Spoiler alert: the UFC 196 card is loaded. Top to bottom. One of the byproducts of what we will call the “Fight Pass push” is that you get a fight as strong as Jim Miller vs. Diego Sanchez on the platform. A little higher up the card, there are Brandon Thatch and Siyar Bahadurzada, who may be fighting for a place on the roster. These two and many others are very intriguing fights, but let’s get to all the real juice.

Conor McGregor is a nothing short of a phenomenon. Every bit the marketable star of Ronda Rousey with the glaring difference that McGregor is much more calculated. He is the one that will draw eyes to this card and raise the level of intrigue. He is the ingredient in the dish the UFC serves that gives it flavor. He may claim to not care who he fights. This may even be true. But you can be sure that McGregor is always doing what is in his best interests.

Since bursting on the scene, McGregor’s vision has been clear and well stated. He is here to take over. In the process, he is looking to take the belts and the money. As this card was initially constituted, he stood to receive both — the lightweight belt and a ton of money — if he won. The money will still be there, but the belt will have to wait for another day. However, in the absence of Rafael dos Anjos, we have been provided a match-up McGregor may have never gotten had he continued to win belts. It’s a match-up with a man who is as willing as McGregor to engage in physical and verbal pugilism. Of course, we’re talking about Nate Diaz.

Diaz came into the public consciousness on season four of The Ultimate Fighter. That’s when the world became aware that Nick Diaz’s younger brother was a fighter. The world became aware that Nate Diaz wasn’t going to be fronted on when UFC vet Karo Parisyan tried to do it. Diaz showed he was ready to throw down with anyone that day. That is a claim he has backed up since coming into the UFC. It’s a UFC career that is now nearing 10 years. He has fought them all, mostly studs, and he has 13 wins in that time. Diaz certainly has the credentials to be offered this fight and the skills to get a victory, but has he ever felt the type of pressure that McGregor brings? Is he ready for that? Is anyone?

The answers to these questions and more lie ahead. The UFC 196 prelims kick off with three fights on UFC Fight Pass beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET before moving to Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET for the remaining four prelim contests. The main card takes over at 10 p.m. ET on pay-per-view. Combat Press writers Emma Challands and John Franklin preview the lineup in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Conor McGregor was going to fight lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos for the 155-pound strap. With RDA out, the “Notorious” one is moving up an additional weight class to meet Nate Diaz. Can McGregor succeed at welterweight, or is he biting off more than he can chew this time around? How much does a loss set him — and the UFC’s promotional machine — back?

Challands: McGregor has this in the bag. Not just because Diaz is coming in on short notice, but because McGregor’s just better — his use of range, his movement, his counter striking. Diaz likes to walk in a straight line and has no issues taking a punch, but can he take the “Celtic cross” that has finished so many men before him? I don’t think so.

Diaz’s best bet is to try to get this fight to the ground. We know McGregor can be taken down. We saw it when he went up against Chad Mendes. Diaz, from what we know, has the superior jiu-jitsu and will not mind laying down some ground-and-pound should he find himself in the position to do so.

If McGregor does lose, then it sets him and UFC back tenfold. The UFC can’t afford for McGregor to lose in any weight class. It takes too much of the shine off. The guy has built his brand around talking trash and backing it up. Any dent in his armor and the facade comes crashing down.

Is this fight a massive risk for McGregor with very little immediate reward? Yeah, it is. There’s no belt on the line after all. However, it does open up many possibilities should he win. There’s a fight against reigning welterweight champ Robbie Lawler, a fight with dos Anjos and then there’s poor Frankie Edgar, waiting in the wings. Any way you look at it, “Mystic Mac,” should he win, will continue to cash those super heavyweight cheques.

Franklin: Not only is McGregor’s left cross the most effective strike in MMA today, but the brilliance is that he continues to evolve other strikes because he has that to fall back on. All McGregor’s other strikes used to be the sizzle and the left hand was the steak. For the most part, this is still the case. However, his kicks are getting crisper, he’s made mention of uppercuts and he has sharp hooks as well. The only thing sharper than McGregor’s strikes is his tongue, and this is what gets his opponents in trouble. They hear McGregor tout his virtues and think he can’t possibly be this good. Then they find out quickly in the fight that they should have taken him more seriously.

Diaz is a tough kid. When he comes to fight, it’s for the whole night and it’s till the end. He’s a stud grappler, but we have seen him more on his feet lately. Now, whether that is a byproduct of his opponent’s preparation for him or his own desires is unclear, but the ground is a place he needs to find again. Diaz made his bones as a grappler by submitting everyone on The Ultimate Fighter en route to the season-four finale. The gap between Diaz and McGregor as grapplers is probably about the same as the gap between McGregor and Diaz as strikers. Diaz’s best chance is on the floor and he needs to own that.

Diaz has some advantages. He’s taller by three inches and he has a two-inch reach advantage. He’s also the better grappler. All these things are important if he is dictating the terms of the fight, which McGregor’s opponents typically don’t do. Two concerns about Diaz are how he has performed at the highest levels and his mindset going in. As a middle top-10 guy, he is able to consistently beat those below him. However, when he fought Benson Henderson, dos Anjos, Josh Thomson and Rory MacDonald, he was outclassed. This is the level McGregor is on. As far as Diaz’s mindset goes, he seems to be preoccupied with how much money he is making. It’s unclear if he is viewing this fight as a springboard to bigger things or as a cash grab.

The glaring issue for McGregor is always the wrestling and the ground game. It’s not that he is a horrible grappler, but he’s just so dynamic on the feet that it’s hard to think he wants to be in a grappling situation. McGregor on his back is not a sight that he nor the UFC wants to see, but the Irishman has shown an ability to get back to his feet when taken down. McGregor will be mentally sound for this fight, like all the others. The wild card is that Diaz will trash talk with him, so if McGregor is getting hit and Diaz starts talking to him, how will he react? We haven’t really been there before.

McGregor will not retire undefeated in the UFC. However, it won’t be as a result of this fight. He just has too much and the waters he swims in are far too deep for Diaz. I can’t agree with McGregor about the first-round finish, but he is going to batter Diaz’s body. The body strikes will take away Diaz’s will and ability to fight. Then, in the third or fourth frame, McGregor will find the head.

Women’s bantamweight titleholder Holly Holm is the only champion set to defend a championship on this card, but she’s in the co-headlining fight against Miesha Tate while Conor McGregor keeps his hold on the main-event slot. Is the UFC underutilizing the new champ? Is this just too much of a “placeholder” fight for Holm before she rematches Ronda Rousey or finally lures Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino into the UFC?

Franklin: The UFC is implementing the perfect game plan in its 135-pound women’s division. Based on Tate’s performances against Rousey, no one was looking to see a third Tate fight with the former champ. So what this fight allows the UFC to do is keep Rousey on the shelf, where she needs to be for now, and keep Holm fresh. It’s really a win-win for the organization. If Tate wins, there is some renewed juice for a Rousey fight because it’s a title fight with Tate as champ. If Holm wins, well, it’s business as usual.

As far as the fight goes, Tate has the skill set needed to neutralize what makes Holm great. The other thing that she has in her favor is that, unlike Rousey, she won’t break when there is adversity. She has faced plenty of it. Tate’s striking is good, but it’s not anything like the arsenal of Holm, a boxer and kickboxer. The champ hasn’t really been tested on the ground, but this could be the fight where it happens. By all accounts, Holm is great everywhere, but that assessment is largely coming out of her camp, and we all know how that goes.

Tate will get a few takedowns, but she will pay for the ones she doesn’t get. Holm, a converted world champion boxer, is a pretty good Muay Thai striker, too, by MMA standards. I don’t see Holm running through Tate, but she is better in most areas throughout the fight. It’s a distance affair and Holm gets the edge, battering Tate throughout. However, Holm will grow more from this fight than she did after the beating she threw on Rousey.

Challands: I honestly don’t think it matters that the title fight is in the co-headlining spot. The promotional duties have laid squarely on the shoulders of McGregor and he should be rewarded accordingly. That, and I don’t think he would’ve accepted anything else. We also have to take into consideration the whirlwind media tour Holm herself has been on since UFC 193 and that this has been a great opportunity to just focus solely on the fight since the UFC is banking on her retaining her belt and setting up a rematch with Rousey.

However, this isn’t a placeholder fight as much as some people think it will be. Tate is a force to be reckoned with and she will bring it in this fight. As my colleague stressed, Tate has good wrestling and, while not being the best striker, she will throw a high volume of punches, which can be overwhelming for opponents. Tate can also take a punch. She is as resilient as they come. If she beats Holm, it’ll set up a third title with Rousey. It would indeed be more compelling this time around, but it’s not going to change the fact that Rousey is going to have to fight Holm at some point to right that wrong.

I do agree that this will likely go the distance, no matter which fighter takes home the belt.

Between Corey Anderson, Amanda Nunes, Valentina Shevchenko and Chas Skelly, who stakes their claim as the most serious prospect moving forward and why?

Challands: I know I’m biased, but I really cannot look past Shevchenko. When I was reviewing the year ahead and I thought about who was going to make huge waves in the women’s division, she came immediately to mind. Shevchenko is the best prospect the division has seen since its inception — outside of Holm, of course — and is a breath of fresh air on so many levels.

One of my big predictions for Shevchenko this year was that she would be a genuine title contender. Whether she gets a shot at the belt will depend on what happens with Rousey, Holm and Tate, but she is right up there in terms of future champions for the division.

Shevchenko is a standout because she is an uber-talented athlete and a lifelong martial artist who has multiple Muay Thai world titles. She has ridiculous counter striking, speed and precision. She’s a regular female Conor McGregor, minus the trash talk. From a stand-up point of view, you’ll struggle to find ladies who can fight on her level. To top it all off, Shevchenko’s marketable to boot. It’s the UFC recipe for success.

Franklin: I am a little conflicted here. While I think the UFC’s light heavyweight division is lean and there is a path for Corey Anderson to get to the top five, I don’t know if he can walk that path. I theorized a few years ago with a fellow writer that seven fights or two and a half years feels like the right number of fights post-TUF to know what you have. In Anderson’s case, I would like to see some more finishes.

So, for now, let’s go with Nunes for a couple of reasons. One, she’s fighting my colleague’s pick of Shevchenko and it makes the fight a little more compelling. Two, she is a very well-rounded fighter who I actually had pretty close with Miesha Tate when there was talk of the two fighting.

The big wins for Nunes were over Sara McMann and Shayna Baszler. Baszler was the recipient of a TKO, but the McMann fight is more interesting. Nunes was really blasting McMann to the body and the head. She dropped McMann and, as she was swarming for a finish, Nunes found a rear-naked choke while McMann was covering up.

This is the type of fight IQ that can lead to big things moving forward. Nunes is a top-three or -four bantamweight in the world, so I guess in calling her a “prospect” I mean to say that she has the biggest upside as a potential champion.

If Miesha Tate gets the upset, should Ronda Rousey fight Holly Holm before looking to get the belt back?

Franklin: Rousey should have to rematch Holm before she gets a shot at a titleholding Tate. Let me say in full disclosure that I am stating this with the belief that Tate will not defeat Holm the way Holm defeated Rousey. For this reason, Rousey will have to earn her way back to the title.

You don’t take a beating like Rousey did and just play the history card to waltz back into a title shot against someone who beat the fighter who beat you.

Challands: I tend to agree on this one. If Rousey doesn’t fight — and beat — Holm, it leaves way too many unanswered questions in the minds of fans and could ultimately tarnish Rousey’s legacy as the greatest female fighter the MMA world has seen. Having said that, I’m not totally adverse to seeing Rousey fight Tate for a third time, get the belt back and then set up the rematch with Holm, with Rousey as the champion again. Will it be déjà vu, or will Rousey come back from the devastating shock upset that saw her sit on the sidelines for much of 2016?

The narrative is interesting whichever way you look at it. The only curve ball that can be thrown into this fight-triangle is whether the UFC opts for a title fight mid-year with the winner of Tate and Holm facing off against the winner of Nunes and Shevchenko. If that happens, we may have an altogether new champion in the mix.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Challands: It 110 percent is the battle between Valentina Shevchenko and Amanda Nunes. This is not only because it’s going to be an absolute barnburner between two ladies who can throw down, but also because of what it means for the division.

Nunes and Shevchenko, while not being officially announced, are without a doubt the top contenders in the division. Nunes’ name has been out there since she beat Sara McMann. Shevchenko, although a newbie to the UFC, has a trophy cabinet most that would make most people envious.

When these two go head-to-head, it is going to be an all-out war. Shevchenko proved she can mix it with the best when she dominated veteran Sarah Kaufman on short notice. Her stand-up game is second to none and she has an above-average ground game. Nunes, on the other hand, is a prolific striker who has a black belt belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Whichever way this fight goes, it’s going to be fun, fun, fun.

Franklin: I love that contest. It may have the largest implications moving forward for the title picture in its respective division. However, the fights that I like are the ones that have high stakes for other reasons.

What we all know to be true, largely, in the UFC is that it’s three strikes and you’re out. Three losses or bad performances and it might be time to tell your manager to give Bellator President Scott Coker or World Series of Fighting head Ray Sefo a call to see what’s next. This is where we’re at with Brandon Thatch and Siyar Bahadurzada. They are both coming off two consecutive losses.

The most interesting thing is that prior to their losses, they each knocked out Paulo Thiago, the once upon a time fighter who was impossible to finish. Bahadurzada was actually the first man to finish him. It wasn’t previous opponents Diego Sanchez and Martin Kampmann, but Bahadurzada.

These are a couple of fighters at the beginning of their 30s who know this is the time that you make the push to either solidify a career in the UFC for many years to come or spend the rest of your years talking about what might have been. The stakes in this one may not involve a title, but it may be something even more valuable: a roster spot.

Pair this card with…

Franklin: An Irish Car Bomb. I say that because I think that is what Conor McGregor is looking to put on Nate Diaz’s chin. It is a loaded card and there are a ton of stud fighters, but the night is about “Mystic Mac,” the Irish King. That’s not meant as disrespect to anyone else, but he does the work, hypes the fight and delivers the goods when he goes out there. He’s the one that moves the needle.

Challands: As MMA Junkie lead reporter John Morgan would say, a frosty beverage. This fight card is like the high school party you’ve always wanted to be invited to. There are so many personalities and so much talent. To miss this would be to be disowned by your fight fan peers. So grab a beer, buckle up and enjoy the ride. It’s gonna be a good one!

Fight Picks

Fight Challands’ Pick Franklin’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
WW: Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz McGregor McGregor
Women’s BW Championship: Holly Holm vs. Miesha Tate Tate Holm
LHW: Ilir Latifi vs. Gian Villante Villante Latifi
LHW: Tom Lawlor vs. Corey Anderson Lawlor Anderson
Women’s BW: Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko Shevchenko Nunes
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Brandon Thatch vs. Siyar Bahadurzada Thatch Thatch
WW: Erick Silva vs. Nordine Taleb Taleb Silva
MW: Vitor Miranda vs. Marcelo Guimarães Miranda Miranda
FW: Darren Elkins vs. Chas Skelly Skelly Skelly
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Diego Sanchez vs. Jim Miller Sanchez Sanchez
LW: Justin Salas vs. Jason Saggo Salas Salas
FW: Julian Erosa vs. Teruto Ishihara Erosa Erosa

About The Author

John Franklin
Staff Writer

A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, John has been following the UFC since the beginning and covering it since 2012. He has written for The Hot Cage Daily and Cage Pages of the Fansided Network. He also created and co-hosted The Hot Cage Podcast.

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