It's here. Holy cow, it's here. Back in March, when the sport of MMA was finally legalized in the state of New York, we all knew the UFC was going to do whatever it took to give Madison Square Garden an amazing card, and oh boy did they deliver. We now have a card with 3 championship fights and great match ups between top contenders in their weight classes. This Saturday is Christmas for every MMA fan, and I'm going to tell you my predictions for each fight. So let's get started.
The first fight of the night is Liz Carmouche vs. Katlynn Chookagian. Both of these girls are coming off of wins against the same opponent, Lauren Murphy. Chookagian is a boxer with skills on the ground as well having a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The only thing that sort of bothers me about Chookagian is that she doesn't finish her fights despite having a perfect 8-0 record. 63% of her wins have come by decision and when you are in a division where all the top contenders are finishing fights, that isn't something that is comfortable to see. Chookagian is more of a defensive fighter who only lands about 32% of her significant strikes thrown per minute, according to the official UFC website. Carmouche is much better in that area, landing about 56% of her significant strikes per minute while also being a pretty good wrestler. Carmouche has fought some of the best women bantamweights in the world and has nearly double the experience Chookagian has. 78% of Carmouche's 9 wins are from her finishing the fight as well. I like Carmouche in this fight a lot. I think she takes down Chookagian and ground and pounds her way to a TKO victory in round 3.
Thiago Alves vs. Jim Miller is a ridiculously tough fight to predict because there are so many interesting factors that go into this bout. Thiago Alves was a huge welterweight who at times had trouble making the 170-pound weight limit for the weight class. He has a ton of power in his hands and is a very explosive fighter fighting out of one of the best camps in the world in American Top Team. Now he has gone down a weight class to fight a much smaller guy in Jim Miller, but the weight cut worries me. Having to cut large amounts of weight has shown to kill a fighter's cardio on fight night. Thiago, who walked around at 190-200 pounds not too long ago finds himself having to cut down to 155. With Thiago being as muscular as he is, I can easily see a difficult weight cut occurring and his performance suffering past round 1. Jim Miller is a tough guy who has been in quite a few crowd-pleasing wars. He has great jiu-jitsu and cardio at 155 while also providing constant pressure on his opponents. Him being tough as nails works in his favor too. I can easily see Thiago pouring it on early, Jim surviving the first round, and then Thiago gasses out and Jim takes it to him to then end the fight with a submission in round 3.
Vicente Luque goes to war with Belal Muhammad in the third fight of the card. Both of these guys are interesting prospects that are exciting to watch. Luque is turning into a very well balanced fighter who has finished 90% of his wins inside the cage. I've seen Belal Muhammad fight twice now and I can say he is definitely turning into one of my favorite prospects in the promotion. He is a good boxer with grappling skills that not many people know about. Though he lost his first UFC fight by decision, it was against a solid fighter in Alan Joubon, and Belal made that a very tough decision for the judges despite being knocked down a couple of times. He's got a good record at 10-1, he's very tough, and he never quits. The boxing skill he has shown in his first 2 UFC fights has me jumping on the Belal Muhammad hype train. I think he makes it very hard for Luque on the feet and starts picking him apart early. He will hurt Luque and then the fight will go to the ground where Belal will use ground and pound to grind out a decision victory. Despite Luque showing a lot of growth when it comes to striking, Belal is much better than him in that area and I think that is the difference maker.
There are just some guys you can't find yourself to pick against. For me, Tim Boetsch is one of those guys. A guy from Maine, Boetsch is a guy people love to watch because he always loves to stand and trade with his opponents, but has since fallen on tough times competing in the octagon. Boetsch is 1-3 in his last 4 fights where he was finished in all 3 of those losses. However, he is coming off a big win over Josh Samman(R.I.P) that proved to everyone that Boetsch is still very dangerous and has plenty of power to finish anyone that he faces. He faces Rafael Natal, a very good grappler who is very difficult to knock out. Though Natal isn't always the most fun guy to watch fight, he gets the job done, and is almost certainly the favorite to win this fight. With that being said, I've seen Natal get tagged a lot in his career and I think Boetsch is going to hurt him early in this fight. Though Natal holds a big grappling advantage, Boetsch is going to use his aggressiveness and power to put Rafael Natal to sleep with a first round knock out.
Now we go into some contenders fights. Khabib Nurmagomedov steps in to battle Michael Johnson for the 2nd to last fight on the preliminary card. There is a lot on the line for Nurmagomedov who is 23-0 and is fighting for a potential shot at the lightweight title. Michael Johnson is coming off a big knock-out win against Dustin Poirier who was on an impressive run before he was introduced to Johnson's right hand. Johnson has fast hands and a lot of power and fights out of a camp that is home to many feared strikers in the Blackzilians. Johnson has a big advantage on the feet not just from his skill but from how he is built. Johnson's 74-inch reach is much longer than Khabib's 70-inch reach which can make a difference especially if Johnson wants to neutralize Khabib's biggest weapon, his wrestling, and keep him at a distance. The only problem with that is that I don't think Johnson can prevent Khabib from taking him down. Khabib is arguably the best wrestler to ever enter the octagon. He once executed 21 total takedowns in a fight, an incredible statistic. Khabib's past opponents have mentioned how big and strong he was too. Once he gets a hold of you, you are in a world of trouble. He beat former champion Rafael dos Anjos on the ground and dos Anjos is a fourth-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. Do I think Khabib is going to find a way to take Johnson down? Yes, which is why I have Khabib winning a close split decision. Johnson will defend takedown attempts and make Khabib pay for them, but it's hard for me to imagine Khabib doesn't take him down a couple of times and gives him some ground and pound for a couple of rounds.
The main event of the preliminary card is another very interesting fight between Frankie Edgar and Jeremy Stephens. Frankie, a top contender in his weight class for many years, is coming off an interim title loss to former featherweight champion Jose Aldo. Though Frankie was on an absolute tear before that fight, being able to hit Aldo with substantial strikes in that fight was a challenge. But Aldo is a freak of nature, and Jeremy Stephens is not Jose Aldo. Jeremy Stephens is a scary fight for anyone. He has scary power for the featherweight division and one could certainly argue he has the biggest power in that division(sorry Conor fans). If anyone makes a mistake against Stephens, it often results in them getting knocked out. Frankie is faster than Stephens and is arguably the best wrestler in that division. What better way to neutralize Stephens's best weapon than by taking him down and testing his skills on the ground? Using his constant movement and wrestling, I think Edgar frustrates Stephens and grinds out a decision victory, much like Max Holloway did back in December. Move around use your wrestling, don't let him land that big shot. Easier said than done, but Edgar is capable of doing that and I think he does.
What kicks off the main card is a fight between former women's bantamweight champion Miesha Tate and 8th ranked contender Raquel Pennington. Miesha just recently lost her title to Amanda Nunes back in July and seems to be determined to win it back. To do that she has to go through Pennington who is not an easy fight for anybody. Since losing a split decision against former champion Holly Holm, Pennington has since won 3 fights in a row. She is a very aggressive striker while also having most of her finishes by way via submission, so she is dangerous everywhere. She has yet to be finished in her UFC career. The last time Miesha lost a title fight she went on a tear, winning 5 fights in a row. To me, Miesha is the epitome of never give up. It didn't matter how much trouble she was in during a fight, she always came back and ended up pulling out a gritty win. She has fought against good strikers and won and she is also very good with submissions. She's a fearless wrestler and isn't intimidated by anyone. Look for another gritty decision win against Pennington on Saturday. Though Pennington has been a nice run lately, she is running into a top contender in that division and I'm expecting Miesha to go on another tear again.
If you went around and asked New Yorkers to name an MMA fighter from their state, some would say Jon Jones, others would say Chris Weidman. Due to the problems Jones has had outside of the octagon, it's fair to declare Chris Weidman as MMA's King of New York. He was the guy who begged for MMA to be legalized in his home state so he could compete in his backyard. When it was legalized, Dana White made sure to give Weidman a call to make that wish of his come true. He faces Yoel Romero on Saturday. Romero is a former Olympic wrestler who looks like a GI Joe action figure in human form. A big guy who is very explosive and has tons of power in his hands. I worry about Romero's size and how that can affect his cardio. His cardio has almost allowed his opponents to beat him a few times. He always slows down substantially after the first round and his opponent usually summons a too little too late bounce back moment or two before the fight is over. Against a former champion like Chris Weidman, that can't happen. Weidman is a strong wrestler with a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu who only has one career loss to this point. He went five rounds on the feet with Lyoto Machida, a very talented striker, and beat him so to say he is a very well balanced fighter is a very accurate statement. I think Romero gets off to a very strong start but then gasses out after the first round and Weidman starts to pour it on and ends up finishing Romero by TKO in round 3. Hard to imagine Weidman losing in his backyard.
The first championship fight of the night is between 2 talented polish strikers Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Karolina Kawolkiewicz. Though both of these talented fighters are undefeated as professionals, they have fought each other before at the amateur level with Joanna winning by submission in the first round. Both fighters have improved since then, and I would be very surprised if this fight ended up on the ground at all. Karolina is a great, precise striker who frustrates her opponents with her pinpoint shots and her ability to take big punches and still move forward. Her last fight with Rose Namajunas was a 3 round war where she aggressively took it to Rose despite eating a couple of big shots. Karolina seems to grind out her victories and seeing that she is undefeated, is well deserving of this title shot. She is afraid of nobody. The champ Joanna is a scary individual. Most of her fights leave me cringing because she doesn't just win her fights, she beats her opponents up bad. Sometimes to the point where it's hard to watch. Her hand speed is impressive and the way she uses her elbows to cut her opponents and make them seemingly unrecognizable is a scary weapon. She is relentless and always pushes forward too. With Karolina averaging almost 4 significant strikes absorbed per minute, I think she takes a few elbows and gets cut up by Joanna early. Joanna then uses her non-stop pressure to continue to chip away at Karolina until the ref calls it. I think that will come in round 4.
In the co-main event of the evening, Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson faces welterweight Tyron Woodley. Since losing to Matt Brown back in 2012, Thompson has been a one-man wrecking crew winning 7 fights in a row. His last 2 fights were against some of the biggest names in that division in Johny Hendricks and Rory MacDonald. Tyron Woodley won the title back in late July against Robbie Lawler with an impressive knock out against a guy who was viewed by many to have one of the most unbreakable chins in the sport. Woodley is a former college wrestler who has really polished up his striking since his days in Strikeforce. He's very explosive and has a lot of power and is quick to close the distance. A lot of people think Tyron will be able to easily take Wonderboy down, but I'm not so sure. Much like Tyron's striking, Wonderboy's takedown defense has come a long way since being taken down 5 times in his last loss to Matt Brown. Since then, no one has been able to register a takedown against Wonderboy inside the octagon. It's not like Wonderboy has faced bad wrestlers since then either. Johny Hendricks is a former division 1 champion, Jake Ellenberger was a former college wrestler, and Rory MacDonald has shown over his UFC career that he has superb wrestling skill as well. I think Tyron will try to pressure Thompson against the fence right away and try to fight for that takedown early. Wonderboy's skill on the feet is too good for Woodley to risk trying to stand with him for very long(Wonderboy was 56-0 as a pro kickboxer). Do I think he will be able to take Wonderboy down at some point? Sure, but as it was shown in the Hendricks fight, keeping Wonderboy down isn't easy as Johny couldn't even keep him down long enough for it to count as a takedown in the first place. Do I think Wonderboy is going to catch Woodley when both fighters are standing? Absolutely. I think Wonderboy will periodically catch Woodley and be able to defend the takedowns reasonably well enough for Woodley to get tired and slow down. After Woodley starts slowing down, getting the takedown is much more difficult and then at that point, that's all she wrote. Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson by decision.
This is it. A chance to make history as Conor McGregor will try to be the first-ever UFC fighter to hold to belts simultaneously in different weight classes. He has a tough task in fighting Eddie Alvarez, a man who has a style that is seen as McGregor's kryptonite, a wrestler with a strong chin. Conor's striking has proven to be tough for everyone he's ever fought, and he has a lot of power. He knocks guys down with punches that seem effortless when he throws them, and he is much faster then what people give him credit for. Alvarez is criticized for his striking technique as some will say he "leaves himself open too much" or that he is "too wild". But even when he gets caught he comes back stronger. Eddie's power is severely underrated in my opinion. It took him one punch to hurt Rafael dos Anjos and dos Anjos doesn't get rocked from punches often. I will say the one thing that worries me is Conor's willingness to get hit as well. According to the official UFC website, McGregor gets hit by nearly 5 significant strikes per minute compared to Eddie's 3.21. Eddie has more power than Nate Diaz and Chad Mendes and if Conor gets hit by a lot of punches from Eddie, I don't know if things end well for the Notorious one. However, the speed difference looks substantial, Conor is confident, he's been working on his grappling a lot, and he still has enough power to catch Alvarez and put him away. I think that will happen and I think it will happen early. Conor makes history in New York City. After all these times of me picking against him, I'm sick of him proving me wrong. All in all, this card is absolutely amazing and New York is going to get something special on Saturday night. I simply Can't wait to watch it go down.
Update: Both Thiago Alves and Kelvin Gastelum have been reported to have missed weight. Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone cannot weigh in more than 5 pounds less than them or those fights are cancelled.