It’s finally here. They’ve weighed in. They’ve squared off. The talking is all done. Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor fight tonight at UFC 194, capping off a run of three events in three nights and the final pay-per-view of 2015. This main card is one of the very best in the history of the organization, as on top of the main event it features the current top four middleweights, two exciting welterweights trying to get into contention, and another featherweight matchup with at least one potential title challenger. There’s a lot to get through with this main card, so we’ll start at the top.
Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor (Featherweight Championship)
It’s hard to come up with new things to say about Jose Aldo. He’s reigned atop this division for so long that the superlatives have all been laid out. He’s one of the hardest fighters to take down (or at least to keep down) in the game, and his striking game has been as good as any in title defense after title defense. There have been times he’s coasted on talent alone, allowing fighters beneath him to stay in fights they probably shouldn’t be in, but even then, the amount of times he’s been legitimately in trouble since he came under the Zuffa banner in the old WEC can be counted on one hand.
McGregor, despite the bombast, has shown off an unorthodox and highly entertaining striking attack throughout his run in the UFC thus far. He’s more than just his words, and he’s proven as much with impressive performance after impressive performance. However, even given the TKO victory he scored over Chad Mendes in July, doing that to Aldo is an entirely different story.
The Irishman’s said time and again how he’s going to break Aldo. He says he’s going to land the shots he needs to land within four minutes, and from there it’s just a matter of time before Aldo folds up and calls it a career. The problem with that theory is the only time we’ve really seen Aldo rocked came in that Mendes fight last October, and we saw exactly how he responded: by taking over. He began overwhelming the challenger with his speed and precision, and with further desire to prove a point given the non-stop talk from McGregor for more than a year, that could begin even earlier here.
There are a few ways an Aldo victory could play out here. He could overwhelm McGregor early and often, taking him out in the first round with some striking McGregor’s never been up against. It could become a firefight in which Aldo, similarly to his last fight with Mendes, takes out the challenger with a superior overall game. Or he could toy with McGregor for five rounds, doing just enough to prove his superiority.
Or McGregor could throw that all to hell.
The crazy part about this fight is that for as much as I believe Aldo rolls through McGregor here, there’s a fairly decent part of me that wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if McGregor pulls this off. Given how effective his striking game was against especially Dustin Poirier and Mendes, he’s shown the power to hurt and put people away. Aldo got hurt by Mendes, but Mendes wasn’t able to capitalize; McGregor might be. I still believe that monumental victory for McGregor is a long shot in this one, but there’s a very real possibility he winds up doing exactly what he keeps telling us all he’s going to do.
PREDICTION: Aldo by TKO in the second round
Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold (Middleweight Championship)
For as excellent as the Aldo-McGregor matchup is for every intangible aspect, Weidman-Rockhold is every bit as fascinating, albeit for different reasons. Whereas the main event features a challenger who could wind up as the UFC’s biggest star, but might not be as good as the champ, this one features two of the most well-rounded, evenly matched, and elite fighters one could hope for in a title fight.
Chris Weidman has been phenomenal throughout his UFC run. He’s impressed at every step of his UFC journey, and his wins over Anderson Silva – even despite the second fight ending by injury – were shockingly one-sided and dominant against the division’s greatest competitor. He followed that up with a hard fought win over Lyoto Machida, and a complete decimation of Vitor Belfort this year, and his combination of power striking (though perhaps not the most technical and elite part of his game) with fantastic wrestling, brutal ground and pound, and top control make him an insanely difficult task for most anyone.
Rockhold does a lot of the same things we’ve seen out of Weidman. He’s got good to great striking for MMA, he sets a relentless pace most aren’t able to deal with, and he’s got the wrestling, top game, and ground and pound instincts to take people out on the ground. Both are also very adept in their respective submission games, though I’d posit that Rockhold’s the more accomplished and proven fighter between them in that aspect.
So how does this fight play out? Weidman has overwhelmed so many opponents that it’d be easy to see him doing the same here, especially given the fact that we witnessed Rockhold get stopped just two and a half years ago. However, Rockhold himself has been an absolute force since that loss to Belfort, and though neither Costas Philippou, Tim Boetsch, or Michael Bisping were on the level of Belfort or Silva, Rockhold’s own win over Machida earlier this year was as impressive as it comes.
For a very long time leading into this fight, my gut feeling has been that Rockhold has what it takes to beat Chris Weidman. Given how great Weidman has been, it’s far from an easy task, but Rockhold’s got the type of pressure game to respond well to what Weidman likes to do, and if he can capitalize on any openings given, he’ll have a good shot here. However, conceding to Weidman’s own considerable abilities, this is a fight in which he can continue establishing his hold on the division. This is going to be a great one, and I’m not at all confident in the pick.
PREDICTION: Rockhold by submission in the third round
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza vs. Yoel Romero (Middleweight)
Here we’ve got the two men fighting to face the winner of the co-main event for the UFC Middleweight Championship, and for Jacare Souza it’s his opportunity to finally lock down a shot that has long eluded him. The former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion is one of the single best submission specialists in the game right now, and he’s all the more dangerous because he’s got brutal, one-punch KO power to go along with it.
Romero, a former Olympic wrestler turned relentless MMA brawler, has a violent streak that allows him to put guys away often, though it often takes an accumulation of strikes for him to wear guys down late in fights. He’s absolutely got the type of striking game that can hurt Souza, and if he connects on enough he’ll have openings for significant damage. It’s surviving long enough to get there that becomes the issue.
While Romero’s got plenty of stoppage wins in his run, he’s also been rocked a few times, and knocked out cold once himself. Souza’s not a slow starter at this point in his career, and it doesn’t matter where a fight is taking place for him to find his spots. The last legitimate grappler he faced was Yushin Okami, and he ended that fight with a first round knock out. Given Romero, even with his considerable wrestling background, probably doesn’t want to play with the fire that is Souza’s gator-like submission grip, he’ll have to deal with the ever present KO threat on the feet. Romero’s capable of winning this fight, but I think there are many more paths to victory for Souza to finally claim his title fight.
PREDICTION: Souza by TKO in the first round
Demian Maia vs. Gunnar Nelson (Welterweight)
Gunnar Nelson comes in off a sick knockdown to submission win over Brandon Thatch. Demian Maia tooled Neil Magny his last time out before scoring a submission himself. Have I mentioned lately how great this card is?
Nelson’s a considerable talent, and one of the top fighters competing in the sport out of the European pool, while Maia’s one of the best submission fighters to have come into the UFC out of Brazil. Both are admirable distinctions, and it makes for a highly intriguing matchup.
Now, it’s the type of fight in which there could be quite a bit of canceling out between the two of them. They’re both fantastic on the ground, but they’re also both fantastic at not getting controlled on the ground. Nelson had a bit of an off night against Rick Story in his sole loss, which came by split decision, and though that’s a fighter Maia dominated, MMA math doesn’t always add up. Add in Maia’s penchant for only serviceable victories and the occasional slip up where he allows himself to get out-worked, and this one depends on what version of both of them shows up.
At their best, each has ways to finish this fight. Nelson’s got superior power, and he’s comparable on the ground, though Maia’s the better grappler overall. It’s going to be competitive, it’s going to be close, and I think Maia’s going to edge it out.
PREDICTION: Maia by decision
Max Holloway vs. Jeremy Stephens (Featherweight)
Holloway has been unstoppable since his decision loss to Conor McGregor in 2013, and a win here puts him real close to title contention. Stephens is a dangerous vet, entering off a sick flying knee KO his last time out, but from a skill standpoint he’s behind the young man who will be standing across from him. Holloway’s striking continues to improve every fight, and he’s just as capable of stopping Stephens on the feet as the other way around here. Stephens has always been a competitor, and he’s hard to put away, but Holloway’s got the striking and submission skills to be a nightmare everywhere in this fight. This is a statement bout for the 24-year-old Hawaiian, and I think he makes one in abundantly clear fashion.
PREDICTION: Holloway by submission in the second round