Jose Aldo (L) faces off with Conor McGregor (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 194 Preview and Predictions

It’s finally happening. We’ve been waiting for José Aldo and Conor McGregor to face off inside the Octagon since McGregor jumped out of the cage like a madman and confronted the champion following a win late last year. Since then, we’ve endured a press-conference tour that provided some of the most memorable rivalry moments in UFC history, an injury to Aldo and a McGregor interim-title win. However, as fun as all of that was, it’s mostly felt like window dressing for the main attraction. That main attraction will finally come to a head this weekend at UFC 194, and the UFC has put together a truly great card to go along with it.

Aldo and McGregor may be getting all of the headlines heading into the event, but the Las Vegas crowd has plenty to get excited for this weekend. In the co-headlining spot, there’s an extremely competitive middleweight title scrap between pound-for-pound contender Chris Weidman and challenger Luke Rockhold. It’s a fight that could easily have headlined a major event of its own.

Adding to the fun is a middleweight title eliminator between Yoel Romero and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza that’s a year in the making. There’s also a grappling fan’s dream match between Demian Maia and Gunnar Nelson, plus a featherweight battle between rising star Max Holloway and longtime UFC veteran Jeremy Stephens to round out the main card.


With top-ranked names like Urijah Faber and Tecia Torres set to compete on the preliminary card and a few intriguing prospects like Colby Covington and Kevin Lee, this is a can’t-miss card from top to bottom and an awesome close to the pay-per-view year for the UFC.

UFC 194 kicks off at 7 p.m. ET with a trio of prelims on UFC Fight Pass before moving over to Fox Sports 1 for two more hours of fights at 8 p.m. ET. Then, it’s off to pay-per-view for the main card, where the five-fight lineup that culminates with a pair of title fights will get started at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Sal DeRose and Vince Carey are here to prepare you for one of the biggest cards of the year in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

The MMA world has been talking about the featherweight title showdown between José Aldo and Conor McGregor for months now. It’s finally upon us. Will McGregor silence any remaining doubters with a victory over Aldo, or is the Brazilian going to reveal that McGregor isn’t really ready to be at the top of the mountain?

DeRose: Oh. My. God. Here we go, ladies and gentlemen! This is the N64 GoldenEye 007 of UFC main events! Much like the showdown between boxers Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, I’m not believing this fight between Aldo and McGregor is still happening until they are actually both in the cage. It’s been far too long with so much talk to really make this the grudge match to end all grudge matches. The only thing left is to have John Cena’s entrance music surprisingly play and have Cena enter the cage and steal the featherweight championship.

This fight comes with a lot of unknowns. How will Aldo deal with McGregor’s movements? Are both fighters truly healthy? Will Aldo’s leg kicks slow McGregor down and make this a much easier fight? There are just so many questions. One constant is how dominant Aldo has been as champion in both the UFC and WEC. Even outside of being champion, Aldo has been as devastating as any other fighter on the current UFC roster.

There’s a reason he has been one of the top pound-for-pound fighters for the last few years. Aldo has used leg kicks to beat down opposing fighters — Urijah Faber, anybody? — and they are a huge difference-maker in this fight. The 29-year-old really makes use of those kicks, which should be the focal point of his attack if he wants to beat McGregor. Aldo needs to slow the fight down and make McGregor wary of trying to settle into his striking. Once McGregor gets relaxed, his opponents have a very hard time overcoming the different angles from which he attacks and nailing down McGregor’s movements.

Aldo has a very good close-range striking attack with a diversity of strikes he is comfortable in throwing. Unfortunately for Aldo, McGregor will have a four-inch reach advantage that will definitely help the Irishman settle into the striking by using his jab to keep the Brazilian on the outside. Aldo might also want to work his ground game in this fight. Aldo can use his power and speed to put McGregor on his heels.

The biggest “if” in this fight will most likely come before they actually leave the locker room. Aldo has well-documented problems on the scales. While he hasn’t missed weight yet, Aldo always seems to be drained and the weight cuts look to be tough on him. This is why there’s always talk about Aldo eventually moving up to lightweight.

Aldo is definitely the better fighter on paper. McGregor has good striking, but his grappling isn’t up to par with Aldo’s ground skills. McGregor will give Aldo a fight worthy of the hype, but he’ll ultimately fall just short of winning the affair. Rematch sound good to anybody else?

Carey: If I’m being honest, my biggest problem with my colleague’s breakdown of this fight was when he compared it to Goldeneye instead of Super Smash Bros. Are you serious, bro? Come on, you’re better than that! But to be serious for a moment, Mr. DeRose pretty much nailed the keys to this fight.

This is going to come down to Aldo’s conditioning, his leg kicks and his range. As good as McGregor is — and he loves to tell you he is — there’s not a lot he’s going to be able to do if Aldo is on his game this weekend. I love “The Notorious” one’s antics as much as anyone, but Aldo is legitimately one of the two or three best fighters of his generation. It’s hard to see the Brazilian clearly getting beaten by anyone at this point in his career. Of course, that’s what we were saying about Ronda Rousey a month ago as well, and we all know how that turned out.

If Aldo slips up, this could end up being McGregor’s fight. The Irish striker is extremely talented and, more importantly, he’s extremely aggressive. If he can push the pace against Aldo and find a way to keep his legs from getting chopped from underneath him in the early rounds, then there’s a really good chance he could start to beat up an exhausted Aldo. The champion, as pointed out, rarely has a good weight cut. He just has some cuts that are slightly less bad than others. If McGregor can get into the championship rounds after making Aldo work for the first three, then he has a shot here, even if Aldo starts off fighting his fight.

What would be interesting is if McGregor can pull Aldo into a brawl right away. Normally, Aldo’s power and skill set might suggest that he would have no problem landing a couple of shots in a slugfest and ending the night early, but McGregor is a lot trickier of an opponent than most. If anyone in the featherweight division can match Aldo in power with all four limbs, it’s probably McGregor. With all of the emotion and bad blood between the two having been ready to spill over for a solid year, it wouldn’t be shocking if “Notorious” was able to goad Aldo into a brawl early. McGregor hits hard enough that he could take out an overeager Aldo before the champion even has a chance to regain some composure and settle in, and McGregor’s best chance at winning could involved catching the champion early.

McGregor needs at least something to bend in his favor if he’s going to leave Vegas with the unified belt this weekend. This fight is most likely going to end after five hard-fought rounds with Aldo getting his hand raised, and it’s going to take something special from McGregor to make that happen. McGregor is one of the very best in the division and may actually be the man with the best chance at dethroning Aldo, but he’s not going to succeed where so many other world-class guys have failed.

With the heavy emphasis on Aldo and McGregor, it’s easy to forget that Chris Weidman is set to defend his belt against Luke Rockhold in the co-headliner. Can Weidman continue his dominance over the middleweight division against Rockhold?

Carey: Weidman’s last four fights have come against the likes of Anderson Silva (twice), Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort. On paper, that’s an absolute murder’s row of opponents. Outside of the Machida bout, Weidman has barely had to break a sweat. He has wrecked three legitimate legends in a row and quietly become one of the scariest champions in the sport, but his toughest test might come this weekend against Rockhold.

Rockhold may not be as flashy or obviously devastating on the feet as Weidman’s last few opponents, but he might have a better overall game than anyone Weidman has fought before. The former Strikeforce champ is very, very dangerous on his feet and owns one-shot knockout power that should keep Weidman honest when in the stand-up department. But what really sets him apart from the rest of Weidman’s opponents is his wrestling ability. A lot has been made about Rockhold’s training with world-class wrestlers Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier heading into this bout. If Rockhold is good enough with his takedown defense to force the champion into a straight striking battle, we’ve got a decent chance at crowning a new champion on Saturday.

Weidman may not go out and exclusively look to use his wrestling to dominate opponents like some other champions have in the past, but the threat of the takedown is alway sitting in the back of a striker’s head when they fight a top-notch wrestler like the middleweight champ. Weidman has been able to take advantage of his opponent’s hesitation in his last few bouts. It’s unlikely that Rockhold will be good enough to shrug off all of Weidman’s attempts to get the fight to the floor if that’s where the champion truly wants to bring the fight, but the longer he controls where the fight takes place, the better chance he has at pulling off an upset.

With all of the drama and bad blood between Aldo and McGregor, it’s been hard for anything else this weekend to get its due, but I’m anticipating this first title fight almost as much as the second one. My gut says this is going to be an extremely close fight and possibly a show-stealer. Rockhold won’t have enough to pull off the upset, but he will earn a lot of notoriety in defeat, a la Alexander Gustafsson after his loss to Jon Jones. Weidman takes the decision, but it’s going to be far from easy.

DeRose: This could very well end up being the best fight of the night. Weidman and Rockhold are very evenly matched. They are good on the feet and the ground. It’s really hard to distinguish on paper how each fighter wins this title affair.

Whether it be from a knockdown or a takedown, it’s inevitable that this fight goes to the mat at some point. Weidman is going to use the All-American wrestling skills that have resulted in his rise to the UFC title. The champion is also very good at using his boxing to set up the takedown. Weidman’s key, though, is his ground-and-pound. He is strong with his strikes from the top. Whether it be his sharp elbows or powerful punches, they make any opponent wither away. Weidman needs to keep a high output of ground strikes to help break Rockhold.

Rockhold has very good conditioning and five rounds will be nothing to the former Strikeforce middleweight champion. He is also very adept on the ground with his submission game. Yet Weidman’s grappling background — he has trained under Matt Serra and competed in the ADCC — certainly make it harder to believe Rockhold can get the submission finish. Rockhold needs to keep his distance and try not to go toe-to-toe with Weidman on the feet. Mark Munoz learned the hard way that Weidman has a diversity of strikes in his arsenal and all come with some heavy power. Rockhold has a great set of kicks which he should most definitely use to weaken the legs of Weidman and lessen the chance of takedowns later in the fight. The 31-year-old also likes to throw head kicks, which could come in handy in keeping Weidman on the outside.

Everybody keeps doubting Weidman. This will be another tough fight, similar to his battle with Machida. The Machida bout was a great fight, but a hard-fought victory. The same will be the case here with Rockhold, who could certainly play spoiler but ultimately won’t. Weidman takes the decision, but these two will fight in a rematch in the future.

Yoel Romero and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza have been booked to fight each other multiple times this year, but injuries have kept an obvious middleweight No. 1 contender fight from taking place. Who wins on Saturday, and does the winner have a legit shot at becoming a UFC champion in the next year?

DeRose: While Romero has looked good, Jacare has looked amazing. Souza’s last loss came a little over four years ago against current title challenger Luke Rockhold. Since the loss, Jacare has won eight consecutive times, albeit against talent that isn’t considered to be among the top five in the division. Souza’s biggest win came against Gegard Mousasi, who is ranked ninth as a middleweight.

This fight may come down to who wins on the feet. Romero has Olympic-level wrestling, but Souza is no stranger to being on his back and relying on his jiu-jitsu. The Brazilian is deadly when the fight hits the mat, where he has secured 16 victories by submission, including in three of his last five wins. Over the course of his last few fights, Souza’s striking has become better and his overall wrestling has improved. Souza is a more well-rounded fighter than his counterpart. Despite being the taller fighter, he is going to be a few inches short in the reach department. This could play more heavily into Romero’s wrestling-based approach.

Over the course of three rounds, a normal person would pick a wrestler to heavily dominate the short fight. Romero’s game is going to simply be to take this to the ground and avoid any and all submissions. This is much easier said than done. There’s a reason Souza’s nickname is Jacare. He eats people alive on the ground, much like an alligator. Souza will get a submission in the second round.

Does Souza have a shot at being champion? Sure. Anybody in the division has a chance. But is it likely? Probably not. Chris Weidman should get past Rockhold in their co-main event title fight on this card. Even if it were to be Rockhold who gets the victory, Souza previously fought and lost to Rockhold. Since that fight, Rockhold has improved tremendously.

Weidman might be similar to Romero, where he will use his dominant wrestling to really take it to his opponent. Weidman, who is based out of the Serra/Longo team on the East Coast, has some heavy pressure on the ground, great ground-and-pound and high level jiu-jitsu. Weidman’s striking is also very good. It just seems like a fight between Weidman and Romero could very quickly become an extremely one-sided fight.

Carey: It feels weird to be saying this about any fight on this card not featuring Aldo and McGregor, but it’s about damn time these two are going to square off. We’ve been waiting for this match-up for over a year now. After it was canceled so many times that I started to believe it was cursed, we’re finally going to see two of the best at 185 pounds figure out who gets the next shot at gold.

As much as I hate having to agree with my colleague, he did a pretty solid job predicting how this one is going to play out. Romero is a huge man and hits like a freaking semi-truck, but his striking isn’t good enough to allow him to dominate on the feet even against a grappling-first guy like Jacare. These two men will exchange on the feet a few times early in each round in an attempt to feel each other out, but once someone gets hit, this is going to turn into a grappling battle pretty quickly. There isn’t anyone on the roster who can beat Jacare in a grappling match.

Jacare will win by submission, but he’s going to have to be extremely careful if he allows Romero to get a dominant position or two in the early moments of the fight. The former Olympian has some ridiculously dangerous power behind his ground-and-pound that could easily change the entire complexion of the bout if he starts to land. As good as Souza’s jiu-jitsu may be, he might not be able to lock onto an arm or a leg while having his head bounced off the canvas like a basketball. Romero is going to end up on top at some point in this fight, and when he does, Jacare needs to be holding on to those limbs like they’re a life preserver. If Souza lets Romero start landing shots, he’s as good as dead.

As far as Jacare’s title hopes are concerned, it’s not going to happen. Rockhold already beat Souza once and has improved dramatically since that time. Jacare won’t be able to get him to the mat in a rematch, and five rounds stuck in Rockhold’s world more than likely equals a knockout loss for Souza. While everyone loves to talk about Weidman’s ground game, let’s not forget that “The All American” is the guy who went toe-to-toe with Lyoto Machida for five rounds and, oh yeah, knocked out Anderson freaking Silva to end the most dominant run in UFC history. The champ is no slouch on the feet and shouldn’t have much of a problem smashing around Souza for a few rounds. Jacare earns his shot at UFC gold this weekend, but this is probably as close as he’s going to get to becoming the champion.

Urijah Faber is headlining the preliminary portion of UFC 194 against Frankie Saenz. Faber has recently said he is ready to face bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw if Dillashaw can get past Dominick Cruz in their upcoming title fight. With a win over Saenz, does Faber really deserve a title shot, or is this a situation where the brewing rivalry between Faber and Dillashaw is simply too good to pass up?

Carey: The UFC is going to be forced to make a serious decision if Faber gets the win this weekend, which, if we’re honest, is exactly what pretty much everyone expects him to do. No disrespect to Saenz, but Faber has only lost one non-title fight in his life and that came at the hands of Frankie Edgar in his last bout. Edgar has proven to be a world-class fighter and one of the best lighter-weight fighters in the history of our sport. Saenz isn’t even near that level at this point in his career, and while I won’t say he doesn’t have a shot to beat Faber, I’ll admit that a Saenz upset would probably shock me even more than Holly Holm taking out Ronda Rousey a few weeks ago.

Faber is leaving Las Vegas with a victory this weekend, and the UFC is going to have a serious decision to make when it comes to the bantamweight title. Whether it’s Dillashaw or Cruz that walks away with the win in Boston next month, Faber is far and away the most interesting match-up for the champion. “The California Kid’s” newfound rivalry with his former protégé is one of the most fascinating developments of 2015 and a fight between the two is guaranteed to be the most anticipated title defense of Dillashaw’s career. On the flipside, the rivalry between Cruz and Faber is over five years old and has been held in check only because Cruz has been unable to stay healthy for the last few years. Faber was next in line for a shot at the belt when Cruz first was forced out as the champion a few years ago, and it would be a nice way for things to come full circle if “The California Kid” and “The Dominator” finally had their rubber match at this point in their careers.

The problem with all of this is, Faber shouldn’t be next in line for a shot at the belt. Raphael Assunção has won seven straight fights, including a win over Dillashaw before the latter won the title, and the only reason he hasn’t already competed for UFC gold is due to a nagging ankle injury that kept him out for the entirety of 2015. With Assunção in the gym and preparing to get back to action, it’s impossible to advocate Faber jumping the Brazilian in line no matter who walks out of Boston with the belt next month. With that in mind, Faber should get the loser of the Dillashaw-Cruz bout and be made to truly earn another shot at gold. We’ll still get a highly anticipated fight at 135 pounds that could easily headline a Fight Night or UFC on Fox card, and, more importantly, Faber won’t jump to the front of the line after a win over an unranked opponent.

DeRose: Faber is most likely getting the next title shot with a win. Some people will undoubtedly complain about all of Faber’s title shots, but he constantly puts himself in a position to get a title shot. Not many other fighters can say they’ve only suffered one loss in 20-plus non-title fights.

Fighters have earned title shots for far less. Heck, some have earned them after losses because their storyline or rivalry with the champion is so compelling that the UFC pushed them into the title shot to sell it while it’s still fresh in people’s minds.

However, I must agree with my colleague in saying that Faber’s title shot should be put off for at least one more fight just to let the rivalry brew with Dillashaw. Look at the McGregor and Aldo and you can see just how heated these rivalries can get between fighters. It only makes sense from a business standpoint to let the emotions and bad blood stew.

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

DeRose: With all the hype surrounding the men’s title fights and other various battles, the sleeper on this card will be Tecia Torres against Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger. The strawweight division is going to need a new challenger once champion Joanna Jędzrejczyk is ready to come back. That challenger could be Claudia Gadelha, who was in line for the next shot at Jędzrejczyk before the Brazilian suffered an injury. With a win, Torres could very much cement the next title shot and usurp Gadelha as the next in line if she scores an emphatic win over Jones-Lybarger, who is making her UFC debut.

Carey: I can’t believe we made it to this point without mentioning Demian Maia and Gunnar Nelson. I’m not saying this fight is going to be great — it could easily be the hardcore fan’s disappointment of the night if these two decide not to grapple — but holy shit if they grapple! These are two of the best jiu-jitsu guys on the entire roster, and this fight has been a dream match-up since the moment Nelson signed with the UFC. Maia is one of the most prolific submission artists in UFC history. Nelson is a Renzo Gracie black belt who has earned 10 of his 14 wins by submission and has been a force in grappling competitions as well. If these two hit the mat, it’s going to be extremely interesting.

Pair this card with…

Carey: You, me and everyone we know. No, not the rock group. I want you to take this as close to literally as possible. This is an awesome card with a fighter in the main event that everyone, for better or worse, has an opinion on. McGregor’s done the job promoting this one for you, so just call up all your friends and make it a fight night to remember. Nothing beats a grudge match, and if McGregor’s UFC career is any indication, his fight is going to live up to the hype one way or another.

DeRose: You might think my colleague is crazy for wanting to throw everything and the kitchen sink at this card, but he’s right. This is one amazing card. Pair it with those friends and go all out on the food, drinks and everything else to make this a special occasion. Want some sushi? Go all out. Maybe a plethora of White Castle burgers and those delicious chicken rings? Go all out. The UFC went all out for this card and, without sounding too much like a hype man, so should you. This is the end of a crazy three days of fights with some relatively good cards leading up to this gem.

Fight Picks

Fight DeRose’s Pick Carey’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
FW Championship: José Aldo vs. Conor McGregor Aldo Aldo
MW Championship: Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold Weidman Weidman
MW: Yoel Romero vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza Souza Souza
WW: Demian Maia vs. Gunnar Nelson Nelson Maia
FW: Max Holloway vs. Jeremy Stephens Holloway Holloway
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Urijah Faber vs. Frankie Saenz Faber Faber
Women’s StrawW: Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger vs. Tecia Torres Torres Torres
WW: Warlley Alves vs. Colby Covington Covington Covington
LW: Kevin Lee vs. Leonardo Santos Lee Lee
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. ET)
LW: Magomed Mustafaev vs. Joe Proctor Proctor Mustafaev
LW: John Makdessi vs. Yancy Medeiros Makdessi Medeiros
WW: Marcio Alexandre Jr. vs. Court McGee McGee McGee