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UFC 246 predictions, preview, and analysis

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Conor McGregor returns to mixed martial arts (MMA) this weekend and let’s face it, “Notorious” is to Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) what Christmas is to retail, as Dana White and Co. make enough money in these few short weeks to last them the entire fiscal year. In fact, four of the top five pay-per-view (PPV) records belong to the power-punching Irishman and only Brock Lesnar and UFC 100 prevent him from the clean sweep.

What makes McGregor so special?

Well, it’s hard to say these days. At one time, “Notorious” held simultaneous titles in two separate weight classes and seemed virtually unstoppable, but then losses to Floyd Mayweather and Khabib Nurmagomedov — coupled with just one cage fight since late 2016 — left him resting on his laurels. Beating longtime veteran Donald Cerrone in the UFC 246 welterweight main event this Sat. night (Jan. 18, 2020) inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, not only resurrects his title shot, it reinforces his place among the combat sports elite.

UFC 246 has other fights as well, believe it or not, including the bantamweight co-headliner between Holly Holm and Raquel Pennington. “The Preacher’s Daughter” has suffered a considerable fall from grace after capturing the 135-pound title way back in 2015 and this three-round rematch will tell us a lot about the ex-champ’s future. Elsewhere on the card, former lightweight kingpin, Anthony Pettis, tries to stay relevant opposite Brazilian standout, Diego Ferreira. Hulking heavyweights Maurice Greene and Aleksei Oleinik will also see action

Before we break down the UFC 246 main card, which lost a major PPV fight earlier today when Alexa Grasso failed to make the strawweight limit, go ahead and take a look at what MMA whiz kid Patrick Stumberg had to say about the UFC 246 preliminary bouts, spread across ESPN and the UFC Fight Pass digital network, by clicking here and here. Latest odds and a complete betting guide for all the “McGregor vs. Cowboy” action can be located here.

Let’s get to work.

170 lbs.: “Notorious” Conor McGregor (21-4) vs. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (36-13, 1 NC)

Here is a stat that will not surprise you, assuming you’ve been paying attention to what Donald Cerrone has done over the course of his UFC career. Since Conor McGregor lost to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 back in Oct. 2018, “Cowboy” has competed five times — with three of those opponents being ranked in the Top 5 at the time they fought — and a total of 11 times since “Notorious” captured a majority decision win over Nate Diaz in late 2016. That’s how you break promotion records for wins and finishes and it’s also how you wear yourself down to practically nothing, which is why Cerrone is coming off back-to-back losses (while also getting knocked out three times over the last two-plus years). That’s really what this match up boils down to on fight night and it kinda sucks because the “Cowboy” from 2014-2016 turns 2020 McGregor into Irish stew.

Unfortunately it’s neither 2014 nor 2016 so we have to work with what we have. Cerrone was and remains a violent kickboxer with top-shelf submissions who can sometimes be his own worst enemy. Look at how he shit the bed against Nate Diaz and Rafael dos Anjos. Those weren’t physical limitations and part of me wonders if the new “dad’ version of Cerrone who no longer surfs on the backs of sharks or wakeboards inside active volcanoes can pull the trigger against an opponent who will be precise, powerful, and moving forward. Remember, a prime “Cowboy” was completely obliterated by Jorge Masvidal at UFC on FOX 23 and what happened against Justin Gaethje had a lot of insiders wondering if Cerrone was done.

It hasn’t been all wine and roses for McGregor, either, who went belly up against Nurmagomedov in his first fight back since getting worked by Floyd Mayweather in their much-ballyhooed boxing match. I don’t want to go crazy about “The Eagle” knockdown he suffered in round two of their UFC 229 headliner because in many ways you can take that fight altogether and just throw it in the trash. Fighting Nurmagomedov is basically five rounds of trying to not get taken down, which changes the way you stand, takes away your power, and has you second-guessing every piece of offense. Not even a cage general like McGregor is immune to that sort of disadvantage — both physically and mentally — so it’s not a strong barometer for where he stands coming into UFC 246. True, ring rust is real, but so is time off to recharge your batteries, which allows for refocused energy. Besides, when you hit as hard as McGregor does, you don’t need the bullseye, you just need to find the outer circle.

Aside from being cliche, it’s also inaccurate to call this a battle of striker vs. grappler because Cerrone is also a striker. He just happens to be a sneaky submission specialist and well, McGregor’s ground defense reminds me of that flopping fish in the closing seconds of “Epic” by Faith No More. If Cerrone comes out of the gate spamming takedowns there is a pretty solid chance he’ll win this fight, because McGregor is a shitty defensive wrestler and below average on the ground. But honestly, does that sound like something “Cowboy” would do? He’s an adrenaline junkie, not a tactician, and stopping McGregor with strikes amid an arena of screams would provide a rush like no other. Unfortunately, he’s too shopworn to make it happen and despite some early success with his kicks, Cerrone is going to eat something flush and fold up like George Jetson’s space car.

Final prediction: McGregor def Cerrone by technical knockout

135 lbs.: Holly “The Preacher’s Daughter” Holm (12-5) vs. Raquel “Rocky” Pennington (10-7)

Holly Holm has taken a beating over the last few years, both literally and figuratively, and it was disappointing to see her upset win over Ronda Rousey, one of the most talked-about moments in the history of combat sports, get followed up with a dreadful 2-5 record, which includes an 0-4 run in championship title fights. There’s also a flip side to that coin, in that all five of those losses have come against current and former champions and she was only finished once, courtesy of Amanda Nunes. That’s hardly a knock against “The Preacher’s Daughter” when you consider that “Lioness” treats the women’s bantamweight division like Jason Voorhees treats camp counselors at Crystal Lake. In addition, it was her inability to make adjustments that cost her most of those decision losses and you could even score the Germaine de Randamie fight in her favor. The judges didn’t, so we shouldn’t either, but for the purposes of illustrating her combat readiness for UFC 246, those little details matter.

In many ways, Raquel Pennington is not unlike her fight night foe, having announced herself as a true contender by playing the role of straw to Miesha Tate’s camel back, part of a four-fight win streak that erased the memory of her razor-thin decision loss to Holm way back at UFC 184 in Los Angeles. In spite of a two-year injury layoff, “Rocky” had enough momentum to capitalize on a division starved of contenders. Once again, Nunes established herself as a god among mortals with a violent, technical knockout win at UFC 224. Pennington would come up short in her follow-up fight to De Randamie, before squeaking by Irena Aldana last July. If you asked me to highlight the differences between that performance and the one she turned in against Holm, I would probably tell you there are none. Pennington is not particularly athletic as a fighter and doesn't have knockout power, but she’s tougher than an overcooked brisket and has outstruck her opponents in six of her seven UFC wins. Not too shabby.

I really want to say nice things about this fight because it’s being contested by two well-respected veterans who are ranked in the Top 5. But I also watched their first fight and Holm was 44 of 210 (20%) on significant strikes against 40 of 139 (28%) for Pennington. Those are some pretty awful numbers for strikers and as much as I loathe cliches like “styles make fights,” their styles make a fight that is inherently boring. Neither combatant has changed all that much but I’m picking Holm because she entered the UFC 184 contest as a boxer who trained MMA. Fast-forward to 2020 and “The Preacher’s Daughter” is a bona fide MMA fighter who understands cage awareness, clinch work, and wrestling. How much of that is on display remains to be seen, but this is only a three-round fight and Pennington may take too long to adjust for it to matter in front of the judges.

Final prediction: Holm def. Pennington by unanimous decision

265 lbs.: Maurice “Crochet Boss” Greene (8-3) vs. Aleksei “Boa Constrictor” Oleinik (57-13-1)

Maurice Greene earned his place among the current crop of UFC heavyweights by way of producer-friendly personality on season 28 of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). When it came time to back up some of that trash talk, however, “Crochet Boss” was bounced in the semifinals by the more technically-savvy Juan Espino Dieppa. Naturally, the promotion wanted to squeeze whatever juice was left from that season and asked the marketable Greene to return for the live finale, where he summarily disposed of fellow TUF 28 reject, Michel Batista. What followed were back-to-back wins over Jeff Hughes and Junior Albini and it looked as though Greene was finding his place among the Top 15 ... right up until Sergei Pavlovich planished him at UFC Singapore in late 2019. We don’t have a tremendous body of work to draw conclusions from but it looks like Greene is good (not great) and the weight class benefits him as it does so many others because 265 pounds of force does not always require a ton of skill to be effective.

A couple of years ago I would have laughed at a match up like this because Greene would be a typical warm-up fight for a staunch veteran like Aleksei Oleinik. After all, the “Boa Constrictor” holds a staggering 45 wins by submission. Most guys will never see 45 fights in their MMA careers and if they do, it comes with a free pair of Depends. The reason Greene is a slight betting favorite is because the bookies are scared of Oleinik’s age (42) and his two-fight losing streak, which returned two first-round knockouts. That said, Walt Harris looked just as surprised as the rest of us when the ref waved him off, so I’m not sure his 11-second knockout was the result of some master plan. It’s also worth pointing out that Greene has a five-inch height advantage but their reach remains the same (80”), not that I expect either fighter to pump the jab and work angles. It’s a heavyweight fight and there are likely to be few surprises.

Oleinik is (and always was) a liability on his feet but even more so now at this stage of his career. There are a lot of miles on those Russian tires. At the same time, it’s pretty much a wrap if this fight gets to the floor. I wish I had something more scientific to present but this is literally a case of Greene trying to score the knockout before Oleinik can tie him up and drag him down. Until I see more than a new pair of mittens from the still developing “Crochet Boss,” I’m taking the submission-savvy “Boa Constrictor,” who already proved he can avoid the big punch in recent taps over Mark Hunt and Travis Browne (just to name a few). Greene could probably flip the script and land a takedown of his own, but something tells me his pride is going to take over after last October’s loss to another venerable Russian.

Final prediction: Oleinik def. Greene by submission

***Note: Claudia Gadelha vs. Alexa Grasso has been scratched from the UFC 246 PPV card (full report here).

155 lbs.: Diego Ferreira (16-2) vs. Anthony “Showtime” Pettis (22-9)

I don’t want to say Anthony Pettis is the boy who cried wolf, but it seems like every time he changes weight classes, comes off a big loss, or draws a big-name opponent, we get to hear about how much “Showtime” has grown as a fighter, why he’s in a better place, and how the most recent turn of events made him more self aware. Unfortunately for the former 155-pound champion, his record would suggest otherwise. Pettis, now 32, has not won back-to-back fights in over five years across a span of 11 bouts in three different weight classes. Finally back at lightweight where he belongs, the longtime Roufusport standout will try to remind fans why he was widely-regarded as one of the best fighters on the planet. I can tell you with some degree of certainty that when Pettis submitted Gilbert Melendez at UFC 181 back in late 2014, it didn’t look as though his reign of terror would end anytime soon. That’s what makes this sport so great, because you can bank on predictors and trends and past results, only to have it all go out the window with one fight.

Slightly older but no less talented is Brazilian wunderkind Diego Ferreira, who remains unranked at 155 pounds despite a five-fight win streak that includes two violent knockouts. I would normally use this opportunity to rag on the UFC rankings panel but to be fair, Ferreira has not beaten anyone in the Top 15 and sports previous losses to both Beneil Dariush and Dustin Poirier. I’m not sure what adjustments he’s made since his 2015 struggles but they’ve certainly paid off. I don’t want to pop the bubbly for wins against the likes of Kyle Nelson, but his patient, methodical attack opposite Russian bruiser Mairbek Taisumov spoke volumes about his maturity as a fighter. As with any Brazilian import Ferreira has a formidable ground game with crafty submissions, you just wouldn't know it based on his inferior wrestling, a surprising weak point for a veteran of the ground game. It should be worth mentioning that his only submission came over Colton Smith in his UFC debut so perhaps his decision to favor the stand-up was instrumental in his recent success. I think the outcome of this fight will support or refute that theory, as Pettis loves to bang and has the knockouts to prove it.

When you’ve been competing for as long as Pettis, particularly on the big stage, it doesn’t take a whole lot of tape to figure out what’s in store. The “Showtime” who steps into the cage in 2020 is not that far removed from the one who crossed over from World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) almost a decade ago. That means Ferreira is a highlight reel waiting to happen every second he chooses to remain on his feet. His coach’s contention that he can find his range or work out the kinks in the first round is not only silly, it’s perilous. Thankfully for Team Ferreira, that’s never been his forte, as the Brazilian is more interested in charging forward with flying fists, something Pettis has never really done well against. Even without the ugly-ass takedowns implemented by Eddie Alvarez, or the varied cage attack from Rafael dos Anjos, Ferreira can still bully his way to a decision victory by taking away his opponent’s space. Pettis without space is like a fish without water, there is no mobility and no room to breathe. That said, “Showtime” is just as dangerous on the ground as he is on the feet (see Henderson, Ben), so one careless mistake from Ferreira and it’s curtains. I’m not sure that’s the kind of outcome I would bank on, all things considered.

Final prediction: Ferreira def. Pettis by unanimous decision

There you have it.

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 246 fight card this weekend RIGHT HERE, starting with the Fight Pass/ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

To check out the latest and greatest “McGregor vs. Cerrone” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here. For the entire UFC 246 fight card and PPV line up click here.