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UFC Fight Night 80 predictions

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The first of three UFC cards kicks off Thursday, this time with a Fight Pass card headlined by a hugely important women's strawweight bout. The card also features the return of Sage Northcutt and notable names like Aljamain Sterling, Jim Miller and more.

What: UFC Fight Night: Namajunas vs. VanZant

Where: The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas, Nevada

When: Thursday, the eight-fight Fight Pass card starts at 6:45 p.m. ET and the four-fight Fight Pass main card starts at 10 p.m.

Rose Namajunas vs. Paige VanZant

If I'm being honest, I really struggled with this pick. There's a clear case to be made for either fighter, but for very different reasons. For VanZant, she's technically rough around the edges, but never gives opposition a second to breathe. She likes close-quarters combat where she can physically push opposition around while unloading with an endless barrage of strikes or eventually set up a submission. Namajunas is many things, but she is not that. I don't think she minds fighting in close range, but is a smooth technician who tries to beat opponents with her wide array of technical skills. That, for me, is the difference. VanZant could melt just about anyone under the hot lights of her pressure game, but there's an argument to be made she makes too many mistakes for someone of Namajunas' caliber to overlook or miss. This is especially true in the grappling department where VanZant might be stronger, but doesn't know the intricacies of position like her opponent. If fighting is a game of who has more skills, I'm going with 'Thug'.

Pick: Namajunas

Jim Miller vs. Michael Chiesa

Another tough call, just like the main event. My initial call was to pick Miller, but now I'm not so sure. Chiesa doesn't have Miller's resume, but Miller's game - while still formidable - lacks a bit of the speed and strength it once held. Chiesa's not as technically polished, but a) he's still very adept and b) the pace he puts on can create havoc for someone with a few miles on them like Miller. Chiesa's bursts of offense or scrambling can often get him in more trouble. That's a risk against someone with shutdown positional control like Miller. Ultimately, though, I'm banking on the idea Chiesa's smoothed out a lot of the rough issues.

Pick: Chiesa

Sage Northcutt vs. Cody Pfister

There's no reason why Northcutt should lose this fight. Pfister slightly puts his game together more and has a bit more of a centrally-applied takedown and positional control game, but I'm not really sure that's going to matter. I don't have a clear sense of how Northcutt is going to win, which is admittedly a problem, but he's also a very green prospect. It's hard to say a whole lot about the direction of someone's offense at that stage.

Pick: Northcutt

Elias Theodorou vs. Thiago Santos

The betting favorite is Theodorou and I understand why. Santos' anti-wrestling is not great and Theodorou has the ability to drag this fight to the floor. Still, I just can't shake the idea Santos will be able to live on his feet long enough to do serious damage. His stand-up skills are ferocious and while wrestling has been a liability, it's also been incrementally improving. Maybe the Brazilian is taken down and submitted straight away. That's fighting, after all, where nothing is ever too certain or even too complicated. But my guess is it won't be so easy.

Pick: Santos

From the preliminary card:

Tim Means def. John Howard
Sergio Moraes def. Omari Akhmedov
Antonio Carlos Junior def. Kevin Casey
Aljamain Sterling def. Johnny Eduardo
Santiago Ponzinibbio def. Andreas Stahl
Danny Roberts def. Nathan Coy
Zubaira Tukhugov def. Phillipe Nover
Kailin Curran def. Emily Kagan