The UFC’s return to Tulsa has a number of intriguing matchups, foremost the main event.
Benson Henderson might not be in the UFC’s official rankings, but he’s one of the best pound-for-pound talents in the organization. The tough sell for him is that he has already lost to Anthony Pettis, the lightweight champion, twice. If Henderson beats Rafael dos Anjos at UFC Fight Night on FOX Sports 1 (10 p.m. ET) on Saturday, though, it’ll be hard to keep him out of the title conversation. He’s still ranked No. 1 among lightweight contenders.
While Henderson is trying to get back to the top, Jordan Mein, a Canadian with enormous potential, has a chance to break into the welterweight top 15. At just 24 years old with a versatile skill set, Mein can be a top fighter for a long time at 170. He’ll have to get by study veteran Mike Pyle on Saturday to stay on that path, though.
Benson Henderson vs. Rafael dos Anjos
Benson Henderson’s cardio will play a big part in this main event bout.
People have a tendency to forget just how good Henderson is. The former UFC lightweight champion has lost just three times in his career and two have been to current 155-pound champ Anthony Pettis. "Smooth" is coming off two straight victories since dropping the belt to Pettis last August, over Josh Thomson and Rustam Khabilov. This is a guy who has fought the best in the world in his weight class for a very long time. A win here gets him pretty close to a third fight with Pettis.
Dos Anjos is the underdog. That is clear. But he is hardly a slouch. While he doesn’t have the marquee name of others in the division, on any given night he can beat anyone at 155. Henderson is ranked No. 1 among lightweight contenders, but dos Anjos is not far off at No. 5. The Brazilian is extremely versatile, with an orthodox, yet very effective striking style, solid wrestling and good grappling. Dos Anjos also always has an effective game plan, courtesy of his trainers at Kings MMA.
This one could come down to cardio. It’ll likely be won in the later rounds. Henderson is a veteran of five-round fights. His last seven bouts have all been main events and all but one have gone the distance. Five rounds is the norm for Henderson, while this is pretty foreign to dos Anjos. Henderson is also more athletic. Combine those two things — and, of course, his experience — and you can understand why he is favored. His knack for earning the judges’ nods in close fights can also not be discounted.
Prediction: Henderson by unanimous decision
Mike Pyle vs. Jordan Mein
Jordan Mein can have a star-making performance Saturday night against Mike Pyle.
Pyle is Mein’s third opponent. He was originally supposed to fight Thiago Alves and then Brandon Thatch. Both men got hurt. Mein went from two electric strikers with knockout power to a pure grinder in Pyle. That isn’t necessarily to his advantage, either. Mein is a talented, flashy striker with a full toolbox of skills everywhere. He can wrestle and grapple as well — but maybe not quite as good as Pyle can.
The good news for Mein is that Pyle is ranked No. 13 among UFC welterweight contenders, so this is his chance to break into the top 15. Neither Alves nor Thatch are ranked. Pyle is a wily veteran who has made the most of his physical abilities. But the younger, more athletic and more versatile Mein should take care of business here. If you want to call Pyle a gatekeeper, this is Mein’s chance to show he belongs in the upper-echelon of the 170-pound division.
Prediction: Mein by unanimous decision
Francis Carmont vs. Thales Leites
There could be plenty of these from Francis Carmont against Thales Leites.
With all due respect to a pair of talented, ranked middleweight fighters, this is not exactly an anticipated fight because of its potential excitement. Carmont, despite prodigious Muay Thai skills, has been a grinder lately. Leites is most known for one of the most boring title fights in UFC history when he challenged Anderson Silva in 2009.
Looking at it another way, though, maybe this bout will bring out the best in both. Leites has been willing to stand and trade lately — and even knocked out his last opponent, Trevor Smith. Carmont is a very athletic, talented striker. Even if Leites attempts to take him down right away, that might prove difficult, because of Carmont’s strength, athleticism and technique. Neither man is known for finishing fights, but Carmont should be able to impose his will on Leites.
Prediction: Carmont via TKO in the second round
Max Holloway vs. Clay Collard
Max Holloway is incredibly still just 22 years old.
The initial bout between Holloway and top prospect Mirsad Bektic would have been a serious barnburner. Instead, the debuting Collard has a tall task. Holloway is just 22 years old, but has eight UFC fights under his belt. The Hawaiian, who has won two straight over Will Chope and Andre Fili, is considered a future star in the featherweight division. He’s extremely athletic and versatile.
Collard is really an unknown commodity. His best career win came against Team Alpha Male stalwart and former UFC fighter Justin Buchholz in Showdown Fights. He also has a loss to Buchholz. Holloway’s physical gifts, evolving skills and experience should give him a decisive advantage here.
Prediction: Holloway by submission in the second round
James Vick vs. Valmir Lazaro
James Vick will have his hands full against the debuting Valmir Lazaro.
Lazaro has something in common with his Nova Uniao teammate Jose Aldo — he hasn’t lost in a long time. The Brazilian has won 11 straight since 2010. This will be his UFC debut and Vick will be his toughest opponent to date. Lazaro is a talented striker with nine knockouts in 12 career victories.
Vick is talented, but inexperienced. He only has five career pro fights, including a win over Ramsey Nijem last year in his UFC debut. "The Texecutioner," an alum of TUF Live, hasn’t actually fought since that bout last August in Boston. The Lloyd Irvin grappling ace will have to get things to the ground against Lazaro. That could be tough and Lazaro can hold his own down there, too.
Prediction: Lazaro by unanimous decision
Chas Skelly vs. Tom Niinimaki
Chas Skelly is hoping for a different result in this fight against Tom Niinimaki.
Both of these men were on long winning streaks prior to their last fight. Skelly is coming off a loss to fellow prospect Mirsad Bektic in April, while Niinimaki also fell to a top up-and-comer in Niklas Backstrom in May. Skelly, who fights out of Team Takedown with Johny Hendricks, is a talented wrestler who was 11-0 coming into the bout with Bektic. Niinimaki trains out of the Blackzilians. The Finnish star was one of the top European featherweights when he came into the UFC.
Niinimaki is versatile, with a good mix of striking and grappling skills. The way Backstrom controlled him on the ground is disturbing against Skelly, though, a strong wrestler. Niinimaki could find himself on his back quickly. The Finn might have more ways to win (and he is a slight favorite), but it’s hard to pick against Skelly when he is the better man at controlling where the fight will be.
Prediction: Skelly by split decision
"Killa B" returns
Ben Saunders probably never should have been cut by the UFC back in 2010. He definitely should not have been released by Bellator last year. He was one of the best welterweights in the organization and, maybe even more importantly, always put on exciting fights. That’s one of the reasons he’s a welcome re-addition to the UFC’s 170-pound division, which is chockfull of guys just like him. "Killa B" might not win the welterweight title, but there are a ton of interesting fights for him. And he should have no trouble getting by debuting Chris Heatherly on the FOX Sports 2 prelims (8 p.m. ET).
Mr. Wilson at 125
The flyweight division could use some new blood and maybe Wilson Reis fits the bill. The former Bellator star is currently ranked No. 15 among UFC bantamweight contenders. The 135-pound division is better than 125, so if Reis can have a solid cut there’s no reason why he won’t be a factor at flyweight. He’s a little up in age at ?, but is still extremely athletic and super strong on the ground. The veteran should take care of business against Joby Sanchez in the lone Fight Pass prelim (7:30 p.m. ET).