The 41st and final UFC event of 2015 comes fight fans' way on Saturday as the Octagon returns to Orlando, Florida and the FOX network with a title fight closing out a big year of fights. UFC On FOX 17 comes from the Amway Center in Orlando and airs on FOX with a main card start time of 8 PM eastern time. Preliminary card action kicks off on UFC Fight Pass at 3:30 PM eastern time before heading over to FS1 at 5 PM eastern time.
New UFC Lightweight Champion Rafael Dos Anjos makes his first title defense when he defends against one of the most popular fighters in the sport, Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone, in the headline bout as Cerrone looks to capture the championship gold on the heels of eight straight wins. Dos Anjos and Cerrone have fought before, in August 2013, a fight won by Dos Anjos. In the co-main event, it will be a heavyweight slugfest that has been years in the making as former UFC Heavyweight Champion Junior Dos Santos takes on former Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion Alistair Overeem. Also on the card is the return of former "TUF" winner Nathan Diaz as he takes on Michael Johnson. Let's take a deeper look into the fight card and give you five storylines to keep an eye on at UFC On FOX 17 on Saturday.
1. Can Donald Cerrone finally win that elusive UFC gold in his first chance?
Donald Cerrone has been chomping at the bits for years in an attempt to get a chance to become the UFC Lightweight Champion. Every time he has come close to a title shot, a setback has come in the way. Finally, on Saturday night, he gets that elusive title fight in the main event on the heels of an eight fight win streak. He is 15-3 since moving over from the WEC to the UFC in 2011, and has made a name for himself for his fight anytime, anywhere, against anyone frame of mind. There have been times where he has only had two weeks between fights, but, uncharacteristically, it has been since May that Cerrone has fought. It's not like he didn't want, or tried, to fight, but he had the title shot sewn up and didn't wanna lose it. Eight straight wins over the likes of Benson Henderson, Myles Jury, Eddie Alvarez, Jim Miller and Edson Barboza to name a few have led him to the man who last defeated him.
That man is UFC Lightweight Champion Rafael Dos Anjos. Dos Anjos defeated Cerrone in August 2013 by unanimous decision. Even though he is now the champion, Dos Anjos actually lost his next fight, to Khabib Nurmagomedov, but three straight impressive performances following that loss, coupled with injuries to key fighters, opened the door for Dos Anjos to earn a title shot. He fought Anthony Pettis for the title at UFC 185 in March, and thoroughly dominated Pettis to post a five-round shutout and win the championship. Dos Anjos underwent a skill and physical transformation after being a gatekeeper in the division, and there have been questions about his physique. There are many who say that Dos Anjos looks completely different in the new era of drug testing, way different than the man who is 9-1 in his last ten fights, different than the man that won the championship in March, and different than the man that defeated Cerrone over two years ago. Those questions certainly open the door for Cerrone, who has even questioned Dos Anjos himself.
Dos Anjos and Cerrone both competed on the card the last time the UFC was in Orlando. That is when Dos Anjos lost his bout with Nurmagomedov that propelled him to the championship. Cerrone submitted Edson Barboza in the third of his eight straight wins. They descend back to Orlando with both looking to leave with championship gold around their waist. Cerrone has the excellent kickboxing with good takedowns and submissions. Dos Anjos has become a more well-rounded fighter over the last few years but it still remains to be seen what has changed for him. Cerrone will need to avoid being taken down, which likely cost them their first fight. Cerrone came on strong while Dos Anjos faded late in their bout, and a five-round bout last time may have seen a different outcome. They have five rounds this time. Interestingly, Dos Anjos is more than a two-to-one favorite, and that may be too long of odds. I see Cerrone finally reaching the top of the lightweight mountain.
2. Who wins the long-awaited heavyweight battle between Junior Dos Santos and Alistair Overeem?
A heavyweight bout between Junior Dos Santos and Alistair Overeem has been almost four years in the making. It was nearly four years ago that Overeem made his UFC debut at UFC 141 and defeated Brock Lesnar. After that, Overeem was scheduled to next fight for the UFC Heavyweight Championship, which was held at the time by Dos Santos, who had just come off of knocking out Cain Velasquez to win the title. They were set to meet at UFC 146 in May 2012, but issues with taking a drug test forced Overeem out of the bout. Dos Santos would eventually lose the championship in December 2012 back to Velasquez. Overeem didn't fight again until February 2013, when he lost to Antonio Silva. They were again set to meet at UFC 160 in May 2013, but Overeem pulled out due to injury. After those false starts, they weren't booked to fight again until they were scheduled to meet on Saturday. Since their initial booking in early 2012, Dos Santos has gone 3-2 and Overeem has gone 3-3.
They will finally step inside the Octagon on Saturday across from each other. Dos Santos hasn't fought in over a year since earning a hard-fought decision win over Stipe Miocic. In fact, that is Dos Santos' only fight in the last two years as injuries and beatings at the hands of both Velasquez and Miocic have taken their toll on him. Meanwhile, Overeem is riding a two-fight win streak that has him talking again of title shot aspirations. A win over a former champion in Dos Santos could put him just one fight away, but defeating Dos Santos, one of the hardest hitters in the sport, will be a tough task. Dos Santos has moved his training to American Top Team while Overeem continues to work on his skills with Greg Jackson. It will be interesting to see how each man fights the other as both have strong knockout power. Overeem showed a different approach in his last two fights, and has slimmed down a little. It is tough to say how much fight Dos Santos has left after his tough fights. It may be four years after they were first set to fight, and the championship gold may not be at stake, but it is still an interesting heavyweight bout between two big men, and it will finally go down on Saturday night.
3. Is Nate Diaz ready to make another run at 155 pounds?
One of the Stockton bad boys makes his long-awaited return on Saturday when Nate Diaz fights for the first time in over a year. After talk of moving, again, to 170 pounds, Diaz will come back at 155 pounds, and he looks to be in the best shape of his career. He will need to be as he takes on a tough opponent in Michael Johnson, a top-six ranked lightweight. Johnson should be on a five-fight win streak, but he lost a split decision to Beneil Dariush in August in a big controversial decision. Every media outlet scored the fight for Johnson, as did most observers, including UFC brass. They even paid Johnson his win bonus because they thought he won. Regardless of that, it still remains a loss on Johnson's record, and he will be looking for a more impactful win when he takes on Diaz.
Diaz is coming off a loss to Rafael Dos Anjos last December, a bout he missed weight for, blaming it on a training injury. That is the only time Diaz has fought in the last two years, but when he is at his best, he remains one of the most complete boxers in the division, and a dangerous submission artist. Johnson is a solid striker who mixes everything well, uses a lot of volume, and has good takedowns. Diaz could suck Johnson into a striking battle, and if Diaz starts landing the punches, they may not do a ton of damage, but they will be very effective. The biggest question is whether the time away benefits Diaz, and if the last we saw of him is a true representation of where he is today, or if he is still the guy who blasted Gray Maynard in his bout prior to Dos Anjos. If Johnson lets Diaz hit him, it could be a field day for Diaz. Johnson is ever improving, but it is still hard to count out a Diaz brother. If he wants to make another run at a title shot, he has to get by a very tough Johnson.
4. Will Randa Markos keep making her climb up the 115-pound division ladder?
Randa Markos ended up being one of the big surprises during the strawweight season of "The Ultimate Fighter". She came into the show with a 4-1 record, a solid record, but unlike the rest of the competitors, hadn't had the exposure from fighting for Invicta, and she was one of the unknowns. She showed strong skills in making it all the way to the semifinals after defeating Tecia Torres and Felice Herrig as the 14-seed before losing to Rose Namajunas. Markos hasn't had an easy road post-TUF as she has gotten tough opponents in Jessica Penne and Aisling Daly. She lost a close split decision to Penne before scoring a unanimous decision over Daly in convincing fashion at UFC 186 in April. Since then, she has quit working her full-time job and moved to Montreal to train at the Tristar camp, and Saturday represents her first time fighting since the move.
She gets the main card treatment as she takes on Karolina Kowalkiewicz, who makes her UFC debut sporting a solid, and perfect, 7-0 record. Both women are skilled and will get attention due to looks, but they can fight. They are very similar, with good skills on their feet, but neither are overwhelming with power, and both are patient fighters. Both tend to have close fights when they go to the judges, but Markos has the better finishing ability. She is also a better wrestler, and that was before going to Tristar, one of the best camps in the world. That is going to be a key factor, and also having one of the best coaches in the sport in Firas Zahabi in her corner will as well. Markos has a very solid shot at becoming a real title challenger as her skills evolve, and much like her nickname, she is looking at making a quiet storm brew in the strawweight division.
5. What is there to watch for on a solid preliminary card?
The preliminary card on Saturday features a lot of solid fights that could easily be main card bouts on a lot of fight cards. In the featured prelim bout, Myles Jury makes the move down to featherweight to take on Charles Oliveira. Jury started his career a perfect 15-0 before losing his last fight to Donald Cerrone. He made the switch to the Power MMA team in Arizona and decided to try his hand at 145 pounds. He gets a tough first test in Oliveira, a very skilled submission specialist looking to bounce back from a disappointing loss in August. Another Power MMA fighter, C.B. Dollaway, will be taking on Nate Marquardt in a pivotal bout that could determine the UFC future for both. Dollaway is looking to rebound from two straight losses while Marquardt has also lost two straight, but, more importantly, has lost five of his last six fights.
Also on the prelims, Sarah Kaufman welcomes Valentina Shevchenko to the UFC. Shevchenko makes her debut on short notice, but she is a seriously skilled kickboxer with a 9-1 MMA record to go along with her 60-2 kickboxing record. Middleweight Josh Samman looks to remain perfect in the UFC as he welcomes Tamdan McCrory back to the UFC. Samman has four straight wins and has won all three of his UFC fights by stoppage. McCrory went 3-3 during a UFC stint from 2007 to 2009, but after being cut after a boring decision loss, he retired from the sport for four years. He made his comeback in Bellator in 2014, scoring two wins in a combined 1:27, and was then re-signed by the UFC. Another bout is a lightweight contest between Nik Lentz and Danny Castillo. Lentz is moving back up to 155 pounds following a loss to Charles Oliveira while Castillo is looking to avoid the chopping block as he has lost three straight and four of his last five.
Full UFC On FOX 17 Fight Card, Betting Odds and Predictions
MAIN CARD (FOX- 8 PM ET/5 PM PT)
UFC Lightweight Championship: (C) Rafael Dos Anjos vs. (#2) Donald Cerrone
Betting Odds: Dos Anjos (-200), Cerrone (+170)
Prediction: Cerrone by decision
Heavyweights: (#2) Junior Dos Santos vs. (#9) Alistair Overeem
Betting Odds: Dos Santos (-350), Overeem (+290)
Prediction: Dos Santos by knockout in round 2
Lightweights: (#6) Michael Johnson vs. (#15) Nate Diaz
Betting Odds: Johnson (-500), Diaz (+400)
Prediction: Diaz by submission in round 2
Women's Strawweights: (#7) Randa Markos vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz
Betting Odds: Markos (-185), Kowalkiewicz (+160)
Prediction: Markos by decision
PRELIMINARY CARD (FS1- 5 PM ET/2 PM PT)
Featherweights: (#7) Charles Oliveira vs. (#9 LW) Myles Jury
Betting Odds: Oliveira (+130), Jury (-150)
Prediction: Jury by decision
Middleweights: (#12) C.B. Dollaway vs. Nate Marquardt
Betting Odds: Dollaway (-400), Marquardt (+325)
Prediction: Dollaway by knockout in round 2
Women's Bantamweights: (#5) Sarah Kaufman vs. Valentina Shevchenko
Betting Odds: Kaufman (-225), Shevchenko (+185)
Prediction: Shevchenko by decision
Middleweights: Josh Samman vs. Tamdan McCrory
Betting Odds: Samman (-175), McCrory (+155)
Prediction: Samman by knockout in round 2
Lightweights: (#10 FW) Nik Lentz vs. Danny Castillo
Betting Odds: Lentz (-105), Castillo (-115)
Prediction: Castillo by decision
Featherweights: Cole Miller vs. Jim Alers
Betting Odds: Miller (+105), Alers (-125)
Prediction: Miller by submission in round 3
PRELIMINARY CARD (UFC FIGHT PASS- 3:30 PM ET/12:30 PM PT)
Welterweights: Kamaru Usman vs. Leon Edwards
Betting Odds: Usman (-250), Edwards (+210)
Prediction: Usman by submission in round 1
Welterweights: Hayder Hassan vs. Vicente Luque
Betting Odds: Hassan (-120), Luque (+100)
Prediction: Luque by decision
Heavyweights: Francis Ngannou vs. Luiz Henrique
Betting Odds: Ngannou (-110), Henrique (-110)
Prediction: Ngannou by knockout in round 1