At the top of the hour, UFC 215’s main card will get underway. Compared to the original card, it’s pretty much a shell of itself. Demetrious Johnson, who was going to break the record for most successful title defenses in UFC history, won’t get the chance to do so because his opponent, Ray Borg, got sick on Thursday. Former UFC Heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos, coming off a loss to champion Stipe Miocic, tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide, and as a result won’t be fighting surging contender Francis Ngannou tonight. What was once a stacked main card featuring that fight, a pair of title fights, a firefight and a pivotal Welterweight bout, is now essentially a glorified FOX card.
It’s still a solid card though. Valentina Shevchenko’s delayed title challenge against Amanda Nunes, which was scheduled for UFC 213, is happening at this card. Jeremy Stephens vs. a returning Gilbert Melendez is sure to be a firefight. Former Lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos’ bout against Neil Magny may not be worthy of a co-main slot on PPV, but it’s solid for short notice and worthy of being a PPV bout at the very least. Tyson Pedro vs. Ilir Latifi is pretty much guaranteed to be fun. It’s not a great card by PPV standards, but it is a relevant card that could warrant some eyeballs and a decent amount of interest, despite sustaining some heavy damage.
Without further ado, here are my predictions for every main card bout.
UFC 215 main card (10/9c, PPV)
(8) Jeremy Stephens (25-14) vs. (14-LW) Gilbert Melendez (22-6)
Gilbert Melendez is back! The former longtime Strikeforce Lightweight champion and multiple time UFC title challenger is returning for the first time in a year. He also desperately needs a win. He’s 1-4 in the UFC, and had it not been for his salary, his high profile and his war against Diego Sanchez back in October 2013, he’d probably be gone by now. Once 21-2, he’s now 22-6, and needs a win to have any legs to stand on in the UFC. Luckily for him, his dance partner also loves firefights.
Like Melendez, Stephens is a wildly entertaining fighter who desperately needs a win. Having been in the UFC since September 2007, Stephens has had an up and down tenure with the promotion, going 12-12 as a member of the UFC. He’s lost three of four and five of seven overall. Another loss or two will likely lead to his release, despite his crazy fun fighting style. He’s been more active than Melendez has, but is he as good? I don’t think so, plus Melendez has the size advantage here. This pretty much guarantees a decision loss for Stephens, and I won’t argue against conventional wisdom in this instance. Prediction: Melendez via decision.
(10 Ilir Latifi (12-5, 1 NC) vs. (13) Tyson Pedro (6-0)
What does it say about the once vaunted UFC Light Heavyweight division when Ilir Latifi is in the top ten of the division To be fair, he’s won five of his last seven, and his only UFC losses came against Ryan Bader, Gegard Mousasi and Jan Blachowicz, two of whom are elite. This division is no longer what it once was, hasn’t been for quite some time now, so maybe his ranking isn’t as outrageous as it seems. Still, as fun as he is to root for, he’s not a contender, and is essentially a gatekeeper in this division.
That’s where Tyson Pedro comes in. An unbeaten 25-year-old who’s won all six of his pro fights within the opening stanza, Pedro has become an elite prospect with knockout power and very good submission ability. Latifi is much more experienced, but Pedro is the future, while Latifi isn’t much more than a gatekeeper. The UFC wants Pedro to win, and I just want a fun, competitive fight. I believe Pedro can be the real deal, and see him winning this bout, even though a Latifi upset would be quite amazing. Prediction: Pedro via tko, round 1 or early round 2.
(2) Henry Cejudo (10-2) vs. (5) Wilson Reis (22-7)
Up next is a battle of Demetrious Johnson’s last two victims. Cejudo is a Olympic Gold Medalist in wrestling who began his career 10-0. While he has lost his last two bouts, they came against the two best Flyweights in the division in Johnson and longtime contender Joseph Benavidez. It can easily be argued that Cejudo won that Benavidez bout, but bygones are bygones. He still got destroyed via first round knockout against Johnson, and might not get another shot anytime soon.
While Cejudo is a star wrestler, Reis is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt. He was 6-2 in the UFC before getting a title shot, but got dominated by Johnson en route to a third round submission loss in April. Like Cejudo, Reis won’t get another shot anytime soon. So, who wins? The wrestler or the submission specialist? If Cejudo, who’s never been submitted, can avoid getting submitted again, he wins. If not, Reis will get a submission win. If the fight goes the distance, I have to believe it’ll be because Cejudo excelled with his gameplan for 15 minutes. As much as I’d love a finish in this fight, I see it going the full 15 minutes, with Cejudo claiming yet another decision win. Prediction: Cejudo via decision.
(6) Neil Magny (19-5) vs. (10) Rafael dos Anjos (26-9)
The new co-main event of the evening is a bout that was initially slated to be the main card opener or second PPV bout. Alas, it’s now the co-main, and it’s a pretty intriguing fight on paper. Dos Anjos possesses third degree black belts in both Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and has gone 15-4 in the UFC since losing his first two UFC bouts several years back. While half of his wins have come via decision, he does have 13 finishes to his credit. He’s also brand new to Welterweight, moving up after losing his title to Eddie Alvarez in July 2016, and then losing a decision to Tony Ferguson last November. He won his Welterweight debut against Tarec Saffeidine via decision in June, but Magny is a whole different animal.
The only man still in the UFC from the disastrous TUF 16 season, Magny overcame a 1-2 start to his UFC career by winning seven straight bouts before getting submitted by BJJ wizard Demian Maia at UFC 190. He then won three straight before a shocking knockout loss to Lorenz Larkin, and won against Johny Hendricks in his latest fight. In all, he’s 11-4 in the UFC, and a win could get him a top five opponent in a potential title eliminator. Ten of his 19 wins have come via decision, but he also has nine finishes to his credit. He’s also been submitted three times, and seeing how he’s facing a third degree BJJ black belt, he needs to avoid the ground in this one. However, how long can he do that? I don’t think he can keep it standing for the full 15 minutes. Sooner or later, RDA will get his chance. When he does, I think he’ll submit Magny presumably in the third round. As long as the fight lasts, it should be an interesting fight. Prediction: dos Anjos via submission, round 3.
UFC Women’s Bantamweight championship: (1) Valentina Shevchenko (14-2) vs. (c) Amanda Nunes (14-4)
In the main event of the evening, Valentina Shevchenko will finally get her chance to avenge her only UFC loss. That loss came in a very close decision against current champion Amanda Nunes, back in March 2016. Aside from that loss, Shevchenko has won all three of her other UFC bouts, and has only lost one other fight, which was back in September 2010 against UFC veteran Liz Carmouche. Shevchenko has several Muai Thai and Kickboxing championships, but also has black belts in both Taekwondo and Judo, as well as six submission wins in MMA.
As for Nunes, there’s a lot that can be said. The current UFC Women’s Bantamweight champion has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but also has ten wins via knockout. Her skills were evident against Miesha Tate, who she choked out to win the title at UFC 200, and then against a returning Ronda Rousey, who Nunes retired via tko less than a minute into their UFC 207 main event! Both cards sold over 1 million PPVs, but this one likely won’t come anywhere close. Part of that is due to the star power of those cards, and also due to what Nunes has done since. She started acting crazy against Shevchenko in the summer press conference, caused controversy, and then bowed out of the UFC 213 main event on the morning of the card due to sinusitis. All the goodwill she had garnered after the Tate and Rousey fights has pretty much evaporated, and it’s her fault for the most part. That doesn’t mean she’s not skilled, won’t be focused for this fight or anything of the sort. She’s very skilled, very well-rounded, and probably will be even more focused for this fight than most of her previous fights.
All that said, while Shevchenko didn’t get her originally scheduled rematch at UFC 213 in July, she does have her chance to take the title now, and she just might get the job done. Why? One reason: cardio. Of Nunes’ 14 career wins, 11 have come in the opening round. While only one of her losses came in the first round, and it was her pro debut nine years ago, Nunes is only 3-3 in bouts that go past the opening round. What’s more is that her last three losses, against UFC veterans Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano and MMA veteran Sarah D’Alelio, all came in the second or third round. The only bout she’s won past the first round since 2010 was that controversial decision over Shevchenko. Shevchenko has some early finishes too, but often tends to go deep into fights. If this fight goes deep, the longer it goes, the higher the chance of victory for Shevchenko. It’s a tough pick, and my gut tells me Shevchenko will win, but my mind begs to differ for some reason. Gut pick: Shevchenko via decision or late finish. Head pick: Nunes by some unexpected finish.