+135 Luis Henrique (8-2-0 1NC) vs. -155 Dmitrii Smoliakov (8-0)
Luis Henrique: Henrique’s UFC debut against Francis Ngannou was not something he would like to remember, in fact, there’s a good chance he doesn’t remember it at all. Henrique suffered a brutal second round uppercut knockout at the hands of Ngannou last December that left him unresponsive for more than a minute.
Henrique’s issues in the octagon will not be from lack of skill, but lack of size. He has competed at light heavyweight for the majority of his career, but the lack of UFC heavyweight talent has created this opportunity for him and he will need to adjust his style to fighting larger men. Henrique is one of the many undersized heavyweights that would benefit from a (205-230) cruiserweight division.
Dmitrii Smoliakov: 33 year old Belarusian Smoliakov, is well known in the Eastern European MMA scene as an elite coach, as well as one of their most promising heavyweight prospects. 8-0 in his burgeoning career, he has stopped all of his opponents in the first round.
Smoliakov’s list of opponents haven’t exactly been a who’s who in the name of the sport, but he has disposed of them as a top level fighter should. His submissions have come in part due to his substantial strength and skill advantage over his opponents, an advantage he will not have the luxury of possessing when competing in the octagon.
The Fight: Henrique had a tendency to get into brawls on the feet at light heavyweight, which would make his take downs less predictable. But at heavyweight he wont be able to trade on the feet in order to set up his shot.
Smoliakov has a strong enough grappling base to thwart Henriques’s take downs and enough power to turn his lights out. This in addition to his size advantage will be enough to keep his first round finishing streak alive. Smokliakov TKO 1st
–215 Jim Alers (13-2-0 1 NC) vs. +185 Jason Knight (16-2)
Jim Alers: Former kindergarten teacher Jim Alers will step in to the octagon for the fourth time in Chicago. 1-1-0 1 NC, the one no contest coming in his last outing against Cole Miller when he unintentionally eye poked Miller so badly Miller could not continue.
Alers is a BJJ black belt under Vagner Rocha, but has focused heavily on stand up in his last few outings. He has some major holes in his stand up and would do well to get back to his wrestling and BJJ base.
Jason Knight: Alan Belcher protege Jason Knight, jumped at the offer make his UFC debut on two weeks notice against legendary Japanese wrestler Tatsuya Kawajiri, a fight that was surely turned down by many in the featherweight division.
Even though he came up short against Kawajiri, he exhibited some promising skills. Knight uses a rubber guard base that he effortlessly chains submission attempts from. On the feet he showed a solid jab and overall good use of his six foot frame.
The Fight: If this fight is contested on the feet Knight will have the advantage due to his reach, technical superiority and Alers total lack of head movement.
Stylistically this fight will most likely take place mainly on the mat. Knight has shown a willingness to jump guard to work off of his back. Alers top game is not on the level of “The Crusher” but it will be solid enough to smother Knights submission attempts and grind out a decision. Alers Unanimous Decision
+170 Hector Urbina (25-9) vs. -200 George Sullvian (17-5 1 NC)
Hector Urbina: Urbina is probably best remembered for his back and forth brawl with Irishmen Cathal Pendred. Urbina lost the battle with Pendred, but showed immense heart and power earning him a fight against Edgar Garcia in the UFC’s first show in Mexico. Urbina won his debut but lost his following fight to Polish Judoka Bartoz Fabinski.
Urbina is game for an all out war, which are the type of fighters who usually hang around in the UFC, however if he falls to 1-2 it will be very difficult to justify keeping Urbina around in a absolutely stacked welterweight division.
George Sullivan: Native of the Garden state Sullivan has trained exclusively with fellow New Jersian and UFC vet Kurt Pellegrino. Before his call up to the UFC Sullivan dominated the local Jersey circuit going 14-3 and winning the CFFC welterweight title, a title he defended five times.
Success has not come quite as easily for Sullivan in the octagon, his record sits at 3-2 with a couple close decisions that could have not gone his way. Sullivan is a BJJ purple belt under Pelligrino and utilizes his length extremely well in landing ground and pound, but has inexplicably never submitted a opponent.
The Fight: Sullivan has a tendency to get into stand up battles, but after being knocked out for the first time in his career last time out, I suspect him to play it safe and take Urbina to the ground where he will have the grappling advantage.
It will be a closely contested match, with Urbina winning the stand up but Sullivan winning based on ground control and aggression. Sullivan Split Decision
-210 Alex Oliveira (13-3-1) vs. +180 James Moontasri (9-3)
Alex Oliveira: “Cowboy” Oliveira had quite an impressive 2015, after losing a heart breaker to Gilbert Burns in his debut, Oliveira rattled off three wins in a row including a knockout of Pitor Hallman to close the year out.
2016 has not started out tremendously for Oliveira, he opened the year with an L to fellow “Cowboy” Donald Cerrone. Oliveira took the bout on short notice filling in for Tim Means and saving the events headlining fight, which I’m sure earned him points with the UFC’s higher ups.
James Moontasri: Moontasri made his welterweight debut last November, he made the decision to move up after missing the 155 pound lightweight limit on two separate occasions. The move paid off in his debut where he took out local Aussie fighter Anton Zafir with a spinning side kick to the body.
“Moon Walker” is a tae kwon do black belt who throws high risk/reward strikes. His ground game is rapidly improving from training with partners like Jacare, Roger Gracie and the Nogueria brothers at LA’s Blackhouse gym.
The Fight: This is going to be a fan friendly fight, these two strikers are both known for high paced stand up battles.
I will give the edge to Oliveria based on his 76 inch reach, he will need to use his reach to land from the outside while staying out of the kicking range of Moontasri. Oliveira will land high percentage strikes on the outside and in the clinch while avoiding the flashy kicks of Moontasri en route to the victory. Oliveria Unanimous Decision
Michael Prazeres ( 19-2) vs. JC Cottrell (17-3)
Michael Prazeres: Prazeres slightly edged out Valmir Lazaro in a split decision his last outing. The win improved his octagon record to 3-2, with his biggest win coming over Chechen on the rise, Mairbek Taisumov in a fight that saw Taisumov lose two point for grabbing the fence.
Prazeres is built like a fire hydrant and will have a significant strength advantage over most of the lightweight division. His smothering top game and hay maker heavy striking have been good enough to earn him a few close decisions, but it will be difficult for him to make the jump up to the next level of competition when his fights are so close at the bottom of the division.
JC Cottrell: “Superstar” JC Cottrell will make his UFC debut on two weeks notice, filling in for Tony Martin who was forced to withdraw due to a neck injury. He is 17-3 overall including a win in Bellator and a King of the Cage lightweight title.
Cottrell is capable on the feet, but shines when the fight hits the mat. He continually looks for submissions when in dominant positions and is frequently successful, earning 11 stoppages via submission. However his submission before position mentality causes him to end up on the bottom quite a bit.
The Fight: Prazeres is going to be far too strong for the newcomer. Cottrell’s willingness to concede top position and Prazeres smothering top game will make for a one sided decision.Prazeres Unanimous Decision
-240 Kamaru Usman (7-1) vs. +205 Alexander Yakovlev (23-6-1)
Kamaru Usman: TUF: ATT vs. Blackzilians champ Kamaru Usman will step in for an injured Ryan Laflare to take on this scrappy Ruski. Usman will not have a full camp, but he got the call in early June, so he will have had about two months to prepare.
Usman’s wrestling has been dominant, on the show he cruised to a 3-0 record relatively unscathed. Following the reality series Kamaru used his grappling to earn a one sided victory over rising British prospect Leon Edwards.
Usman’s striking needs improvement if he is going to compete in the upper echelons of the division, this bout will be a good measuring stick of his potential.
Alexander Yakovlev: With a Game of Thornesesque nickname like “Thunder of The North” Yakovlev has pretty high expectations to live up to. Fortunately this Russian does not disappoint.
Yakovlev came out of the gate slow dropping two decisions to Demian Maia and Nico Musoke. But came back strong defeating Gray Maynard and George Sullivan. Yakovlev is the real deal, but is weak for a welterweight and might run into trouble giving up positional control to stronger fighters.
The Fight: Yakovlev does a great job of changing levels and getting his hips low to stuff take downs, but has not shown the strongest defense when clinched up against the fence. I do believe he will be able to stop Usman’s shots, but I do not know if he will be able to stop Usman from racking up points grinding him up against the cage.
My gut tells me Yakovlev will score enough in the stand up exchanges to steal rounds from Usman who will be continually looking for the take down. Yakovlev Split Decison
-200 #11 Darren Elkins (20-5) vs. + 170 Godofredo Pepey (13-3)
Darren Elkins: Indiana native Darren Elkins is a scrappy blue collar cardio machine. Elkins left Indiana in 2015 to train full time under Justin Bucholz and company at Team Alpha Male. Since the camp move Elkins has gone 2-0 taking home victories against Rob Whiteford and Chas Skelly.
What Elkins doesn’t posses in god given athleticism he makes up for with grit, a limitless gas tank and the chin of a Clydesdale. Alpha male is a good fit for Elkins, they will give him new weapons in his striking arsenal while still focusing on his wrestling base.
Godofredo Pepey: TUF Brazil runner up Godofredo Pepey has put together a three fight winning streak and earned himself a shot at a ranked opponent. Pepey’s recent wins have all come by way of first round stoppage, in fact all but two of Pepey’s fights have ended in the first round, a stat that will get you in the good grace’s of the UFC brass.
This is a golden opportunity for Pepey to crack the top 15 for the first time in his career. With how deep the featherweight division is, he must seize this chance because he might not have another one for a while.
The Fight: The blueprint for Elkin’s path to victory in this fight, is in his 2014 bout with Diego Brandao. Elkins was able to withstand the early barrage of Brandao in the first and win the second and third rounds with take downs and control. Granted, Pepey is more dangerous off of his back and has better cardio than Brandao, but he is also not as strong, something Elkins will capitalize on especially in the later rounds. Elkins Unanimous Decision
-160 #12 Frankie Saenz (11-3) vs. Eddie Wienland (21-11-1)
Frankie Saenz: At 35 Saenz is one of the older bantamweight challengers, but has only been fighting for six year and has not accumulated the same amount of wear and tear as other fighters in his age bracket.
Saenz’s wrestling is his strength, he is a former Division I wrestler and training partners with Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo. However in his last bout with Urijah Faber, Saenz chose to keep the fight standing for the majority of the time. He did not pull off the upset against Faber, but he did put on an excellent showing, in fact he performed so well that he did not drop a single spot in the rankings following the loss.
Eddie Wineland: The former WEC bantamweight champ has fallen on hard times in the past couple years. Wineland had his jaw broken by Johnnny Eduardo in 2014, an injury that kept him sidelined for 14 months. When he returned against Bryan Caraway he appeared hesitant and failed to land any significant damage en route to a unanimous decision loss.
Talks of retirement have loomed since losing to Eduardo, Wineland is a rough 31 who has been in numerous wars since his debut at 18. However a impressive win in this bout will silence the critics and give him a strong case for a place in the top 10.
The Fight: Wineland’s unorthodox striking style will be the key deciding factor in this fight. Wineland keeps his hands at his waist at all times, a death wish against bangers like Renan Barao, but against Saenz it keeps him in a ideal position to stuff take downs with double under hooks. The question in this fight will be whether Wineland will commit to his power strikes or be too cautious of the take down to uncork his trademark bombs. I believe he will let it fly and score a highlight reel knockout to get back to his winning ways. Wineland Knockout 2nd