Conor McGregor (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 189 Preview and Predictions

It’s that time again. Every summer, the combat sports world turns its attention to the sweltering Nevada desert for International Fight Week. And this year, the action inside the cage is likely to rival the July heat.

Unfortunately, UFC 189 is longer at a steady boil after featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo was forced out the main event due to a broken rib. However, the promotion salvaged the card by inserting two-time title challenger Chad Mendes against rising star Conor McGregor. The pair will clash for an interim belt in the headlining affair.

The co-main event also features UFC gold on the line as welterweight champion Robbie Lawler rematches Canadian Rory MacDonald. Lawler captured the belt last fall with a decision win over Johny Hendricks, while MacDonald has won three straight since falling to Lawler in late 2013.


The 11-fight event kicks off Saturday, July 11, with two preliminary-card fights streaming on UFC Fight Pass at 7 p.m. ET. Four additional prelims follow on Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET, with the five-fight main card airing live on pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET.

Combat Press writers Eric Reinert and Rob Tatum take a look at the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Despite months of build-up and an exhaustive media tour, the massively hyped title fight between Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor won’t be happening on July 11. Instead, McGregor will face former title challenger Chad Mendes for the interim belt. With less than two weeks to prepare, does Mendes have a chance to play spoiler? Or does McGregor capture the belt and ensure a future crack at a healthy Aldo?

Reinert: First, I’d like to quickly point out that McGregor/Mendes remains the main event at UFC 189, despite the fact that the co-main event will be fought for actual (rather than interim) UFC gold. This, right here, tells you all you need to know about how the UFC wants to position McGregor in an effort to build him into one of the faces of the company. Unfortunately, that’s all going to blow up in the promotion’s face in Las Vegas.

While McGregor’s 17-2 professional record is impressive, the popular Irish fighter was able to jump the line for his title shot with Aldo despite never having defeated any of the featherweight division’s other best fighters. There’s no denying that he’s an outstanding on-camera personality, but his title shot was due more to Aldo’s previous wins over Frankie Edgar and Mendes as opposed to McGregor’s undeniable position as the top contender in the division. It’s this lack of experience against the Edgars and Mendeses of the division that makes me very hesitant to go with McGregor here.

Mendes has a record perhaps even more impressive than McGregor’s, having blitzed through everyone not named Jose Aldo. Mendes, while nominally a wrestler, has achieved five of his eight UFC wins by knockout or TKO, which makes him one of the most complete and dangerous fighters in the sport. Good luck to anyone who tries to take him down without being hit with at least an uppercut or a quick knee.

It’s this completeness that compels me to go with Mendes on Saturday. McGregor will have the range advantage, but Mendes’s explosive ability to close the distance will negate that with a quickness. I see this one either remaining standing or with Mendes in top position after taking McGregor to the ground. While I’m not necessarily convinced that Mendes will lay McGregor out like he has many of his other UFC opponents, I do see him controlling the fight for the majority of its 25 minutes en route to a decision win.

Tatum: It’s hard to argue my colleague’s assessment of how this fight plays out on July 11.

McGregor has looked great in his UFC career thus far and the promotion has done a fantastic job of building up the 26-year-old as a star. The Irishman does possess great boxing skills and an underrated ground game, but for all his charisma and showmanship, the fact remains that he hasn’t faced an elite wrestler during his UFC tenure. And he should be counting his lucky stars (or should I say four-leafed clovers?) that he’s facing an opponent who only had two weeks to prepare.

Mendes has got to be licking his chops. After suffering two losses to Aldo but demolishing everything else in his path, Mendes gets his golden ticket back to the Brazilian. While fighting on two weeks’ notice is less than ideal for the Team Alpha Male product, he undoubtedly jumped at the chance to step into a pay-per-view main event.

This fight boils down to one thing: who dictates where it takes place. If McGregor can use his reach advantage to keep Mendes on the outside, he stands a good chance of living up to his hype. The problem with that strategy is that he’s facing an elite wrestler with a devastating right hand. Mendes is battle-tested against the division’s elite and has the perfect skill set to foil McGregor’s claim to the interim belt.

I’ll echo Eric’s prediction of a Mendes win, but I see it coming via third-round TKO.

Rory MacDonald is finally getting his shot at the UFC welterweight strap in a rematch against Robbie Lawler, one of only two men to hand the Canadian a loss. What, if anything, is MacDonald doing better now that will allow him to beat Lawler in this second go-around?

Tatum: Changing his nickname? Seriously, you don’t get to pick your nickname. Let alone change it whenever you feel like it. “Ares”? “The Red King”? C’mon, Rory, you’re still “The Waterboy” in my eyes.

Anyway, enough of my rant on that topic. It’s hard to fathom that the Canadian is just 25 years old and has been in the UFC since he was 20. The Tristar product has certainly worked his way out of the shadow of teammate and training partner Georges St-Pierre under the tutelage of Firas Zahabi, but can he step up and capture UFC gold?

His first fight with Lawler at UFC 167 in November 2013 was a barnburner, but it wasn’t the type of fight MacDonald wanted. Yes, the scorecards were close, but MacDonald failed to truly establish his jab and he absorbed a lot of punishment as a result. That’s a bad omen when heading into a rematch against a fighter with as much offensive firepower as Lawler.

MacDonald rebounded and looked comfortable in outpointing grapplers Demian Maia and Tyron Woodley, but it was his performance against former Strikeforce champion Tarec Saffiedine that should give the Canadian contingent hope in Las Vegas. He was aggressive on the feet, used his jab and footwork well, and when it mattered most, he went for the kill.

The problem is that he may not ever get that opportunity against the granite-chinned Lawler. MacDonald will have to turn up the offense early if he wants to leave the cage with gold, but it’s hard to see that happening. Lawler’s experience and power were the difference in the first meeting and they will be again as he tops MacDonald on the scorecards to retain his belt.

Reinert: Of the current UFC champions, Lawler might be one of the easiest to bet against. Don’t get me wrong — he’s an outstanding competitor and has put on some amazing performances, but he’s been putting his 33-year-old body through the rigors of professional MMA training since 2001, and eventually he’s going to break down. Against most other fighters in the division, Lawler would stand a good chance to retain, but MacDonald has only now begun to scratch the surface of his potential, and he’s just going to present too many problems for Lawler to solve for a second time.

I’m not going to try to convince you that a MacDonald welterweight title reign is going to result in a ton of exciting title fights. He is, truly, the protege of teammate St-Pierre, with four of his five most recent UFC wins coming by way of decision. We’ve seen the young Canadian ascend the mountain only to be knocked back by Lawler, but since that time, he’s notched three straight wins over top-notch competition. There’s always been a feeling that MacDonald would eventually find a way to get that welterweight belt, and I think he makes it happen on Saturday.

Part of me thinks MacDonald sets up Lawler with some mean body kicks before going upstairs for the knockout, but Lawler’s toughness throughout his career makes me hesitant to believe he’ll be finished. I’ve got MacDonald by decision to win the title.

Bantamweight Thomas Almeida really put himself on the map with a violent, first-round knockout over Yves Jabouin at UFC 186. Now the 23-year-old is set to clash with veteran Brad Pickett. If the Brazilian gets around Pickett and stays undefeated, is he a darkhorse contender for the 135-pound belt?

Reinert: Let’s get this out of the way first: I think Almeida is going to blast straight through Pickett on Saturday, and he will most likely work his way into title contention sometime in the next 18 months. That said, he’ll need at least one win over a well-known (and highly ranked) bantamweight before getting there.

The guy certainly has an impressive record, having gone 18-0 with 14 wins by knockout or TKO, and it appears that he actually fought eight times in 2012, which is unheard of in the UFC. He’ll have the skills and the experience to make an impact at 135, but I don’t want to jump the gun and say a win over the unranked Pickett (who has gone 4-4 in the UFC and lost his last two straight) necessarily makes him a contender.

To accomplish that, he’ll need to get through Urijah Faber, who would be an ideal opponent for Almeida (provided Almeida’s successful on Saturday). Yes, Faber did recently move back to featherweight, but his loss to Frankie Edgar has pretty much dashed any hope he might have had of contending in the division he once so dominantly ruled. Outside of the title picture, Faber serves as a perfect litmus test for fighters who think they might have what it takes to take a crack at the champ, and if Almeida can get past him, then we can start talking about potential title opportunities.

Tatum: I’m not sure I completely agree with my cohort’s assessment of Almeida’s place in the division. Sure, he sits at No. 14 in the current UFC rankings and has yet to crack our top 10 here at Combat Press, but there’s a need for fresh blood in the 135-pound ranks.

To be honest, how many people are screaming for a Raphael Assuncao-T.J. Dillashaw rematch? And with former champion Dominick Cruz sidelined with yet another knee injury, the list of clear-cut contenders for the belt is pretty thin. Outside of fellow prospect Aljamain Sterling, there are not many names that stand out besides Almeida.

Almeida is a wrecking machine, stopping 17 of his 18 opponents. And he’s only been out of the first round on three occasions. If that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will. Sure, wins over Tim Gorman and Jabouin may not hold the weight of a Faber or a Michael McDonald, but if the Brazilian adds Pickett’s name to his resume, he has to be in the conversation.

Pickett’s tough as nails, but he’s going to be severely outgunned on the feet in this contest. Pickett has the wrestling advantage, but he’s going to take a lot of punishment trying to get Almeida to the mat. If Almeida’s finish of Jabouin was his coming-out party, then his violent, TKO finish of Pickett will be his victory lap toward the belt.

Since Georges St-Pierre’s departure from competition, the UFC welterweight belt has been up for grabs twice, with each fight seeing a different winner (first Johny Hendricks and then Robbie Lawler). Is the welterweight belt the UFC’s most up-for-grabs championship, given the lack of a dominant titlist (like a Demetrious Johnson, Ronda Rousey or Jose Aldo) thus far and the tremendous number of talented 170-pound fighters in the UFC?

Tatum: In short, no. But a deeper look at the welterweight ranks makes it easy to see where this sort of question arises.

Essentially, the welterweight title picture consists of Lawler, MacDonald and Hendricks, with former interim titleholder Carlos Condit and Tyron Woodley on the outside looking in. That’s not a whole lot of options for the UFC. Not to mention, most of those fighters have already faced one another in the Octagon. So, if you had to pick a division with the least options for title contenders, then welterweight might be the appropriate answer.

That’s not to say that the belt couldn’t bounce around that group of fighters. Should MacDonald beat Lawler, then a fight with Hendricks makes sense. And then it’s rematch-palooza after that.

However, returning to the question at hand, the division with the most up-for-grabs title right now is the lightweight division. No disrespect to newly crowned titleholder Rafael dos Anjos, but he’s got a murderer’s row of challengers all waiting for him to get healthy. First, there’s Donald Cerrone, who arguably beat the champion previously. Then there’s Khabib Nurmagomedov, who dominated dos Anjos. Add in a resurgent Eddie Alvarez to the mix and the 155-pound belt could change hands in the very near future.

So unless St-Pierre returns to competition and throws a huge monkey wrench into things, the welterweight division isn’t quite the revolving door that some of the other divisions might be.

Reinert: It’s tough to argue with Rob’s logic here. Dos Anjos is probably the most lightly regarded of the UFC’s current champions and that division is arguably the promotion’s most talent-rich, making its belt at least as “up-for-grabs” as the one currently around Lawler’s waist.

One might, however, argue that the bantamweight title could also be in that mix. T.J. Dillashaw shocked the world when he took the strap from Renan Barao last May, but he shocked pretty much no one when he defeated non-contender Joe Soto in his lone title defense. Dillashaw faces Barao in a title-fight rematch on July 25, and with Raphael Assuncao and (ideally) Dominick Cruz waiting in the wings, I think we could see any of these four with the belt by year’s end, making it a very exciting title picture to watch.

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

Reinert: Normally I wouldn’t call a fight featuring Matt By-God Brown a “sleeper,” but with two title fights and a host of other rankings-settling affairs taking place on pay-per-view, Brown’s battle with Tim Means has been relegated to the preliminary portion of the lineup. Granted, the UFC has smartly positioned Brown in the Fox Sports “main event,” a position typically reserved for a fight or fighters virtually guaranteed to convince any potential pay-per-view holdouts to press the “Buy” button on their remotes, but at this point Brown should always, always be on the main card, so to me it’s a sleeper.

Semantics aside, this should be the night’s best fight outside the main card, and it could end up being the best fight, period. Brown simply does not know how to have a boring fight, with only five of his 19 UFC fights going the distance. Remember when he beat seven guys in a row, six of them by knockout or TKO? That was pretty awesome. He might have lost his last two fights, but those losses came to Robbie Lawler and Johny Hendricks — the last two UFC welterweight champions. He remains one of the few UFC fighters absolutely, positively guaranteed to bring the action.

Across from Brown stands Means, another fighter with a penchant to turn a professional MMA fight into a slugfest. Sixteen of his 24 pro wins have come by knockout or TKO, and he stopped each of his last two opponents inside the distance. Means isn’t exactly a title contender, but a win over Brown would certainly introduce him into the conversation.

Whatever happens here, I’m going to sit as close to my screen as I can for this one. I refuse to bet against Brown, so I’ve got him taking a gritty TKO win to close out the Fox Sports broadcast.

Tatum: Would it be weird to admit that I’m drooling thinking about the violence that is going to ensue between Brown and Means? Oh, it is weird? Uh, well, since Eric picked that fight, I’ll try to change the subject from my pools of saliva.

The fight that piques my interest the most outside of Brown and Means is also in the welterweight division. The injury-driven clash between grappling ace Gunnar Nelson and striking specialist Brandon Thatch has fireworks written all over it.

Iceland’s Nelson saw his unbeaten record blemished for the first time in October when he fell via split decision to Rick Story at UFC Fight Night 53. Before that, he had earned stoppages in 12 of his 13 wins, with eight coming by way of submission.

Similarly, Thatch’s momentum was also halted in his last outing, a last-minute match-up with former champion Benson Henderson at UFC Fight Night 60. Thatch’s 10-fight winning streak that was made up of only first-round finishes came to an end with a fourth-round submission loss.

If Nelson starts slowly in this match-up, he’s going to be overwhelmed by Thatch’s devastating striking arsenal. The Colorado-based Thatch doesn’t let up once he puts the pedal to the metal, and that is not only his biggest weapon, but his biggest weakness. The longer this fight goes, the more it favors the grappler Nelson. However, Thatch doesn’t have to worry about going five rounds in this contest and will come out guns blazing. Thatch by first-round TKO.

Pair this card with…

Tatum: Pints of Guinness, shots of Jameson and any other liquor that you can get your hands on. After all the anticipation leading up to this card, there’s just no shaking the “what could have been” mentality leading into fight week. Even so, a match-up between McGregor and Mendes is better than the fight getting pulled altogether. As such, my suggestion is do what the Irish do best: drink and celebrate. Although the belt they’re fighting for means very little and I expect Mendes to play spoiler in the cage, at least you’ll have a good time in the process.

Reinert: A party. This suggestion gets thrown around any time a big-time card like Saturday’s takes place, but get in touch with all of your friends who have ever expressed any interest in MMA and convince them to watch UFC 189 at your place. We’ve got 1.5 title fights and three more terrific pay-per-view clashes to share, and with the ever-changing and frequently disappointing nature of the UFC’s pay-per-view cards to consider, UFC 189 should be a perfect showcase for the sport.

Fight Picks

Fight Reinert’s Pick Tatum’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
Interim FW Championship: Conor McGregor vs. Chad Mendes Mendes Mendes
WW Championship: Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald MacDonald Lawler
FW: Dennis Bermudez vs. Jeremy Stephens Bermudez Bermudez
WW: Gunnar Nelson vs. Brandon Thatch Thatch Thatch
BW: Thomas Almeida vs. Brad Pickett Almeida Almeida
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Matt Brown vs. Tim Means Brown Brown
WW: Alex Garcia vs. Mike Swick Garcia Garcia
WW: John Howard vs. Cathal Pendred Pendred Pendred
BW: Henry Briones vs. Cody Garbrandt Garbrandt Garbrandt
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Neil Seery vs. Louis Smolka Smolka Smolka
LW: Yosdenis Cedeno vs. Cody Pfister Cedeno Pfister