ufc_207_posterFormer UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey returns to the UFC Octagon this Thursday for the first time since she lost her title to Holly Holm last November.

Since that loss, Rousey has faded from the public eye, struggling to deal with the effects of her first career loss. She revealed that she contemplated suicide and her media appearances in advance of this event, the UFC’s 41st and last of 2016, have been scant.

Her return opponent will not be Holm, as Rousey’s loss sparked a round of Championship hot potato at 135lbs. Holm lost the title to Miesha Tate, who then lost the title in her first defence against Amanda Nunes, who now welcomes Rousey back to the Octagon.

If Rousey wins, the UFC has got back one of its biggest stars and money makers for the promotion, but a defeat could well be the death knell for her mixed martial arts career.

There are only ten fights scheduled for this event, as injuries to Maryna Moroz and Cain Velasquez forced the loss of two really exciting bouts. However, Dominick Cruz is still defending his bantamweight title against the unbeaten Cody ‘No Love’ Garbrandt, TJ Dillashaw takes on the hard-hitting John Lineker and Johny Hendricks competes in potentially his last UFC fight.

Without further adieu, here are my predictions for UFC 207!

UFC Fight Pass Prelims

meansWelterweight – Alex Oliveira (16-4-1, 1NC) vs Tim Means (26-7-1): Despite starting the year with a short notice defeat to Donald Cerrone, Oliveira has had a pretty good 2016 and is currently riding a two-fight win streak. Missing weight by 5.5 lbs against Will Brooks last time out, however, has forced him up to 170 lbs for the foreseeable future.

At the conclusion of the suspension that ruled him out of the Cerrone fight, Means took on Sabah Homasi and put on a thoroughly dominant performance, finishing the TUF 21 contestant in the second round. That gave Means his second consecutive win and 6th in 8 fights since his 2014 UFC return. It was also his 18th career victory by KO/TKO.

In my opinion this fight favours Means. He has a three inch height advantage and likes to fight long, which should cause problems for the smaller Oliveira. However, the biggest advantage for Means should be in the clinch, where he possesses some vicious elbows, knees and uppercuts. Whilst Oliveira has better wrestling than any of the opponents Means has beaten since his UFC return, most of the Brazilian’s takedowns are achieved through grinding exchanges and not pure wrestling. This will force him into Means’ wheelhouse and therefore I expect Means to batter him with strikes on the inside, setting up a late stoppage victory. Prediction: Means via third-round TKO.

Fox Sports 1 Prelims

Welterweight – Brandon Thatch (11-4) vs Niko Price (8-0): Three straight defeats usually mean the end of a fighter’s UFC tenure but fan favourite Brandon Thatch has managed to keep his job and will get one more chance to prove whether all the early hype was justified. All three defeats have been by submission and he looked dreadful in his last fight. Price, a pro since 2012, has recorded seven finishes in eight fights, six by knockout, and is a short-notice replacement for Sabah Homasi.

All the footage I’ve seen of Price suggests Thatch should be able to get back to winning ways. Price is very flat-footed and whilst he clearly possesses heavy hands, he is not particularly technical. Thatch is the taller, rangier striker and should be able to keep his distance and land combinations. Price also lacks the wrestling that has caused Thatch issues in the past, which should give Thatch freedom to throw kicks. Add Price’s tendency to plod forward and brawl and Thatch should handily return to winning ways. Prediction: Thatch by first-round TKO.

Welterweight – Mike Pyle (27-12-1) vs Alex Garcia (13-3): Both men come into this fight desperately needing a win. Pyle scored an impressive win over Sean Spencer in February but was knocked out by Alberto Mina in July. That was his fourth defeat in his last six. Garcia, meanwhile, got stopped by Sean Strickland in his only trip to the Octagon in 2016, which marked his second loss in three fights.

This match should cause Garcia the same problems the Strickland one did. Pyle has a three inch height advantage and two inches in reach but that will be magnified by the fact that the Tennessee native fights very long. Garcia doesn’t really have the striking to finish Pyle, and Pyle has only ever been bullied by one wrestler, and Garcia is no Colby Covington. As such, I expect Pyle to use his length on the feet to pepper the Dominican with shots and although he may cede a few takedowns on the way, he should have enough down the stretch. Prediction: Pyle by third-round TKO.

Middleweight – Antonio Carlos Junior (6-2, 1NC) vs Marvin Vettori (11-2): This should be good fun. Winner of TUF Brazil 3 at Heavyweight, Carlos Junior has since gone 2-2 (1NC) in UFC competition and got an impressive submission win last time out against Leonardo Guimaraes. Vettori, meanwhile, is growing rapidly all the time and at just 23, the ceiling is pretty high for the young Italian. He picked up a submission win over Alberto Uda in his UFC debut back in August.

Both men are excellent grapplers but Carlos Junior has the better BJJ and is also much more adept at getting the fight to the mat. Carlos Junior’s size and strength advantage should also mean he will be able to maintain top position if he gets there. Expect him to lock something up during some fun ground exchanges. Prediction: Carlos Junior by second-round submission.

Welterweight – #6 Johny Hendricks (17-5) vs #8 Neil Magny (18-5): Two consecutive defeats for former Welterweight champion Hendricks has left him very much looking down the end of a barrel, and the former champion acknowledges it. He says a loss here means the end of his career. Not much pressure then. The highly active Magny has fought twice in 2016, with his last being a TKO loss to Lorenz Larkin. A win here will really catapult him into contention in 2017, whilst a defeat, a third in five fights, will send him down the rankings.

Hendricks was always renowned for his big punching power but he hasn’t won a fight by KO/TKO since 2012 and in his last fight against Kelvin Gastelum he looked a shadow of the man who almost beat GSP in 2013. If he comes into this fight incredibly motivated and is able to use his wrestling, Hendricks could well win this fight. Two things are preventing me from picking him though. The first is the sizable physical advantages Magny holds, being six inches taller and having an 11 inch reach advantage. Magny is someone who utilises his long limbs effectively and he should be able to keep Hendricks at range. The second, and perhaps bigger, issue is Hendricks defeat to Stephen Thompson. The way ‘Wonderboy’ tore Hendricks apart before finishing him seems to have really affected the Oklahoma native. He’s not the same man who was once champion and that will cost him against Magny, who is amongst the world’s best. Prediction: Magny by unanimous decision.

Main Card

Flyweight – #12 Louis Smolka (11-2) vs #13 Ray Borg (9-2): This bout is one of the hardest fights to pick on the entire card. Both men are coming off defeats and both could really do with a win going into 2017. The winner will be within a few fights of a title shot but the other will be perilously close to falling from the rankings.

Smolka is taller and the much better striker, having a good kickboxing base and a lot of karate techniques. However, his propensity for kicks will be an issue against Borg, who boasts a substantial speed advantage and much better wrestling. On the ground Borg is a hard foe to shake but against opponents who have kept the fight standing he has struggled. Whilst Smolka’s takedown defence is probably his major weakness, I suspect he will have too much on the feet and on the ground he has good enough scrambling ability to eke out a close decision on the scorecards. Prediction: Smolka via unanimous decision.

Welterweight – #8 Dong Hyun Kim (21-3-1, 1NC) vs #12 Tarec Saffiedine (16-5): Injuries have prevented Tarec Saffiedine from building any real momentum at welterweight and the Belgian needs a win here to stay relevant in 2017. Thankfully for him this will be his third fight of the year, the first time he has achieved that since 2010. He beat Jake Ellenberger in January before losing to Rick Story in May.

This will be Kim’s first fight since October 2015 due to a series of injuries but he is on a two-fight win streak and has won six of his last seven. Kim’s judo has been crucial to his success as it has allowed him to make fights ugly and smother his opponents. However, a desire to be more flashy has often led him to be a little reckless, demonstrating some quite questionable fight IQ.

If Kim works his judo in this fight he should win quite easily. Saffiedine’s takedown defence looked much improved against Story but Kim’s smothering style should give the South Korean a major advantage. However, it is hard to look past Kim’s questionable decisions. I think he will back himself in a striking battle against Saffiedine, who possesses some of the most vicious kicks at 170lbs, which he is almost certain to lose. He will probably rally late but I expect the Belgian to do enough to take the nod from the judges and secure a signature UFC win. Prediction: Saffiedine via unanimous decision.

Bantamweight – #1 TJ Dillashaw (13-3) vs #2 John Lineker (29-7): After numerous failed weight cuts at Flyweight, Brazil’s John Lineker was forced back to Bantamweight in September 2015 and he hasn’t looked back. Four wins, two finishes and some genuinely scary performances have made him a name to watch and a win here probably secures him a title shot . Dillashaw, meanwhile, lost his title in an incredibly close fight with Dominick Cruz in January but got back in the win column in July with an exemplary performance against Raphael Assuncao.

This fight is likely to take place almost exclusively on the feet. Lineker has scary power in his hands and as he showed against John Dodson he has the gas tank to push his trademark high pace for five rounds if necessary. However, Dillashaw has shown some excellent movement since coming under the tutelage of Duane Ludwig and against Assuncao he demonstrated an excellent ability to get in, land and get back out again without taking significant damage. If he does that against Lineker he is likely to take a clear decision, but with Lineker it is important to remember it sometimes only takes one shot. Prediction: Dillashaw via unanimous decision.

Garbrandt.jpgBantamweight – (C) Dominick Cruz (22-1) vs #5 Cody Garbrandt (10-0): One of the stories of 2016, in my opinion, has been the return of Dominick Cruz. Injuries had restricted the Alliance MMA fighter to just one fight between October 2011 and the end of 2015 but he returned in January and took the title from Dillashaw before comfortably beating Urijah Faber in June. He looks even better than before and he’s promising another successful defence here in a fight that has become very personal.

Garbrandt, a teammate of Faber’s at Team Alpha Male, has looked amazing since his UFC debut in January 2015, winning five fights with four knockouts. He’s shown some amazing hand speed and scary knockout power. His promo skills could do with some work though as he has been thoroughly embarassed by Cruz any time the two have verbally interacted.

Garbrandt has the power to knock Cruz out but that’s only if he can hit him. Cruz has made a career from being almost impossible to hit and it’s hard to see that Garbrandt will have cracked the code when Dillashaw, who I believe is the second best bantamweight in the world, couldn’t. Expect Cruz to land strikes and take little damage and then mix in takedowns if he gets hit. Garbrandt will probably have his moments but they’ll be few and far between in a comfortable defence for Cruz. Prediction: Cruz via unanimous decision.

Rond.jpgWomen’s Bantamweight – (C) Amanda Nunes (13-4) vs #1 Ronda Rousey (12-1): It’s great to see Rousey getting back into the Octagon after her defeat to Holly Holm and she looks in great shape. The woman who had won all twelve of her professional fights, only going past the first round once, was beaten last November fairly decisively and she now returns to a women’s MMA landscape substantially different from the one she left. Amanda Nunes, who has looked amazing since her move to American Top Team, is on a four fight win streak and her dominant title win over Miesha Tate put everyone on notice.

Rousey has all the talent in the world and she could win this fight in just over a minute and suddenly she’s Queen of the Mountain once more. However, her refusal to do any media has shown she is mentally weak and for as much as she looks great, it’s hard to know whether she’s actually improved the gaping holes in her striking defence that Holm was able to so ruthlessly exploit in Melbourne. Nunes hits as hard as anyone at 135 lbs and I think she wants it more than Ronda, and at the end of the day that’s all that will matter when Bruce Buffer speaks for the last time in 2016. Prediction: Nunes via first-round TKO.