UFC FIGHT NIGHT 88 PREVIEW: Penick’s main card thoughts and predictions for “Almeida vs. Garbrandt” event

By Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief

UFC Fight Night 88 hits Las Vegas tonight with a six fight main card on Fox Sports 1, topped by the bantamweight matchup between Thomas Almeida and Cody Garbrandt as well as the featherweight debut of former Bantamweight Champion Renan Barao. There are a number of intriguing main card fights set for the event, so let’s take a look at what’s on tap tonight.

Thomas Almeida vs. Cody Garbrandt (Bantamweight): Two of the UFC’s best young fighters in any weight class, 24-year-olds Almeida and Garbrandt get a great opportunity tonight to show off what they can do in the cage. Garbrandt is an excellent wrestler who, like many of his Team Alpha Male teammates past and present, has added numerous levels to his striking game throughout his MMA run. That aspect isn’t quite as polished as his opponent into the fight, but it’s an asset; he has significant power, and has stopped seven of his eight career opponents by strikes.

Almeida is on another level with his striking game, and he’s proven it against a slightly tougher slate of opponents in the UFC thus far. He’s stopped all but two of his opponents, and has finished 16 of those with strikes. That includes one of the great highlight reel finishes of the last several years in his flying knee KO over Brad Pickett last year, and though Garbrandt might point to Almeida’s struggles in that fight as a potential opening, it can’t be forgotten that he still came back to do what he did there at UFC 189.

The Brazilian hasn’t needed to show much in his ground game to date in the Octagon, but he’s a BJJ brown belt and isn’t going to be easy to dominate on the ground, if Garbrandt even tries to utilize that wrestling game all that much. Garbrandt feels confident in his hands; he’s gone toe to toe with several fighters and come out on top, and he may feel he can beat Almeida to the punch here. However, Almeida is the best fighter Garbrandt’s yet faced in the Octagon by a wide margin, and I’m not convinced it’s Garbrandt’s time to break through to that next level. He’s going to get there eventually, but this is more than likely his road block moment, with Almeida looking to have a showcase win. Almeida via TKO in the second round

Renan Barao vs. Jeremy Stephens (Featherweight): A combination of a rough weight cut and an opponent who just had him figured out sent Renan Barao out of the bantamweight division, and he hopes to reestablish himself here as a contender in a new weight class. Jeremy Stephens is among the most durable and consistently competitive fighters in the featherweight field, and though he’s not been having much success as of late he’s going to be a tough test for the former Champion.

Stephens has a very solid striking game with significant fight ending power. He’s aggressive, has mostly smart instincts in the cage, and he’s capable of pressing his opponents to the cage and getting them off rhythm. He’s not the most technical on the feet, and he’s prone to brawling on occasion, but it’s effective against a lot of opponents. Where he’s run into trouble is against fighters who are, frankly, better than him. He gets beat to the punch, countered, out-worked, out-struck, or out-grappled, something that we’ve seen happen in three of his last four to Max Holloway, Charles Oliveira, and Cub Swanson.

Barao enters with the skill set to do just that against Stephens. He’s got speed, power, great submission instincts on the ground, good grappling skills, and the pace-setting ability to dictate how this fight plays out. T.J. Dillashaw was able to be even faster than Barao, beating him to the punch in most exchanges to throw him off and beat him in two title fights. I don’t think Stephens is going to showcase that same speed or technical prowess, so this one then gives Barao a chance for a showcase performance in a new weight class. It could be more of a grinding affair, as Stephens is far from easy to put away, but Barao’s got the power on the feet to stop him, and the submission ability on the ground to finish him there. That’s not as likely as simply out-working him for three rounds, so expect Barao by decision.

Tarec Saffiedine vs. Rick Story (Welterweight): The big question into this fight is just how hurt Saffiedine is, and how it’s going to affect his performance. Saffiedine got clearance to fight, so it can’t be too severe, but he was close to pulling out of the event as well. It’s hard to know just what we’re going to get out of him. Story’s equally a question mark, coming back from surgery and more than a year and a half out of the cage. He’s a highly competitive welterweight, and his win over Gunnar Nelson in that last appearance is a testament to that.

The thing with Story is that he’s good just about everywhere, but not really dominant in any one area. He can be effective on the feet against some, better on the ground against others, and can mix things up in order to keep a fight close one way or the other. Saffiedine’s both a fast and often fun to watch striker, and an underrated grappler, but he lacks fight finishing power more often than not and, at times, instincts. He’s very good at simply doing more than his opponents, and that’s why he hasn’t scored a stoppage win in five years. Expect a competitive back and forth fight, but until we see just how the injury affects Saffiedine in the cage and how the layoff hits Story, it’s hard to know which direction this one takes. Coin flip – Saffiedine by decision.

Chris Camozzi vs. Vitor Miranda (Middleweight): Camozzi is one of those fighters who is going to demolish competitors who are well below him, but be in close fights or get taken out by those on his level or better. Miranda’s going to be in that mix. Camozzi’s relentless knees against Joe Riggs in his last fight were highly entertaining, but it was Joe Riggs. Miranda’s entering on a three fight winning streak that has seen him stop each of those opponents, and he’s got great kicks that could cause Camozzi a lot of problems here. Camozzi can slow things down in the clinch, and if he can make it an ugly fight this could be close, but this seems primed for Miranda to continue his current run. Miranda by TKO in the second round.

Jorge Masvidal vs. Lorenz Larkin (Welterweight): One of my favorite fights on this card. The make up of the two competitors is just fascinatingly unique, as we have a former longtime lightweight in Masvidal against a man in Larkin who began his career as a light heavyweight. Far from the most technical striker, Larkin is nonetheless one of the more entertaining guys to watch in that department. He throws kicks from all angles, combinations in an awkward and sometime relentless pace, and is capable of delivering considerable damage. He’ll swing and miss often, leaving him open to counters, but he’s got a fantastic chin and can fire right back with abandon. Masvidal is extremely durable, and can stand and trade with just about anyone, but it’s been a while since he’s faced someone with Larkin’s particular skill set. This one should be fun for all three rounds (and I expect it to go the distance), but I think Larkin’s got enough in the tank to take two of the rounds. Larkin by decision.

Josh Burkman vs. Paul Felder (Lightweight): Felder pulled out a comeback submission win over Daron Cruickshank in his last outing, avoiding what would have been a three fight winning streak. He’s had flashes of brilliance thus far in the cage, but he’s also been disappointing in a couple of fights in his failure to follow up on that promise. This is the type of fight where he should shine, but if he comes up short it will be yet another disappointment. Burkman’s a savvy vet, but after an entertaining run in WSOF he’s had a bit of a sharp decline since returning to the UFC. If Felder can get off to a fast start here, he’s got the game to pick this one up easily. If he lets himself get brought down to Burkman’s pace, things could get ugly. Felder by decision.

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