By Ryan Frederick, WrestlingObserver.com
The Octagon returns to Mexico City for the second time on Saturday night for their next pay-per-view offering, UFC 188, and the unification of the UFC Heavyweight Championship. The main card action comes at 10 PM eastern time, with a full preliminary slate beginning at 6:30 PM eastern time on UFC Fight Pass before moving over to FX at 8 PM eastern time.
UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez makes his return after almost twenty months out of action when he takes on Interim UFC Heavyweight Champion Fabricio Werdum to unify the championships. The two have been jawing back-and-forth during fight week, and the fans in Mexico City are in hot anticipation of the bout as both are very popular in the country. In the co-main event, it will be a much anticipated lightweight bout between Gilbert Melendez and Eddie Alvarez. Let's dive deeper into the fight card and find five storylines to keep an eye out for on Saturday night.
1. Who walks away as the Undisputed UFC Heavyweight Champion?
UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez makes his long-awaited return to the Octagon in Mexico City to face the Interim UFC Heavyweight Champion Fabricio Werdum in the main event of UFC 188 to unify the championships. Velasquez hasn't fought since his one-sided beating of Junior Dos Santos at UFC 166 in October 2013, a beating so bad that Dos Santos has only been able to fight once himself since then. Velasquez has had a myriad of injury issues over his career, and he came close to being stripped of the championship, and would have with one more injury, so an interim championship was made.
That is where Werdum came in, and he defeated Mark Hunt at UFC 180 in November to become the interim champion. Werdum has two wins since Velasquez last fought, winning a number one contenders bout over Travis Browne in April 2014 before his win over Hunt. Werdum has won five straight fights and eight of his last nine. Velasquez has just one loss in his career, a flash knockout at the hands of Dos Santos, but he avenged that loss twice already. Werdum also has a loss at the hands of Dos Santos, who may be next in line depending on the outcome of this bout.
Velasquez and Werdum were supposed to fight in November after coaching TUF: Latin America, but Velasquez' injury prevented that. He comes in with a lot of potential ring rust, and the last time he had a layoff this long, he suffered his only career defeat. If he is injury free, he might be the best fighter on the planet, and he is a machine inside the Octagon. On paper, its a tough match-up for Werdum, but Werdum is too big of an underdog to be doubted. Werdum has submission skills unlike anyone Velasquez has ever fought, but at the same time, Velasquez is a different kind of fighter than anyone Werdum has fought. This fight favors Velasquez to walk away as the undisputed champion, and should make for an entertaining main event.
2. Who wins the long-awaited bout between Gilbert Melendez and Eddie Alvarez?
Former Strikeforce Lightweight Champion Gilbert Melendez and former Bellator Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez will finally square off in a long-awaited bout that has been years in the making when they meet in the co-main event on Saturday night. Back when there was talk of them fighting while they were in different promotions, no one knew when and where they would or could fight, and no one expected it to be years down the road and inside the Octagon. Both men are looking to get themselves back in the hunt for gold at 155 pounds, and a win gets the victor on the right path, and the loser may never get themselves back on track.
Melendez has fought twice for the UFC Lightweight Championship, which is astonishing since he has had just 3 UFC bouts. He lost a close decision to Benson Henderson, a fight that many thought he won, but came back and defeated Diego Sanchez before being submitted by then-champion Anthony Pettis in December, the only time Melendez has been finished in his career. Alvarez would've fought for the title had he beaten Donald Cerrone in his UFC debut, but he came up just short, and now looks to make a fresh run as he got any Octagon jitters he may have had out of the way.
They should have an excellent fight. Both men bring it all and are known for exciting bouts. They both have power, good wrestling and good submissions, and both men can easily go the full distance, even in the higher altitude of Mexico City. It is a close fight on both paper and in the odds. Both men might not be as great as they were when they were once rumored to fight, but they may also be better than their last performances indicate. I favor Alvarez just a little bit, I think he's long been a slightly better fighter, and with his first UFC performance done with, I expect him to bounce back and win here.
3. How will Kelvin Gastelum fare as a middleweight?
Kelvin Gastelum will be making his return to 185 pounds when he takes on Nate Marquardt on the main card. Gastelum won TUF 17 as a middleweight, but he went to what was thought to be his natural class of 170 pounds following his victory over Uriah Hall. He then ran into some issues making weight, but it seemed to happen when he wasn't working with nutritionist Mike Dolce. He had trouble making weight for a fight against Rick Story, but ultimately made it. He then missed weight for his bout against Nico Musoke, but came back to make weight easy for his fight against Jake Ellenberger the last time the UFC was in Mexico City, and it was the best performance of his career when he won by submission.
Then came UFC 183 in January. It was a chance for Gastelum to possibly get a title contenders' bout as he took on Tyron Woodley. Gatselum missed weight by nine pounds, prompting UFC President Dana White to announce he was being forced to move up for his next fight. He also lost for the first time in his career to Woodley as he dropped a split decision. Gastelum has talked about his desire to move back down to welterweight following this fight, but he is likely going have to earn the trust of the UFC brass again in order to move back down to 170 pounds.
He gets a match-up against UFC veteran Nate Marquardt on the main card on Saturday night. Marquardt is someone who spent a little time fighting at 170 pounds, but moved back up to 185 pounds as he felt more comfortable there. Marquardt is just 1-4 in his last five fights and is entering the backend of his career. Gastelum should be able to get the win here, but Marquardt is a tough veteran who will be fighting for the 50th time in his career. Gastelum is younger, faster and has good power, and Marquardt's chin is going by the day. This is Gastelum's fight to lose.
4. Can Henry Cejudo fight his way into a title fight?
Olympic medalist Henry Cejudo makes his third Octagon appearance on Saturday night in the featured preliminary bout when he takes on Chico Camus. Cejudo is being built up for a title fight, and if he were to notch his first UFC finish, he may pass John Dodson in the pecking order and get the next title fight. That should be plenty of motivation for Cejduo, not to mention fighting in front of the Mexican crowd, as he comes from a Mexican heritage. Cejduo fights for the second time at 125 pounds in the UFC, and it is his second chance to show he can make that weight cut down to flyweight.
He has a tough opponent in Camus, who fights for the second time at 125 pounds as well, and is coming off an impressive victory over Brad Pickett in November. Camus has had mixed success in the Octagon and Cejudo is the toughest challenge he has had to date. Cejudo hasn't shown his wrestling skills, preferring to keep the fight standing and throwing punches. Camus will be a game opponent and Cejudo will probably need to mix in his wrestling. If Cejudo can get the takedowns and score a stoppage win, he might just cement himself as the next challenger for Demetrious Johnson.
5. What else is there to look out for on this card?
This is a solid card shaping up in Mexico City with a lot of Mexican stars looking for good performances. TUF Latin America winner Yair Rodriguez will meet Charles Rosa in a solid featherweight bout on the main card. Both men are solid prospects and each have just one loss in their career. Opening the main card on pay-per-view is a women's strawweight bout between undefeated fighters Tecia Torres and Angela Hill. Both are young in their careers, but as the 115-pound division expands, both will be looking to move up the rankings, and someone will be leaving with their first career loss.
In preliminary action, the other TUF Latin America winner, Alejandro Perez, will meet Patrick Williams in a bantamweight bout. Undefeated lightweight Francisco Trevino looks to avoid his first loss when he meets Johnny Case, who has won ten straight fights. And, inexplicably put on the UFC Fight Pass portion of the card, welterweights Augusto Montano and Cathal Pendred meet. Montano had a big win in the Mexico City debut to improve to 15-1 in his career, and Pendred is unbeaten in his past eleven fights.
Full UFC 188 Fight Card, Betting Odds & Predictions
MAIN CARD (PPV- 10 PM ET/7 PM PT)
UFC Heavyweight Championship Unification: Cain Velasquez(c) vs. Fabricio Werdum(ic)
Betting Odds: Velasquez (-525), Werdum (+415)
Prediction: Velasquez by knockout in round 2
Lightweights: Gilbert Melendez vs. Eddie Alvarez
Betting Odds: Melendez (-175), Alvarez (+155)
Prediction: Alvarez by decision
Middleweights: Kelvin Gastelum vs. Nate Marquardt
Betting Odds: Gastelum (-500), Marquardt (+400)
Prediction: Gastelum by knockout in round 1
Featherweights: Yair Rodriguez vs. Charles Rosa
Betting Odds: Rodriguez (+190), Rosa (-230)
Prediction: Rosa by decision
Women's Strawweights: Tecia Torres vs. Angela Hill
Betting Odds: Torres (-300), Hill (+250)
Prediction: Torres by decision
PRELIMINARY CARD (FX- 8 PM ET/5 PM PT)
Flyweights: Henry Cejudo vs. Chico Camus
Betting Odds: Cejudo (-1100), Camus (+700)
Prediction: Cejudo by decision
Lightweights: Efrain Escudero vs. Drew Dober
Betting Odds: Escudero (+135), Dober (-155)
Prediction: Dober by submission in round 3
Bantamweights: Alejandro Perez vs. Patrick Williams
Betting Odds: Perez (-165), Williams (+145)
Prediction: Perez by knockout in round 2
Lightweights: Francisco Trevino vs. Johnny Case
Betting Odds: Trevino (+335), Case (-420)
Prediction: Case by decision
PRELIMINARY CARD (UFC FIGHT PASS- 6:30 PM ET/3:30 PM PT)
Welterweights: Augusto Montano vs. Cathal Pendred
Betting Odds: Montano (-160), Pendred (+140)
Prediction: Montano by decision
Featherweights: Gabriel Benitez vs. Clay Collard
Betting Odds: Benitez (+215), Collard (-255)
Prediction: Collard by decision
Welterweights: Albert Tumenov vs. Andrew Todhunter
Betting Odds: Tumenov (-450), Todhunter (+360)
Prediction: Tumenov by knockout in round 1