Demetrious Johnson (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 178 Preview and Predictions

It’s been a rough summer for UFC pay-per-views. First, UFC 174 delivered about as poor a buyrate as could reasonably be expected for a UFC pay-per-view event—115,000 buys according to the Blue Book—after trying its darndest to promote a main card that was, frankly, pretty underwhelming. UFC 175, with its two main-card title fights (middleweight and women’s bantamweight) seemed to indicate a rapid rebound after it garnered 545,000 buys, but things were back to their unfortunate status quo when the promotion was forced to cancel UFC 176 entirely. UFC 177 underwent a bevy of lineup changes, including the replacement of Renan Barao as its main-event bantamweight title challenger the day before the fight, and ultimately wound up being headlined by T.J. Dillashaw defending his belt against the debuting Joe Soto. As with UFC 174, no one expects the UFC’s most recent pay-per-view offering to have performed well from a buyrate standpoint, though the official numbers have not been released.

In the midst of all of this MMA misfortune, though, one event has stood as a shining beacon of light, waiting to reward the UFC’s fans for their loyalty during these last few less marketable cards. When it was first announced, UFC 178 was slated to feature a light heavyweight title rematch between champion Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson, a man who at UFC 165 came closer to taking Jones’s title than any other challenger before or since. Gustafsson would be forced to bow out soon after due to an injury, but the subsequent announcement that Daniel Cormier would instead face Jones on Sept. 27 only ratcheted up fans’ anticipation for the card. Unfortunately, the injury bug would bite once again when Jones himself withdrew from the main-event contest. Shortly thereafter, the promotion announced that flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson would defend his belt in the night’s headlining bout against Chris Cariaso in a fight that was originally schedule for UFC 177.

This might have spelled disaster once again for the UFC’s September pay-per-view event had the company not already done its part to stack the main card with fights seemingly tailor-made for its fans. Tim Kennedy will fight Yoel Romero in a meeting of two guys in the UFC’s middleweight top 10, and Conor McGregor (ranked ninth among the UFC’s featherweights) will try to continue his incredible momentum in his battle with the fifth-ranked Dustin Poirier. Top-ranked women’s bantamweight contender Cat Zingano returns to the cage after a 17-month layoff in an attempt to maintain her position as next-in-line for a shot against Ronda Rousey. Zingano will face eighth-ranked Amanda Nunes Saturday in a fight with a ton on the line. And, oh yeah, former Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez makes his UFC debut in the night’s co-main event where he faces longtime fan-favorite Donald Cerrone.


With those four fights on the pay-per-view card, it almost doesn’t matter who’s in the main event. Fortunately, UFC 178’s titular bout just happens to include one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world (Johnson), even if his opponent at UFC 178 was culled from the lower portion of the flyweight top 10. All in all, this is an event UFC fans should be able to get excited about pretty easily, and one has to imagine the buyrates will reflect that.

The 11-fight UFC 178 card takes place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Sept. 27 and airs live on UFC Fight Pass, Fox Sports 1 and pay-per-view. The preliminary card kicks off at 7 p.m. ET on Fight Pass and continues at 8 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1, with the night’s pay-per-view portion beginning at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Vince Carey and Eric Reinert break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

After losses to John Moraga and Jussier “Formiga” da Silva, Chris Cariaso picked up three straight wins against flyweights outside of the top 10. Now, he finds himself in the spotlight as the latest challenger to Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson’s title. Is this a more outlandish scenario than Joe Soto fighting for T.J. Dillashaw’s bantamweight title? Can Cariaso even deliver as honorable of a showing as Soto did?

Reinert: Is this more outlandish than a debuting UFC fighter being tabbed to switch opponents and compete for his division’s title the day before the fight is scheduled to take place? I thinks not. I do, however, understand where some fans would take issue with Cariaso’s promotion to title challenger when a number of other flyweights seem to make more sense for Johnson.

Here’s the problem: None of those other fighters were available (or made sense as an opponent for Johnson) when the fight was made in mid-July. John Dodson is injured. Joseph Benavidez has already been defeated twice by Johnson. Ian McCall would make sense today, but when Johnson/Cariaso was first announced, McCall was days away from fighting Brad Pickett. For the sake of brevity, I won’t list the rest of the fighters and why they couldn’t take the bout with Johnson, but you can imagine that if the UFC could have selected a more highly ranked opponent for one of its more dominant champions, it likely would have.

Soto did perform admirably against Dillashaw, but the takeaway from UFC 177’s main event (of which Dillashaw had won every round before knocking out Soto in the fourth frame) was really that Dillashaw’s win over Barao was no fluke. While I’m reluctant to count any fighter out before the final bell (due mostly to Dillashaw’s own shocking performance against Barao at UFC 173), it’s tough to imagine a scenario where Cariaso is able to overcome the significant gifts that Johnson possesses. It won’t be a total blowout, but Johnson should provide fans with a convincing stoppage win to close out UFC 178.

Carey: I’m going to agree with Eric on this one. Comparing a pretty serviceable UFC veteran to a guy making his Octagon debut on 24 hours’ notice is a little ridiculous. No disrespect to Soto, but if UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby had booked that fight under any other circumstances, the MMA world might be calling for his job. Cariaso may not exactly have the resume of a title contender, but at least he has some Octagon experience and a nice winning streak under his belt.

Compared to the other options the UFC had to roll out in front of Johnson, Cariaso is easily the best available guy. At the very least, he should make sure we get to see an entertaining fight in the main event. Sadly, that’s probably all he’s going to be able to give us. I understand Eric’s hesitance to count out Cariaso after Dillashaw’s shocker this year, but I’m pretty confident this one is going to end with “Mighty Mouse” continuing his run of dominance at 125 pounds.

The real question is whether or not Cariaso will be able to survive until the final bell. “Kamikaze” is actually similar to Johnson in that he’s a really good point fighter. If he can get comfortable on the feet, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Cariaso could steal a round or two. However, if Johnson is able to mix things up and take the fight everywhere the way he normally does, it’s either going to be a very short or very long night for Cariaso, and he won’t like the result either way. I don’t know if Cariaso will put on a show the same way Soto did, especially because I doubt Johnson will mess around on the feet as long as Dillashaw did after taking a few punches. If Cariaso can keep the fight standing and find his range early, we may have a good scrap on our hands, but odds are this one will be lopsided.

Eddie Alvarez has finally arrived in the UFC. His first fight comes in a co-headliner against the popular Donald Cerrone. Can Alvarez escape the trend of high-profile fighters from outside the UFC—Jake Shields, Alistair Overeem, Hector Lombard—who don’t live up to expectations once they enter the Octagon?

Carey: The fun has arrived! There are so many potential barnburners for Alvarez at 155 pounds that his Octagon debut represents a small dream come true for fight fans, and the fact that it’s coming against Cerrone almost has me pinching myself in excitement. Alvarez is undoubtedly a top-10 lightweight, and his signing only adds to the incredible depth the weight class has somehow managed to maintain since its revival in the late 2000s. I know he’s going to put on a good show when he fights, and there are a handful of bouts I can name off the top of my head that I’d like to see Alvarez participate in, but that’s about as far as my expectations go for the former Bellator champion.

Look, 155 is an absolute shark tank, and trying to predict who’s going to win any fight between top contenders in this weight class is difficult. Everyone can strike, everyone can wrestle, everyone can tap their opponents out. In one of the supposedly “predictable” lightweight main events this year, Rafael dos Anjos shocked the world and knocked out Benson Henderson in the first round. Lightweight has been chaotic for years now, and it’s gotten to the point where I truly believe anyone in the top 10 can beat the other nine guys on the right day.

As far as Alvarez specifically, as long as he doesn’t drop his first three fights and flake out of title contention, then he’s at least living up to my expectations. Between his Octagon jitters this weekend, combined with the fact that his opponent is one of the more dangerous finishers at any weight, I’m not confident Alvarez will even pass his first test, let alone jump right into the next title fight. As long as Alvarez puts on a good show and wins a few fights along the way, though, he should avoid criticism. Anything else should be considered a bonus.

Reinert: With Jones/Cormier no longer on the card, Alvarez’s debut is probably the most interesting story surrounding UFC 178, and for good reason. The man has generally been considered a top lightweight for the last several years (he’s currently positioned fifth in the Combat Press rankings) and has mostly backed up that reputation by going 10-1 since 2009 and twice capturing the Bellator lightweight championship.

Here’s my main concern with Alvarez, and I’m sure it’s one shared by Vince and a lot of other MMA fans: Alvarez has not fought anyone that could give the UFC’s best 155ers a legitimate run for their money, aside from maybe Michael Chandler. Yes, Alvarez has notched a very impressive record outside the UFC, but when he’s immediately being thrown into the deep end of one of the most competitive divisions in the world’s top MMA promotion, I’m hesitant to anoint him the next big star.

Of the three other UFC immigrants mentioned in the question, I think a reasonable comparison to how we could see Alvarez’s UFC career unfold is to that of Hector Lombard. Jake Shields entered the UFC expected to immediately contend for the welterweight title. He got his shot, but lost to Georges St-Pierre and has gone 3-2 (with one no-contest) since, with the wins all coming by way of decision. Alistair Overeem was similarly expected to enter the UFC and immediately find himself in title contention (and, honestly, the way he handled Brock Lesnar in his debut definitely made fans take notice). Unfortunately, a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs forced Overeem from competition for more than a year, and he’s compiled a 1-3 record since.

Lombard, on the other hand, has fared a bit better. Yes, he does have two losses since debuting in the UFC in 2012, but both came by split decision. Meanwhile, he knocked out Rousimar Palhares and Nate Marquardt before taking a decision over the aforementioned Shields in his most recent fight. Has Lombard blazed a trail through the UFC the likes of which has never before been seen? No, but he’s still ranked sixth on the UFC’s welterweight list, and with a win or two more could find himself in title contention.

Call me a party-pooper, but I’m not quite ready to get all excited for Alvarez until he can prove he actually belongs among the UFC’s elite lightweights. That said, if he can match the successes that Lombard has achieved (and maybe avoid the close decision losses), he’ll definitely find himself fighting for the lightweight belt within a year or so.

The hype behind Conor McGregor has only continued to grow over the past year, but this match-up against Dustin Poirier will be the toughest of his career. Will McGregor prove he’s more than a flash in the pan and jump into title consideration?

Reinert: Man…of all the great fights on the UFC 178 card, this one is probably the most difficult to predict. McGregor sure has looked impressive in his three UFC fights, but all of them have been against guys who would not be considered featherweight contenders. On the other side of the Octagon will stand Poirier, a man who is not only ranked higher than McGregor, but has been fighting in the UFC for more than two years longer than the Irishman. The knock on Poirier, of course, is that he’s faltered against other elite featherweights (Cub Swanson, Chan Sung Jung), so I question how far he’ll actually be able to advance beyond his current fifth ranking.

This is an ideal fight for both 145ers. McGregor being pitted against one of the division’s best fighters finally gives him the opportunity to prove that he’s actually as good as he’s been telling everyone he is. Poirier not only has the opportunity to stop that hype train, but also notch another win against a fellow up-and-comer and entrench himself more firmly as a true featherweight contender.

While I’m predicting a Poirier win here, due mostly to his more extensive UFC experience, a loss for McGregor would not necessarily put a stop to his current momentum, especially given McGregor’s ability to market himself so well. I think McGregor takes the loss on Saturday, but then will come back better than before, motivated to get past the defeat and reclaim some of his glory.

Carey: Sorry, Eric, but I’m going the complete other way with this one. There’s no denying Poirier has earned his spot near the top of the division, but McGregor is on a roll. I think he’s going to keep that momentum going on Saturday.

While there’s no shame in Poirier’s losses to fighters the caliber of Swanson and Jung, it’s the way Poirier lost that makes me think he’s going to have major problems against the Irishman. While he put on a hell of a show in both fights, Poirier found himself in trouble on the feet in those match-ups. Swanson is considered an elite striker, but Jung isn’t quite on that level. The precision punches that McGregor throws will be far more dangerous than the onslaught “The Korean Zombie” brought.

Don’t get me wrong, Poirier is still good enough to do more than hold his own on the feet and his overall game is extremely solid. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he found a way to walk out of Las Vegas with a win this weekend. However, he’s shown a few too many holes in his striking defense to make me feel comfortable picking him against a finisher like McGregor. McGregor’s ground game is mostly untested in the Octagon, but I think Poirier is going to have a really difficult time getting this fight to the ground, which is the one place where he may have an advantage.

I have McGregor finishing this fight, and I think he makes a strong statement to the rest of the featherweight division in the process. A win over Poirier proves the hype behind the Irishman is real, and since McGregor has quickly become a household name at 145 pounds, a title shot won’t be too far away. Whether it’s a fight against the winner of Aldo and Mendes next month or a top contender like the aforementioned Swanson or Frankie Edgar, McGregor gets a huge opportunity with a win here.

Cat Zingano was next in line for a bantamweight title shot before an injury and other outside-the-cage issues forced her to take a lengthy hiatus from competition. Two-part question: Can we expect to see the same fighter on Saturday that we saw back in April 2013 against Miesha Tate? If not, and Zingano happens to lose to Amanda Nunes, who among the other women’s bantamweight contenders deserves the next chance to face champion Ronda Rousey?

Carey: With all that Zingano has gone through over the past year, everyone has to be hoping that she’ll come back at full force. With multiple injuries and personal tragedy all seemingly hitting “Alpha” at once, Zingano getting the UFC title shot she rightfully earned over a year ago would be an incredible story. She has a very good chance at making it happen against Nunes.

There’s no denying that Nunes is going to be an extremely dangerous opponent, and she probably has the most knockout power of anyone Zingano has ever fought. However, “Alpha” has pulled off gritty wins before, and I wouldn’t put it past her to pull off a performance similar to her UFC debut by weathering an early storm before coming on strong once the larger Nunes starts to wear down. Nunes is a terrifying finisher, though, especially compared to most of the women in the weight class, and any slip-up by Zingano in the opening minutes could leave her looking at the lights.

I do believe Zingano is going to win this fight, but if Nunes pulls off the upset, it’ll be hard not to make a case that she should take Zingano’s spot across the cage from Rousey in the next title fight. Nunes will likely make a big jump in the bantamweight rankings, and once she hits the top five and is surrounded by fighters Rousey has already taken out, it’s going to be pretty obvious she’s next in line. You can make a case for Bethe Correia if you really want to, due to her rivalry with “The Four Horsewomen,” but based on resume alone, the fight should belong to Nunes. I can see the UFC deciding to bump the Brazilian in favor of a fight with Gina Carano, but anyone other than a movie star shouldn’t be jumping ahead of Nunes.

Reinert: With the current dearth of contenders in the UFC women’s bantamweight division (due mostly to Rousey’s utter dominance of her opposition), Zingano’s return should be one of the more welcome in recent memory for hardcore fight fans. Ever since her amazing comeback victory over Tate all the way back in April 2013, I’ve wanted to see how she’d fare against the champion. Perhaps she gets that chance, but first she’ll have to get through a very tough opponent in Nunes.

It’s probably a good thing Zingano’s title shot was deferred after her lengthy layoff, lest she should enter the Octagon against the greatest female fighter of all time ill-prepared. Nunes certainly isn’t Rousey, but she’ll serve as a more-than-adequate measuring stick to see if Zingano still has what it takes to contend. If Zingano is able to channel her aggression properly, we will all be reminded why she is the division’s nominal top contender.

I am picking Zingano here, but there is a very real possibility that everything she has endured since her win over Tate has affected her ability to perform at the highest level. If that’s the case and Nunes can capitalize, we could see Zingano take a tumble in the rankings. If Nunes is victorious on Saturday, I agree with Vince that she has as strong a case as anyone to take on Rousey next. Correia did look impressive in her win over Shayna Baszler, but it would be hard to argue that the performance was more title-shot-worthy than a hypothetical win over the division’s top-ranked contender. (I’d almost rather see Correia fight Jessica Andrade.) Since Rousey has defeated everyone ranked underneath Zingano until you get to sixth-ranked Jessica Eye (who most recently suffered a loss to Alexis Davis, who then got thumped by Rousey), Nunes looks as good as any contender, especially if she hands Zingano her first loss.

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

Reinert: Other than Poirier/McGregor, the most difficult fight for me to call on this card has to be Tim Kennedy vs. Yoel Romero. Both men are in the middleweight division’s top 10. Both have gone undefeated since debuting in the UFC in 2013. Both possess great all-around games that make them dangerous anywhere the fight goes. They are a combined 26-5 as professionals, with just two losses coming by stoppage (one each). Talk about a coin-flip.

Kennedy was considered one of the top middleweight prospects a few years back, when he was splitting time between MMA and being an Army Ranger. He’s looked no less impressive since leaving active duty and notched a superb decision victory over Michael Bisping in April. Romero is an interesting fighter in that he possesses Olympic-quality wrestling but has taken seven of his eight pro victories by way of knockout or TKO.

I can’t see Kennedy being able to take Romero to the mat, but I also have a hard time seeing Kennedy actually being knocked out. While this clash of styles could lead to a boring fight, I’m choosing optimism in the form of hoping Kennedy abandons all attempts to grapple and just turns this into a slugfest. If that’s the case, I’ve got Romero by decision, but this one could absolutely go either way.

Carey: I really want to pick the surefire brawl between Patrick Cote and Stephen Thompson for the sleeper honor, but it would be ridiculous if we made it through this whole thing without mentioning Dominick Cruz.

The former bantamweight champion makes his return after spending nearly three years on the sidelines due to injuries, and considering he never officially lost his belt, there are a lot of reasons to be intrigued by his comeback. The obvious question is if Cruz will still be the dazzling striker he was before multiple leg injuries took him out over recent years. In the past, Cruz’s biggest asset was his incredible footwork, and if his various ACL problems harm his ability to bounce around and find his rhythm, we may never see the same fighter who was so dominant at 135 pounds.

Making this fight even more fun is that Cruz’s opponent, Takeya Mizugaki, is riding a five-fight winning streak that could easily be seven in a row if not for a questionable decision loss to Cariaso a few years ago. While he hasn’t been fighting the cream of the crop as of late, Mizugaki has beaten a few quality opponents during this winning streak and his confidence is starting to catch up with his success. As important as this fight is for Cruz to get back on track, this is a huge opportunity for Mizugaki to hand a former champion his first UFC defeat. No one has any idea how Cruz is going to look back inside the cage, but if I’m picking this fight I’m going to put my faith in “The Dominator” to come back at least somewhat close to his usual talent level and pull off a win.

Pair this card with…

Carey: A ton of friends. This is one of the rare cards that will feature enough action to keep even the most ADD-prone friends’ eyes glued to the screen. And let’s face it, it’s been a while since the UFC put out a pay-per-view event like this. Grab some beers, sit back and lay the verbal smackdown on the inevitable drunk guy who thinks he could beat up “Mighty Mouse.”

Reinert: A healthy dose of thankfulness. Again, many of the UFC’s pay-per-view offerings this year have been less-than-stellar, and, to be honest, UFC 179’s not looking all that tremendous either. We should count our lucky stars that UFC 178 still turned out to be as attractive on paper as it did, despite the loss of a dynamite main event in Jones/Cormier. UFC 180 once again looks like it’ll be purchase-worthy, and UFC 181 is looking pretty good so far as well, so it looks like the company is making an effort to load up its premium cards. It’s been a little while since there has been such a buzz surrounding a UFC pay-per-view card like there is for UFC 178, and I, for one, am pretty excited.

Fight Picks

Fight Reinert’s Pick Carey’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
FlyW Championship: Demetrious Johnson vs. Chris Cariaso Johnson Johnson
LW: Eddie Alvarez vs. Donald Cerrone Cerrone Cerrone
FW: Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier Poirier McGregor
MW: Tim Kennedy vs. Yoel Romero Romero Kennedy
Women’s BW: Amanda Nunes vs. Cat Zingano Zingano Zingano
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Dominick Cruz vs. Takeya Mizugaki Cruz Cruz
LW: James Krause vs. Jorge Masvidal Masvidal Krause
WW: Patrick Cote vs. Stephen Thompson Thompson Thompson
WW: Brian Ebersole vs. John Howard Ebersole Howard
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. ET)
LW: Kevin Lee vs. Jon Tuck Lee Tuck
BW: Manny Gamburyan vs. Cody Gibson Gibson Gibson