UFC 266 Main Card on ESPN+ PPV (10 p.m. ET)

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145 lbs.: UFC Featherweight Champion Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega – This is an excellent fight among truly the elite of the division. Alexander Volkanovski has been a force since joining the UFC. While early he fancied himself a wrestler, his striking has evolved into some of the divisions best. On the feet, Volkanovski has some power in his hands. However, the New Zealander mainly likes to pump a jab to set up his overhand right, as well chop opponents down with leg kicks. Volkanovski is a solid wrestler too, being physically strong and having some of the division’s best ground-and-pound. Something that Brian Ortega would like to avoid, as the striker and dangerous submission artist fancies fighting upright. Ortega in his last fight was extremely technical and accurate on the feet. With fast hands, and a mean left hook, Ortega dropped Jung two times. Something that no one has ever done to ‘The Korean Zombie’.

As for a prediction, I’m going to side with Brian Ortega. I believe that if the same version of Ortega that fought Jung shows up in this fight, Volkanovski is in for a tough night. Ortega also happens to be one of the most dangerous submission artists in the UFC. If Volkanovski even dares to wrestle, the exposure of his neck for even a few seconds could lead to the Champion being submitted. However, Volkanovski is a cerebral fighter and I’m sure that he will only engage with Ortega upright along the face. As for the outcome of this fight. I truly believe Ortega is going to drop Volkanovski at some point and latch onto a submission.

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125 lbs.: UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion Valentina Shevchenko vs. Lauren Murphy – Ever since Valentina Shevchenko moved down to Flyweight, I was certain that no one would ever beat her. That same sentiment remains true, as I just don’t see any viable contenders that could present issues. Perhaps the only one that would make for a competitive fight is Tatiana Suarez. However, considering she can’t stay healthy, it’s hard to say if that fight ever comes to fruition. For the fight at hand, Lauren Murphy is a well rounded fighter. She’s durable and tough as nails. The one knock I’ll say about Murphy is that she isn’t strong in any one area and because of that, the majority of her fights are close. In fact, in eleven UFC fights, four have been split decisions.

As for a prediction, obviously I have Shevchenko. The Flyweight queen is a dynamic striker, who is as well rounded as it gets. While she mainly strikes, Shevchenko has excellent wrestling and grappling abilities. Physically strong, Shevchenko has combined for twenty five takedowns in her last seven fights. In other words, Shevchenko is in control of wherever she wants this fight to take place. In the end, I believe Shevchenko will beat Murphy via TKO due to lacerations and facial damage.

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185 lbs.: Nick Diaz vs. Robbie Lawler 2 – When the rumors of Nick Diaz returning were churning, I’ve always thought a rematch against Robbie Lawler made sense. Neither of these legends deserve to fight younger and in their prime fighters. I mean, Diaz has not fought in seventy nine months. With the sport evolving, it’s unknown exactly how Diaz is going to perform at 38 years old. However, a fight against a struggling Robbie Lawler, who at 39 years old is no spring chicken himself is the right one for both. The fight itself should be a fun one though, as both men are strikers. Diaz offers high output, whereas Lawler carries the power edge. Diaz is very durable though, having been stopped only twice in his career. One time due to cuts back in 2007 and the other in 2002 in his fifth professional fight. Lawler too boasts solid durability, having been stopped only three times in his career. Once as Champion against Tyron Woodley in 2016, and the other two to Pete Sell and of course, Diaz.

As for a prediction, I’m going with Diaz. While there is concern about what to expect, I do know that Diaz has never stopped training and he’s been doing triathlons during the layoff. Being excellently conditioned is going to be a factor in this fight, as it’s a five round contest. On the feet, Diaz’s high output and pace is going to be the difference. Lawler just seems too hesitant of a striker nowadays to keep up with high output. Perhaps his power can make a difference, but then again, Lawler hasn’t knocked anyone out since 2015. In what should be a fun and intriguing fight, I believe Diaz will methodically break Lawler down over the course of the fight. In the end, Diaz will win via TKO.

265 lbs.: Curtis Blaydes vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik – This is a crucial fight for both men, as they both have title aspirations. Curtis Blaydes probably should have fought for a title, but the circumstances just weren’t in his favor. Unfortunately, title fights in the Heavyweight division only occur once or twice a year if lucky. Throw in the two losses to current Heavyweight Champion Francis Ngannou and Blaydes couldn’t be in a worse position. However, the powerful wrestler remains at the top of the division. Unless you have devastating knockout ability, Blaydes has proven to take anyone and everyone down at will. That sentiment will certainly be tested against Rozenstruik, who, although fairly untested, has shrugged off twenty four of the thirty takedowns attempted against him. With legitimate knockout power, Rozenstruik is the type of fighter that has given Blaydes problems.

As for a prediction, I have Blaydes. While I noted Rozenstruik’s exceptional takedown defense, there’s a difference between Blaydes and the rest of the division in the wrestling department. Blaydes is the UFC’s all-time leader in the Heavyweight division in takedowns with fifty nine. He also is the leader in control time and top position time. In other words, he’s in a class of his own. Obviously striking is not Blaydes forte, but he is heavy handed and the threat of the takedown leaves opponents vulnerable to getting cracked. I don’t see that scenario happening here, however I do believe Blaydes wrestling shuts down Rozenstruik. So with that said, I predict that Blaydes wins by decision.

125 lbs.: Jessica Andrade vs. Cynthia Calvillo – This is good matchmaking. Obviously we have two talented fighters competing against each other, but it also seems like a fight setup to potentially pump out a fresh contender in the division. Jessica Andrade will have something to say about that though, as the former Strawweight Champion has proven that she is good enough to win UFC gold. With immense physical strength, power and aggression, Andrade is a handful for anyone who stands across from her. Cynthia Calvillo won’t be intimidated however, as the Californian is as game for a scrap as anyone. Boasting wrestling, grappling and dangerous submission abilities, Calvillo has what it takes to be among the elite of the division. The question is, will she fight to her strength’s or have the belief she can strike with the more polished striker?

As for a prediction, I have Andrade. The Brazilian has too many advantages in this fight. For one, Calvillo isn’t your typical Flyweight. She was essentially forced to move up from Strawweight due to her inability to make weight. In other words, Andrade’s strength advantage is going to be apparent. Unless Calvillo brings forth deceptive takedown attempts, I don’t see her being able to takedown Andrade. I could see the opposite however, with Andrade taking Calvillo down. On the feet, Andrade is substantially better. She’s a high output striker, who applies pressure on opponents. Carrying legitimate knockout power, Andrade makes for one of the more scarier fighters to strike with on the feet. Given Calvillo has no semblance of power, I don’t see her disrupting Andrade from absolutely swarming her. So with that said, I predict that Andrade will win via late TKO.

UFC 266 ‘Prelims’ Card on ESPNN/ESPN+ (8 p.m. ET)

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135 lbs.: Merab Dvalishvili vs. Marlon Moraes – This is a fun fight, but one that seemingly storylines two fighters going in the opposite direction. Marlon Moraes is a former WSOF Champion, who nearly captured UFC gold. The once dangerous Brazilian striker has been stopped in back-to-back fights. While the competition has been stiff in those bouts, Moraes never had issues with cardio and durability until really, that Bantamweight title fight. That’s a huge problem, as Merab Dvalishvili is the king of cardio and pace. Using constant pressure and spammed takedown attempts, Dvalishvili wears down his opponents over the course of fifteen minutes. The Georgian has landed an astonishing 59 takedowns in eight UFC fights. Should he land two takedowns against Moraes, he will become tied for eight all-time in the UFC.

As for a prediction, I have Dvalishvili. Until Moraes proves otherwise that his cardio has improved, I simply can’t side with someone who is about to endure a hectic fight. Dvalishvili is going to swarm the Brazilian early, taking him down often. With no time to set up his striking, Moraes is going to wilt under the pressure. While Dvalishvili has yet to record a stoppage victory in the UFC, I believe the ingredients are right in this fight. So with that said, I predict that Dvalishvili wins via submission.

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155 lbs.: Nasrat Haqparast vs. Dan Hooker – This is excellent matchmaking, as both men are dangerous strikers. Dan Hooker uses his range well, often landing his full kickboxing arsenal from the outside. While Hooker lacks power, he makes up for it with high output, technique and precision. Of ‘The Hangman’s’ ten UFC victories, six have come via knockout. Nasrat Haqparast too knows something about flatlining opponents, as nine of his thirteen professional victories have come via knockout. However, Haqparast’s power hasn’t translated well in the UFC yet. Only once in five bouts inside the octagon has Haqparast stopped anyone.

As for a prediction, I’m siding with Hooker. It’s hard not to express concern over the amount of punishment he’s endured in the UFC. The fact that Chandler put him down, being the second time ever in the UFC that happened only enhances that concern. However, I still believe in Hooker’s durability. I mean, we are talking about a guy who absorbed a combined 263 significant strikes against Paul Felder and Dustin Poirier. While I can see Haqparast’s speed and power being problematic for Hooker, it’s nothing new from what he’s already seen. With pace, pressure, high output and a nasty clinch, I believe Hooker gets the job done. So with all that said, in what has the ingredients to be a barnburner, I predict Hooker will win via decision.

265 lbs.: Shamil Abdurakhimov vs. Chris Daukaus – This is an intriguing Heavyweight scrap. Chris Daukaus has surprised a lot of people, having starched three tough opponents inside the octagon already. With solid striking and power, Daukaus has made it known he’s not to be reckoned with on the feet. However, Shamil Abdurakhimov can strike too. The Dagestani has won two of his last three victories via strikes. Abdurakhimov happens to have wrestling chops as well, often using it against foes who excel on the feet. Little known about Abdurakhimov, if not for the fight being five rounds, he would have handily beaten recent Interim title challenger Derrick Lewis.

As for a prediction, I’m going with Abdurakhimov. While red flags of inactivity and age are apparent, I believe Abdurakhimov brings forth a very underrated skillset. Abdurakhimov is by far the best striker Daukaus has faced. Throw in the fact that we’ve only seen one takedown attempt against the American in the UFC, and I’m not exactly sure what to make of his takedown defense. Abdurakhimov has only lost three of his eight fights in the UFC, two of which have come to top five ranked Heavyweights in Curtis Blaydes and the aforementioned Derrick Lewis. Now, it’s a very real possibility that Daukaus can continue his tear and flatline Abdurakhimov on the feet. However, I believe ‘Abrek’ is a cerebral fighter who exploits opponents’ weaknesses. I expect Abdurakhimov to mix in his striking and wrestling, ultimately defeating Daukaus via TKO.

125 lbs.: Roxanne Modafferi vs. Taila Santos – Originally, Roxanne Modafferi was set to fight the returning Tatiana Suarez. A much tougher fight, as the undefeated Suarez has literally run through her opponents with her ridiculous physical strength and excellent wrestling. However, make no mistake, Taila Santos is a tough fight for Modafferi as well. Boasting strength, powerful striking, wrestling and excellent top control, Santos has the skills to go far in the Flyweight division. A staple of said division is Modafferi, who has improved leaps in bounds since training with John Wood. Once riding a five-fight losing streak, Modafferi has transformed into a perennial top ten Flyweight.

As for a prediction, I have Santos winning. I believe the Brazilian has a strength advantage that should allow her to keep this fight upright, and methodically chop down ‘The Happy Warrior’ on the feet. Modafferi though can’t be counted out. In Modafferi’s last twelve fights with odds, she’s been an underdog. Modafferi has won six of those fights, including as a +600 underdog in one of them. However, while ‘The Happy Warrior’ has a tendency to make fights close, I believe Santos is just too strong and a way better striker to lose this fight. So with that said, I predict that Santos wins via decision.

UFC 266 Early ‘Prelims’ Card on ESPN+ (6 p.m. ET)

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170 lbs.: Uros Medic vs. Jalin Turner – This is an exciting fight and a definite contender for ‘Fight of the Night’. While it’s plausible it doesn’t last long, the potential for fireworks is ever so apparent. Uros Medic is an excellent striker, who throws combinations and attacks the body with vicious leg kicks. While the sample size is small, Medic currently is landing nearly 20 significant strikes a minute. Obviously a number that’s not sustainable, but a glimpse into the sheer output from the Rafael Cordiero product. Jalin Turner too lands with high output, often leaning on his jab. Standing at a staggering 6’3, with a 75.5’ reach, Turner has tremendous size for the division.

As for a prediction, I’m going with Medic. While Turner has fought the better competition, he has some vulnerabilities that don’t go unnoticed. For one, of Turner’s five losses, three have been via knockout. A lack there of striking defense is the culprit, as Turner is absorbing a little more than four significant strikes a minute. In Turner’s last fight, he allowed Brok Weaver to land often. Against a powerful striker like Medic, that will be Turner’s downfall. So with that said, I predict that Medic wins this fight via knockout.

185 lbs.: Cody Brundage vs. Nick Maximov – This should be a pure wrestling match, as both men fancy themselves as such. From the tape I’ve seen, Nick Maximov isn’t necessarily a great wrestler, more than he is a determined one. He offers little to no standup, often avoiding exchanging on the feet. Also, up until fighting Oscar Cota on DWCS, Maximov had fought four opponents with a combined record of 2-14. Not that Cody Brundage has fought top competition, but it’s been more appropriate with one coming up the ranks. A division II collegiate wrestler, Brundage is the more credentialed of the two. However, that doesn’t always mean the better MMA wrestler. The worry in this fight I have for Brundage is if he has the cardio to go a hard fifteen. Taking this fight on such short notice means a big weight cut, which is emotionally and physically draining in itself.

As for a prediction, and against my better judgement, I’m going to pick Cody Brundage. While I definitely see a scenario where he gasses out and Maximov takes over, I’m banking on Brundage to be the better wrestler and striker. As long as he has enough steam, I believe that Brundage can find a way to finish Maximov. I suppose my gripe with Maximov is he hasn’t faced anyone relevant yet and this is his real first test. So with that said, on a whim, I predict that Brundage wins via TKO.

170 lbs.: Martin Sano vs. Matthew Semelsberger – With the little tape I’ve seen of Martin Sano, he seems to be a grappler. Not really a high caliber one, but good enough to escape positions or throw up submissions. On the feet, Sano is an aggressive striker who wings punches with little to no technique. Now, given this tape is over four years old, it’s more of a mystery what to expect from Sano come Saturday. However, there is no mystery with Matthew Semelsberger’s game. He is a striker, who has excellent cardio and throws strikes at a high output. Boasting solid takedown defense and durability, Semelsberger has a bright future ahead.

As for a prediction, I have Semelsberger. Other than the wild card aspect of Sano, there is no reason to back him. Semelsberger is a solid fighter in his own right and I believe he is going to make quick work of this fight as he should. So with that, I predict Semelsberger wins via TKO.

145 lbs.: Omar Morales vs. Jonathan Pearce – This is an interesting clash of styles and a fight that has the ingredients to be an exciting one. Jonathan Pearce is a boxer and wrestler. Pearce has excellent cardio, using it to support the high pace and output he delivers in a fight. The one knock on Pearce is that he was rocked and finished by an old Joe Lauzon. While that fight was nearly two years ago, it’s a hard one to get out of the memory bank. Omar Morales is a pure striker, who has excellent takedown defense. Morales uses his whole arsenal on the feet, but often looks to chop down opponents with leg kicks. The knock on Morales though is a lack of output and accuracy. Thus far, being the cerebral fighter he is, Morales has only lost once in four UFC fights.

As for a prediction, I have Morales winning. While I believe that Pearce has the abilities to make this fight sloppy and win off activity, I more so liken Morales’ ability to keep this fight upright and chop down Pearce on the feet. The output of Morales needs to improve, but the aggressiveness of Pearce should allow the Venezuelan to crack ‘JSP’ with counters. In the end, I foresee Morales finishing Pearce in the third round via TKO.

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