This weekend, the last of 2017, sees the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion return to Las Vegas. Their sixth visit of Nevada this year, it is headlined by a women’s featherweight title bout between champion Cristiana “Cyborg” Justino and former bantamweight titleholder Holly Holm.
A win for Holm in the main event would possibly place her as the best woman to ever step foot inside the UFC octagon, whilst a win for Cyborg firmly cements her position in MMA folklore. A lot is at stake for both women coming into this fight, but the bigger ramifications loom beyond – can the UFC turn the winner into the new PPV star they so desperately need? Should Cyborg win, who is there left to face her? Has 2017 been a bust for the UFC in light of McGregor’s absence, Jon Jones’ disgrace and the ever-increasingly relevant issue of free agency?
Although the bill has taken some hits, losing Dominick Cruz vs Jimmie Rivera and latterly Jimmie Rivera vs John Lineker, and only consists of 10 bouts, it is still a very solid line-up. Khabib Nurmagomedov returns to the cage for the first time in over a year to face the surging Edson Barboza, whilst prospects Marc Diakiese, Khalil Rountree and Cynthia Calvillo all return.
Without further ado, here are my predictions!
Fight Pass Prelims
Men’s Bantamweight – #11(FlyW) Tim Elliott (14-8-1) vs Mark De La Rosa (9-0): It’s good to see Elliott on this card after losing out on fights with both Justin Scoggins and Pietro Menga, the latter of which was on the day of the weigh-in, at UFC on Fox 26 two weeks ago. The Kansas City fighter is 1-1 this year in the UFC, besting Louis Smolka in one of the fights of the year in April before getting caught in transition by Ben Nguyen in New Zealand. This will be his 10th career UFC appearance.
De La Rosa is one of Texas’ hottest prospects, although he’s most notable for no-showing a Legacy FC card where he was set to headline. Since that incident he has picked up two submission wins for upstart promotion Combate, both by submission. Nicknamed “The Bumblebee”, he has six of his career wins via stoppage.
Given the loss of his coach, friend and mentor Robert Follis just two weeks ago, no one could blame Elliott for not taking this bout. Sadness will undoubtedly hang heavy over him but I think he’ll use it for motivation. De La Rosa has regularly weighed in below the bantamweight limit and while he is strong on the mat, Elliott survived the best of Smolka’s regular assaults in April and pushes such an absurd pace it’s hard to imagine the newcomer keeping up for three rounds. Prediction: Elliott via third-round submission.
Men’s Flyweight – #13 Louis Smolka (11-4) vs Matheus Nicolau (12-1-1): In July 2016 Smolka was riding the crest of a wave, having just secured his fourth straight victory, but since then he’s taken a bit of a nosedive, losing three in a row. The most recent of those losses was that one against Elliott, and he comes into this one with his back against the wall.
Nicolau will be making his first Octagon appearance in over 17 months come Saturday night, having sat on the bench for a year with a USADA suspension. Prior to that the former TUF Brazil 4 contestant had racked up two wins in the UFC, submitting Bruno Mesquita and squeaking past John Moraga in a snoozefest. The Brazilian has eight career finishes, evenly split between knockouts and submissions.
None of Nicolau’s UFC appearances have suggested anything special, and his victory over Moraga can more or less be attributed to his Hawaiian opponent’s refusal to pull the trigger. Smolka on the other hand looked great against Elliott and with his alcohol problems seemingly in the rear-view mirror, I think Saturday will be the night we see the real Smolka back. He’s the bigger man, the better strikes and more threatening on the mat. Prediction: Smolka via second-round submission.
Men’s Middleweight – Marvin Vettori (12-3) vs Omari Akhmedov (17-4): Italian fighter Vettori rebounded well from his first defeat inside the UFC at the end of last year, dominating Vitor Miranda in June. He has so far gone 3-1 in the UFC, and is 6-1 over his last seven fights.
Traditionally a welterweight, Akhmedov will be fighting at middleweight here for the first time since a TKO victory over Thiago Perpetuo in 2013. The Dagestani grappler comes into this on the back of a two-fight win streak, defeating both Kyle Noke and Abdul Razak Alhassan by decision.
Akhmedov’s well known stamina issues should be alleviated at middleweight with a less brutal weight cut, and he only gives up one inch of reach to the young Vettori. Vettori lacks the big punching power to test Akhmedov’s shaky chin, or really the wrestling to dominate him on the mat, but he is the much more active fight. I think he defends enough of the veteran’s takedown attempts and does enough damage on the feet to nick a tight decision in what should be a fairly dull contest. Prediction: Vettori via split decision.
Men’s Featherweight – #15 Myles Jury (16-2) vs Rick Glenn (20-4-1): I was initially sceptical of Jury’s ability to make the 145lb featherweight limit, but after doing it twice successfully I’m starting to think he could make waves in the division. Although his divisional debut ended in defeat, his sophomore effort was spectacular, absolutely dominating Mike De La Torre for a first-round TKO victory.
Former WSOF champion Glenn put on the performance of his career last time out, battering the life out of Canadian prospect Gavin Tucker. That was his second win of the year, having previously decisioned Philippe Nover in February. The Iowan has won five of his last six fights.
This is a great fight, although somewhat predictable. Glenn was successful against Tucker because he was able to stay at range and continuously pick off the younger, more aggressive fighter. Jury, by contrast, is a massive featherweight and has a three-inch reach advantage over his more experienced opponent. Add into that Jury’s top-level wrestling and he should be able to copy Evan Dunham’s dominant decision win over Glenn in September 2016. Prediction: Jury via unanimous decision.
Men’s Light Heavyweight – Khalil Rountree (6-2) vs Michal Oleksiejczuk (12-2): The very highly-rated Rountree struggled upon entry to the UFC but 2017 has seen him pick up dominant TKO victories over Daniel Jolly and Paul Craig, showing improved awareness and takedown defence in the process. A win here could well catapult him into the rankings at 205lbs.
Poland’s Oleksiejczuk was originally scheduled to make his debut in November against Ion Cutelaba before the Moldovan got pinged by USADA. A pro since 2014, the Pole has largely spent his career on small hall shows in his native country, securing eight of his wins via KO/TKO. This will be his third fight of 2017, but first since May.
From the limited tape I have seen, Oleksiejczuk looks like a decent slugger who’s quite flat-footed and easy to hit. That isn’t the sort of description you want going in there against Rountree. We still need to see “The War Horse” against a wrestler to see how far he’s come in his development, but this should be another big early win for him before moving forward next year. Prediction: Rountree via first-round KO.
Men’s Welterweight – #8 Carlos Condit (30-10) vs #12 Neil Magny (19-6): THE NATURAL BORN KILLER IS BACK! This will be the former interim welterweight champion’s first fight since August 2016, when he was thoroughly dominated by Carlos Condit. In a somewhat scary stat, Condit is 2-5 over his last seven and only has two wins since he beat Nick Diaz in February 2012!
Magny has only fought once this year, and that fight against Rafael Dos Anjos saw him taste defeat for the second time in three outings. A defeat here could send the man from Illinois tumbling out of the rankings.
Magny is rarely ever in a boring fight, and Condit almost never goes to a decision. Magny is very rangy and his long limbs should give him the advantage but his fight IQ is very lacking. That, and the fact he leaves his chin out. Lorenz Larkin, Hector Lombard and Kiichi Kunimoto have all dropped, and Condit is in a different league to them. A long break for NBK should make him fresh and ready to make a splash on the welterweight division in 2018. Prediction: Condit via second-round TKO.
Women’s Bantamweight – #6 Cynthia Calvillo (6-0) vs #9 Carla Esparza (12-4): Team Alpha Male prospect Calvillo really burst onto the scene in 2017 and this will be her fifth fight of the year. She dominated Montana De La Rosa for a TKO in LFA in January and was promptly signed by the UFC, where she has since gone on to beat Amanda Cooper, Pearl Gonzalez and Joanne Calderwood. Her wins are evenly split between TKOs, subs and decisions.
Former strawweight champ Esparza has had a mixed year, losing a close decision to Randa Markos in February before rebounding with a dominant, wrestling-heavy decision over Maryna Moroz in June.
Esparza is very predictable and very one-dimensional and is the sort of test a top prospect like Calvillo needs to pass if she wants to be in the title mix next year. Calvillo has height and reach advantages and she has the pinpoint striking to keep Esparza at range. I suspect she dominates the first two rounds on the feet, making Esparza more desperate in her takedown attempts, thus allowing Calvillo to snag a guillotine. Prediction: Calvilla via third-round submission.
Men’s Lightweight: Dan Hooker (14-7) vs Marc Diakiese (12-1): New Zealand’s Hooker continued his UFC record of alternating wins and losses in 2017, viciously knocking out Ross Pearson in June. This will be his second fight up at lightweight after spending the first six bouts of his UFC career at featherweight.
Top prospect Diakiese’s bubble burst a little bit in 2017, because despite starching Teemu Packalen in London, Drakkar Klose’s superb workrate handed him his first career loss in July.
This is the big test for Diakiese. For all his flash and style, he does have a very high ceiling and could make a real dent in the upper echelons of the UFC next year, but he has to win here. He showed surprisingly good wrestling against Frankie Perez last December, and we all know he’s got power. Hooker has skills, but as his record shows he’s flawed and beatable, and I suspect he continues his alternating tradition after Diakiese ends it early. Prediction: Diakiese via first-round TKO.
Men’s Lightweight: #2 Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0) vs #4 Edson Barboza (19-4): Fingers cross disaster doesn’t strike injury-prone Khabib before the weigh-ins, because this is a great scrap. The Eagle’s talents are well-known, as are his issues on the scales, and those issues have prevented him from fighting thus far in 2017. His last fight was a dominant victory over Michael Johnson in New York last November.
Barboza, meanwhile, finally seems to be coming of age. The leg-kicking machine that brutalized Mike Lullo and Terry Etim seemed to continuously stumble at the final hurdle but he’s won three straight and looked superb in doing so. His pressure was too much for Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez, whilst his timing sent Beneil Dariush out for the count.
Edson has struggled with wrestlers before, and two of his losses have come via submission. Khabib should be favourite and I think he’ll win a decision, but Barboza is a very live dog. Khabib’s layoffs are always a cause for concern, and he got caught repeatedly against Michael Johnson. Barboza is very slick on the feet and has a wide array of knees, spinning kicks and elbows that could catch Khabib and shock the world. However, I’ll stick on the side of caution and back the Dagestani’s wrestling to prevail. Prediction: Nurmagomedov via unanimous decision.
Women’s Featherweight Title – (C) Cristiane Cyborg (18-1, 1NC) vs #2 (Women’s BW) Holly Holm (11-3): Cyborg has matured in her older age, and much of the talk this week has been of possible retirement in the not too distant future. Her performances in the UFC indicate that there’s no need to call it a day, as she’s worked with patience, precision and lethal accuracy. Tonya Evinger put up brave resistance last time out, but Cyborg eventually shut her down in the third to make it 3KO’s in three UFC victories.
Holm already has her place in the record books. That infamous Rousey head kick will probably live long as the UFC’s greatest ever shock and moment in the sport’s history. She doesn’t need this fight for her legacy, and any talk of warranting the title shot is misguided. I thought she won against de Randamie in February, and when there’s no official rankings, how can anyone deserve a title shot? Holm’s KO over Bethe Correia was a pleasant return to form and will give her confidence.
This is a phenomenal contest. Probably the first real test Cyborg has had since her rematch with Marloes Coenen, Holm could well shock the world. No, she hasn’t necessarily got the power to stop Cyborg with one shot, but her superior speed and stamina could well tell if the fight goes the distance. That’s a very big if though. Much has been made of Holm never being stopped in an MMA cage, but most seem to forget she was stopped in both her professional boxing defeats. Cyborg is the biggest hitter she’ll have faced, and I can’t see her surviving. I think she makes the fourth round, but the result will be the same as against Cyborg’s last 18 victims. Prediction: Cyborg via fourth-round KO.