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UFC 196 predictions

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The fastest-rising sensation in the sport returns to action, but not in a bout he had planned. Conor McGregor headlines another UFC show and while it's in a new weight class, a change of opponent means no belt is on the line. Still, the co-main event features a title challenge with the woman who dethroned Ronda Rousey facing off against the woman who couldn't ever dethrone her.

What: UFC 196: McGregor vs. Diaz

Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada

When: Saturday, the three-fight Fight Pass preliminary card starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, the four-fight Fox Sports 1 preliminary card starts at 8 p.m. and the five-fight pay-per-view card kicks off at 10 p.m. ET.

Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz

MMA is crazy and unpredictable. For that reason, I never look at any fight's outcome too comfortably. Diaz's reach could be advantageous in ways we haven't considered. Perhaps McGregor makes a mistake we don't forsee. Diaz is an elite fighter and as such, I can't dismiss his chances of victory. In an already chaotic game, credentialed, highly-ranked talent have ways of having their might shine through.

That said, the smart pick of probability is McGregor. He looks big enough for the weight class and certainly seems spry. He has more energy and most importantly, a lot more preparation. He'll likely use angles, timing and negative space to make Diaz's linear attacks work against him. I don't know how quickly this will all come together for him, but his win seems as safe a prediction as any other in this very unpredictable game.

Pick: McGregor

More Coverage: UFC 196 Results | UFC news

Holly Holm vs. Miesha Tate

It's really hard to say how this fight is going to go. Will Holm be able to clinch break in ways she was against Ronda Rousey? That seems like a reasonable conclusion, but the truth is we don't know. Tate presents a takedown challenge unlike any of Holm's previous opponents. Tate is also durable, able to make adjustments and once on the floor, likely has a considerable advantage. On the feet, though, it's just too hard to bet against Holm at this point. Her ability to stick and move, avoid being cornered and break any tie-ups is spectacular. She'll need all of that against Tate, but should have enough to get it done.

Pick: Holm

Gian Villante vs. Ilir Latifi

I like the Swede here. It's true that when you watch Villante kick box, you see clear improvements. There is a general fluidity to his movement that wasn't there before. He can chain together combination attacks in way he was previously unable to do. But defensively, the loss to Tom Lawlor wasn't an accident. It appears that while his offensive capability has legitimately improved - and that makes him dangerous - he's still defensively vulnerable. Against a less polished striker, but one willing to take more risks like Latifi, that makes me a bit nervous.

Pick: Latifi

Corey Anderson vs. Tom Lawlor

I'm not the biggest believer in Anderson, generally, but Lawlor just seems a bit too outsized for sustained success in this light heavyweight class. He can wrestle well and showed in the Villante fight he's got big power, but over time, he's going to be ground down by guys who more naturally fit this weight class. Anderson, for all his shortcomings, is likely that guy. If he's thinking strategically, he'll likely push Lawlor up against the fence while he leans, pushes and pulls Lawlor into slow surrender. I don't know if this will be the prettiest fight. Lawlor also shouldn't be totally discounted, but chances are, this will be a fight where size matters.

Pick: Anderson

Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko

Shevchenko might be overwhelmed here. She definitely faded in her UFC debut down the stretch, but early on, she was tough to takedown, very strong in the clinch and had great base. Nunes' brawling style is tough to deal with early and can give anyone in the division problems. That said, Shevchenko has the tools to weather the storm, physically control Nunes, at least to some degree, en route to her slowly accumulating offense. Shevchenko faded in the third round of her last fight, but Nunes fades routinely. If the Thai boxing stylist can hang on early, this is her fight to lose.

Pick: Shevchenko

From the preliminary card:

Brandon Thatch def. Siyar Bahadurzada
Erick Silva def. Nordine Taleb
Vitor Miranda def. Marcelo Guimaraes
Chas Skelly def. Darren Elkins
Jim Miller def. Diego Sanchez
Jason Saggo def. Justin Salas
Julian Erosa def. Teruto Ishihara

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