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UFC 181 predictions

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The last pay-per-view event of the year (and arguably the best UFC card) takes place on Saturday with two titles up for grabs. Johny Hendricks return to action in the main event to defend his welterweight belt against the man he first beat to earn it while Anthony Pettis is done with his injury layoff and must defeat Gilbert Melendez to keep his lightweight straight.

Will Hendricks repeat against Lawler? Is Pettis up to the challenge of defeating Melendez? I answer these questions and more with my predictions for Saturday's fights.

What: UFC 181: Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler 2

Where: Mandalay Bay Events Center, Las Vegas, Nev.

When: Saturday, the two-fight Fight Pass card starts at 7 p.m. ET, the four-fight Fox Sports 1 main card starts at 8 p.m. and the five-fight pay-per-view card kicks off 10 p.m.

Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler

We often talk of excuses as something inherently negative, but that's not fair. Sometimes excuses are actually explanatory and help us to understand circumstances much better. Perhaps that's rare, but it can't be ignored. For me, Hendricks' bicep injury can't be dismissed. He never looked like he had the same reaction time or offensive tools as he did in the GSP fight. That's to be expected somewhat since he fought Lawler, not GSP, but the point is this: I don't think Hendricks was at his full capacity to mix up his offense in their first outing, which I believe made the bout closer than it ordinarily would have been. This time I think it'll be close, but with more separation between the two and Hendricks retaining his title.

Pick: Hendricks

Anthony Pettis vs. Gilbert Melendez

It's hard to pick against anyone in this fight, but I'll do my best. I'm siding with the champ for two reasons. First, I believe he'll be able to fight better at range. From throwing confusing kicks to pumping his jab, Pettis doesn't need huge windows to land devastating damage. I don't think he'll be able to fight off all of Melendez's takedown attempts, but he won't need to. Second, Pettis is simply an underrated tactician. His fight IQ is deeply underrated. Talk of his flashy ability is often wrapped up in something that just 'happens' without Pettis' conscious thought. The fact is all of it is both reflexive and considered judgement. He can make split second calls as well as think through problems over the course of a bout to solve them. I'm not saying Melendez can't do that as well, but I do question his ability to score as much damage as Pettis can unleash in such narrow windows.

Pick: Pettis

Travis Browne vs. Brendan Schaub

We always dismiss psychological battles between fighters as little more than trumped up literary narrative to a fight, but it's often a very real thing. That's certainly true with Browne, who lives and dies in his own mind. I don't necessarily think Schaub is intimidated, but I do believe Browne's extreme confidence helps him perform better. When he's confident going into a fight, he's hard to stop. It really does manifest itself in technique. As for how their skills match-up, Browne should be able to stop most of Schaub's takedown attempts while striking from distance. If Werdum had issues submitting Browne on the floor, Schaub has no hope. More importantly, Schaub might fight conservatively as the fight goes on, giving Browne's push for offense all the room it needs to breathe.

Pick: Browne

Todd Duffee vs. Anthony Hamilton

This is a fair amount of speculation on my part. We haven't seen enough of Duffee to really get a strong grasp on where he is today and how he's coping with his physical condition. That said, Hamilton does not seem to possess the requisite skills even with a baseline take on Duffee's ability. Hamilton can wrestle, but Duffee typically has sufficient takedown defense. More importantly, Duffee has meaningful offense on the feet, something Hamilton does not. Hamilton also gasses early, something which makes picking him to win not possible here.

Pick: Duffee

Tony Ferguson vs. Abel Trujillo

Ferguson is the more skilled of these two. He can do what Trujillo does, namely, hit hard and wrestle with authority when he wants to, even if their frames couldn't look more different. Yet, Ferguson can go to the next step. He can submit from a variety of positions, work from the clinch and has crisper technique from the outside. I do have concerns that Ferguson's willingness to take risks could cost him here, but even with them, he should still be able to pull out a decision victory.

Pick: Ferguson

From the preliminary card:

Urijah Faber def. Francisco Rivera
Josh Samman def. Eddie Gordon
Corey Anderson def. Justin Jones
Raquel Pennington def. Ashlee Evans-Smith
Sergio Pettis def. Matt Hobar
Alex White def. Clay Collard

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