This Saturday the UFC makes their sixth visit to Chicago, and their first since Holly Holm’s fight with Valentina Shevchenko in 2016. This is without doubt the best card they’ve put on this year, and it’s headlined by a rematch for the UFC middleweight title between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero. In the co-main event Rafael Dos Anjos and the outspoken Colby Covington do battle for the interim Welterweight title, with the main card rounded out by Holly Holm against Megan Anderson, Andrei Arlovski against Tai Tuivasa and CM Punk’s second UFC appearance.
Every part of me will be crossed to ensure that nothing goes wrong with this card, as there are so many great bouts in prospect. Here are my predictions for the evening’s festivities!
UFC Fight Pass Prelims
Featherweight – Mike Santiago (21-11) vs Dan Ige (8-2): A veteran of Dana White’s Contender Series, Illinois’ own Mike Santiago is winless in his two UFC appearances to date. He stepped in on short notice against Zabit Magomedsharipov last year, before losing a decision to Mads Burnell in January. Only five fights in his career have gone the distance.
Hawaiian fighter Ige also picked up a win on the Contender Series last summer, only to come up short in his UFC debut against Julio Arce. A submission expert, he will stand three inches shorter than Santiago but will enjoy a two inch reach advantage.
This is an archetypal striker vs grappler match-up. Ige is an out-and-out grappler and in neither of his UFC appearances to date has Santiago shown that he’s got the takedown defence to stay on his feet. As such, I expect a fight much like his one with Burnell, ending in a routine decision for Ige. Prediction: Ige via unanimous decision.
Lightweight – Clay Guida (34-17) vs Charles Oliveira (22-8, 1NC): One of the UFC’s most battle-tested fighters, Guida will make his 26th walk to the Octagon on Saturday. ‘The Carpenter’ has enjoyed a little resurgence since returning to lightweight last year, beating Eric Koch by decision and knocking Joe Lauzon out in 67 seconds.
Brazil’s Oliveira took this bout on 11 days’ notice after Bobby Green got bounced with injury. Oliveira has lost three of his last four fights, all by way of finish. He will boast a sizeable height and reach advantage over his more experienced opponent.
At this point it’s fair to say that neither man is going to get anywhere near the title picture, so this fight is more for gatekeeping pride than anything else. Guida’s wrestling and unusual movement means you can’t count him out, but I can’t look past the way he’s been snagged with chokes on entry by Brian Ortega and Thiago Tavares in recent fights. Oliveira’s BJJ is excellent and I suspect we get a similar outcome here – a guillotine or d’arce on entry ends this early. Prediction: Oliveira via first-round submission.
Flyweight – #1 Joseph Benavidez (25-4) vs #5 Sergio Pettis (16-3): The consensus second-best flyweight in the world, Joseph Benavidez has only ever lost to Dominick Cruz and Demetrious Johnson. He has won six in a row since his second loss to DJ, but knee issues have kept him out since December 2016.
The younger Pettis brother had seemingly got some momentum last year, having won four in a row before he was thoroughly dominated by Henry Cejudo in September. Pettis will enjoy slight physical advantages for this bout, his 12th in the UFC.
How this fight is on the Fight Pass prelims I’ll never know, but it is good to see Joe-B back in action. He really is unlucky to have been born in the era he’s been competing in, as at any other time he’d be champ. As much as Pettis is improving, the ease with which he can be backed up and taken down points to one thing, a Benavidez decision. Prediction: Benavidez via unanimous decision.
Light Heavyweight – Rashad Evans (19-7-1) vs Anthony Smith (28-13): Former Light Heavyweight champion Evans has been on a rough slide and is without a win since November 2013. He dropped down to middleweight in 2017, losing a pair of decisions to Dan Kelly and Sam Alvey.
Smith is now moving up to Light Heavyweight after years at middleweight, a cut that took a major toll on him. His second stint with the UFC has seen him go 4-2, although he lost his most recent contest against Thiago Santos in February.
I have no qualms in saying this – Evans is shot. His defeats at middleweight were a product of him being gun-shy and getting outstruck by two of the more plodding strikers in the division. I can’t see that changing much at 205, especially against a volume machine like Smith, especially now he’s had an easier cut. Smith has historically been easy to take down but I suspect he keeps Evans on the outside and lands volume, securing a late stoppage and hopefully sending Evans into retirement. Prediction: Smith via third-round TKO
Heavyweight – Rashad Coulter (8-3) vs Chris De La Rocha (4-2): Legacy FC veteran Rashad Coulter has taken quite the battering in his UFC career to date, getting whalloped by Chase Sherman on short notice before eating an exquisite flying knee from the King of the Shoey, Tai Tuivasa. All eight of his wins have come via KO/TKO.
De La Rocha, 39 last month, is also 0-2 in the UFC but this is his first fight in over two years. His four wins are evenly split between TKOs and submissions.
It seems hilarious that this, one of the weakest bouts the UFC has booked this year, has found a spot on their best card to date so far in 2018. This could either end in a quick KO or a sloppy decision and I pray it’s the former. Coulter really should be down at light heavyweight but he’s quicker than DLR, more powerful and younger, so I’m tipping him to get the victory. Prediction: Coulter via first-round KO.
Featherweight – #7 Ricardo Lamas (18-6) vs #11 Mirsad Bektic (12-1): Chi-town represent! Chicago’s own Ricardo Lamas has been in and around the top 10 for years and this fight offers him the chance to get back on track after his shock KO loss last time out against Josh Emmett.
Bosnia’s Bektic has been seen as an uber-prospect for some time now, but was on the receiving end of my shock of the year against Darren Elkins last year. He punched a hole right through Godofredo Pepey in January to get back on track but this is a big step up.
This is a tough one. Lamas is a very likeable guy and he is talented, but I’ve been on the Bektic hype train for quite some time now. I think the Bosnian is so good everywhere and unless he has a meltdown again or gets gunshy, he should do enough to hustle a decision. Prediction: Bektic via unanimous decision.
Women’s Strawweight – #3 Claudia Gadelha (15-3) vs #6 Carla Esparza (13-4): With Rose Namajunas now champion, Claudia Gadelha now has an obvious route back to the title if she can win here. This fight will be first in nine months, since her defeat to Jessica Andrade in Japan last September.
The first-ever UFC Strawweight champ, Carla Esparza is arguably as hot as she’s ever been in the world’s MMA leader. She beat Maryna Moroz early last year and then put on perhaps her most complete performance to date to beat Cynthia Calvillo.
Another tough bout. Gadelha’s cardio issues are well known but I just don’t see a way she loses this. She will be able to set the pace and she will do more damage on the feet against Esparza. ‘The Cookie Monster’s wrestling is good but I don’t think it’ll be enough to hold Gadelha down long enough for a decision. Prediction: Gadelha via unanimous decision.
Heavyweight – #2 Alistair Overeem (43-16, 1NC) vs #4 Curtis Blaydes (9-1, 1NC): This will be Alistair Overeem’s first fight since Francis Ngannou uppercutted him into the stratosphere and his 15th in the UFC overall. He boasts 38 wins by stoppage, although he also has been stopped 13 times. In short, 86% of ‘The Reem’s bouts have ended early.
Naperville, Illinois’ own Curtis Blaydes will face his biggest test this Saturday. Since losing to the aforementioned Ngannou in his UFC debut, Blaydes has gone 4-0, 1NC. His last fight saw him survive a thunderpunch from Mark Hunt to win a decision.
Hmmm. Most things point towards an Overeem victory. He has historically been difficult to take down and has a nasty clinch game that could punish Blaydes for errant attempts and on the feet Overeem is a lethal kickboxer. Still, my gut says Blaydes. I can see him doing enough on the takedown front to punish a slow Overeem start and then maybe wobbling Alistair late for a career-defining performance to rockets him into title contention. Prediction: Blaydes via split decision.
Welterweight – CM Punk (0-1) vs Mike Jackson (0-1): Where do you even go with fighter breakdown here? Professional wrestling mainstay CM Punk is 0-1 in his UFC career after getting decimated by Mickey Gall.
MMA journalist and photographer Mike Jackson is 0-1 in his UFC career after getting decimated by Mickey Gall. He has fought again since then, losing a muay thai bout last year to Jeremie Holloway.
Eh? I don’t even know. Punk is guaranteed to get one win this week after him and Colt Cabana beat WWE doctor Chris Amann in court, so that’s something. I think with more training he will have evolved his kickboxing and thankfully Jackson probably won’t try and take him down. As for how this goes, I have no idea whatsoever. Punk, because he’s a boy. Prediction: CM Punk via split decision.
Heavyweight – #9 Andrei Arlovski (27-15, 1NC) vs #12 Tai Tuivasa (9-0): Meet Andrei Arlovski, the Belarussian Bear and King of Streak Style. The man’s career has been full of people writing off and dramatic resurgences and he’s in the midst of one now. After losing five straight, he’s implemented his jab and more takedowns to secure victories over Junior Albini and Stefan Struve.
Former Rugby League player Tuivasa, who gave up that sport to stop his gambling issues, started MMA in 2012 and he has also dabbled in boxing and kickboxing since then. All of his wins have come via first-round KO, although he will have a slight height and reach disadvantage vis-à-vis the former heavyweight champ.
In terms of pure technique, Arlovski should win this. The strategy that worked in his last two bouts and had some success against Marcin Tybura should be enough to decision the relatively raw Tuivasa, but it’s impossible to look past Tuivasa’s power. The big Aussie has scary power and Arlovski’s chin cannot be trusted, so I’ll lean towards Tai to get it done early. Prediction: Tuivasa via first-round KO.
Women’s Featherweight – Holly Holm (11-4) vs Megan Anderson (7-2): The UFC’s attempt to build up fodder for Cyborg returns! Former boxing world champ Holm returns after her defeat to Cyborg last December where she became only the third woman to last the distance against Cyborg. That said, that defeat was her fourth loss in her past five fights after a 10-0 start to her career.
New Zealander Anderson, the former Invicta FC interim Featherweight champ, has won four consecutive bouts but this is her first fight since January 2017. She pulled out of a fight with Cyborg citing personal issues and it remains to be seen where she is mentally ahead of this bout. She has six career finishes, including four by TKO, and will boast a sizeable reach advantage over Holm.
Look, I’m glad Anderson is finally getting her shot. She’s one of the best 145ers in the game and I’d like to see her do well. That said, I think she’ll have a rough go of it here. Holm’s movement is just too good and I think she’ll manage to get in and out, landing effective combinations to secure a decision. Prediction: Holm via unanimous decision.
Interim Welterweight Championship – #1 Rafael Dos Anjos (28-9) vs #4 Colby Covington (13-1): Former Lightweight kingpin Dos Anjos moved up to welterweight in 2017 and hasn’t looked back since. A decision over Tarec Saffiedine and a submission of Neil Magny set him up for a bout with Robbie Lawler, which saw him batter the former champion from pillar to post. The Brazilian sits third on the list of all time strikes landed at lightweight.
‘Chaos’ Covington made his UFC debut in 2018 and has since gone 8-1, most recently beating Dong Hyun Kim and Demian Maia. He has the third most takedowns in welterweight history, but for the most part it’s not the fighting that’s done the talking. Covington’s big mouth and outrageous outbursts have firmly made him a villain, but also in many ways a draw.
I think I speak for most MMA fans in saying I want to see Dos Anjos pour it all on Covington. Realistically the ATT fighter isn’t good enough to be in this spot, he’s not earned in the cage but on the mic, and I think the discrepancy in levels will show. I can’t see Covington getting the takedowns and on the feet a rejuvenated Dos Anjos will batter him. A constant barrage of left hands and low kicks should see Dos Anjos get a late stoppage, make the fans happy and set up a fight with Tyron Woodley. Prediction: Dos Anjos via fourth-round TKO.
Middleweight – (C) Robert Whittaker (19-4) vs #1 Yoel Romero (13-2): Bobby Knuckles is back! Riding an eight-fight win streak, the current middleweight champion has not fought since he beat Romero the first time last July. His leg was mangled in that fight and then he got struck down by a nasty staph infection that cost him his spot at the Commonwealths.
Romero blasted through Luke Rockhold in February to secure this rematch with the only man to have beaten him inside the UFC octagon. Romero’s wins are split 11:2 between TKOs and decisions and whilst Romero was an Olympic calibre wrestler, he averages less than two takedowns per fight, such is his striking prowess.
I dig this fight a lot. Romero is always a threat with his freak athleticism and scary power, whilst Whittaker is one of the most underappreciated champions in the UFC. As for picking a winner, it’s hard not to go with the champ. Whittaker showed he could take Romero’s power last time and he effectively beat him on one leg. A fully healthy champ takes a fairly clear decision. Prediction: Whittaker via unanimous decision.
NB: Romero subsequently missed weight on both attempts. The fight will now take place over five rounds, but will be a non-title affair. Romero becomes the first person to miss weight for consecutive title fights.
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