means with an aggressive striking attack or a very slick ground game where she's well versed at submissions. Modafferi is a true student of martial arts and she's always working to improve her overall game. In fact, Modafferi has been fighting for nearly 15 years, but she always seems to find a way to add new wrinkles to her arsenal.
Most recently, Modafferi has massively improved her striking game, which used to be a real liability for her, and now it's definitely a weapon. That may be her best chance to throw Honchak off her game in this fight, with Modafferi being willing to test her hands in this matchup. As for Honchak, she just has to stick with what works best for her and that's a pressure-filled attack where she's constantly moving forward and looking for the clinch or takedowns.
If Honchak can begin bullying Modafferi around the cage in the early going, she's going to have a great chance to repeat that strategy round after round to get the win.
Prediction: Barb Honchak 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.
Alex Caceres vs. Martin Bravo
Alex Caceres has certainly faced his share of ups and downs in recent years but he'll look to get back on track when he faces Martin Bravo at The Ultimate Fighter Finale on Friday.
Caceres has been wildly inconsistent, which has plagued him recently as he's gone just 1-3 in his past four fights. Still, Caceres has faced nothing but stiff competition during his UFC career and he's been a few moments away from being a legit top 15 threat several times in the past. Caceres just needs to find a way to put all his tools together to show why he has always been considered a dangerous prospect in the featherweight division.
Bravo had similar hopes after competing on The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, where he won the show to kick off his UFC career. Unfortunately, Bravo hit a massive speed bump in his last fight where he suffered a knockout loss and he hasn't fought since August 2017. Now Bravo is certainly capable of pulling off an upset with arsenal that includes a number of submission wins. He could catch Caceres sleeping, which has happened to “Bruce Leeroy” several times in the past.
Still, Caceres' experience at this level, especially against tougher competition throughout his career, should prepare him to find a way to win in this fight. Caceres might make it a little too close for comfort, but either way he should get the job done and earn the victory.
Prediction: Alex Caceres by unanimous decision
Luis Pena vs. Richie Smullen
Following a disappointing end to his run on The Ultimate Fighter due to injury, Luis "Violent Bob Ross" Pena will look to make a successful UFC debut against SBG Ireland prospect Richie Smullen, who had an equally heartbreaking situation unfold on the reality show.
Both Pena and Smullen were early favorites to make it to the finals but they won't earn the crown of Ultimate Fighter champion this season. Instead, they will each look to impress the UFC matchmakers with their performance on the finale card.
Smullen steps into the fight with a 3-0-1 record as a pro as well as a wealth of experience from his amateur career. Smullen is best when he hits the mat, where he's wrapped up two career submissions while training under Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and head coach John Kavanagh. Smullen is more than just a ground fighter, but he's definitely more comfortable on the mat.
That might end up being his biggest problem in the fight because it's going to take a lot to drag Pena to the mat.
Pena is a very long, rangy fighter for the lightweight division, with a nasty array of striking techniques in his arsenal. Now Pena does like to throw a lot of kicks, which led to a foot injury and his elimination from the reality show. Pena might be a little more hesitant to let his kicks go in this fight against a ground specialist like Smullen, but don't discount his ability to batter the legs and the body with his kicks before his Irish opponent can even get close enough to attempt a takedown.
Pena's ability to keep Smullen on the end of his punches will be a huge factor in this fight because as he controls the distance, he will control his destiny. Pena is a very slick striker with all the weapons to compete in the UFC and he'll look to showcase that on Friday night. Pena knows in his heart that he should be competing in the final fight, so he'll look to take out his frustration on Smullen in this particular matchup. Pena is UFC ready, and if he puts together his best performance, he'll show that against Smullen.
Prediction: Luis Pena by TKO, Round 3
Julian Marquez vs. Alessio Di Chirico
In a battle of heavy-handed middleweights, former Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series discovery Julian Marquez looks to remain undefeated in the Octagon when he takes on Alessio Di Chirico.
This could end up being an absolute slugfest that steals the show for Fight of the Night because stylistically, both Marquez and Di Chirico have that kind of mentality to step to the center of the Octagon, bite down on their mouthpiece and just swing until only one of them is left standing.
Di Chirico actually pulled off a jaw-dropping knockout in his last fight against another heavy-handed fighter in Oluwale Bamgbose. Di Chirico tends to get into those kind of wild brawls where he's looking to use his size and power to overwhelm his opponents.
The problem is that this time around he's facing an equally dangerous fighter in Marquez, who not only swings with power but is actually showing some real technique behind each shot he throws. Now Marquez is definitely capable of getting drawn into a firefight, which can become a bit of a toss up when you're just waiting for the first punch to land flush. That being said, Marquez has a range of weapons at his disposal and he's more well versed at mixing up striking attacks with everything from boxing combinations to a swarming attack that will end with a head kick. Marquez is an offensive machine, and while he probably needs to tighten up his defense, he's going up against another step forward first kind of fighter in Di Chirico.
That's exactly what Marquez feasts upon when he's not chasing after an opponent but rather allowing them to come to him. If Di Chirico begins moving forward with an aggressive game plan, Marquez will attack him at every angle with the kind of fight finishing power that he may not have experienced at any point in his career.
Marquez is a prospect to watch in 2018 and this should be another showcase for him on Friday night.
Prediction: Julian Marquez by knockout, Round 2