Fresh from ending the championship drought that lasted for more than 50 years, the city of Cleveland will finally welcome the UFC to town this weekend with heavyweight king Stipe Miocic making the first defense of his title against top ranked contender Alistair Overeem.
Miocic won the belt back in May with a stunning first round knockout over Fabricio Werdum while Overeem has won his last four fights, including knockouts over former champions Junior dos Santos and Andrei Arlovski in consecutive bouts.
In addition to the title fight main event, Werdum will also get back in action as he faces heavy-hitting heavyweight Travis Browne, while former WWE superstar turned UFC hopeful CM Punk makes his long awaited debut against 2-0 welterweight Mickey Gall.
In today's fantasy preview, we're going to examine some of these fights to see who has the edge going into Saturday night and if there might be an upset brewing on the card as UFC 203: Miocic vs. Overeem heads to Cleveland.
These are the fights that are just too close to call, but a few minor differences between favorite and underdog could lead one fighter to victory and the other to defeat.
Stipe Miocic (-135 favorite) vs. Alistair Overeem (+115 underdog)
The heavyweight main event has all the makings of an explosive battle between two knockout strikers that could last 30 seconds or 25 minutes, and that's what makes it a nearly impossible pick to make. Miocic is an outstanding boxer with very quick footwork and dynamite in his hands, while Overeem is arguably the best kickboxer to ever step foot in the Octagon thanks to an arsenal of weapons that range from technical punching combinations to flying knees and kicks that come from every angle.
While Miocic is best known for his hands, the former Cleveland State wrestler also has a very good ground game that he can show off at any time. Miocic averages over two takedowns per 15 minutes in the cage, so he's more than happy to put this fight on the ground, where he can control Overeem with superior wrestling. On the feet, Miocic is a volume striker, which can be a rarity amongst heavyweight fighters. He averages just under five significant strikes landed per minute with over 50 percent accuracy. Of course, playing the striking game with Overeem can be hazardous to your health, especially considering he has a high output with even better accuracy at just over 60 percent when he's standing.
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It's not fair to say this fight really could come down to who lands first, but that's how good and how powerful Miocic and Overeem will be coming into this fight. Miocic has to show confidence in the face of a lot of firepower coming from his opponent while Overeem can't get too cocky with his striking or he'll get buried under the Ohioan's fists before the first round is over. If there's one advantage Miocic maintains it's the fact that he's been in some serious battles in recent fights and his chin is rock solid. Miocic probably doesn't want to eat too many shots from Overeem, but he's shown the kind of durability to weather a storm, and that could play into his favor if these two engage in a firefight.
Overeem is a veteran and he's no stranger to big exchanges, but he's suffered more knockouts during his career and Miocic has the kind of fight altering power that could find out just how much damage he's willing to take before crumbling to the mat. With a hometown crowd behind him, Miocic should find a way to surprise Overeem with some kind of fight ending combination that will keep the title in Cleveland for at least one more night.
Prediction: Stipe Miocic by KO, Round 3
Fabricio Werdum (-210 favorite) vs. Travis Browne (+175 underdog)
Fabricio Werdum returns from a knockout loss to Miocic in his last fight as he faces familiar foe Travis Browne, who is looking for redemption from their previous bout in 2014 as well as his own loss at UFC 200 to former champion Cain Velasquez.
Ahead of their first fight, most predicted that Werdum would look for a ground battle while Browne would try to keep thing standing, but it certainly didn't play out that way. Werdum showed off an incredibly technical boxing game that befuddled Browne at every turn and the big Hawaiian simply had no answer to his opponent's superior striking over five rounds. Werdum needs to stick to that game plan again if he wants to topple Browne and return to the win column at UFC 203.
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During his streak to win the heavyweight title, Werdum showed incredible patience while attacking his opponents on the feet with a wide variety of strikes he learned under the tutelage of famed trainer Rafael Cordeiro. Werdum never got overly aggressive and instead stuck to a sound strategy to land stiff jabs from the outside until it was time to explode with a big fight finishing combination. He went away from that in the loss to Miocic and he can't do that again and expect to beat Browne on Saturday night.
For Browne, the key is dragging Werdum into a dogfight and never allowing the Brazilian to sit back in the pocket where he's most comfortable. Browne has to be willing to draw Werdum into deep waters with big exchanges while also looking to maul him against the cage. Browne has a tall frame where he's able to rain down elbows from above when he's against the cage, and bullying Werdum to make him uncomfortable in those exchanges will go a long way towards victory.
Still, the problems Browne had with Werdum in the first fight still exist. Unless Werdum gets overzealous looking for a highlight reel finish, he should be able to frustrate Browne with his superior boxing over the course of three rounds. It might not be flashy, but it will get the job done.
Prediction: Fabricio Werdum by unanimous decision
Jessica Andrade vs. Joanne Calderwood
This strawweight matchup between Jessica Andrade and Joanne Calderwood may end up being the fight that steals the whole show because both of them are known as knockout strikers with a huge arsenal of weapons that will be unleashed when they meet in the center of the Octagon.
Andrade made a thunderous debut at 115 pounds when she dispatched former title challenger Jessica Penne in brutal fashion. The Brazilian is an extremely heavy-handed Muay Thai practitioner who always looks to overwhelm her opponents with a barrage of strikes that should remind you of John Lineker when he swarms on a fighter willing to trade punches with him. Andrade didn't seem to miss a step when she moved down to the lower weight class, and now she's the stronger fighter with a ton of power in her hands going against anybody in this division.
As for Calderwood, she put on her most impressive fight to date as she picked apart Valerie Letourneau earlier this year with a jaw dropping performance. Calderwood has always been regarded as one of the top strawweights in the promotion, but she had failed to live up to expectations until she unleashed a picture perfect outing against Letourneau. Teaming up with famed trainer Firas Zahabi has done wonders for Calderwood and she's spent another camp in Montreal, so that will bode well for her going into the bout with Andrade at UFC 203.
In terms of the matchup, Andrade is all about power and aggressiveness, so if she can trap Calderwood against the cage and start unleashing bombs, it could be a bad night for the Scottish strawweight. On the reverse side, if Calderwood can keep this fight in the middle of the Octagon while using her distance striking and deceptive kicking attacks, she could give Andrade nightmares by the time the third round begins. The real question is whether or not Andrade can adjust to a fight that doesn't go her way early and if she can maintain a gas tank late. Calderwood is a proven warrior who can endure some punishment to dish out even more of her own, and if she's on point like the last fight against Letourneau, she could be en route to another big victory in Cleveland.
Prediction: Joanne Calderwood by unanimous decision
Another potential Fight of the Night comes in the women's bantamweight division, as Jessica Eye takes on Bethe Correia in a bout that has to be seen as a must win for both fighters after recent losses. Eye and Correia are extremely evenly matched, especially considering they both typically look to use fast footwork and quick hands to damage their opponents on the feet.
Correia lands with incredible volume while hitting her opponents with 5.7 significant strikes per minute with over 50 percent accuracy. Meanwhile, Eye fires back with 3.5 strikes landed per minute with just under 40 percent accuracy. Neither fighter has shown great defense on the feet, so it really comes down to who can land the quicker combinations with better accuracy round after round in this one.
When she's at her best, Eye is a fierce boxer with lightning quick reaction time and an incredible stiff jab that she can follow with power punches behind it. Eye is at her best when she's landing with rapid fire combinations while not sitting in the pocket to get caught up into big exchanges. Now the same could easily be said about Correia as well, but she doesn’t seem to land with the same kind of technical precision as her opponent, and that could hurt when it comes to the scorecards at the end of the fight.
Correia tends to brawl a little bit more in her fights, which leaves her open to strong counters, and Eye is more than capable of stinging her with two or three punches before exiting out again without receiving much punishment in return. Eye has faced stylistic nightmares in recent fights, with a trio of wrestlers accounting for three losses in a row, but knowing that Correia will likely not even think about a takedown should allow her to let her hands go, and that's a very good thing as the Ohio native tries to get a win in front of her hometown crowd.
Prediction: Jessica Eye by unanimous decision
These are the fights that appear to be a little more one-sided, but remember that this is MMA, where anything can - and usually does - happen.
Mickey Gall (-280 favorite) vs. CM Punk (+240 underdog)
There are a lot of unknowns for former WWE superstar CM Punk as he makes his UFC debut and that's part of the reason why Mickey Gall remains a solid favorite and a big pick going into their fight on Saturday night. Gall has shown what he can do through an amateur career and two professional fights, including his UFC debut back in February, when he made short work of Mike Jackson in less than a round. Gall is a very good Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner with power in his hands and he's been doing martial arts of one form or another for most of his life while dedicating himself to MMA for the past seven or eight years.
Punk is obviously stepping into this fight as a novice with no previous fight experience or training outside of some rudimentary grappling training that he did over the years. He's been working tirelessly with coach Duke Roufus over the past 18 months to get ready for this moment, but it's so hard to predict how much he's learned or what he'll look like when he finally steps into the Octagon with an opponent.
Those question marks, along with Punk's learning curve after no prior experience, make him a huge gamble going into this fight and Gall certainly looks like the kind of prospect who would have eventually made it to the UFC one day regardless of this bout coming together. That all adds up to a good start for Gall and a rough welcome for Punk when this fight is over.
Prediction: Mickey Gall by submission, Round 1
Urijah Faber vs. Jimmie Rivera
Statistics don't always tell the whole story going into any fight, but it's hard to ignore the gaudy record Urijah Faber has amassed in non-title bouts during his career. Faber has only fallen once when a title isn't on the line and that came over a year ago when he ventured up to 145 pounds for a special attraction fight against Frankie Edgar. Now Faber is looking to bounce back from a one-sided decision to bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz back in June so obviously, his motivation has to be taken into account, but the former WEC champion still has the ability to be a top five bantamweight and he'll look to prove that against rising star Jimmie Rivera at UFC 203.
Rivera has looked great through his first three fights in the UFC while going a perfect 3-0, but this will be a massive step up in competition for him. Rivera has shown well-rounded skills throughout his trio of wins, with nearly five significant strikes landed per minute while also mixing in takedowns throughout each of his performances. Rivera will definitely keep this fight close so Faber can't make any mistakes, but "The California Kid" just has the veteran experience to get the job done in a matchup like this.
Faber has shown good boxing over the years while also possessing one of the best submission arsenals in the division, especially when he gets caught in a scramble with an opponent on the ground or against the cage. Faber will actually have a slight height advantage over Rivera, which is a rarity in most of his fights, so he'll look to land strikes at range before swooping for a takedown to keep the New Jersey native guessing.
This fight won't be a blowout and it probably won't be a finish, but Faber has the veteran mentality to do enough to get the job done over three rounds to get the win.
Prediction: Urijah Faber by unanimous decision