At UFC 277, Julianna Peña will have the chance to repeat her December heroics when she defends her belt against the all-time great Amanda Nunes. The MMA world was brought to a standstill in December when Peña challenged Nunes' ego in the cage and went strike-for-strike with the Brazilian. Many expected Nunes to come out on top but Peña's jab, coupled with an undying tenacity, broke Nunes who submitted in the second round. Peña has done a lot of talking since then and the UFC even wrapped the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter around this rivalry. It may not be the highest quality fight but the questions heading into it are undeniably engrossing.
In the co-main event, Brandon Moreno and Kai Kara-France meet again. This time, however, there's some gold on the line. Deiveson Figueiredo's inability to defend the belt due to injury has contributed to the UFC creating another interim belt. These two first met back in 2019 and, despite Kara-France dropping Moreno early in that fight, the former champion gutted it out and mounted a strong comeback to win on the scorecards. It marked Moreno's first win in the UFC since returning to the organisation while Kara-France tasted defeat for the first time in his UFC career. The two have drastically improved their games since. Moreno went on to win the belt and cement himself as a star while Kara-France put together an impressive hit-list to mount this well-deserved title challenge. This has serious Fight of the Year potential.
Elsewhere on the main card, knockout artist Derrick Lewis returns to action after the loss to Tai Tuivasa back in February. His opponent, Sergei Pavlovich, will be looking to improve his winning streak to four. Someone's going to sleep here.
Alexandre Pantoja and Alex Perez lock horns in one of the most interesting Flyweight matches that can be made outside of the title fight.
Magomed Ankalaev and Anthony Smith open up the main card in a fight that will have sizable ramifications on the title picture at Light Heavyweight.
Let's get into these predictions, shall we?
Julianna Peña x Amanda Nunes
I'm intrigued to see how Amanda Nunes bounces back in this one. She tried to swing in the pocket with Peña in a similar manner to her title-winning performance against Cris Cyborg but she was beaten to the punch in almost every exchange, quite literally. We've not seen the Lionness have to lick her wounds and fester on a loss for a very, very long time. It was seven straight years without defeat for Nunes so it will be interesting to see how she looks against an incredibly confident Julianna Peña.
Peña did the unthinkable at UFC 269 and seems totally convinced that the same will happen again. While her confidence was laughed at back in December before the fight, nowadays it's hard to doubt her when she goes on a tirade.
Stylistically, Nunes has all the tools to make quick work of Peña. Don't get me wrong, Peña fought the perfect fight the first time around but a lot of Nunes' downfall came from her insistence on walking into the jab just to try and land something impactful in return. Many forget that she was electric in the first round and almost finished the fight. Nunes is a better striker, carries more power in her shots and is a better submission grappler too.
This reminds me of when George St-Pierre lost to Serra in a shock result only to destroy him in the rematch. Nunes' ego is going nowhere but I think she'll fight with more poise and patience this time around. One thing's for certain, Nunes likes finishing people with their own patented moves: she brawled with Cyborg, head-kicked Holly Holm, and choked out Miesha Tate. I'm calling it now: she's going to hurt Peña on the feet, follow her to the ground and submit her in the same way she was submitted.
Pick: Amanda Nunes by submission
Brandon Moreno x Kai Kara-France
Anyone who has known me for a while - or followed the website - will know that Flyweight is my absolute favourite division. I love that a division which was once on the cusp of being dissolved has managed to find popularity and cultivate stars. Brandon Moreno is one of those stars - a man who the UFC once cut despite a record of 3-2 in the organisation. Go watch his walkout against Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 270 in California and tell me the guy isn't a superstar.
Kai Kara-France is no slouch himself - he has a whole continent behind him, hails from one of the most star-studded camps in MMA and less than 12 months ago knocked out one of the sport's most popular faces in Cody Garbrandt.
As I mentioned in the opening to this prediction piece, these two fought back in 2019. While the fight is undoubtedly entertaining, I think both have improved so much that it's impossible to prognosticate the outcome of this rematch based upon what happened three years ago. It's important to look at the fighters that both men have evolved into.
The evolution of Moreno's striking should come as no surprise due to his cultural background and the time spent at Entram Gym but the fact is that he has become one of the premier strikers in the division. He still has that gangly and awkward stance as he sways back and forth but that works in his favour as he's able to disguise an efficient jab behind it. A few years ago, Moreno was all action on the feet but there was little genuine technique behind it; he's now managed to combine that same dogged approach with legitimate technique.
Kara-France we always knew was a scrapper. It's no surprise - at least not to me - that he's managed to work his way to the title after multiple setbacks. Two things have improved for Kara-France above all else: the power in his strikes and his defensive grappling. Make no mistake about it, Kara-France has always hit hard for the division but he's added a notch of patience to his game that has contributed to tighter striking techniques as opposed to sloppy flurries. His teammate Israel Adesanya once said "I don't just hit and hope - I aim and fire" and I think this applies perfectly to Kara-France's newfound striking style.
What I'm most intrigued about in this fight are the grappling exchanges. Moreno is one of the slickest scramblers and back-takers in the game but, after his fight with Askar Askarov, Kara-France proved that he wasn't a slouch on the ground. The entire first round was largely contested by Askarov having his back and Kara-France stayed patient, defended well and managed to secure the win that got him this shot at interim gold. It's easier to defend takedowns and grappling exchanges when you know for certain that your opponent is going to do nothing but initiate those sequences while striking very little, however. I don't want this to take away from Kara-France's sensational performance but it's a fact. Moreno isn't a better wrestler than Askarov but it's an entirely different game when a guy is jabbing your face and then changing levels.
Moreno will feel like he's taken Kara-France's best shots and lived to tell the tale. He also survived a trilogy against the number one knockout artist in the history of the division without getting finished once. I expect to see him swagger his way around the cage, take a few hits from Kara-France and push the pace until his opponent breaks. Moreno's game is perfectly suited to the 25-minute format while we've never seen Kara-France in that environment.
Moreno isn't Askarov. If he gets Kara-France's back, there's a big chance he will submit him. A large chunk of Kara-France's career losses have come via submission and while he's improved exponentially as a grappler, I'm not sure it's enough to stifle Moreno for five rounds.
Pick: Brandon Moreno by submission
Derrick Lewis x Sergei Pavlovich
I can't believe how small of a favourite Derrick Lewis is in this fight. All of Pavlovich's three UFC wins have come against fighters who are no longer in the organisation. I have no idea how he's stayed ranked all of these years, let alone #11 as of this fight.
I don't have a major amount to break down here stylistically. It really boils down to the fact that Lewis only loses to elite heavyweight competition and absolutely clobbers everyone else. He's one of the greatest knockout artists the sport has ever seen and he's made a career of brutalising his opponents even when they appear to be on the cusp of victory.
Pavlovich isn't Ciryl Gane or Tai Tuivasa, and this fight isn't taking place in Houston so Lewis will be able to avoid the nerves and insurmountable levels of expectation.
Knockout number 14 for Lewis.
Pick: Derrick Lewis by KO/TKO
Alexandre Pantoja x Alex Perez
In another timeline, Pantoja is fighting for the belt already. He has two wins over Moreno and has beaten some of the best names in the division.
We haven't seen Alex Perez since his first-round defeat in the title match against Figueiredo back in 2020 - a fight where he looked very good early on until Figueiredo locked in a tight guillotine choke. Perez has seen a whopping seven fights cancelled in the last year and a half.
Pantoja's been out of action for almost 12 months - a combination of a minor logjam at the top of the division and waiting around for a title shot. Even if he wins on Saturday, Pantoja will still have to wait for the title picture to resolve itself as the belt will need unifying before he can call next. It's a tricky situation for the Brazilian as he's very clearly one of the best in his division.
Alex Perez might be the best fighter to come out of Dana White's Contender Series to date. He's a dangerous kicker with a wild submission game and respectable wrestling too, both offensively and defensively.
I'll always err on the side of caution with fighters who haven't fought for a large period of time but the difference here is that Perez has had seven fight camps leading up to this. It's not as though he's been totally inactive. It takes a ridiculous amount of mental fortitude to suffer the setbacks that he has and continue to power through.
For as brilliant as Pantoja is, he can be quite slow on the feet and patient in his striking. We don't often see many combinations out of the Brazilian, rather a steady output of singular strikes. If he tries to fight patiently against Perez, I can see him getting his lead leg beaten up and simply finding himself outpaced. I wouldn't be surprised if Perez initiates his wrestling game against Pantoja whose defence is quite pourous. Part of me wants 15 minutes of these two just scrambling for position on the mat as they're both lethal submission artists.
Perez seems laser-focused and raring to go while Pantoja has kind of just accepted a fight because he knows he won't be getting a shot at the belt any time soon. I'm not sure where his motivations will be for this fight but I'm trusting the pace, output and diverse striking arsenal of Perez to cause Pantoja serious issues.
Pick: Alex Perez by decision
Magomed Ankalaev x Anthony Smith
Anthony Smith is one of my favourite fighters in the UFC. A lot of people chuckle and wait for the punchline when I say that but I genuinely mean it. There aren't many fighters in this world that can have a record of 5 wins and 6 losses in the early stages of their career and go on to contend for UFC gold. It just doesn't happen. Smith has one hell of an underdog story and I'll always root for him.
As much as I will always go to bat for Smith, the blueprint to beating him isn't locked away somewhere. It's out in public for all to see. The way to beat Smith is to press him, negate his striking tools at long range and work him up against the fence or on the ground. And it turns out he's fighting a man in Magomed Ankalaev who excels in doing just that.
Despite the obvious knockout power that Ankalaev carries, his ascent through the rankings has been built on a fairly low-output approach with a lot of clinch control and ground work. It's garnered him a fair few critics, especially in his recent five-round fight against Thiago Santos. Smith is pretty impressive off his back but Ankalaev is dominant in the top position to the point that I don't think Smith's jiu-jitsu will dissuade him from getting the fight to the ground.
I don't think Ankalaev will earn any new fans on Saturday - and he certainly runs the risk of losing the few he has left - but it will be another routine win in his bid for the title.
Pick: Magomed Ankalaev by decision
Alex Morono x Matthew Semelsberger
I'm pretty interested in the first round of this fight. After that, my interest dwindles and crashes fairly hard.
Alex Morono is a fast-starter who tries to swarm his opponents early in the fight with a flurry of strikes. His three UFC finishes have come in the first round (and he boasts another eight of those outside of the promotion). Matthew Semelsberger happens to hold two of the fastest knockouts in Welterweight history at 16 seconds and 15 seconds respectively.
Despite their knack for finishing fights early, there's a clear distinction in the way that they do their work in the opening round: Morono generally wins through a combination of strikes and ridiculously high output while Semelsberger simply punishes his opponents' lack of fight IQ with one-hitter quitters.
If Morono fights like he normally does, Semelsberger is going to put him out to pasture. There isn't a world in which Morono can swarm Semelsberger like he did Donald Cerrone and not end up on his backside. Morono is a better fighter when he's mixing a sound technical kickboxing game with his workmanlike wrestling. If he fights intelligently and mixes things up, it should be a fairly routine victory for him. He's a better mixed martial artist than Semelsberger.
Pick: Alex Morono by decision
Drew Dober x Rafael Alves
Do you enjoy watching fighters with a kill-or-get-killed mentality? Well, boy, have I got just the fight for you.
By this point, Dober is a known quantity and veteran of the UFC. He's often either knocking people out cold or getting submitted. Alves, on the other hand, has only had two UFC fights but put on a spectacular performance against Marc Diakiese in his most recent outing. Both of these men hit hard, strike at a high rate and can endlessly grapple (unless they're up against world-class wrestlers).
I have no idea how this is going to go, truly, and I won't pretend otherwise. I can't sit here and prognosticate an outcome based on styles because either guy has the tools to finish the fight. One thing I'm certain of is that I don't envision this fight going the distance.
I think I'll back Dober's experience having fought a higher calibre of fighters but I'm not at all confident in the pick.
Pick: Drew Dober by KO/TKO
Don'Tale Mayes x Hamdy Abdelwahab
Heavyweights! You all know how much I love my middling, unranked heavyweights. Chase Sherman, Josh Parisian, Alan Baudot, Parker Porter - how can you not love them?!
Here we have Don'Tale Mayes - who has somehow won two fights in a row - taking on Hamdy Abdelwahab who I did not know existed until a couple of days ago. This is premium heavyweight matchmaking; this is certainly a fight in which things will happen.
All I know for certain is that Abdelwahab's last opponent looked like this:
I won't waste any more characters on this fight. Mayes is a known quantity and will probably grapple his way to victory.
Pick: Don'Tale Mayes by KO/TKO
Drakkar Klose x Rafa Garcia
I'm so happy that Drakkar Klose is competing regularly again. After two years of inactivity, he returned against Brandon Jenkins and beat the man from pillar to post. It was a ruthless and brutal striking display from a fighter who, prior to the inactivity, was one of the 20 best Lightweights in the organisation. People forget he was well on his way to victory against Beneil Dariush until Dariush mounted a crazy comeback win. Dariush is now a top 5 Lightweight by my reckoning.
Rafa Garcia has started to put together a string of wins in the UFC. He's a scrappy fighter, similarly to Klose, and is more than happy to exchange in the pocket with his opponent until someone drops. He's slick on the ground but doesn't display it as often as you'd expect - if you come to scrap, he's going to oblige. Few love a brawl more than Klose so I'm expecting fireworks here.
As much as Garcia enjoys striking, the difference between him and Klose is that Klose has a few career wins by knockout. Garcia has one and it was four years ago. He's more of a club-and-sub style of fighter - deal damage on the feet and submit you when you drop.
I expect to see Klose win most of the striking exchanges and, if he can avoid the sneaky grappling of Garcia, he'll come out on top. Garcia has never been knocked out and Klose has just the one career knockout loss so this has all the makings of a potential Fight of the Night.
Pick: Drakkar Klose by decision
Michael Morales x Adam Fugitt
At just 23 years old, and off the back of an emphatic win over Trevin Giles, Michael Morales is undoubtedly a super prospect at 170lbs. He's a rampant and explosive fighter who knows how to finish fights. He was initially set to fight grappling whizz Ramiz Brahimaj but the New Yorker pulled out due to injury. As such, in steps Adam Fugitt on short notice.
Fugitt is similarly explosive but certainly less technically adept. He has been KO'd and out-grappled in the past but has managed to carve out a respectable career in the regional scene.
Make no mistake about it, however: Fugitt is simply a warm body for Morales to maul in this fight. Morales is faster, has a lot of sting at the end of his long strikes, and parlays that with an impressive offensive wrestling game. His explosive style sees him expend a lot of energy which could cause him issues in the future, but Fugitt won't survive long enough to test that gas tank.
Pick: Michael Morales by KO/TKO
Ji Yeon Kim x Joselyne Edwards
I'm genuinely really excited for this fight. Ji Yeon Kim has been in back-to-back Fights of the Night and, despite losing in both, certainly put on wildly entertaining performances. She's all forward-pressure and zero head movement. Is she a great fighter? No. Is she fun to watch? Absolutely.
Joselyne Edwards has had a fun and historic UFC run, thus far. In her debut, she became the first Panamanian to win a UFC fight. She then took on two fighters who decided to wrestle her (boo!) before putting a beating on Ramona Pascual just last month before her gas tank began to deplete.
That's the interesting part of this fight, for me: Kim has pretty respectable cardio while Edwards - due in part to her acrobatic and quick starts - is known to fade as the fight goes on.
Kim has absorbed damage from some of the hardest hitters at Flyweight and I wonder how long she'll be able to continue doing so until it finally catches up with her. I think Edwards will be the first person to finish Kim.
Edwards is a relentless striker who focuses most of her attacks down the centre - push kicks to the body and face, knees, jabs etc. Kim never moves her head off the centre line. It's why she keeps losing fights that she could otherwise win. I expect to see her stalk Edwards around the cage while eating strike after strike. One of those will connect - probably a front kick - and she'll effectively crumble.
Pick: Joselyne Edwards by KO/TKO
Nick Negumereanu x Ihor Potieria
I'm quite excited to see the debut of Ihor Potieria after his emphatic victory in the Contender Series last year but he has one hell of a test ahead of him in Nick Negumereanu.
Since joining the UFC, Negumereanu has developed a knack for striking. Prior to joining the organisation, he was known for ankle-picking opponents and slamming them - he even has a slam knockout on his record. His athleticism and wrestling got him to the dance but now he's found success with his hands. He has a nasty overhand right and a solid jab to go with it.
Potieria boasts an impressive record but we have yet to see him fight credible opponents. He strikes out of a wide stance with his chin high in the air. Against a powerful striker like Negumereanu, he runs the risk of getting his lead leg beaten up or his chin wiped out.
It's a pretty tough fight for Potieria to be debuting in as Negumereanu's game continues to develop steadily. He hasn't been wrestling much but against a combat sambo and pankration fighter like Potieria, I imagine these two will grapple often and we'll likely see Negumereanu shine as a byproduct.
Pick: Nick Negumereanu by decision
Orion Cosce x Blood Diamond
Mike Mathetha, aka Blood Diamond, is one of the weirder fighters in the UFC. If not for his eye-catching name and his allegiance with Israel Adesanya, I don't think we'd be seeing him fight for a second time in the organisation. He doesn't appear to be a good MMA fighter and, at 34 years of age, time certainly isn't in his favour to develop his grappling.
I know he's had a multitude of kickboxing fights across the globe but he's hardly a world class kickboxer like Alex Pereira. Even his teammate Adesanya had more than ten MMA fights before joining the UFC. Blood Diamond has had four in total, including his UFC debut.
Despite also losing his debut, Orion Cosce looked good in spurts against Phil Rowe before he was finished. Outside of the UFC, Cosce made a career out of dragging his opponents to the ground and smashing them with elbows or submitting them. He'll only need one takedown against Blood Diamond who, when he himself hit the ground against Jeremiah Wells, quickly succumbed to the pressure and tapped. Cosce won't spend any time engaging with Blood Diamond on the feet - I expect him to level change right off the bat and finish the Zimbabwean with relative ease.
Pick: Orion Cosce by submission.