The MMA world was sent into a tailspin when it was announced on February 23rd that Lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos was to pull out of his proposed fight with Featherweight Champion and biggest UFC star Conor McGregor with a broken foot.
There seemed to be a mad panic to secure an opponent for the self-proclaimed ‘Show’ of the UFC, with Frankie Edgar, Jose Aldo and Urijah Faber among the leading contenders to fight him this Saturday.
In the end the UFC settled with TUF 5 winner and 21-fight UFC veteran Nate Diaz (18-10), with the fight to be contest at Welterweight, meaning that the Irish fighter McGregor (19-2) will move up to two weight classes to challenge the Stockton native.
There is so much on the line for the UFC and their poster boy, who became the big name for the company in 2015, something that was emphasised by the last two months of the year in which Ronda Rousey got knocked out and he became Featherweight champion.
It is easy to understand why they love him so much – his trash talking means that any fight he is involved in is easy to sell and his willingness to take any fight means that the possibilities of what he could achieve are relatively boundless. This fight does carry risks for the UFC with it, as these two fighters are such characters and the fight could go any way and anything could happen when that Octagon door closes. Should Conor win, his hype train keeps rolling along the tracks, probably towards a Welterweight title fight with Robbie Lawler (27-10 (1)), whilst Diaz would then probably fade into the pack at 155 pounds. If Diaz then he can pretty much have any fight he wants, probably a lightweight title shot, whilst McGregor would probably then be forced to defend his Featherweight belt against either Frankie Edgar (20-4-1) or Jose Aldo (25-2).
The hype aside, the main event promises to be a great technical fight between two good strikers and it is supported by 11 other strong fights. Here are my full predictions for the card.
Fight Pass Prelims
Julian Erosa (15-2) vs Teruto Ishihara (7-2-2): This fight is an intriguing fight to open up the night’s events. Erosa, a competitor on TUF 22 for Team America, will move down from Lightweight for this fight and will look to build on his debut split decision victory over Marcin Wrzosek (10-3). Ishihara was a finalist on the Road to UFC: Japan series, fading late in his fight with veteran Mizuto Hirota (17-7-2) and finishing with a draw. Ishihara is the more explosive fighter of the two and could well cause the American problems early, possibly even scoring a knockdown, but he does not have the stamina to hang in there with Erosa. Erosa will probably come on strong as the fight wears on, with his technical striking edging the balance in his favour. Prediction: Erosa wins by unanimous decision.
Justin Salas (12-6) vs Jason Saggo (10-2): Both of these fighters are coming off long layoffs into this fight – Salas 20 months removed from a TKO loss to Joe Proctor (11-4), whilst it is 17 months since Saggo lost a decision to Paul Felder (11-2). Salas is a journeyman fighter, with no real speciality area and having a habit of alternating wins and losses and not really stringing any momentum together. He has been finished in each of his losses and Saggo has a reasonably high potential and this fight should be his for the taking, with his submission and grappling expertise. Prediction: Saggo by 1st round submission.
Diego Sanchez (25-8) vs Jim Miller (25-7): This is a fight between two lightweight veterans both clearly on the decline and will be determined by which of the two men has the most left in the tank after long and intense careers at the top of their division. Sanchez has gone 2-4 in his last six and one of those wins was a blatant robbery against Ross Pearson (18-10 (1)). Against Ricardo Lamas (16-4) he looked a shadow of his former self, but his heart has to be commended. Miller has been beaten more recently, losing three of four, the most recent a submission defeat to Michael Chiesa (13-2). To me it appears that Miller still has more about him than Sanchez and whilst his heart will probably prevent a finish, Sanchez will not offer much resistance to Miller’s dominant top game. Prediction: Miller by unanimous decision.
Darren Elkins (19-5) vs Chas Skelly (15-1): A gatekeeper vs young talent feel makes this fight feel more intriguing than it probably will be in practice. These two fighters are both grinders, with Skelly offering a bit more variation to his game than the more experience Elkins. ‘The Damage’ is currently ranked 11th in the Featherweight division and therefore a win for Skelly would catapult him into those rankings and open the door to bigger fights. If Skelly is a legitimate top tier talent then he will get past the grinding game of Indiana native but if not then he will fall further down the pecking order and will have to start from scratch and work his way back to relevance. Prediction: Elkins by unanimous decision.
Vitor Miranda (11-4) vs Marcelo Guimaraes (9-1-1): This fight will not be technical and will definitely not be pretty. It is simply a battle of Miranda’s vicious striking game and the grinding game of Guimaraes. The main differentiating factor will be the fact that Miranda, who uses the moniker ‘Lex Luthor’, has decent takedown defence, whereas Guimaraes has an almost non-existent striking game. When it comes to fight time, Guimaraes will be forced to stand and that will only end one way. Prediction: Miranda by 1st round TKO.
Erick Silva (18-6) vs Nordine Taleb (11-3): Erick Silva has perenially been talked about as a ‘prospect’ since he first joined the UFC in 2011 but the constant alternation of wins and losses has meant that he is very hard to see as a contender. Taleb has put together a nice little 3-1 UFC run to date, losing in his most recent outing to Warlley Alves (10-0). Silva has moved to Kings MMA, the home of Lightweight champion Dos Anjos and Heavyweight Champ Fabricio Werdum (20-5-1), for this fight camp and that should pay him dividends in a fight that seems tailored made for him to win. Prediction: Silva by 2nd round submission.
Brandon Thatch (11-3) vs Siyar Bahadurzada (21-6-1): This is a vital fight for both men to win given their recent showings. Thatch was seen as a real Welterweight prospect but 2015 was not a good year for him, losing twice by submission to Benson Henderson (23-5) and Gunnar Nelson (14-2-1) and this has really left him in the middle of the pack in an increasingly stacked division. Afghani fighter Bahadurzada has not fought since December 2013 and returns to the cage on a two-fight loss streak, with another one probably meaning the end of his career as a UFC fighter. This will mainly take place on the feet as will be a battle between technique and precision against power but sporadic bursts of offence. Prediction: Thatch by 1st round TKO.
#4 Amanda Nunes (11-4) vs #10 Valentina Shevchenko (12-1): The main card kicks off with a great fight between two rising Women’s Bantamweight fighters. In my opinion the winner of this fight is probably the No.1 Contender to the winner of the Holm/Tate fight in the co-main event, with them likely to get their shot in the summer before Ronda Rousey is cleared to return. Nunes is on a two-fight win streak and currently has a 100% career finish rate, whilst Shevchenko won her debut in December against Sarah Kaufman (17-4). Either woman could win this fight and Shevchenko’s athleticism means that her Brazilian opponent will probably have to go deep in the fight, something she is not accustomed to. Whilst Kyrgyz fighter Shevchenko is tough and will put volume on Nunes, the Brazilian’s power is likely to tell at some point and maintain her 100% finish record. Prediction: Nunes by 2nd round TKO.
Tom Lawlor (10-5) vs #12 Corey Anderson (7-1): An intriguing clash at 205 pounds is the second on offer at UFC 196. Corey Anderson rebounded well in 2015 from a knockout loss to Gian Villante, grinding out decisions over Jan Blachowicz (18-5) and Fabio Maldonado (22-9) in the last part of the year. TUF veteran Lawlor has moved up to 205 pounds as repeated injuries have shortened his fighting career and he won there last year, knocking out Villante in the second round at UFC on Fox 16. Lawlor sees this fight as a shortcut to a potential title shot in the not too distant future, whilst this provides Anderson with another opportunity to develop his game against a veteran. Lawlor hits hard and poses a threat with chokes in transition but Anderson’s grappling prowess should give him the edge. Prediction: Anderson by unanimous decision.
#13 Gian Villante (14-6) vs Ilir Latifi (11-4): Another light heavyweight fight but this one will far less technical precision than the other and will definitely end before the final bell at the end of the third round. Both of these men hit hard and not too often, with each punch doing serious damage. Villante is the taller man and will have the reach advantage but in a fight where Latifi will have to close him down, Villante is too hittable and will get tagged by a Latifi fist, something that closely resembles a sledgehammer in impact. Prediction: Latifi by 1st round KO.
(C) Holly Holm (10-0) vs #2 Miesha Tate (17-5): Holm shocked the world last November when she not only knocked out Ronda Rousey, but dominated her from bell to bell. Here she defends the belt against perennial contender Tate, who has lost twice to Rousey but presents a different opponent in style for Holm. The adage goes that styles make fights and that is true in this case and their contrasting games will make for a competitive affair. Tate will probably get Holm down at some point as she has good entries on her takedowns and will apply pressure from the top and will be able to cause her issues on the feet with her improving standup. Holm though, is a multi-discipline star, and has the credentials to dominate this fight with her pacy striking and accumulation of damage. Tate has a big chance but the fight seems to favour the champ. Prediction: Holm retains via unanimous decision.
(C – Featherweight) Conor McGregor (19-2) vs #5 (Lightweight) Nate Diaz (18-10): What a fight this is going to be. The press conferences have built some real hype around the fight, not that it needed much, with Conor potentially going into a fight for the first time in the UFC not as the crowd favourite. Diaz is rangy and will cause Conor issues on the feet but there are holes that McGregor will exploit with his movement and power. Diaz is very heavy on the front leg, opening him up to leg kicks, whilst he is also susceptible to body shots. The Stockton native will likely give a good account of himself on short notice, but this is the Irishman’s fight to lose. Prediction: McGregor by 3rd round TKO.