UFC 174 predictions

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

UFC returns to Canada with a card that, at least on paper, has a number of a very close contests. In the main event, UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson will attempt to defend his title against rising Dagestani Ali Bagautinov while in the co-main event, welterweights Tyron Woodley and Rory MacDonald battle to see who may be next in line for a title shot.

Will Johnson be able to get past the hard-hitting Bagautinov? Who is the better fighter: Woodley or MacDonald? I answer these questions and more with my predictions for Saturday's fights.

What: UFC 174: Johnson vs. Bagautinov

Where: Rogers Arena, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

When: Saturday, the two-fight Fight Pass card starts at 7 p.m. ET, the four-fight FX card starts at 8 p.m. and the five-fight main card starts on pay-per-view at 10 p.m.

Demetrious Johnson vs. Ali Bagautinov

What can Bagautinov do that Johnson hasn't seen or can't adjust around? That's the key question for me. Johnson has faced good wrestlers, heavy punchers and guys that blended both. Maybe they don't blend them quite as well as Bagautinov, but it's not really clear to me what is so menacing about his offense relative to what Johnson can do as a response. Sure, a nicely timed right straight from the Dagestani can put anyone's lights out in that weight class, but that aside? As the rounds tick on? I get the feeling Johnson is going to put it on him. Maybe not in the same way Johnson put it on John Moraga. Bagautinov seems more prepared for this level of competition, but if and when this goes past the third round, Johnson's adjustments are going to take away what Bagautinov does well, leaving him helpless and the mercy of Mighty Mouse's whims.

Pick: Johnson

Rory MacDonald vs. Tyron Woodley

Were this a five-round fight, I'd go with MacDonald. That it's not is a reminder of the unequal treatment of elite contender fights. Those that headline lesser shows get the fuller use of rounds they deserve, yet these sorts of bouts are also important for pay-per-view shows where they exist as appetizer for a main event. That means they're reduced to three-round contests. It seems like an unavoidable reality, but that doesn't make it any more palatable.

In a three-round fight, I suspect Woodley will be able to do enough in rounds one and two to hang on as long as he isn't put away in the third. He's proactive on offense and his wrestling is there to at least positionally control the Canadian Tri-Star product. Maybe MacDonald can surprise me and either earn a stoppage late or take two rounds from Woodley. He's certainly talented enough. The real shame, though, is that he's forced to do it in a context that doesn't match the weight of the bout.

Pick: Woodley

Ryan Bader vs. Rafael Cavalcante

This is a crazy close fight, at least on paper. It's also one of these fights you see ending very quickly and violently despite the odds being ultra close. I'm going to side with the Brazilian. He'll fade if the fight goes late, which is a serious knock on him. But I suspect he'll be able to stop takedowns long enough to land a bomb or two on the American - especially against the fence, where he excels at the practice - and that'll be enough to move this fight card along.

Pick: Cavalcante

Andrei Arlovski vs. Brendan Schaub

I'm not sure emotions are tools of cognition, but I do get a funny feeling about this one. Hear me out for a second. Is it the craziest idea in the world to think Arlovski, whose takedown defense remains good, could stuff some of Schaub's takedown attempts, frustrate the former football player and lure him into exchanging? I don't think that's so far fetched.

The rational side of your brain tells you 'Arlovski is on the way down + Schaub has been in the UFC for some time = Schaub will win.' And maybe that's all the (superficial) analysis we need. For some reason, I just can't bring myself to pick Arlovski. I also don't think it'd be at all surprising if Arlovski was able to use what's left of his talents against a guy who seems vulnerable to them even if the two are far apart in terms of stature in their present day careers.

Pick: Schaub

Ovince St. Preux vs. Ryan Jimmo

I can see a reasonable case for either fighter. OSP can be clumsy with his offense at times, which leaves him open to more patient. Jimmo, on the other hand, is likely to react to OSP's more proactive offense. And that, for me, is probably enough to side with the former football player. MMA is a game where attacking first and consistently makes a dramatic difference in outcomes. Jimmo isn't less talented than OSP, but it won't behoove him to find his opportunities off of counters. Very few fighters, e.g. Lyoto Machida, can exact that strategy to great effect. Jimmo is not one of them, at least not here.

Pick: OSP

From the preliminary card:

Daniel Sarafian def. Kiichi Kinimoto 
Elizabeth Philips def. Valerie Latourneau
Mike Easton def. Yves Jabouin
Kajan Johnson def. Tae Hyun Bang
Roland Delorme def. Michinori Tanaka
Jason Saggo def. Josh Shockley

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