Valentina "The Bullet" Shevchenko (-, - UFC) vs. Julianna "The Venezuelan Vixen" Pena (8-2, 4-0 UFC)
Women's Bantamweights, 145 pounds
This #1 contender's fight was supposed to happen at UFC 205 last November, but Pena chose to hold out for a possible title fight against champion Amanda Nunes, who would of course defend her belt against former champ "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey at UFC 207 to close out the year. Nunes, of course, smashed Rousey to become the first woman to defend this belt since Rousey was dominating what was then a much weaker division.
Pena, the outspoken first woman to win "The Ultimate Fighter" has been outstanding in the Octagon, winning all four of her fights including decision victories over Jessica "Evil" Eye and "Alpha" Cat Zingano, the latter at UFC 200 in her last fight. Zingano is the only active fighter with a win over current champ Nunes.
Pena loves to push the pace. She wants to get her hands on her opponent as soon as possible, striking into takedowns and using her strong jiu jitsu to control the fight. She's also a very good kickboxer who can stand and trade with anyone in the division. She will look to get in Shevchenko's face early and often, forcing the methodical muay thai fighter to engage much more than she wants to.
Shevchenko, a former World Kickboxing and Muay Thai champion, is a slow and deliberate striker with pinpoint precision but not quite as much power as the heavier-handed girls in this division. She's also a natural 125 pounder fighting up a division. (The UFC has no flyweight women's division)
Unlike Pena, the quiet and unassuming Russian doesn't seek the spotlight. She's most known for nearly coming back from an awful start to beat Nunes last March then dominating Holm in a unanimous decision win in July. Her performance against Holm was precise and her execution was flawless, but her careful, slow style has yet to win her many fans.
The winner of this fight is expected to challenge Nunes for the title. I think either one would have a great chance of beating her. I think Shevchenko will use her deliberate, precision striking to keep Pena at distance, land when she gets the opportunity and get out before Pena can counter or go for takedowns. This will frustrate Pena, who I think will start deviating from her gameplan in order to land some shots and wear herself out. From there it's all Shevchenko, although I don't think there will be a finish here.
Shevchenko by Unanimous Decision
Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone (32-7-1, 19-4 UFC) vs. Jorge "Gamebred" Masvidal (-, - UFC)
Welterweights, 170 Pounds
This one should be a war between two boxers/kickboxers who used to fight in the lightweight division and have come as close as you can get to winning a title without actually winning one. Oh yeah- they also can't stand each other.
Cerrone, a long-time superstar and fan favorite, has won 13 of his last 15 fights, with his only two losses coming against former Lightweight Champion Rafael Dos Anjos. However, the Jackson Wink product is 3-0 since moving to welterweight in February of last year.
"Cowboy" is looking for his 20th UFC win, which would tie Middleweight Champ Michael "The Count" Bisping for the most ever in the Octagon. He has 18 performance bonuses in his career, and he's riding a 4-fight win streak with the welterweight belt in his sights.
His arsenal is deep, and he can finish a fight in a split-second with his dazzling array of kicks and punches, like the head kick he crushed Matt Brown with at UFC 206 last month in Toronto.
Masvidal, meanwhile, has won two in a row after dropping two straight by decision to Benson Henderson and Lorenz Larkin. He picked up a controversial TKO win over Jake Ellenberger in early December his last time out, when Ellenberger's foot got caught in the fence.
He has an obvious chip on his shoulder and he's been nearly impossible to finish throughout his long career.
Both guys are very skilled on the feet. You might not see two better technical strikers in the cage together for a long time. Masvidal will try to get in tight on Cerrone and beat him up there. Cerrone will try to keep distance and land combinations, all the while head hunting and looking for that lights-out kick.
One thing to watch here is Cerrone's grappling and submission game. Masvidal better watch out for it when he gets in tight. I still think Cowboy is the better striker, and he'll prove it tonight.
Cerrone by 2nd Rd TKO
* Cerrone told me earlier this week that he wants to fight at UFC 209 on the same card as the welterweight title rematch between Tyron "The Chosen One" Woodley and Stephen "Wonder Boy" Thompson, March 4th in Vegas. To listen to the interview, Listen Below
Andrei "Pitbull" Arlovski (25-13-1, 14-7 UFC) vs. Francis "The Predator" Ngannou (9-1, 4-0 UFC)
Arlovski, the former UFC Heavyweight Champion, won his first UFC belt by submitting the legendary Tim Sylvia at UFC 51. He left the UFC and bounced around for six years then made his way back to the octagon in June of 2014 and went on a tear, crushing "Big Foot" Silva and Travis Browne and beating Frank Mir by decision.
Since then, though, he has been finished in three straight fights by Heavyweight Champ Stipe Miocic, Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett. At 37, he looks to be nearing the end of his illustrious career.
Ngannou, meanwhile, is just getting started. The 30 year-old from Cameroon is a freak of an athlete who has finished all four of his UFC opponents in the 1st or 2nd round. His striking power and speed are almost unmatched in the heavyweight division, and his submission game is very good also.
How scary is the 6-4, 255-pound Frenchman? UFC President Dana White, said this week that Ngannou has all the tools to win the UFC Heavyweight belt and "hold it for a very long time."
Ngannou might not be a household name yet, but after tonight the momentum will be building.
Ngannou by 1st Rd TKO
Featherweights, 145 pounds
Alex "Bruce Leeroy" Caceres (12-9, 7-7 UFC) vs. Jason Knight (15-2, 2-1 UFC)
"Bruce Leeroy" is one of my favorite fighters to watch. His combination of speed, technique and completely unorthodox style make him must-se TV every time he steps in the cage.
But the MMA Lab product is much more than that. Let's not forget last summer in Utah when he pushed rising phenom Yair "El Pantera" Rodriguez for five tough rounds before losing by decision and earning the "Fight of the Night" bonus for his efforts. Yes, the same Yair Rodriguez who just pummeled UFC Legend BJ Penn at UFC Phoenix a couple weeks ago.
The 30 year-old Knight has won two in a row. He is looking for a highlight-reel finish to catapult him to the next level in the division. He isn't as athletic or polished with his striking as Rodriguez, but the power is there. He's also very good on the ground, with nine submission wins on his resume.
Still though, I look for Caceres to use the momentum he gained standing toe to toe with the dangerous Rodriguez to pick up the win tonight.
Caceres by Unanimous Decision
Middleweights, 185 pounds (Main Event, FS1 Prelims)
Nate "The Great" Marquardt (35-16-2) vs. "Smile'N" Sam Alvey (29-8-1)
Good to see my guy "Smile'N" Sam Alvey get a shot to headline a network TV show on the FS1 Prelims against former top UFC contender and Strikeforce Welterweight Champion Nate "The Great" Marquardt.
You'll have a hard time finding a fight between two more experienced warriors. With a combined 91 pro MMA fights between them, these guys have both been around a very long time, albeit on completely different paths. Ironically, both have competed at middleweight and welterweight at different times in their careers.
Alvey, 30, is a former MFC Middleweight Champ who spent years on the local and regional circuits with some King of the Cage before finally getting that call from Joe Silva in August of 2014. It's hard to believe this will be his 10th UFC fight, but he is an extremely active guy who fought four times in 2016 and is wasting no time getting started this year.
Sam is a dangerous boxer and wrestler and he trains with Team Quest in California, home of MMA Legend Dan Henderson, who has been a big influence on Alvey's career.
I got to know Sam when he coached Team California to the Elite Amateur Fight League (EAFL) Western Regional Championship last fall at the Blue Water Resort and Casino here in AZ. He's a great guy who loves this sport and competing in it.
Marquardt, 37, will be entering the octagon for the 24th time. He holds wins over current UFC Welterweight Champ Tyron Woodley, top contender Demian Meia and former top 10 fighter James Te-Huna. He has been released by the UFC, fought his way back through Strikeforce and been back in the sport's top promotion since 2013.
Nate has lost 6 of his last 9 fights, making it easier for new and casual fans to remember his tremendous accomplishments in this sport. He was a top-level guy for a very long time, although not anymore, but he's still a 2nd degree black belt in jiu jitsu and a high-level striker who can't be taken lightly. Just ask AZ's own CB "The Doberman" Dollaway, who was knocked out by Marquardt in December of 2015.
Marquardt will be fighting in his hometown and have a big advantage because he's used to the altitude, but I think Alvey's experience of fighting in Mexico City his last time out and subsequent training for this fight will even that out, while his athleticism and punching power will in him the fight.
Alvey 2nd Rd TKO