The UFC will return to Mexico City this weekend with a flyweight fight at the top of the card that could have title implications on the line, as Sergio Pettis takes on rising star Brandon Moreno in the main event.
Since his appearance on season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter, Moreno has been one of the most stunning surprises in the UFC, as he’s put a string of wins under his belt, including victories over top 15 fighters. Now Moreno stands possibly only a fight or two away from a shot at the title, but he's going to have to get through Pettis, who has looked better than ever in his last few fights.
In the co-main event, former Ultimate Fighter competitor Randa Markos looks to build on her win over former champion Carla Esparza when she takes on top-rated prospect Alexa Grasso, who will attempt to bounce back from the first loss of her professional career.
Former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans will also return in Mexico City for his second appearance at 185 pounds when he takes on heavy-handed knockout artist Sam Alvey.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine these matchups and several more to see who has the edge going into Saturday night and who might be primed for an upset at UFC Fight Night: Pettis vs. Moreno.
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.
Sergio Pettis vs. Brandon Moreno
Since arriving in the UFC by way of The Ultimate Fighter season 24, Brandon Moreno has been one of the fastest rising stars on the roster, but he'll face his toughest test to date when he takes on Sergio Pettis.
Pettis is a top-notch striker who has largely grown up inside the Octagon after first arriving in the UFC as a highly touted prospect and the younger brother of former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis. While he's suffered through some ups and downs in his career, Pettis has really turned the corner in his last three fights, where he's finally started to put together his complete mixed martial arts game. Of course, Pettis is best known for his kickboxing, honed under head coach Duke Roufus, but that's no longer the only way he's going to win a fight.
Pettis is actually averaging just under two takedowns per 15 minutes in the Octagon while also showcasing very good wrestling defense as well. He'll probably need that against Moreno, who has been at his best when he's engaging with an opponent in the clinch or from the takedown, where he always seems to take advantage of a scramble to lock on a fight-finishing submission.
Moreno is no slouch on the feet either, although he's a little more unorthodox than the technically-sound Pettis. Moreno actually matches Pettis in output with strikes landed and accuracy on the feet and has shown better defense than his opponent. That being said, Moreno would be smart not to try and engage in a striking contest with Pettis because that's more than likely his quickest path to defeat. Instead, Moreno should stick to his high intensity style, where he pushes his opponents with takedowns, submission attempts and an unusual approach on the feet that's a little awkward but always effective.
As for Pettis, he's shaken off the early hype that surrounded him and put too much pressure on his shoulders. Now he's found confidence in his striking, his wrestling and in his ability to control the fight wherever it goes. That experience goes a long way, especially in a five-round main event fight like this. If Pettis can continue to show the poise that he's had in his last few victories, he could definitely outpoint Moreno on the feet and possibly even land a couple of knockdowns en route to a victory.
Pettis has to be wary of Moreno's scrappy ability to drag a fight into deep waters, where he excels at taking advantage of a single mistake from his opponents. As long as Pettis sticks to a game plan and keeps Moreno at a distance in order to apply his world-class kickboxing, he should be able to secure the win and potentially put himself into position for a title shot in the near future.
Prediction: Sergio Pettis by unanimous decision
Randa Markos vs. Alexa Grasso
Former Ultimate Fighter competitor Randa Markos will step into enemy territory when facing top prospect Alexa Grasso in a strawweight battle this weekend.
Markos is coming off the biggest victory of her career over former champion Carla Esparza, which put her UFC record at 3-3 after bouncing back and forth between wins and losses since leaving the reality show. If Markos hopes to climb up the rankings, she needs to secure a win over Grasso on Saturday night to finally put together a streak that will put her in the title fight conversation one day. The talent is certainly there, as Markos possesses a strong wrestling base with a tough-as-nails striking style on the feet where she's not the most technical fighter but certainly packs a serious punch.
Grasso came into the UFC with a ton of hype behind her after going undefeated during the early part of her career while competing in promotions like Invicta FC. Grasso is a very exciting strawweight who keeps a very active pace with just under five significant strikes landed per minute. Grasso has also shown solid defense both standing and when stopping takedowns from her two opponents inside the Octagon. Grasso will need to use both of those weapons against Markos, who will undoubtedly press forward and either look to win inside the clinch or take this fight to the ground.
Markos is an incredible pressure fighter who loves nothing more than to put her opponents into uncomfortable situations on the feet or on the ground. She needs to make this a dogfight and prevent Grasso from every getting set with her strikes. If Markos can force Grasso to fight her fight, where she's punishing on the feet and then relentless with her takedown attempts, she should be able to work her way to a second straight victory.
Prediction: Randa Markos by unanimous decision
Perhaps the toughest fight on the entire card to pick will be this welterweight matchup between Alan Jouban and Niko Price.
Price has been a very pleasant discovery since joining the UFC roster, as he's put on two rousing performances in a row, including a submission over Brandon Thatch in his debut. He'll definitely face his toughest test to date in Jouban, who has won three of his past four fights while always finding a way to put on an exciting affair.
Jouban is at his best when he's striking with an opponent and keeping the pressure on them rather than the reverse. Jouban likes to push forward with a grueling pace while landing five significant strikes per minute at an over 52 percent accuracy clip. Of course, Jouban has to be wary of Price's power, as the Floridian has knocked out seven past opponents.
Price is slightly more well rounded, with knockout power on the feet and a complimentary ground game where he's already averaging more than two submission attempts per 15 minutes in the Octagon. Price will also enjoy a three-inch reach advantage, which should serve him well when taking on a striker like Jouban. The key for Price is setting the pace and not allowing Jouban to get comfortable in his combinations. Both Gunnar Nelson and Albert Tumenov put the pressure on Jouban and he stumbled during both of those outings, so Price should look at that blueprint if he wants to get the win.
That being said, Jouban is very good at what he does and as long as he can avoid eating a big bomb from Price, he has a style that can be hard to deal with over three rounds. Jouban lands with volume and accuracy, and his movement can usually keep him out of trouble from counter shots. As long as Jouban stays on the attack, he should be able to earn the victory in what could be a Fight of the Night against Price.
Prediction: Alan Jouban by split 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.
Martin Bravo vs. Humberto Bandenay
Fresh off his win on The Ultimate Fighter Latin America, undefeated prospect Martin Bravo gets back to work this weekend as he takes on newcomer Humberto Bandenay.
Bandenay comes to the UFC with a respectable 13-4 record with finishes in all five of his most recent wins. Bandenay is an explosive fighter who always looks to put his opponents away, and he'll certainly try to do that again when he steps into the Octagon for the first time.
Unfortunately, it's Bandenay's aggressive style that may give Bravo the opening he needs to snatch away the victory. Bravo is a very well rounded mixed martial artist with lightning quick hands and a very slick submission game. Bravo pushes a relentless pace and considering this is Bandenay's debut, he may just wait for the UFC rookie to exert too much energy early before putting him away late. Bravo is not only very skilled for his age in the sport, but he's also very composed in tough situations, which should serve him well against someone like Bandenay, who will push forward looking for the finish.
As long as Bravo can survive those early flurries, he should be able to outwork and eventually catch Bandenay with strikes or a submission to earn his 12th career victory.
Prediction: Martin Bravo by submission, Round 3
Sam Alvey vs. Rashad Evans
Sam Alvey will look to get back in the win column when he faces former champion Rashad Evans this weekend in his second fight in the middleweight division.
Alvey has proven to be one of the most exciting finishers in the middleweight division, with a heavy-handed style that often leads to thrilling knockouts. Alvey hits like a truck while landing over three significant strikes per minute with very good accuracy at 46 percent. Alvey does tend to get hit a little bit too much, which could play into Evans' quick striking style that consists of a very dangerous jab and knockout power from his right hand.
Evans is also a top-notch wrestler, and it's that grappling that could serve him well in this fight as he may try to catch Alvey off guard with a few takedowns to negate some of his opponent's power. If Alvey gets over concerned about defending Evans' wrestling, it could open up some spots on the feet for the former champion to land some fight-ending strikes.
Still, Alvey's ability to land with power and volume should give him the edge in this fight. Evans has been very up and down recently, and it's impossible to predict whether or not he'll be able to turn things around after a very uneven performance in his last outing. Alvey just needs to stick to his game plan as a punishing bruiser who lands with hard, stinging shots over all three rounds, and he should be able to pick up the victory.
Prediction: Sam Alvey by unanimous decision
World-class submission specialist Rani Yahya will get back in action this weekend against former Ultimate Fighter Latin America competitor Henry Briones.
Yahya has won four of his last five fights, including a victory over highly touted up and comer Matthew Lopez last year. Yahya rarely makes it a secret what he's trying to do, as the Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist will more than likely start searching for the takedown as soon as the fighters are unleashed from the corner before applying his nasty grappling game on the ground. Yahya averages more than three takedowns per fight, and while he's worked tirelessly on improving his striking, it's virtually a lock that he will look to take this fight to the ground before looking for a submission.
Now Briones certainly has some weapons that could give Yahya trouble, as he averages just under four strikes landed per minute with over 42 percent accuracy. So if he can keep this fight standing, he could give Yahya a lot of headaches on the feet. Briones is also tough as nails, as proven in his three-round battle with current bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt. Briones has plenty of experience with more than 25 fights on his record, so he won't go away easy for anybody.
That said, Yahya is such an incredible specialist on the mat that it's tough to see a way where he doesn't drag this fight to the ground and start looking for the finish. Yahya is a master at control on the mat with a methodical style that's tough to defend and nearly impossible to survive over three rounds. Yahya is one of the last true ground specialists still thriving in the sport and he should have the chance to shine again this weekend.
Prediction: Rani Yahya by submission, Round 2
Hector Sandoval vs. Dustin Ortiz
Team Alpha Male fighter Hector Sandoval has quickly become one of the top flyweights to watch in 2017 after picking up back-to-back victories against Fredy Serrano and Matt Schnell. He'll take a decided step up in competition this weekend against top 15 fighter Dustin Ortiz, who will look to bounce back after a loss to Brandon Moreno in his last fight.
Ortiz has faced a lot of adversity lately with a 1-3 mark in his past four fights, but that doesn't mean he's not a dangerous adversary at 125 pounds. Ortiz has only lost to the top fighters in the division, including Joseph Benavidez and former title challenger Wilson Reis. Ortiz has feasted on several other top fighters, including upcoming title challenger Ray Borg, as well as Justin Scoggins and Zach Makovsky. Ortiz is a very well rounded fighter who has good striking on the feet while averaging just under three takedowns per fight. Ortiz will also enjoy a three-inch reach advantage over Sandoval, which could serve him well in those early exchanges on the feet.
Still, Sandoval has proven to be a very tough out for anyone in the division and this could be his chance to shine on Saturday night. Sandoval is tenacious with his attacks and he will look to push the pace on Ortiz from the first round until the last. Sandoval has a higher output on the feet and on the ground, so that should help him keep Ortiz guessing with his takedowns and high-intensity striking attack.
Sandoval just needs to stay patient and not get stuck underneath Ortiz early or he could be gasping for breath late in the third round. If Sandoval can stay aggressive without getting reckless, this is a golden opportunity for him to make an impact against a top 15 fighter in only his fourth UFC fight.
Prediction: Hector Sandoval by unanimous decision