Cynthia Calvillo (-260) vs. Carla Esparza (+200)
Calvillo vs. Esparza is a pivotal matchup that will propel the winner right into title contention. Both women love to grapple and often display underrated technique in BJJ exchanges. Esparza is the former champion but has experienced a rocky road since losing the belt to JJ. Calvillo is a young Alpha Male prospect who caught my eye when she took Amanda Cooper’s back from under north-south, a maneuver that requires high flexibility and grappling familiarity. Calvillo has a tremendous amount of momentum going into this fight which leads me to believe she will pull out the submission finish. Carla Esparza is a tough, game fighter, but I believe Calvillo’s ever improving game under Urijah Faber and company will be too much for the “Cookie Monster” Esparza.
Carlos Condit (-165) vs. Neil Magny (+135)
Neil Magny really is the perfect welcome back fight for the “Natural Born Killer”. Condit is a veteran fighter who is able to chain combinations together in vicious and creative ways. His fluid striking has led to many memorable scraps and finishes in the UFC. Some of his notable moments in his illustrious career include dropping the great GSP with a head kick in their title fight, smashing Dong Hyun Kim with a flying knee a la Remy Bonjasky, and engaging the gladiator Robbie Lawler in one of the greatest single rounds in the history of the entire organization. Neil Magny is a very long fighter with crisp hands and great cardio. Magny is the first fighter that is longer than Carlos Condit with a three inch reach advantage and one inch height advantage. Magny needs to stick Carlos with his jab and stay very mobile to avoid the kicks of Condit. However, Condit is the better pure striker of the two and has a strong guard as well. Ultimately, this fight comes down to where Condit’s head is at at this point in his career. He is coming off tough losses to Demian Maia and Robbie Lawler, the latter in a title fight many believe Condit should have won. With two cracks at the title already and many injuries, I can’t help but wonder if Condit still has the hunger to become champion and how the doubt he has will translate into his game. Hopefully the year off allowed him to clear his head and focus on training that will enable him to still hang with the elite at welterweight. It is Condit’s fight to lose and I believe he will find a way to defeat the inferior fighter in Magny.
Khabib Nurmagomedov (-300) vs. Edson Barboza (+230)
This title eliminator fight is a throwback to the early days of the UFC in which two specialists in their respective fields were put against each other with little ability in the other’s world. Khabib Nurmagomedov is a sambo (Russian grappling) master who has ragdolled every poor soul who has crossed his path in the Octagon. His technical yet savage beatdowns have made him on of the most feared fighters in the entire lightweight division. He is unbelievably strong and utilizes strategic pins on the ground to make sure that his victim, I mean opponent, doesn’t get up. Nurmagomedov truly has succeeded Fedor Emelianenko as the “emotionless Russian badass who simply does not lose”. However, Khabib will face his biggest challenge yet in Edson Barboza. Barboza is a Muay Thai phenom who is the only fighter in UFC history to win two bouts by leg kick TKO. He is the best “kicker” in the promotion currently and has many infamous finishes such as the Dariush flying knee or the Terry Etim wheel kick that paralyzed him before he hit the ground. This matchup is particularly intriguing because of how both of them play into each other’s strengths. While Nurmagomedov does have power, his striking is easily the weakest aspect of his game. He employs a lunging style that leaves him very vulnerable to counters. If he uses sloppy striking like he has in the past, Edson Barboza will have a field day with him. The striking discrepancy is so large that if they are at range, Khabib should only play defense. He needs to really keep the pressure on Barboza and not give him the room he needs to fire off his attacks. The smothering style Khabib used on Rafael dos Anjos so effectively was similar to the forward pressure Tony Ferguson used on Barboza to defeat him by submission. Ferguson constantly being in Barboza’s face caused him to gas out and not land as many powerful kicks. Michael Johnson used this strategy on Barboza as well. This method will enable Khabib to get the clinch on Barboza which will inevitably lead to the takedown. Once Khabib gets him on the ground, it is basically over for Barboza. He is a notoriously weak grappler and will stand no chance on the ground against a grappling master like Nurmagomedov. On the other hand, Barboza can very easily win this fight as well. Edson has been working with Mark Henry in the Northeast and has access to many strong wrestlers to train with like Frankie Edgar and Eddie Alvarez. He needs to be kicking Khabib’s legs right out the gate to diminish the power of the takedown attempts. Barboza needs to keep the fight fast paced and defend the takedowns with purpose. His Dariush win could translate well into this fight. Barboza saw tells that Dariush was giving any time he change his level to try to hit the double leg takedown. Eventually, Edson saw the fake jabs Dariush was throwing and Dariush ducked into a knee when he was dropping for the takedown. These reads that Barboza makes will be essential in getting the knockout win if Khabib takes a careless shot. Barboza needs to stay calm and efficient with his energy, sticking to high percentage striking and letting the knockout happen naturally rather than forcing it. This fight comes down to who can keep the fight in their comfort zone and mitigate the advantages of the other. If Barboza fights smart, he should clean up. If Khabib fights smart, he should clean up. I have a hunch Barboza will win by knockout, but one does not win twenty four fights in a row for nothing.
Cris Cyborg (-360) vs. Holly Holm (+270)
The main event of this card should be sensational. Cris Cyborg is one of the most violent women on the planet and has annihilated every opponent she has faced in Invicta, Strikeforce, and the UFC. Her reckless and aggressive style is reminiscent of vintage Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio Rua in PRIDE FC. Most women simply can’t deal with Cyborg’s herculean strength and size which allows her to do basically whatever she wants, whenever she wants. Holly Holm is easily the best fighter Cris Cyborg has ever fought. She is a multiple time boxing and kickboxing champion who famously captured UFC gold by starching the Edmond Tarverdyan protege Ronda Rousey with a head kick. Holm arguably won the featherweight belt already after a controversial fight against Germaine de Randamie in which many fans believed she had done enough to get the nod. Holm is a counter striker through and through who waits for her opponents to create openings that she capitalizes on with powerful kicks and short punches. She needs to use all of her striking tools in order to defeat Cyborg. Holm will look to use side kicks and oblique kicks to try to suppress the onslaught of Cris Cyborg early on. Holm most likely believes Cris Cyborg’s gas tank suffers from the massive amount of weight that she cuts. Holly needs to drag Cris to deep waters in the fourth and fifth round for any chance of a finish, although a decision is the probable way Holm wins the fight. Cyborg exercised a calculated aggression in her last fight against Tonya Evinger that will work quite well against Holm. Cyborg needs to keep Holm backed up against the fence and constantly put pressure on her to negate the kicks.This should be fairly easy as Holm backs up like most Jackson Wink fighters. A takedown would be beneficial for Cyborg as she is the much superior grappler and naturally stronger woman. From there she can lay on some nasty ground and pound that can lead to the finish either on the feet or on the ground. While Holm does have a chance to beat Cyborg (more than any woman so far), I believe Cyborg will impose her will and will win by TKO.