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UFC Nashville predictions

Don’t look now, but we might just have a pair of fresh title challengers by the end of this weekend.

UFC Nashville has been flying low under the grim shadow of Jake Paul vs. Nate Diaz, but this is no throwaway UFC APEX card, this is a legitimate lineup with real stakes. That’s not something to be taken for granted in the fast food era of combat sports that we’re living in.

Let’s start with the main event. Not only is it a surefire banger between two of bantamweight’s best, Cory Sandhagen and Rob Font, it could give us a No. 1 contender at 135 pounds. Champion Aljamain Sterling defends his title against Sean O’Malley later this month and Sterling has said that he may move up to featherweight after, making either Sandhagen or Font a strong candidate to be one half of a vacant title fight; that, or a fresh challenger for whoever walks out of UFC 292 with the belt.

The picture is a little murkier for co-headliners Jessica Andrade and Tatiana Suarez. UFC strawweight champion Zhang Weili will also be in action at UFC 292 where she defends against Amanda Lemos, but she seemingly has a challenger in waiting in fellow Chinese star Yan Xiaonan who recently made short work of Andrade. Add in the fact that this is Suarez’s first fight at 115 pounds since returning from a long injury layoff, and no matter who wins it feels like Andrade and Suarez are still one fight away from a championship shot.

In other main card action, light heavyweight veteran Dustin Jacoby looks to slow the streaking Kennedy Nzechukwu, impressive newcomer Diego Lopes welcomes Gavin Tucker back to action in a featherweight bout, Tanner Boser gets a second chance to make a first impression at light heavyweight when he fights the returning Aleksa Camur, and lightweight finishers Ignacio Bahamondes and Ludovit Klein open the show.

What: UFC Nashville

Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.

When: Saturday, Aug. 5. The six-fight preliminary card begins at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+, followed by a six-fight main card at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+.

(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings)

Cory Sandhagen vs. Rob Font

Cory Sandhagen has had more success against top-tier competition than Rob Font, which explains why he’s a comfortable favorite at -345 according to Draft Kings, but I don’t think the gap between them is that large. I understand why the line is where it is, I just don’t necessarily agree with it.

For me, it comes down to Sandhagen peaking at the right time in his career and being significantly younger than Font (Sandhagen is 31, Font is 36). That matters in a five-round fight, especially one that is expected to be a fast-paced affair. Sandhagen pushes the pace more to my liking and he brings a nastiness that few can match at 135 pounds, including Font.

Font is more than a match for Sandhagen when it comes to pure boxing. In his most recent win, he out-struck and put away Adrian Yanez, someone who I consider to have some of the best hands in all of MMA. So that’s a game that Sandhagen won’t want to play for long. A little mixing of the martial arts is necessary to keep Font off balance, not to mention having the capacity to out-damage him, which Sandhagen is more than capable of.

Sandhagen deserves another shot at that bantamweight title. I have him finishing Font via strikes in Round 3 to cement his case.

Pick: Sandhagen

Jessica Andrade vs. Tatiana Suarez

I’m as big a Jessica Andrade fan as anyone and am in awe that she’s making her fourth appearance of 2023 already, with every one of those fights coming against top 10-ranked opposition. Add in the fact that Andrade has been on the wrong end of a couple of past finishes, and it’s surprising that she hasn’t taken more time off to recover and retool. She’s a legitimate contender at 115 pounds still, so seeing her rush into these opportunities is also kind of a head-scratcher.

Doubly so when you consider who she’s going up against on Saturday, the undefeated Tatiana Suarez. It’s not a stretch at all to say that Suarez would have already challenged for UFC gold and likely won it had injuries not kept her on the shelf for the better part of the past four years. Her win over Montana De La Rosa in a flyweight bout this past February showed she hasn’t lost a step and her return to the strawweight division should be just as impressive.

Andrade has the classic puncher’s chance, but she hasn’t fared well against larger, more powerful grapplers. Erin Blanchfield drubbed her and Valentina Shevchenko dominated her on the ground. Suarez is the best pure wrestler out of all three of them and she’s not going to give Andrade a second to get her offense going.

I’m not ready to crown Suarez as the indomitable strawweight queen just yet (Zhang Weili will give her a hell of a fight), but she’ll submit Andrade in the first or second round to make an emphatic statement.

Pick: Suarez

Dustin Jacoby vs. Kennedy Nzechukwu

This is a good matchup for Dustin Jacoby with Kennedy Nzechukwu likely to be more than willing to engage in a standup war with the former Glory Kickboxing competitor. Where Jacoby will have problems is with Nzechukwu’s size and sheer physicality. Nzechukwu brings an 83-inch reach into this fight and has developed rapidly since being signed from the Contender Series five years ago.

All the tools are there for Nzechukwu to be a major player light heavyweight, though he has flaws. Notably, he has a tendency to get in trouble early in fights, which isn’t ideal in any situation much less against a dangerous striker like Jacoby. He’ll have to getting caught by a Jacoby counter on Saturday because unlike his past two opponents, the more methodical Jacoby won’t gas himself out going for a finish.

Still, the Nzechukwu hype train is too intriguing to bail on now, so I like him to get off to a better start than usual before finding a finish in the second round.

Pick: Nzechukwu

Diego Lopes vs. Gavin Tucker

Let me say right off the bat, I think Diego Lopes is being slightly overrated after a lively outing against Movsar Evloev. Yes, he gave Evloev a stiff test in the first half of their fight, but let’s not forget that Lopes still lost. There’s no shame in dropping a decision to Evloev, I just don’t want people conflating a valiant effort with Lopes being some kind of world beater.

That said, I’m sill picking him here, because Gavin Tucker has a lot to prove in his first fight since March 2021. He’s had some excellent wins in his UFC career, but he turned 37 this past June and that kind of layoff rarely works out well for fighters looking to stay relevant in the fast-moving featherweight division.

Lopes has a healthy size advantage too and if he gets this fight to the ground, he’ll maul Tucker. I know I’m harping on Lopes’ physical advantages a lot, but that’s going to be a major factor here, fair or not. Look for the younger Lopez to assert himself early and then pull out a submission in Round 2.

Pick: Lopes

Tanner Boser vs. Aleksa Camur

The good news for Tanner Boser: His sophomore appearance at 205 pounds can’t go worse than his debut, right?

Known for his evasiveness at heavyweight, Boser could not get out of the way of any of Ion Cutelaba’s power strikes in his new division and it cost him big time. This could be an inherent flaw dealing with speedier opponents in a lighter weight class or it could have just been a one-time blip. I’d also argue that he made a mistake letting a chaos merchant like Cutelaba lead the dance rather than attempt to beat him to the punch.

Boser needs to get back to having fun in there is what I’m saying. He’ll have that chance against Camur, another unorthodox opponent who can approach from some wacky angles. I am not expecting this matchup to produce a Fight of the Night-level contest (prove me wrong, fellas!), but it could be memorably weird, at least.

Boser by decision.

Pick: Boser

Ignacio Bahamondes vs. Ludovit Klein

UFC Nashville has a solid preliminary set and any of those matchups (Billy Quarantillo vs. Damon Jackson and Kyler Phillips vs. Raoni Barcelos in parciular) would make for a fine main card opener, but I’m glad Ignacio Bahamondes and Ludovit Klein were booked into this spot. They’re both fight finishers with creative striking, so this will be a treat for what will hopefully be a packed Bridgestone Arena by halftime.

Klein is one of the wildcards of the lightweight division, a hard-kicking Slovakian with questionable defense. He wants to get in there and throw down, which is an exciting and dangerous proposition for the 25-year-old Bahamondes. You can be sure he’s been dreaming of a $50,000 bonus ever since this one became official.

The edge goes to Bahamondes here as he has a ranginess and explosiveness that’s going to make him a tough out at 155 pounds for a long time. He’s still searching for consistency, but that will come with age and experience. For now, he has enough in the bag to win a crowd-pleasing battle with Klein.

Pick: Bahamondes

Kyler Phillips def. Raoni Barcelos

Carlston Harris def. Jeremiah Wells

Billy Quarantillo def. Damon Jackson

Jake Hadley def. Cody Durden

Sean Woodson def. Dennis Buzukja

Assu Almabayev def. Ode Osbourne

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