John Lineker (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC Fight Night 96 Preview and Predictions

The changing of the seasons is at hand. Fall is officially upon us. But you know what’s not changing? The UFC’s marathon of fight cards. Virtually every single weekend for nearly the last two months, we have been treated (or browbeaten, depending on your point of view) with fight card after fight card after fight card by UFC President Dana White and company.

The latest incarnation of the UFC consists of a Fox Sports 1 card with a main event that features two former flyweights who are trying their hand in the bantamweight division, but for different reasons.

John Lineker constantly struggled to come in on weight as a flyweight, so he’s probably hoping the move up to bantamweight means he can stop worrying about making weight and go back to a focus on being one of the most dangerous strikers in all of the UFC.


John Dodson originally won season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter as a bantamweight, but he decided to move down to flyweight. However, after two unsuccessful attempts to pry the flyweight title from probably the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, Demetrious Johnson, Dodson is hoping a successful title run at bantamweight is in his future.

The co-main event features former Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks facing another stiff challenge in his second UFC fight, this time against Alex Oliveira.

The preliminary fights on UFC Fight Pass kick off at 7:15 p.m. ET and shift to Fox Sports 2 at 9 p.m. ET. The main card begins on Fox Sports 1 at 11 p.m. ET.

Combat Press has you covered with everything leading up to this weekend’s card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe, courtesy of writers Chris Huntemann and Zach Aittama.

John Lineker and John Dodson are former flyweights out to find more success at bantamweight. Lineker is fighting at 135 pounds because he struggled to make weight at 125. Dodson is in the division because he couldn’t rip the title from Demetrious Johnson’s grasp. Will these two men climb into perennial contender status as bantamweights, or will their smaller stature force them back to flyweight eventually?

Aittama: This match-up of bantamweights knocking on the door of a title shot is not getting the hype it deserves. Before answering, I just want to point out that this question didn’t mention the word violence once. In a sport that emphasizes fighters throwing down and putting on exciting fights, these two former flyweights bring quality knockouts and non-stop action unlike many fighters in any weight division, let alone at bantamweight or below.

Yeah, Dodson had his moments of inactivity in some of his past fights, and sure, he couldn’t topple Johnson at flyweight despite hurting him on several occasions in the first fight. That doesn’t mean he can’t match the speed of Dominick Cruz, or that he can’t put away T.J. Dillashaw with punches again. It just means he’s been given another opportunity to shine in a division that may actually suit him better. His only losses in the past six years came against “Mighty Mouse,” the No.1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

Now, back to the violence. Lineker couldn’t show up on weight for four out of his eight fights at flyweight, but it’s not like he missed every time, right? Nevertheless, Lineker attempted to drop to flyweight when he signed with the UFC after competing for most of his career at bantamweight. Lineker said last year that he would eventually like to drop back down, but I’d have to guess the UFC brass aren’t too keen on the idea after Lineker missed weight for his 2015 bout with Ian McCall by five pounds. He could easily return to 125, but may actually be better off as a bantamweight going forward. At just 26 years old and constantly improving, Lineker is a fighter that has been continually underrated and largely considered a haymaker-throwing side show. But isn’t that the reason we tune in to watch fighting?

Aren’t we here to watch two top-level fighters trade shot for shot with the potential of a shocking knockout at any moment? Yes, that’s exactly why we tune in. Lineker has been synonymous with the word violence. He has brought it in droves throughout his UFC career, and it’s led to much success for the 5-foot-3 knockout artist. He put on a relentless pace and volume of strikes when he defeated former No.1-ranked flyweights McCall and Yasuhiro Urushitani. Lineker is renowned for his winging punches, but it’s his work to the body and ability to put on constant pressure in the pocket to drown fighters in volume that puts him ahead of his competition. It usually results in his opponents asking what happened, too. He put on one of his best performances to date against former UFC title challenger Michael McDonald at UFC Fight Night 91 in July. It took Lineker less than three minutes to completely overwhelm McDonald and improve his number of knockdowns landed to 10, placing him in a tie for ninth in UFC history. For perspective, Lineker is tied with former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski despite having 10 less UFC fights and being nearly half Arlovski’s size.

Dodson can make a claim for having heavy hands as well. The Jackson-Winkeljohn product has stopped five of his seven UFC wins since entering the Octagon for the first time with a shocking first-round knockout of Dillashaw at the TUF 14 Finale. He’s defeated every fighter put in front of him since, except for the flyweight champion. Dodson had his moments against Johnson in the first fight, but the champion’s ability to match Dodson’s speed gave him the upper hand, especially in the second fight. Dodson may not have the same issue if he makes his move up to bantamweight permanent. He could potentially return to flyweight if he keeps on winning, but he may find even greater success being able to use his speed, which is his greatest tool.

Huntemann: Lineker and Dodson left the flyweight division for different reasons. Lineker’s reasons were weight-related; Dodson’s reasons were more rooted in competition. But now that both guys have joined the bantamweight ranks, they’ll share a common problem.

Even though they are already ranked in the top 10 at bantamweight according to the UFC”s official rankings — with Lineker already ranked third, wow — there are other fighters jockeying for position to be next in line for a shot at Cruz for the title. Former champion Dillashaw is still campaigning for a rematch. Jimmie Rivera just scored the biggest win of his career against Urijah Faber. Cody Garbrandt is charging his way to the front of the line after back-to-back knockout victories. And that’s not to mention guys like Bryan Caraway, Raphael Assunção and Aljamain Sterling.

So, even though neither Dodson nor Lineker will be gifted a title shot in their new home, they definitely each have an opportunity to make an impact right away. Their fight this weekend is very important in the grand scheme of things.

If Lineker wins, he may as well be the new No. 1 contender. He hasn’t lost in over two years and his nickname, “Hands of Stone,” is extremely apropos. The Brazilian is a knockout machine, with nearly half of his 28 victories occurring in this fashion. Dodson will present a unique challenger for Lineker, though, given “The Magician’s” speed and elusiveness. Lineker will have to pressure Dodson early and often. If he does, then he finishes Dodson and secures a title shot in his new home.

In his Octagon debut, Will Brooks faced and defeated Ross Pearson. Now, he draws Alex Oliveira, a veteran UFC fighter who has bounced between lightweight and welterweight while finding limited success. If Brooks gets past Oliveira, even in a fight that goes the distance, is it time for the UFC to elevate Brooks into the title fray?

Huntemann: I like that the UFC is giving Brooks tough fights to begin his Octagon career. Even though he’ll never admit it publicly, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a small part of Brooks that expected the UFC to roll out the red carpet for him when he signed his contract. He left Bellator in a dispute over money, among other things, and perhaps thought the UFC would give him the star treatment he thought he deserved.

However, Pearson basically played the role of gatekeeper perfectly in his fight against Brooks. Pearson tested Brooks’ mettle and wanted to see if Brooks was truly worthy of being in the UFC. To his credit, Brooks outworked and outstruck Pearson on his way to a decision victory. In my book, he definitely looked like he belongs in the UFC. He will prove as much once again when he faces Oliveira.

However, Oliveira will be no walk in the park for Brooks. The Brazilian bounced back from his loss to Donald Cerrone with a convincing victory over James Moontasri in July, and boasts a submission victory over a tough fighter in K.J. Noons. I expect Oliveira to implement a strategy similar to Pearson. He’ll try to make Brooks get down and dirty in the Octagon and see if he can wear Brooks out or take advantage of an opening or mistake to get a finish.

But on top of being fast, athletic and a great striker, Brooks is also smart. He’ll use his quickness, establish Octagon control early and often and outstrike Oliveira to prevail once again. When he does, it’s time for the UFC to welcome Brooks to the lightweight top 10 and see if maybe he can be the one to break through the logjam of talent that permeates that division.

Aittama: Brooks has a huge advantage leading into the fight with Oliveira. He controls the wrestling acumen, both offensively and defensively, to keep the fight where he wants it. If Brooks wants to show off his ever-improving striking arsenal against the Brazilian “Cowboy,” then he can do exactly that by working his jab, using his footwork and setting up his kicks by threatening the takedown. He can use the takedown to open up the head and body or as a way of further establishing his dominance to end an round. Brooks is the superior athlete and also the more skillful fighter in most areas of the game. All signs point to Brooks getting his second win inside the Octagon.

Brooks hasn’t gotten the star treatment he was potentially expecting heading into the Octagon, but if you follow him closely on social media, he’s a guy that likes to tell you how it is. He had some choice words about Bellator, so the men at the top of the promotion decided to cut their losses rather than shell out the money to keep the 29-year-old in their stable of lightweights. Maybe they decided to let Brooks go in favor of having Michael Chandler as the ruler of the division — a hard sell with Brooks holding two wins over one of the promotion’s homegrown stars — or maybe the decision could have been made because the promotion wanted to pursue other UFC talent like Benson Henderson and Rory MacDonald. However the decision was made, Brooks is in a better place for what he wants to achieve in the sport.

Brooks wants to be the UFC champion. With a few wins, that’s certainly not out of the question. What is questionable is his path to the title. The division is already cluttered at the top with contenders Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson waiting for their opportunity. Add in the Conor McGregor effect and fighters like McGregor, Nick Diaz or Cerrone may not be that far from a shot at the title in the name of a marquee match-up. The former champion, Rafael dos Anjos, is looking to make a resurgence following his upset loss; Michael Johnson just put his name back in the mix with his quick knockout over top-10 lightweight Dustin Poirier; and fighters like Edson Barboza and Michael Chiesa are hanging just outside of the title picture. The path to the title will be long and strenuous unless Brooks can get a big win over a top-five or top-10 fighter in the division.

If Brooks beats Oliveira, he needs to go on to face stiffer competition. There is work still to do, but most fighters in the mix can’t claim to have won their past nine fights. Brooks could be matched with the aforementioned Johnson or Barboza and land in the thick of the title hunt. If Brooks does his job in the co-main event on Saturday night, the UFC brass won’t have any other choice but to put him against another elite fighter in the division.

The featured UFC Fight Pass preliminary bout includes two veterans: Nate Marquardt and Tamdan McCrory. Marquardt’s career was all but dead after losing to Kelvin Gastelum in 2015, but he earned a temporary reprieve after defeating C.B. Dollaway before losing again to Thiago Santos in May. Is Nate “The Great’s” career on life support once again? Should Marquardt call it quits if he loses to McCrory?

Aittama: At this point in Marquardt’s career, a loss to McCrory wouldn’t be surprising. If Marquardt loses, his legacy of being a finisher that picked up big wins over some of the division’s top fighters will remain intact. He has produced one of the better resumes of any middleweight fighter who never became a champion in the UFC, with big wins over current UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, top contender Demian Maia and many others. Those days are long gone, however.

Marquardt has lost six of his past eight fights, with four ending with the former Strikeforce champion on the wrong end of a knockout. Marquardt had only lost one fight due to strikes — a ground-and-pound loss against middleweight champion Anderson Silva — before he was knocked out by Jake Ellenberger, Hector Lombard and Thiago Santos. All three fighters are known to have knockout power, but with Marquardt well into his late 30s and no longer able to use testosterone replacement therapy, the knockouts could continue to come if Marquardt continues fighting in a career that already spans 17 years.

McCrory has had a resurgence of sorts since returning to MMA in 2014. “The Barn Cat” left the sport following a split decision loss to John Howard at UFC 101 in 2009. He returned with a bang. McCrory knocked out Brennan Ward and Jason Butcher in under a combined 90 seconds of work when he joined Bellator following his five-year hiatus from the sport. A lengthy contract dispute led to McCrory finally being able to rejoin the UFC ranks in 2015. McCrory submitted TUF alum Josh Samman in the third round of their December bout to get his third victory in a row. Everything was looking positive for the New York native in his new weight class and second opportunity with the promotion. Then he went to Ottawa.

Krzysztof Jotko put McCrory to bed along with his three-fight winning streak. The monstrous left hook didn’t land clean, but it was enough to shut down the lights of McCrory in under 60 seconds. The loss brings out many questions in this upcoming fight with Marquardt. McCrory faces another fighter who could put his lights out, but Marquardt has faced his own troubles in the past few years.

The wear and tear on Marquardt’s body will only get worse as he continues to fight and continues to take devastating losses. There is fight left in both of these men, but the man that once lived up to his nickname as “The Great” won’t be feeling so great if he hasn’t made the proper adjustments in his training to compensate for his diminishing physical abilities.

Huntemann: Marquardt still has something to offer the sport of MMA, but I just don’t think that something comes as a fighter. I was as shocked as anyone when he defeated the aforementioned Dollaway last year. When he seemingly just quit against Gastelum, I thought that was it for Marquardt’s career. I make it a rule not to opine about whether or not a fighter, or any athlete for that matter, should call it quits. That’s strictly a decision to be made between the athlete and his/her family.

However, I’ll repeat that I don’t think Marquardt has anything left to offer as a fighter. His skills have been on a slow, steady decline over the last few years, and a title run at this point in his career is basically out of the question. Marquardt won’t experience a Dan Henderson-esque renaissance, sadly.

Marquardt can be an excellent coach, though. He’s already a mentor to several young fighters and boasts experience stepping into the cage with some of the best fighters on the planet. He definitely has a role to fulfill with molding young talent and assist them in taking the next step in their fighting careers.

Even though McCrory was knocked out in just under a minute in his last fight, I still remember the brutal beatdown he put on Ward in Bellator. He was on a three-fight winning streak with three finishes, too. Marquardt’s chin ain’t what it used to be, and I fear we’ll see another brutal knockout of an aging fighter.

Louis Smolka was expected to face Sergio Pettis before he was replaced by Brandon Moreno when Pettis was pulled from the bout on short notice with an injury. Does the change in opponent reflect negatively on Smolka’s path to earning a title shot? Will Smolka move his winning streak to five with a win over the TUF 24 alum?

Huntemann: The fact Pettis pulled out with an injury shouldn’t reflect negatively on Smolka. It’s not his fault, obviously. Unfortunately, there is precedent for situations like this.

Wilson Reis was all set to face Demetrious Johnson for the flyweight title at UFC 201. Unfortunately, Johnson had to withdraw due to injury and Reis was knocked down to the preliminary card, where he defeated Hector Sandoval. But that’s not all! Reis was then usurped by the UFC itself when instead of giving Reis his long-awaited title shot, the UFC decided to film a season of The Ultimate Fighter featuring flyweight champions from MMA organizations worldwide competing in a tournament to determine the new No. 1 flyweight contender. So, to summarize, if Johnson hadn’t gotten hurt in the first place, then Reis would have had a chance to fight for the title.

Regardless, I like Smolka to defeat Moreno and hopefully receive the title shot that he deserves. He’s won four straight, including three by way of finish. Obviously, there’s no one at flyweight to challenge Johnson for the belt — and I’m in no way suggesting Smolka is the guy to dethrone him — but unless Johnson decides to vacate his title and move up to bantamweight, he needs some challengers. Once Johnson defeats this season’s TUF winner, Smolka should be next in line.

Aittama: I’m not on the same page as my colleague, but it’s hard to argue against his points about Smolka getting the next shot after the TUF 24 winner fights Johnson at the finale in December.

Smolka is one of only four fighters in the top 10 that Johnson hasn’t already beaten. Johnson has dispatched of Joseph Benavidez (twice), Henry Cejudo, Kyoji Horiguchi, Ian McCall, Ali Bagautinov and John Moraga during his 10-fight winning streak. The other fighters that are ranked above Smolka who haven’t recieved a title shot yet have all lost in their UFC run. The No. 3-ranked Jussier “Formiga” da Silva holds wins over both Wilson Reis and Zach Makovsky, the only other fighters in the top 10 without a title shot, but Formiga fell short against John Dodson, Benavidez and, most recently, Cejudo in his chance to earn a shot at the belt in 2015.

Formiga dominated Dustin Ortiz last weekend in Brazil to put himself at the front of the line for the next shot. Even if Smolka destroys Moreno on Saturday, I would have trouble giving Smolka the shot before Formiga. Smolka’s put together a longer streak of wins, but da Silva’s resume inside and outside of the Octagon is better than the acrobatic Hawaiian’s. What Smolka brings more than his Brazilian counterpart, however, is his ability to excite the fans in wild back-and-forth fights by using his creative offensive techniques and fast-paced submission game. Smolka lived up to that onus in his “Fight of the Night” performance in his last outing against Ben Nguyen at UFC Fight Night 91 in July.

Moreno, a TUF 24 cast member, is known for having exciting fights too, as evidenced by his tit-for-tat scrap with the top-seeded fighter on the show, Alexander Pantoja. The Brazilian was widely regarded as one of the best flyweights outside of the UFC and one of the biggest favorites on the show. Moreno wasn’t able to pick up the win over Pantoja, but he clearly made his mark with the promotion, which is why he is getting an opportunity to fight Smolka on short notice.

Moreno is in the unique position of making his UFC debut against a top-10 fighter. The scenario has already happened a couple times this year when short-notice replacements Lando Vannata and Darrell Horcher were given the opportunity to unseat top contenders Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov, respectively. Could the 22-year-old Moreno shock the world like Vannata was almost able to do against Ferguson? Win or lose, the opportunity is a positive one for Moreno. He could make his name off a big win, or he could put on another exciting fight and secure his place in the promotion.

Smolka’s stock won’t take a hit from fighting Moreno, but it does make a potential title fight against Johnson more unlikely. If Smolka comes out victorious on Saturday, like I believe he will, then he needs to get on the microphone post-fight and let everyone know his intentions are to fight the champion. He needs to sell himself to the fans in a division that is searching for the next best thing to “Mighty Mouse.”

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

Aittama: The fight between Keita “K-Taro” Nakamura and Elizeu “Capoeira” Zaleski is a battle of fight finishers. Nakamura has finished 23 of his 32 wins, with a large majority — 16 to be exact — coming by way of submission. Zaleski finished all but one of his 15 career wins, with 12 of those victories coming from strikes.

Nakamura is a scrappy veteran with a knack for wrapping up the rear-naked choke. He’s done just that in his two wins since returning to the promotion for the second time. Both of those submission wins came in fights where Nakamura had to battle hard for the choke. His wins didn’t come easy. His decision loss to Tom Breese wasn’t one-way traffic in favor of the formerly undefeated prospect, but Nakamura couldn’t turn the momentum in his favor like he did in his previous wins.

Zaleski will test Nakamura’s skills on the feet. The former Jungle Fight champion recently picked up his first UFC win with a third-round knockout over Omari Akhmedov earlier this year. Zaleski lost by split decision in his debut against Nicolas Dalby in a closely contested fight. The Brazilian will need to put Nakamura away if he plans to stay out of Nakamura’s now patented rear-naked choke submission. This fight is a clash of styles and one that could turn out to be more exciting than expected.

Huntemann: I’m optimistic about the bout between Hacran Dias and Andre Fili.

All of Dias’ fights in the UFC have gone to a decision, but this should change once he steps into the cage with Fili.

Although he was on the receiving end of a highlight-reel knockout by Yair Rodriguez in his last fight, Fili has fought some of the more exciting young UFC fighters and is always looking to entertain. If anyone can draw Dias into a fun scrap that lends itself to a finish, it’s “Touchy.”

Pair this card with…

Huntemann: Lots of coffee. You’ll need it to stay awake to watch this card in its entirety. I mean, really UFC? The main card doesn’t start until 11 p.m. ET? I know it’s on a Saturday night and most of the viewers probably don’t have to get up for work the next day, but still, it wasn’t too long ago that UFC President Dana White attempted moving UFC pay-per-views to a 9 p.m. ET start time for basically the same reason and the cards ended too damn late. Since I’m not a coffee drinker myself, this card is going straight to my DVR. I’m not in college anymore. Even if it’s a Saturday night, my butt is in bed by 11 p.m.

Aittama: Your friends. Sometimes the cure for insomnia in MMA is a big knockout or an exciting fight. That may not be hard to come by on this fight card, but you will be forced to sit down for six-plus hours because of the horrid Fox Sports 1 pacing that allocates 30 minutes per fight. Finishes may not be on your side if you’re fighting off fatigue, so it will leave you in the position of finding something to occupy your time while waiting for the next fight to start. Coffee might get you ready for the long haul, but what you might really need is some of your friends and an activity to do in between the long pauses on fight night. Throw an early fall party and invite your friends. You’re going to want to spread the love and talk about all of the action once the finishes start piling up as we head into the fantastic main event.

Fight Picks

Fight Aittama’s Pick Huntemann’s Pick
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 11 p.m. ET)
BW: John Lineker vs. John Dodson Lineker Lineker
LW: Will Brooks vs. Alex Oliveira Brooks Brooks
FlyW: Louis Smolka vs. Brandon Moreno Smolka Smolka
LW: Josh Burkman vs. Zak Ottow Burkman Burkman
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 2, 9 p.m. ET)
LHW: Luis Henrique da Silva vs. Joachim Christensen da Silva da Silva
FW: Hacran Dias vs. Andre Fili Dias Fili
HW: Walt Harris vs. Shamil Abdurahimov Abdurahimov Harris
WW: Elizeu Zaleski vs. Keita Nakamura Nakamura Nakamura
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7:15 p.m. ET)
MW: Tamdan McCrory vs. Nate Marquardt Marquardt McCrory
LHW: Jonathan Wilson vs. Ion Cutelaba Wilson Cutelaba
HW: Cody East vs. Curtis Blaydes East East
Women’s BW: Kelly Faszholz vs. Ketlen Vieira Faszholz Faszholz