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UFC 229: Khabib vs. McGregor predictions

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UFC 229 is finally here.

The biggest fight of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s career. Another chapter in the legend of Conor McGregor. And one of the most highly-anticipated UFC cards of the year.

Top to bottom, this fight card has something for everyone, starting with the titanic main event between Nurmagomedov and McGregor which will determine who is the undisputed king of arguably the sport’s deepest division. Nurmagomedov has never lost in 26 pro fights, McGregor has lost just once in 10 UFC appearances.

The co-headliner is more than worthy of its own hype as the indomitable Tony Ferguson looks to run up his incredible win streak to 11 when he takes on former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis. Though it is only scheduled for three rounds, Ferguson will be looking to make a champion’s statement after being stripped of an interim title earlier this year due to injury, while Pettis could steal his thunder with an upset win.

In other main card action, light heavyweight finishers Ovince Saint Preux and Dominick Reyes look to add to their highlight reel, Derrick Lewis faces fast-rising heavyweight Alexander Volkov, who is 4-0 in the UFC so far, and strawweight veterans Michelle Waterson and Felice Herrig compete to stay in the contenders’ circle of the heated 115-pound division.

The UFC matchmakers should be applauded for putting together such a strong main card, one that will have the most proficient prognosticators questioning their picks until the cage doors close.

What: UFC 229

Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

When: Saturday, Oct. 6. The three-fight UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET, the four-fight FOX Sports 1 preliminary card begins at 8 p.m. ET, and the five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET.


Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor

Predicting this fight should be easy: Khabib Nurmagomedov’s wrestling is too much for Conor McGregor. Once he gets the takedown, Nurmagomedov will simply do what he always does, and that’s make his opponent’s life a living hell with non-stop ground-and-pound and repeated trips to the mat.

Simple, right?

And yet nothing is ever simple when it comes to “The Notorious.”

Chad Mendes was the first wrestler who was going to derail the McGregor hype train. Then the legendary Jose Aldo was going to make short work of the Irish upstart. There was no way McGregor could beat Nate Diaz in their rematch after being humbled in the first encounter. And Eddie Alvarez was supposed to stomp out McGregor’s dreams of two-division supremacy.

One by one, McGregor inevitably got the better of each of them, guided by his slick striking and a left hand that seemed capable of denting even the most ironclad chin. He faced plenty of adversity along the way, especially in the two Diaz bouts, but the man himself has referred those brushes with disaster as signs of his resilience, and there’s some truth in that.

If anyone can come back from being taken down and pummeled by Nurmagomedov, it’s McGregor, but therein lies the big “if”. It might not be possible for any figher to stop Nurmagomedov when his wrestling is on point.

Neither man gets enough credit for shoring up their supposed weaknesses. Nurmagomedov out-struck the hard-hitting Al Iaquinta for much of their five-round encounter in April, and McGregor actually showed flashes of his grappling potential when he managed to sweep Diaz in their first encounter (though he would later lose by submission, it was due to him desperately looking to take the fight to the ground after Diaz pieced him up on the feet).

But at the end of the day, this will come down to which man can impose their greatest strength on the contest. And there are few people who are better at anything in MMA than Nurmagomedov is at wrestling. If there’s any chance that McGregor has “Octagon rust” having not competed in MMA since November 2016, that will make it even easier for Nurmagomedov to take control.

And if McGregor’s sometimes suspect gas tank rears it’s ugly head, he might not even last the whole 25 minutes.

Nurmagomedov by third-round TKO.

Pick: Nurmagomedov

Tony Ferguson vs. Anthony Pettis

How do you begin to dissect this matchup between two of the most versatile and talented fighters in the lightweight division?

Though his results have been uneven over the past few years, Anthony Pettis remains as skilled as anyone at 155 pounds. His striking is as thrilling as ever and he never lost the submission game that made him a world champion five years ago. Where there are questions is in his defense and ability to fight uphill.

When things aren’t going Pettis’s way, he struggles to turn the tide back in his favor. This might have to do with him being too patient, too willing to let his opponent dictate the pace. He cannot allow this to happen against Ferguson.

“El Cucuy” is a superb grappler and he’s more than capable of shutting down the dynamic submission attack of Pettis. If Pettis thinks he can beat Ferguson off of his back, he’s going to find himself taking a lot of damage and possibly even submitted himself once Ferguson starts to improve his position. Ferguson is simply too strong to play around with on the mat.

At the same time, Ferguson has to watch himself when the two are standing. He can be hit and he can be hurt, and Pettis is outstanding at finishing once he smells blood.

Ferguson will be willing to bang, but a steady diet of takedowns is his best path to victory here. He should win a convincing decision, even if a finish of Pettis eludes him.

Pick: Ferguson

Ovince Saint Preux vs. Dominick Reyes

Ovince Saint Preux is going to have to be at his most resilient and intelligent to stop the freight train that is Dominick Reyes.

“The Devastator” has quietly compiled one of the hottest starts in UFC history, knocking off his first three opponents by first-round knockout or submission. In nine pro fights, he’s only gone to the scorecards once, a win. And he’s not a wild berserker either. There’s controlled chaos in Reyes’s approach as he invites his opponents to trade with him while also displaying strong counter-striking.

That’s a risky strategy against Saint Preux, who can finish a fight in a variety of ways. “OSP” is similar to Reyes in that he can generate power fast and from unexpected angles. This could be a chess match for the first five minutes as both fighters look for an avenue to strike that doesn’t put them in the line of fire of their opponent’s most dangerous weapons.

On the ground, Reyes is mostly untested, though he showed his submission acumen against Jeremy Kimball. Even so, he’d be wise not to test the ground game of Saint Preux, given that “OSP” is one of the most creative submission artists at 205 pounds.

Reyes should be able to keep this one standing, and if that’s the case, he gets the edge and potentially a knockout in the second or third round.

Pick: Reyes

Derrick Lewis vs. Alexander Volkov

How will “Swangin’ and Bangin’” fare against old-fashioned Russian steel?

It’s become almost foolhardy to bet against Lewis, a self-styled brawler who takes his fights a lot more seriously than his outside-the-cage persona might indicate, and he’s rode that no-nonsense style to eight wins in his last nine outings. He is a constant threat to land a knockout blow, something that Volkov will be wary of.

Controlling distance is key here and the 6-foot-7 Volkov has the advantage in this department over most fighters. However, Lewis has an inordinately long reach that he typically puts to good use to land overhand rights or lunging hooks with either hand. Volkov has an effective jab and he’ll need to rely on that to stifle Lewis’s offense.

The in-close exchanges will determine how much of this one plays out. Both men can generate huge power with little space and if Lewis gets a takedown his ground striking is fearsome. Volkov proved against Fabricio Werdum that he can survive off of his back, but few fighters have lasted long under the ground-and-pound of Lewis. He’ll want to get this one back standing as soon as possible.

So long as he doesn’t take any major damage early on, Volkov has the gas tank to hang with the hardy Lewis in the later rounds, which is where he should work to get to rather than attempt to finish Lewis early. Look for a late finish or a win on the scorecards for Volkov.

Pick: Volkov

Michelle Waterson vs. Felice Herrig

Much has been made of Michelle Waterson, a former 105-pound champion in the Invicta FC promotion, being too small for the UFC’s strawweight division. Still, “The Karate Hottie” has found a way to scrape out three wins in five Octagon appearances, winning two of those by submission.

It’s actually Waterson’s grappling that has been the key to much of her success as the majority of her wins have come via chokes and armbars and not via strikes as her nickname might suggest. And considering it was her wrestling that allowed her to eke out a controversial split nod over Cortney Casey last time, she shouldn’t have trouble showing off that same skill set against Felice Herrig.

On the feet, Herrig has some pop, though it’s difficult to imagine her landing the kind of kill shot that Rose Namajunas did or the punches Casey was able to consistently score with when facing Waterson. Her best bet is to close the distance and make things grimy, looking for opportunities to trip Waterson or drag her to the mat where Herrig can do damage from top position.

A prolonged standup battle will favor Waterson, who will give Herrig headaches with her lateral movement and varied arsenal of kicks. As tough as Herrig is, there are few areas in this matchup where she has a distinct advantage and she’s going to be playing catchup on the scorecards throughout this main card opener.

Pick: Waterson

Undercard

Sergio Pettis def. Jussier Formiga

Vicente Luque def. Jalin Turner

Tonya Evinger def. Aspen Ladd

Alan Patrick def. Scott Holtzman

Yana Kunitskaya def. Lina Lansberg

Nik Lentz def. Gray Maynard

Ryan LaFlare def. Tony Martin


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