Yair Rodriguez (7-1) vs Andre Fili (15-3)
Yair Rodriguez: In Yair Rodriguez’s epic brawl with Charles Rosa, Joe Rogan described Rodriguez as a mix between Jon Jones and Anthony Pettis. Rogan’s comparison will give you an idea of the hype behind this 23 year old Mexican. Rodriguez is the winner of TUF: Latin America’s inaugural season. In his two fights following the show, Rodriguez has looked amazing: a victory in said brawl with ATT’s Charles Rosa that earned the two fight of the night honors and a win over Kiwi prospect Daniel Hooker. Rodriguez’s creative strikes and slick BJJ are being finely tuned in Albuquerque with Jackson/Wink. This youngster’s natural abilities combined with one of the best fight camps in the game is a scary reality for the featherweight division.
Andre Fili: One of the few stars to not jump ship at Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male, Andre “Touchy” Fili returns to the cage after a TKO of TUF: Latin America’s Gabriel Benitez. Fili is not the prototypical Alpha Male wrestler, he does have good take downs and ground control as he showcased in his win over Felipe Arantes and a hard fought loss to Max Holloway. But he seems to prefer to stand and trade, as he did in his debut win over Jeremy Larsen. Because of Fili’s partiality for the stand up game he may be the person most effected by striking coach Duane “Bang” Ludwig’s departure from Team Alpha Male. Still only 25, Fili has a wealth of experience underneath his belt and has the ability to be a contender at featherweight.
The Fight: This fight two years from now my take place as a title fight, these two up and comers both have the potential for great things at featherweight. Fili will be the better wrestler and will have the ability to ground out a win if he should chose to. Rodriguez is the more creative striker of the two and will be able to land heavy damage if Fili should decide to stand with him. The wildcard is Rodriguez’s submissions off of his back, He is more than capable of ending Fili’s night if he gets lazy on top. I see Rodriguez getting the better of the two in the stand up, causing Fili to have to shoot for take downs and getting caught a little later in the fight. Rodriguez Triangle 2nd round
Robert Whittakar (16-4) vs Rafael Natal (21-6-1)
Robert Whittaker: TUF: Smashes winner Robert Whittaker is on a hot streak as of late. He is riding a four fight win streak which includes a victory over Urijah Hall in his last outing. Whittaker is ranked #7 in the middleweight division where the heavy handed Aussie does his damage. If Whittaker is victorious Saturday night, hopefully the UFC will reward him with a top five opponent for taking such a risky match up with a lower ranked opponent with nothing to gain. Whittaker’s 2014 loss to Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson doesn’t seem to be such a set back lately, since Wonderboy appears to be a title contender with striking from another planet.
Rafael Natal: “Sapo” Natal is on a four fight win streak of his own, which also includes a win over Urijah Hall. This will be Natal’s 15th fight in the UFC and he is currently the highest ranked he has ever been at #13. Natal has the grappling credentials to compete with the best at middleweight, but his susceptibility to the knockout has held him back from taking the next step up to the elite of the division. If he can get by a proven Finisher like Whittaker, Natal will prove he is ready for a top 5 opponent.
The Fight: Whittaker has had trouble in the past with grapplers imposing their will on him like Court Mcgee and Antonio McKee protégé Jesse Juarez. However this will not be the case Saturday night, Natal will not have the strength to get Whittaker to the mat or the chin to withstand his striking onslaught. Whittaker knockout 1st
Edson Barboza (16-4) vs Anthony Pettis (18-4)
Edson Barboza: Barboza is, in my mind, without a question the best Muay Thai striker in MMA. With his striking already perfected, Barboza focuses the bulk of his training on the ground game. He spends the majority of his time in New Jersey training with Frankie Edgar and Ricardo Almeida who are his wrestling and jiu-jitsu coaches respectively. He also hones his stand up with striking coach extraordinaire Mark Henry. His last loss to Tony Ferguson was amidst some controversy when he was struck with an illegal kick to the face while the two were on the ground, Barboza was given time to recover and the finish didn’t come till later in the fight but he was clearly rocked after the illegal kick. If Barboza can shore up his submission defense he will be an extremely tough out for the lightweight division.
Anthony Pettis: The former Champ stumbled in his return fight against Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez did not engage Pettis in the striking match the fans had hoped for, instead opting to take the fight to the ground and eek out a decision. Pettis’s losses have almost all come to smothering wrestlers, prior to Alvarez it was Clay Guida in his UFC debut and Bart Palaszewski in the WEC. Fortunately for Pettis his submissions are usually good enough to prevent the lay n pray guys from smothering him. Pettis’s unique striking style changed the sport of MMA forever, but if he is not able to improve his wrestling he may never see another shot at the title.
The Fight: This fight is tailor made for Pettis, Barboza tends to fade after an early onslaught and fall victim to the choke, and Pettis has the skills to submit Barboza, this is a definite possibility. However, I think this will be the fight that will get Barboza over the hump of losing to elite fighters. Barboza’s losses have come in fights where he had to constantly be prepared for the take down like Jamie Varner, Michael Johnson and Tony Ferguson. With Pettis the take down will not be a concern, leaving Barboza to unleash the beautiful violence that is his Muay Thai. Barboza split decision
Henry Cejudo (10-0) vs Demetrious Johnson (23-2)
Henry Cejudo: If you said a fighter getting a title shot after only three fights in a division was unjust, in most cases I would agree with you. Henry Cejudo is not most cases, the youngest American wrestler to win Olympic Gold has made a seamless transition to MMA. Cejudo is unbeaten at 4-0 in the cage which is not a huge surprise, what is a surprise is the method he has been winning his fights. Watching Cejudo fight you would have no idea he is an Olympic caliber wrestler, he has chose to stand and trade in almost all of his octagon time. His wins came against Dustin Kimura (at 135), Chris Cariaso, Chico Camus and most recently Jussier Formiga. All of these matches went the distance and it almost felt like Cejudo was holding something back, come Saturday night he will have to let leave it all in the octagon if he stands a chance against the #1 pound for pound fighter in the sport.
Demetrius Johnson: What more can be said about “Mighty Mouse”, he’s undefeated since his move to flyweight and utterly dominant in every fight. His speed is on a totally different level than everyone else in the division. In his last defense, a rematch against John Dodoson, Johnson was landing his right straight so fast and with so little wind up that it was virtually indefensible. Johnson sets and maintains a pace in all of his fights that is “superhuman”. If he is able to defend against Cejudo, it will be difficult to find intriguing match ups left for “Mighty Mouse” at flyweight, he might have to return to bantamweight and attempt to avenge his losses to Brad Pickett and current champ Dominick Cruz.
The Fight: If Cejudo has any chance in this fight he is going to have to find a way to control Johnson’s pace. He will not be able to test out his newly acquired striking against Johnson, he will have to clinch and shoot and clinch and shoot. Cejudo has had trouble with the cut to 125 in every attempt, which means if he has not mastered that cut he may be in over his head going into the championship rounds, where Johnson will ratchet it up to another level of insanity. Cejudo can win this if he can make it ugly, and the one intangible to consider is Cejudo does not know how to lose. Since winning Olympic gold he has not tasted professional defeat, he brings that same win at all cost mentality to his MMA career. Guys like Cejudo come to life underneath the bright lights. He was a huge underdog in his Olympic run and he will be a huge underdog against Johnson, but I like Cejudo to control the fight for the first 3, before fading late, still doing enough to snag the belt away from “Mighty Mouse”. Cejudo split decision
Jon Jones (21-1) vs Ovince St Preux (19-7)
Light Heavyweight (205)
Jon Jones: Jon Jones is an addict, he was addicted to the climb, the grind, the tireless work that it takes to make it to the top of his sport. That type of addiction is not something you can manufacture, Jones needs the challenge to push him to higher levels of excellence. It was rumored that Jones hardly trained for his match up with Alexander Gustafsson and it showed in his performance. Jones needs something to point that addiction towards, when the thrill of defending his title was not enough to quench his appetite he turned elsewhere in search of fulfillment. Jon Jones is the greatest fighter of his generation, and will not be beaten by another man. If Jones loses it will be to himself.
Ovince St Preux: St Preux is a worthy adversary as far as challengers in the division go. His frame was built for combat. The converted Tennessee Volunteer DE began his career a very underwhelming 3-4, but something clicked for OSP in his eighth fight, something that set him on an eight fight win streak that was only snapped by perennial top 10 fighter Gegard Mousasi. OSP now has the talent to beat anyone outside of elite competition, if he’s going to take the next step to becoming one of the greats he is going to have to leave his home town fight team and permanently train with a top tier gym. He has clearly outgrown his Knoxville home gym and needs to be sparing with the best the sport has to offer everyday.
The Fight: As previously mentioned Jon Jones will not lose this or any other fight if he has rediscovered the passion that brought him to the apex of the sport. This match up against OSP will give Jones the opportunity to shake off the rust after the year and a half layoff, a luxury he might not of had in a rematch with Cormier. Even if Jones is not 100% in right now the talent discrepancy is so large in this fight that it will not make a difference. Jones TKO 2nd