The biggest UFC Fight Week in company history is finally here, with three straight nights of fights coming from the fight capital of the world- Las Vegas, Nevada. It all kicks off with UFC Fight Night 80 on Thursday night at The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, an exclusive event airing on UFC Fight Pass. The action kicks off at 6:45 PM eastern time with the preliminary card heading into a 10 PM eastern time start for the main card.
The main event will be the first time a female non-title bout has headlined a UFC event as former strawweight title challenger Rose Namajunas takes on budding star Paige VanZant in VanZant's first showcase in a main event slot. The card as been billed as "Paige & Sage" as 19-year-old Sage Northcutt also competes on the card, taking on Cody Pfister in a lightweight bout. The UFC is banking on VanZant and Northcutt to carry the company into the future, and they get their chance to shine in the beginning of the biggest week in UFC history. There is more action on the card, so let us take a deeper look and give you five storylines to keep an eye on for UFC Fight Night 80 on Thursday.
1. Who wins the main event between Rose Namajunas and Paige VanZant?
Two rising contenders in the UFC's women's strawweight division square off in the main event of the first of three straight nights of UFC action. Paige VanZant, a 115-pound fighter being groomed for big things in the future at just 21 years of age, makes her first headline appearance against Rose Namajunas, an injury replacement for Joanne Calderwood, who was originally scheduled to fight VanZant. There is an argument to be made whether this is a stiffer test for VanZant as Namjunas and Calderwood have a different approach to a fight, but either way, it will be the toughest test for VanZant, winner of her first three UFC bouts, as she looks to knock on the door to a title shot. Namajunas has already fought once for the title, in the inaugural fight for the UFC Women's Strawweight Championship, but came up short in her quest as she was submitted by Carla Esparza. Esparza has since lost the title to the dominant champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, while Namjunas has fought just once since then, a submission win over Angela Hill in October.
This is an interesting bit of match making as both women could be built up for a fight for the championship. Granted that Namajunas is an injury replacement, but this is a tough match-up for VanZant, who the UFC is banking on as a potential challenger. Even though Claudia Gadelha is waiting in the wings, it would be easy to envision a scenario where VanZant gets a title shot with a win. She isn't ready, but a win puts her at 4-0 in the UFC, a record only matched by Jedrzejczyk at 115 pounds. VanZant is a grinding wrestler with excellent conditioning and a solid top game and submission game. Namajunas has submissions for days, but she can break mentally when pushed into a tough fight. We haven't seen VanZant tested too much as she has won her three UFC bouts with relative ease. This one won't be as easy. It really is a tough fight to predict, but I do see VanZant getting the win in the later rounds.
2. Will Sage Northcutt continue to live up to the hype?
This event is being billed as the "Paige and Sage" show as, along with Paige VanZant, the UFC is banking on 19-year-old Sage Northcutt to be a future star in the sport. He has been impressive in his young career with six wins by stoppage, and five coming in the first round. He may be young, but he is clearly ready for the UFC with his skills, and he brings in a lot of hype. It may not be as warranted, but he has the marketability that the UFC looks for when grooming a future star, and he has shown the skills to back it up, albeit against lesser competition. He had an impressive UFC debut, destroying Francisco Trevino in just 57 seconds at UFC 192 in October. Trevino made it easy for him, though, as he came in four pounds overweight, didn't look like he cared too much, didn't put up much of a fight, complained when the fight was stopped, and, to top it all off, failed a drug test and was later released from the UFC.
Northcutt is going to be built up the right way by taking on lesser competition until you can no longer avoid giving him top-flight opponents. He is taking on Cody Pfister on Thursday night, a solid fighter, but one that doesn't have the look of being a future contender. Pfister is 12-4-1 in his career and has just one loss in his last ten fights after starting his career 4-3, and he does train with a solid camp in the Team Takedown camp. He is just 1-1 in his UFC tenure and is coming off a decision win over Yosdenis Cedeno at UFC 189 in July. He is the perfect opponent for Northcutt at this point. The question is whether Northcutt is too overhyped. He has gotten a lot of attention in the last two months since his UFC debut, and he has gone and trained at other camps in the meantime. Whether how all of this fame, hype and change in fight status will affect him remains to be seen, but he gets the bigger stage to show if he will continue to live up to the hype, or if he just isn't ready for the limelight yet. Pfister, despite being groomed as someone who is being fed, isn't taking this lightly, but I see Northcutt getting the job done and continuing his path.
3. Who wins in a solid co-main event scrap when Jim Miller and Michael Chiesa do battle?
Lost in the shuffle of the hype behind Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt is an excellent co-main event scrap in the lightweight division as UFC veteran Jim Miller makes his 21st appearance inside the Octagon to take on former "Ultimate Fighter" winner Michael Chiesa, winner of five of seven in the UFC. It will be the biggest fight to date for Chiesa, who is coming off a dominant decision win over Mitch Clarke in April. Chiesa's only losses in the UFC have come to Jorge Masvidal and Joe Lauzon, a fight that was controversially stopped due to a cut. In Miller, he has an opponent who has scored 14 wins during his UFC career, but he has also scored just five wins in his last ten bouts after being very close to scoring a chance at earning a title shot at 155 pounds. Miller got back on track with a close split decision win over Danny Castillo in July.
These two men have similar fighting styles with wrestling and takedowns as their primary strengths to go along with solid submission skills. Both men grind their opponents, and it is an interesting clash of styles. Both men fight as southpaws, but land roughly the same amount of strikes with the same type of accuracy. Chiesa's takedown game may be a little stronger as he averages more over the course of a fight, and he has shown better defense. Chiesa will also have a five-inch height advantage and a four-inch reach advantage, and he will want to exploit his length over Miller. Miller hits a little harder and mixes his kicks and knees in well. This is a tough fight to predict as the betting odds have it as pretty much a pick 'em. It will be Miller's Octagon experience against the gritty nature of Chiesa in what should be an excellent fight. I like Miller just a little bit more to score the win due to his experience, but Chiesa is going to make it a battle.
4. Why is Aljamain Sterling in the prelims?
No offense to any other fighter competing on this card, but the best fighter fighting on the UFC Fight Night 80 card is buried way down in the preliminary card, and that is rising bantamweight prospect Aljamain Sterling. A product of the Serra-Longo fight team in New York, Sterling is a perfect 11-0 in his career, with his last three wins coming after signing with the UFC as an injury replacement in early 2014. He has scored wins over Cody Gibson, Hugo Viana and Takeya Mizugaki in his UFC career, and he has been dominant in all of his fights. He has scored seven of his eleven wins by stoppage, and alongside Thomas Almeida, he is looked at to be the future of the UFC bantamweight division. He has been inactive for a while, whether it be due to injury or the UFC matchmakers having trouble finding him an opponent and spot on a card.
Sterling deserves to be showcased on the main card. He is extremely talented and will likely fight for the title within the next two years. He had to campaign hard to get on a fight card, and his fight was the last fight put together for this card. The UFC realized they were making a mistake in not featuring him prominently, and made him a late addition to the open workouts for this event. He has an extremely tough opponent in Johnny Eduardo, who has 36 professional bouts in his career. Eduardo has scored wins in 13 of his last 14 fights, but injuries have limited him to just three fights in the last four years. Eduardo hasn't fought since a May 2014 knockout win over Eddie Wineland, but it was his most impressive performance to date inside the Octagon. This is one fight that has been flying under the radar for this crazy fight week. Sterling deserved to be on the main card, and really, this fight did as well. He will show why when he steps into the Octagon on Thursday night.
5. What else on the card is there to keep an eye on?
Rounding out the main card for this UFC Fight Pass exclusive event is a former "TUF" winner, as "TUF: Nations" middleweight winner Elias Theodorou puts his perfect 11-0 record on the line against Thiago Santos. Theodorou is coming off a big TKO win over Roger Narvaez at UFC 185 in March, and he is a solid prospect at 185 pounds. He gets a big test in Santos, who has won three of his last four fights, and is coming off one of the best knockouts of the year, a head kick knockout of Steve Bosse at UFC Fight Night 70 in June. Headlining the preliminary portion of the card is a solid welterweight bout as Tim Means looks to get back into the win column following a loss to Matt Brown when he takes on John Howard, who got back into the win column after ending his three-fight losing skid when he scored a split decision win over Cathal Pendred at UFC 189 in July.
Three other fighters to keep an eye on during the preliminary card are Antonio Carlos Junior, Danny Roberts and Kailin Curran. Carlos Junior is a former "TUF: Brazil" winner as a heavyweight, and has since moved down to 185 pounds, where he has a huge size advantage. However, he utilized IV's, and this will be his first fight without them, so it will be interesting to see how that effects him. Roberts is making his UFC debut with an 11-1 record and on the heels of five straight wins. He has an excellent mix of skills and has scored nine of his wins by stoppage. Curran is still in search of her first UFC win, having dropped both of her prior UFC bouts. She was in a heated battle with Paige VanZant in her UFC debut, and was dominating her fight with Alex Chambers before being submitted late in the fight. She has a lot of potential and just five career bouts, but gets a favorable match-up taking on Emily Kagan in the opening bout.
Full UFC Fight Night 80 Fight Card, Betting Odds and Predictions
MAIN CARD (UFC FIGHT PASS- 10 PM ET/7 PM PT)
Women's Strawweights: (#3) Rose Namajunas vs. (#7) Paige VanZant
Betting Odds: Namajunas (+160), VanZant (-185)
Prediction: VanZant by submission in round 4
Lightweights: (#14) Jim Miller vs. Michael Chiesa
Betting Odds: Miller (+105), Chiesa (-125)
Prediction: Miller by decision
Lightweights: Sage Northcutt vs. Cody Pfister
Betting Odds: Northcutt (-1250), Pfister (+800)
Prediction: Northcutt by knockout in round 1
Middleweights: Elias Theodorou vs. Thiago Santos
Betting Odds: Theodorou (-250), Santos (+210)
Prediction: Theodorou by knockout in round 2
PRELIMINARY CARD (UFC FIGHT PASS- 6:45 PM ET/3:45 PM PT)
Welterweights: Tim Means vs. John Howard
Betting Odds: Means (-335), Howard (+275)
Prediction: Howard by decision
Welterweights: Omari Akhmedov vs. Sergio Moraes
Betting Odds: Akhmedov (-140), Moraes (+120)
Prediction: Akhmedov by knockout in round 2
Middleweights: Antonio Carlos Junior vs. Kevin Casey
Betting Odds: Carlos Junior (-290), Casey (+245)
Prediction: Carlos Junior by submission in round 3
Bantamweights: (#5) Aljamain Sterling vs. (#10) Johnny Eduardo
Betting Odds: Sterling (-700), Eduardo (+500)
Prediction: Sterling by submission in round 2
Welterweights: Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Andreas Stahl
Betting Odds: Ponzinibbio (-190), Stahl (+165)
Prediction: Ponzinibbio by decision
Welterweights: Danny Roberts vs. Nathan Coy
Betting Odds: Roberts (-155), Coy (+135)
Prediction: Roberts by knockout in round 1
Featherweights: Zubaira Tukhugov vs. Phillipe Nover
Betting Odds: Tukhugov (-330), Nover (+270)
Prediction: Tukhugov by decision
Women's Strawweights: Kailin Curran vs. Emily Kagan
Betting Odds: Curran (-350), Kagan (+290)
Prediction: Curran by submission in round 2