Crystal Ball: UFC 166 predictions

Saturday night in Houston, Texas, Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos will battle for the UFC heavyweight title for the third time in two years, the series even at one win each, and the next chapter in the stories if each man’s career waiting to be written according to the outcome.

The heavyweight championship clash closes out an outstanding 13-fight line-up that simply cannot be missed.

Now it’s time to gaze into the crystal ball and take a shot at predicting how each fight in this baker’s dozen of brutality plays out.

Cain Velasquez (12-1) vs. Junior dos Santos (16-2)

As much as this fight could mirror their first encounter, the likelier outcome is something similar to the second battle, where Velasquez avoids the overhand bomb from dos Santos, and uses his superior wrestling and conditioning to push the Brazilian into deep waters, where the champion is a much stronger swimmer.

Though it is somewhat unfair to say “Cigano” only has one way of winning this fight – by scoring a fight-ending knockout – the former champion has never shown an ability to break from Plan A of punching his opponent into oblivion in order to secure a victory. When he has gone the distance in victory, he did so in three-round fights while never deviating from his tried-and-true approach.

While you could say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and not be wrong, the diverse skills Velasquez has displayed on his way to the top of the heavyweight mountain give him the edge in this third installment. If he is losing on the feet, he can take it to the ground, and as he showed in their UFC 155 bout, pushing the pace and wrestling for five hard rounds is something he’s perfectly comfortable doing.

Prediction: Cain Velasquez by TKO, Round 4.

Daniel Cormier (12-0) vs. Roy Nelson (19-8)

This one actually feels very similar to the main event it precedes, as Cormier is capable of boxing with Nelson, but also has his incredible wrestling pedigree to fall back on if the exchanges on the feet aren’t going in his favor.

While Nelson has an excellent jiu-jitsu game, it’s something that “Big Country” has all but abandoned since transitioning to the UFC, opting instead of firing overhand fastballs and seeing what happens.

Cormier is the quicker and more diverse striker of the two, but he most likely won’t look to stand in the pocket and trade with Nelson. Though he could conceivably get the better of things, doing so is risking getting caught by the keg of dynamite Nelson calls his right hand. The former Olympian uses his hands to set up his wrestling, tires out his opponent, and coasts to a 13th consecutive victory.

Prediction: Daniel Cormier by Unanimous Decision

Gilbert Melendez (21-3) vs. Diego Sanchez (24-5)

Melendez needed one round from one of two judges to become UFC lightweight champion last time out. When Sanchez fought for the same title three-and-a-half years earlier, he was essentially beaten within the opening minute, and forced to endure another four rounds worth of punishment before that contest was mercifully brought to an end.

Of course, the two men faced very different champions – Melendez squaring off with Benson Henderson, Sanchez facing a still focused BJ Penn – but their respective margins of defeat feel like an accurate representation of the where they rest in the lightweight division, even if Sanchez has had a return to welterweight between his first and second forays into the 155-pound ranks.

Durable and game as he is, Sanchez simply hasn’t proven to be on the same level of Melendez over the last few years. Though he’s 3-1 over his last four, the reality is that he could very easily – and perhaps should be – 1-3, with his wins over Takanori Gomi and Martin Kampmann almost universally recognized as shaky decisions.

Melendez, the former Strikeforce champion and long-time Skrap Pack representative, has been performing at an elite level without pause for the last five years, and should once again show that he’s one of the division’s best here.

Prediction: Gilbert Melendez by Unanimous Decision

Gabriel Gonzaga (15-7) vs. Shawn Jordan (15-4)

If Gonzaga were inclined to take a page from The Josh Barnett Heavyweight Handbook for Playing to Your Strengths, the standout submission artist might have a better winning percentage in the UFC. But all too often, “Napao” opts to trade with opponents that out-gun him on the feet, and it doesn’t quite work out.

Jordan has the potential to light up the Brazilian, just as he did Pat Barry back in June, and had grown by leaps and bounds since entering the UFC a little less than 18 months ago. He’s a phenomenal athlete with sneaky good grappling of his own, and more quicks than you expect from a man of his stature.

The crystal ball shows Gonzaga once again opting to trade when he should be closing the distance and working from the clinch, and Jordan sticking his celebratory backflip after turning out the Brazilian gatekeeper’s lights.

Prediction: Shawn Jordan by TKO, Round 1.

John Dodson (14-6) vs. Darrell Montague (13-2)

This should be some fast-paced excitement.

Dodson is looking to get back into the win column after having the flyweight title slip through his hands back in January, while Montague is out to make an instant impression on his new bosses by beating a former title challenger in his debut.

The UFC newcomer is a talented and worthy addition to the upper tier of the 125-pound ranks, but Dodson has already proven himself, and should get the nod here.

Prediction: John Dodson by Unanimous Decision.

Tim Boetsch (16-6) vs. C.B. Dollaway (13-4)

These two middleweights meet going in opposite directions – Dollaway entering on a two-fight winning streak, filling in for the injured Luke Rockhold, while Boestch carries consecutive losses into the cage for the first time in his career.

Despite their contrasting streaks entering this contest, Boetsch certainly has the better resume overall, and more at stake this time around. A third straight loss could (conceivably) mean a second pink slip from the organization, and after reaching the brink of title contention less than a year ago, the prospects of competing on the regional circuit are sure to have him primed for an impressive performance.

Prediction: Tim Boetsch by TKO, Round 1.

Nate Marquardt (32-12-2) vs. Hector Lombard (32-4-1)

This one has the markings of a “Loser Leaves Town” match, which means we could get two fighters looking to leave it all in the cage in hopes of fending off the axe even if they lose or two guys that are hesitant to wade into the fray in fear that the axe will fall if they do.

Marquardt has just been too gun-shy in meaningful fights throughout his career to merit the nod here, and if Lombard carries the speed and power than made him a threat at middleweight down to the 170-pound ranks, he could be a force.

Prediction: Hector Lombard by TKO, Round 1.

Sarah Kaufman (16-2) vs. Jessica Eye (10-1)

Eye has a golden opportunity to walk into the UFC and put herself right in the thick of the title chase by beating a former champion in her debut, but Kaufman is a bigger, stronger, more experienced opponent than anyone the 27-year-old Strong Style Fight Team representative has faced in the past.

Prediction: Sarah Kaufman by Unanimous Decision

George Sotiropoulos (14-5) vs. K.J. Noons (11-7)

Both men enter on three-fight losing streaks, but the middle fight in Noons’ run of bad results (versus Ryan Couture) should have been a win, and he’s lost to superior competition. He’s the far superior striker in this pairing, and should push Sotiropoulos’ losing streak beyond the three-year mark here.

Prediction: K.J. Noons by Unanimous Decision.

T.J. Waldburger (16-7) vs. Adlan Amagov (12-2-1)

When Waldburger faces opponents with quality grappling backgrounds that he can’t exploit on the ground, things tend to go poorly for him. Amagov is an National Master of Sport in Sambo, and has solid striking skills in his arsenal as well.

Prediction: Adlan Amagov by TKO, Round 1.

Tony Ferguson (13-3) vs. Mike Rio (9-2)

Ferguson feels like he’s been out for an eternity (May 2012), and that could be an issue here, but if he’s able to shake off the rust quickly, he should have the skills to get the better of Rio in this one.

Prediction: Tony Ferguson by TKO, Round 2.

Jeremy Larsen (8-4) vs. Andre Fili (12-1)

The debuting Fili should get Team Alpha Male back into the win column after the Sacramento-based group suffered their first UFC loss of the year last week, and is an immediate entrant into the “Best Nickname Ever” race. Five bucks says Buffer smirks when he bellows “Andre…Touchy… Fili” on Saturday night.

Prediction: Andre Fili by TKO, Round 2.

Dustin Pague (11-8) vs. Kyoji Horiguchi (11-1)

Horiguchi is the former Shooto bantamweight champion whose only loss came against veteran Masakatsu Ueda. As game an opponent as Pague has proven to be to date, at the end of the day, he’s 1-4 in the UFC.

Prediction: Kyoji Horiguchi by TKO, Round 2.