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UFC 224 predictions, preview, and analysis

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Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to pay-per-view (PPV) this Saturday night (May 12, 2018) with the UFC 224: “Nunes vs. Pennington” mixed martial arts (MMA) event, set to go down inside Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Topping the card is the women’s bantamweight title fight pitting reigning 135-pound queenpin Amanda Nunes opposite top division contender Raquel Pennington. In the middleweight co-main event, hometown hero Ronaldo Souza will look to quell the uprising of welterweight import Kelvin Gastelum.

Elsewhere on the card, Mackenzie Dern will try to live up to the hype when she tangles with veteran strawweight Amanda Cooper, while a couple of legends in Vitor Belfort and Lyoto Machida throw hands for middleweight bragging rights. In addition, Brian Kelleher will attempt to withstand the “Hands of Stone” from Brazilian bomber John Linker.

Before we deconstruct the five-fight main card, let’s take a closer look at what’s doing on the UFC 224 preliminary line up, spread across FX and UFC Fight Pass, by clicking here and here. Odds and betting lines for all the combatants competing this weekend in Brazil can be compared and contrasted here.

With that out of the way, let’s get to work.

135 lbs.: UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Amanda “Lioness” Nunes (15-4) vs. Raquel “Rocky” Pennington (9-5)

Nostradumbass predicts: The fact that Raquel Pennington is fighting for the women’s bantamweight title is a pretty clear indication as to how different the weight class is now compared to just two years back.

Ronda Rousey is retired, Cat Zingano fell out of the top five, Valentina Shevchenko dropped down to a new weight class, and Julianna Pena became a mom. That’s not to suggest “Rocky” hasn’t paid her dues and let’s face it, she was one judge away from upsetting Holly Holm and changing history.

Pennington is the winner of four straight but hasn’t competed since retiring former champion, Miesha Tate, back in late 2016. That’s a significant layoff for an athlete coming into a 25-minute title fight. In addition, her last three victories have all gone to the scorecards and she nearly came up empty against Bethe Correia. How did she get to the top of the 135-pound mountain?

She’s about as tough as they come.

You won’t get a highlight-reel knockout from Pennington and her ground game is what you would expect from someone at her level. She wins most of her contests by being the grittier, more aggressive fighter and she never stops moving forward. It’s hard to knock a gameplan that’s been working ... but it’s not going to cut the mustard against Amanda Nunes.

The Brazilian is to knockouts what Ronda Rousey was to submissions and her only two decision wins came against the aforementioned Shevchenko, herself a decorated striker. Nunes also has a formidable ground game and is currently operating in her prime at age 29. Some of her past losses have been attributed to cardio and that will once again be a concern, but Pennington’s layoff should balance the scales.

This is a very difficult fight for Pennington to win. She does not have knockout power and will need to use her wrestling to tire out the champion and take some of that punching power away. Doing that without taking significant damage — across 25 minutes — seems like a pretty tall order. I know I said she was tough, but there is a difference between tough and invincible.

Final prediction: Nunes def. Pennington by technical knockout

185 lbs.: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (25-5, 1 NC) vs. Kelvin Gastelum (14-3, 1 NC)

Nostradumbass predicts: This is an interesting fight in that like so many other bouts featuring Ronaldo Souza, the outcome is dependent on how much “Jacare” wants to stand and bang. The Brazilian loves to strike and let’s face it, he could stop training jiu-jitsu tomorrow and still finish his career as one of the best grapplers on the roster.

That bodes well for Kelvin Gastelum, an undersized middleweight who also likes to throw heavy leather. If he’s able to lure Souza into a slugfest, his chances of winning improve exponentially. Concerns about Father Time were quickly hushed when “Jacare” slept Derek Brunson back in January and really, what’s the worst thing you can say about him?

He was stopped by Robert Whittaker and lost a close decision to Yoel Romero, who are about to fight for the 185-pound title in Chicago. I suppose you can be less than impressed with his level of competition, but his last five wins have all ended violently. Great fighters are supposed to smoke middle of the pack’rs and his record reflects that greatness.

Gastelum can do just about everything and do it at a high level, but the majority of his wins — particularly at middleweight — have come over aging, shot fighters. Souza is the former but not the latter and his jiu-jitsu takes away a key component of his opponent’s offense. After all, who in their right mind would shoot on “Jacare?” If Gastelum is going to win, he’s going to have to do it on his feet. Certainly not impossible, but again, he gives up size and strength to Souza and that submission loss to Chris Weidman sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Final prediction: Souza def. Gastelum by submission

115 lbs.: Mackenzie Dern (6-0) vs. Amanda “ABC” Cooper (3-3)

Nostradumbass predicts: Gee, what a shock, Mackenzie Dern fighting a strawweight whose three losses have all come by way of submission. That’s what happens when you lay an egg in your Octagon debut and the Brazilian Arizonian — unrivaled on the grappling circuit — quickly realized the tap is not a foregone conclusion in MMA.

That’s because Dern, like every other competitor, has to try to secure the takedown while getting punched and kicked. And let’s be honest, her wrestling is so sloppy that every takedown looks like she’s trying to win a stuffed panda by way of skill crane. As for her striking ... did I mention how good she was at grappling?

This is a winnable fight for Amanda Cooper. While the Golden Gloves boxer does not have Dern’s power, she does make up for it with both precision and speed. That said, if “ABC” trained a lick of boxing during this camp then she’s doomed. This is all about takedown defense and her only path to victory is staying off the floor, which based on her record, is easier said than done.

Dern is such a high-level grappler that she doesn’t need the submission to win, because her ground control is enough to keep Cooper floored and fighting defensively until she either makes a mistake or gets saved by the bell. That’s really the story of this fight and the “striker vs. grappler” formula UFC was founded on. Without the fear of the knockout, Dern has the freedom to walk forward and chuck haymakers until she’s close enough to make contact. From there, she simply has to replicate what lesser grapplers have already accomplished.

Final prediction: Dern def. Cooper by submission

135 lbs.: John “Hands of Stone” Lineker (30-8) vs. Brian “Boom” Kelleher (19-8)

Nostradumbass predicts: This is a fun fight, for obvious reasons, as we’re dealing with two bantamweights with 32 finishes between them. Not fights ... finishes. I might cry myself to sleep if this potential “Fight of the Night” goes to a decision. Aside from that, the 135-pound weight class needs John Lineker because he’s one of the few smaller fighters who can win a fight by way of devastating knockout.

You know, when he’s not getting taken down and abused.

“Hands of Stone” can really handle just about anything outside of elite wrestling, apparent from his lopsided loss to TJ Dillashaw. He was unfazed by the speed of John Dodson and his chin laughed at the power of the since-departed Michael McDonald. The best part about Lineker is that he tries to finish the fight from bell-to-bell. No bobbing and weaving, no bicycles, just walk forward and punch.

Whether or not Brian Kelleher wants to play that game may depend on how long his ego (and his chin) hold up. “Boom” has laid waste to his fair share of bantamweights but none with the beard of Lineker. He may not need it, as five of his eight submission wins have come by way of guillotine choke, like the one he used to finish veteran bantamweight Iuri Alcantara.

Lineker has not competed in nearly seven months and he’ll undoubtedly be looking to make a statement in his native Brazil. But his zeal in looking for the fatal blow may leave him vulnerable to something sneaky and simple ... and something “Boom” has done multiple times throughout his career.

Final prediction: Kelleher def. Lineker by submission

185 lbs.: Vitor “The Phenom” Belfort (26-13, 1 NC) vs. Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida (23-8)

Nostradumbass predicts: There was a time when this all-Brazilian battle would have headlined a major PPV fight card. You know, back when Lyoto Machida was drinking urine smoothies and Vitor Belfort was killing people with TRT-fueled head kicks. These days it’s just a sad reminder of how far they’ve both fallen.

Machida recently snapped a three-fight losing streak — where he was finished all three times — with a tepid, split-decision win over the unheralded Eryk Anders. Belfort, meanwhile, got stopped in three losses of his own before rebounding against the equally deteriorated Nate Marquardt. To be fair, “The Phenom” did have his loss to Kelvin Gastelum overturned because duh, pot makes you punch harder.

Both fighters rely on their striking to get the job done, albeit in different ways. Machida likes to throw from a distance, then scurry out of danger. Belfort prefers to throw violent flurries and try to overwhelm his opponents with punches in bunches. So, with that in mind, I think you know where I’m going with this.

The good news is, we only have to endure it for three rounds. “The Phenom” will chase after Machida and try to land something of merit, while “The Dragon” will attempt to counterpunch his way to victory. Both are competent jiu-jitsu practitioners, but is anyone really expecting them to wrestle? If I had to pick a finish I would think Machida is more likely to crumble, based on his horrible defense against Anders, but first he needs to get trapped against the fence.

Meh.

Final prediction: Belfort def. Machida by split decision

There you have it.

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 224 fight card on fight night (click here), starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on FX at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.

For much more on UFC 224 click here.