The UFC returns to action Saturday with a pay-per-view card featuring the best bantamweight fighter on the planet, and two more bouts of consequence in the light heavyweight and welterweight divisions.
At 205 pounds, former Olympic wrestlers Dan Henderson and Daniel Cormier square off in a contest that has major title shot implications, at least for Cormier. In the welterweight division, former title challenger Robbie Lawler makes a quick turnaround from his loss to Johny Hendricks when he takes on hard-charging Jake Ellenberger. And, last but certainly not least, the best 135 pound-fighter on the planet in Renan Barao defends his title against Team Alpha Male's T.J. Dillashaw in the main event.
Will Barao's incredible unbeaten streak live on? Is this the moment Cormier becomes a title challenger? Can Lawler rebound so quickly? I answer these questions and more with my predictions for Saturday's fights.
What: UFC 173: Barao vs. Dillashaw
Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada
When: Saturday, the three-fight Fight Pass card starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, the four-fight Fox Sports 1 card starts at 8 p.m. and the five-fight main card starts on pay-per-view at 10 p.m.
Here's the thing with this bout and every Renan Barao fight. UFC brass have tried to make comparisons between Barao and Floyd Mayweather, Jr., but haven't really explained what the parallels are other than both win a lot. That's not a very helpful comparison. What might be more helpful -- and is the key to understanding Barao -- is that he is capable of strong, important adjustments between rounds when he fights to take away his opponent's offense. Everyone talks about him being well rounded, which he is, but what makes it special is that he's able to use it all in a much more effective, focused and efficient way.
I could sit here and tell you how something Dillashaw does is going to match up with Barao, but whatever that might be early, it won't be that late. Barao is eventually going to take it away from him. Early on, I can see a case where Dillashaw uses clean movement and tries to mix things up to keep Barao guessing. Eventually, though, I don't see how Dillashaw can follow whatever adjustments Barao makes against what Dillashaw shows him. I'm not sure how this bout is going to end, but it's borderline impossible for me to see a case where Dillashaw can keep up with Barao's ability to change.
Even with his considerable right hand, I have a hard time seeing how Henderson wins this. Cormier, despite formerly being a heavyweight, will likely still have the speed advantage. He's certainly the more explosive athlete. More importantly, he's also the fighter with a more versatile set of skills who employs them as needed in concerted game plans. He'll find a way to either take Henderson down or strike from the outside, move, and strike from the outside again. What he won't do is stay still. As long as that's the case, Henderson's chances of victory plummet.
I can see Ellenberger exploding early, cracking Lawler and dropping him to the canvas. Ellenberger has the power to put anyone's lights out. And maybe the turnaround from UFC 171 to now will prove too quickly for Lawler. I doubt it, though. Lawler's got enough distance management and defense (when he wants to use it) to prevent Ellenberger from taking an early lead as they're standing. His takedown defense has also shown itself to be quite formidable. Once Ellenberger slows down a notch, I suspect Lawler will be using all sort of forward pressure and heavy shots of his own. I don't know if he finishes Ellenberger, but I'm betting he'll control him.
This prediction is harder to make, but in the end, I have to side with the Japanese fighter. Look, Rivera is a skilled boxer and heavy puncher. Mizugaki is going to get lit up early and perhaps often. What's saved him, though, is his considerable ability to take a shot. Add to that his relentless pursuit of the takedown (of late, anyway) and one wonders just how much punching Rivera will be able to get off. Or, at least, how much punching he'll be able to put together long enough to matter. I expect this to be a close one, but I'm not confident Mizugaki is going to lose because he was getting too savagely knuckled up.
Four of five years ago, this pick would be totally different, but not this time. Varner's an absurdly good athlete, but he has prioritized something that was once his deadly ace in the hole: technical prowess. He's a technical fighter, yes, but he used to marry it with his athletic ability. Now he's much more wide open and willing to take all sorts of crazy risks. Krause, on the other hand, has made becoming a more technical fighter a chief priority. He's become an excellent counter puncher, something that's going to help him here. Varner can give any lightweight trouble, but I suspect he's eventually going to get chewed up by the savvier, more patient Krause.
From the preliminary card:
Michael Chiesa def. Francisco Trinaldo
Tony Ferguson def. Katsunori Kikuno
Chico Camus def. Chris Holdsworth
Al Iaquinta def. Mitch Clarke
Anthony Njokuani def. Vic Pichel
Sam Sicilia def. Aaron Phillips
David Michaud def. Jingliang Li