Michael Bisping (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 204 Preview and Predictions

It’s a rematch seven years in the making. It’s a rematch no one really asked for, except for the champion who’s defending his title in it.

There’s yet another UFC card upon us, this time in pay-per-view form. But in an added twist, UFC 204 will come to us from across the pond, courtesy of our neighbors in the United Kingdom — Manchester, England, to be exact. The main event will feature UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping defending his title against Dan Henderson, an opponent who has defeated Bisping violently in their previous meeting and an opponent who claims this is his last fight, win or lose.

If you pay even a smidgen of attention to the UFC’s programming, chances are you’ve seen the highlight from UFC 100 in 2009, when Henderson knocked the brash Brit Bisping (how’s that for alliteration?) into the stratosphere with his trademark right hand. The UFC has replayed that knockout on an endless loop for the last seven years, and I would bet dollars to doughnuts that it was the chief motivator for Bisping agreeing to put his title on the line against the aging veteran.


Henderson’s recent record doesn’t exactly scream “title contender.” He did knock out Hector Lombard in his last fight at UFC 199, but Henderson boasts an overall record of 2-3 in last five fights. It’s been widely reported that Henderson is retiring after this fight, so why not give the 46-year-old one last ride in the spotlight before his illustrious career comes to a close?

Combat Press has all the coverage you need for this event. The preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on UFC Fight Pass and move to Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET. The main card begins at 10 p.m. ET on pay-per-view. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Zach Aittama share their thoughts on the UFC’s latest pay-per-view offering in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

More than seven years ago, Michael Bisping was decimated by Dan Henderson’s murderous right hand. Now, the Brit is the UFC’s middleweight champion, and he’s out to avenge the most famous loss of his career. Can he do it, or will Henderson finally claim a UFC belt?

Aittama: In a UFC world filled with super fights made for the company’s bottom line, Michael Bisping vs. Dan Henderson at UFC 204 is a fight that everyone should be getting behind. I’ve heard plenty of dislike for the UFC’s decision to give the 46-year-old “Hendo” the title shot against Bisping. I don’t see how this could be the case. Henderson is one of the greatest MMA fighters to ever step foot inside a ring or cage. He is the only two-division Pride world champion ever. He also won the Strikeforce light heavyweight title and the UFC 17 tournament. Henderson holds wins over nine Pride and UFC champions in his historic 19-year career, including Fedor Emelianenko, Wanderlei Silva, Maurício “Shogun” Rua, Vitor Belfort, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, Murilo Bustamante, Rich Franklin, Carlos Newton and Bisping.

To say that this title shot for Henderson hasn’t been earned is exactly correct, though. Yeah, the timing of the title shot for Henderson plays more into the superfight storyline instead of being solely based on his in-cage merits, but what is not to like about this fight? Henderson fell short in his bid to unify the Pride and UFC light heavyweight title against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in 2007 and then again in his bid for the UFC middleweight title against Anderson Silva in 2008. Henderson is still fighting and beating some of the best in the division nearly eight years later. The question is not why Henderson is getting the shot, but why shouldn’t he.

Now you may be thinking I’m crazy, but let’s run down the list of middleweight contenders. The consensus top contenders are former champions Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold, both of whom lost their title in their last outing inside of the cage. The other top-ranked fighters in the division, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and the aforementioned Belfort, have both lost in their past two fights. Yoel Romero hasn’t lost since joining the UFC, but his controversial fights with Tim Kennedy and Jacare showed some weaknesses in his game. If there ever was a time when the UFC could afford a fighter an opportunity to win a title before they ride off into retirement, this is it.

Bisping threw a gigantic wrench into the UFC’s divisional plans when he stunned Rockhold at UFC 199. The upset opened an opportunity for Henderson to slip into the title picture while the UFC sorts out just what it wants to do with Weidman and Rockhold. With the UFC needing a headlining bout for its show in England, what better person to fill the role of hometown hero than Bisping, the first UFC champion from England. Bisping put on one of his better career performances — other than almost getting knocked out with a flying knee — when he beat Anderson Silva over five rounds at UFC Fight Night 84 in London.

Bisping gets the chance to avenge one of the most embarrassing losses of his career in his home country and with the UFC middleweight title on the line. The champ’s loss to Henderson at UFC 100 is still one of the greatest knockouts in UFC history. The circumstances surrounding the champion, a need for a big-time fight to headline the pay-per-view and the lack of a true No. 1 contender gives way to the tremendous storyline. Henderson could end his historic career with a UFC title win in his final Octagon appearance to become the only fighter to win titles in the UFC, Strikeforce and Pride. In the era of superfights, the UFC made the right decision making this bout. Bisping has one more chance to add a true pioneer of the sport to his already impressive resume, and, most importantly for him, give a big fuck-you to all of the doubters out there. No one would have picked Bisping to be the UFC middleweight champion in 2016. Now he has a chance to prove everyone wrong once again in front of the fans in Manchester.

Huntemann: Right? As far as title fights go, this is indeed a bizarre one. Based purely on his recent record, Henderson shouldn’t be challenging for the middleweight title. However, this is likely Henderson’s last fight whether he wins or loses, so I don’t see the harm in letting him have one last chance at a title. If Bisping wants to avenge the most infamous loss of his career too, all the more power to him.

It would be a great story, wouldn’t it? In Henderson’s last fight, he wins the UFC middleweight belt and rides off into the sunset as a champion. Not many guys get to go out that way, on their own terms. Henderson’s a living legend and has some of the most memorable performances and knockouts in UFC history. His first fight with Shogun? An instant classic, and still one of the three best UFC fights I’ve ever seen.

All that said, do I see Hendo defeating Bisping? Unfortunately, I do not. I’ll be pulling for Hendo (I know, I know. I’m supposed to be objective. Bite me.), but Bisping seems to finally be peaking at the right time. After years of never quite being able to grab the brass ring, he did so in emphatic fashion when he knocked out Rockhold at UFC 199. Whether it was just learning from his past mistakes, changing up his training or just having some kind of light bulb finally go off, “The Count” has never looked better.

As we’ve seen with Henderson’s recent knockouts of Rua, Tim Boetsch and Lombard, he’s only ever just one punch away from winning a fight. His one punch against Bisping at UFC 100 is probably the most famous one punch in UFC history. Bisping will be on the lookout for that same punch and use his movement to avoid the dreaded “H-Bomb.”

Unfortunately, we’ve also seen that Hendo doesn’t have the chin he used to. A popular expression in MMA is that a fighter goes out with his shield, or on it. I think Hendo goes out on his shield. He’ll give it all he has, but Bisping finally gets the monkey off his back and successfully defends his title.

Middleweights Vitor Belfort and Gegard Mousasi clash in the evening’s co-headliner. Belfort is 39 years old with losses in two of his last three, and Mousasi has suffered defeat in three of his last eight. Who wins this fight, and how close do they get to title contention?

Huntemann: While Belfort has lost two out of three, his overall record in his last six fights is 4-2, which includes two knockouts of the evening’s headlining challenger for the middleweight title (Henderson, for those not paying attention). A victory here could enable Belfort to leapfrog his way to the top of a crowded upper half of the middleweight division.

The other guys in the middleweight top five — Luke Rockhold, Chris Weidman, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Yoel Romero — will fight each other over the next few months. By the time 2017 begins, we will have a pretty good idea of which fighters are the worthy title challengers. Expect Belfort to be included in that group.

Most of Belfort’s recent victories could be largely attributed to his use of testosterone replacement therapy, but he hasn’t looked as terrible after he stopped using it as others have (Paging Mr. Silva. Mr. Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva). His losses to Weidman and Jacare were mostly a result of facing fighters who were younger, faster and (now) stronger.

Yet, I like Mousasi to win this fight. He’s won four of five, and he’s coming off a first-round knockout victory. Mousasi is one of those guys who doesn’t seem to get much publicity, but he’s always hanging around on the fringes of title contention. He’s basically the definition of a “sleeper.” Mousasi is a dangerous striker. He also has 11 submission victories under his belt, so he has no qualms going to the ground with a fighter who’s also a dangerous grappler like Belfort. If Mousasi wins this fight, then he can definitely stake a claim to a title shot.

Aittama: I agree that Mousasi is likely to be the victor in this fight. He has all of the tools on the ground to put Belfort in danger, just as Weidman and Jacare have done. Belfort didn’t just start losing fights against superior grapplers that took him to the floor after he couldn’t get the early finish. He’s found himself underneath his opponents getting eaten alive by punches a few times in his career. Mousasi’s game plan will likely be similar heading into this title eliminator.

Both men aren’t too far from a title in this wide-open division, but my colleague is right in saying marquee fights like Rockhold vs. Souza 2 and Weidman vs. Romero are likely to determine the next middleweight title challenger. The UFC has devised a tournament of sorts to determine the most deserving challenger. Another fight that has been added to this hypothetical middleweight contender tournament features Derek Brunson and Robert Whittaker. The stakes are high in the next few months for the middleweight division. Based on the UFC’s past matchmaking, the fighter with the most impressive performance in these four bouts is likely to get the next opportunity at the winner of Bisping and Henderson.

Belfort was a stone-cold killer in a three-fight run in 2013 when he knocked out Bisping, Henderson and Rockhold in just over a combined 10 minutes. Those days are in the past for “TRT” Belfort. The former UFC light heavyweight champ has noticeably shrunk following the implementation of strict USADA testing. Belfort is always dangerous on the feet, but time and time again he has shown a weakness if the game plan doesn’t go his way. The last time Belfort won a fight that went past two rounds was in 2007. Mousasi has just the style to strike with Belfort early and get him to the ground late. Mousasi is a strong top-game grappler with a knack for locking up the submission, but more importantly, he has the type of positional grappling game that will win him rounds against Belfort.

Mousasi impressed in his victories over Henderson, Thales Leites and Costas Philippou in three of his past four bouts. His most recent loss to Uriah Hall came because of a perfectly timed spinning back kick that landed cleanly on Mousasi’s jaw line. The kick stunned Mousasi and Hall finished the job with a flying knee and a series of punches. Mousasi was dominant in the first round before Hall turned his fortune around in the second with his beautifully timed spinning kick. Some may call the shot a fluke, or maybe it was just the right place at the right time, but either way the loss shouldn’t deter Mousasi. He did get right back in the win column against Leites, after all.

Mousasi will continue his streak with a victory over Belfort in what could potentially be a one-sided fight in favor of the “Dreamcatcher.”

Stefan Struve has split his last four fights since coming back from the heart issues that threatened to prematurely end his career. However, Struve is coming off a first-round knockout victory of Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in his last fight. Can the “Skyscraper” still climb his way to a title shot in the heavyweight division? Does his journey begin with a victory over Daniel Omielańczuk?

Aittama: Struve has been just outside the heavyweight title picture for the majority of his UFC career. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had opportunities to get there. He fell short in his bid to break into the title picture when Roy Nelson, Travis Browne and, most recently, Mark Hunt sent him back to the end of the line. Hunt put Struve out of commission for more than a year and a half with a broken jaw in early 2013.

The 7-foot-tall Dutch heavyweight had won four fights in a row before his devastating defeat at the hands of one of the hardest punches in the sport. It wasn’t the first time Struve put together a few wins only to lose in his next attempt at taking a step up in competition. The trend is a frequent occurrence throughout Struve’s career. Doubts continued to surround Struve when he fainted backstage before his scheduled bout with Matt Mitrione at UFC 175, and even more so when Struve finally stepped back into the cage against the lastest UFC title challenger, Alistair Overeem.

Despite the tough stretch, Struve is still young and improving. He showed he could enter the win column again with an impressive performance over UFC Hall of Famer Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira. Struve showed off his jab and newly found ability to use his reach and height advantage to score. Granted, Struve didn’t need to fear the power of “Big Nog,” affording him the ability to open up with his striking attack, but the performance was one of the best of his career.

Struve took a step back against lay-and-pray specialist Jared Rosholt, but he got right back into the win column with an impressive 15-second knockout of Bigfoot. The exceptional win came with a beautifully timed counter right hand and a series of elbows to put Silva to sleep while working for a takedown against the cage. The win in front of a raucous Dutch crowd might be just the place to start for Struve to finally break into title contention. He continues his path to the top of the division with a victory over Omielańczuk.

Huntemann: Struve has had his opportunities to become a heavyweight title contender, but unfortunately has come up short multiple times. Let’s give him all the credit in the world, though, for coming back from his heart issues that probably would have permanently sidelined a lesser man.

Struve, 31, is still fairly young by heavyweight standards. In a division where guys in their mid and late 30s are fighting for and winning the UFC heavyweight title, Struve’s career is by no means over. However, he’s had a lot of mileage over his fighting career for a guy who’s still fairly young. Struve still has time to make a run for the gold, but his window is closing. He’ll have to get past some of the guys who have already knocked him silly before.

I like Struve to defeat Omielańczuk, but his climb will only get harder from there.

In his last outing, Ovince St. Preux fell short in his bid to upset Jon Jones and win the interim light heavyweight title at UFC 197. Can OSP return to the win column, or will top-10 light heavyweight Jimi Manuwa feed off the advantage of fighting in his home country to drive to victory?

Huntemann: We can attach some sort of asterisk to OSP’s loss to Jones earlier this year. While a loss is a loss, OSP stepped up on short notice to face (at the time) the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet who was coming off a long hiatus. Jones won, but it wasn’t exactly the dominant performance we’ve come to expect from him. Plus, he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs just before his long-anticipated rematch with Daniel Cormier. So, his performance against OSP has a pretty big cloud hanging over it.

This isn’t about Jones, though. This is about OSP. Before his last fight, OSP won three of four with two knockouts, and Manuwa seems to be the type of fighter — a mid-tier guy — that OSP has had the most success against.

Manuwa has only lost twice in the UFC, and it was to among the best in the light heavyweight division: Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Alexander Gustafsson. Manuwa and OSP are always looking for the finish. This is especially the case for Manuwa, who has claimed 13 of his 15 victories by knockout.

This fight won’t go the distance, but it’s OSP who will get a finish to come out on top.

Aittama: OSP shouldn’t hang his head over his performances against Jones. St. Preux is one of the few men who can match Jones’ size and reach in the Octagon, and it showed in the pound-for-pound king’s frustrations. OSP threatened with the counter, which in turn kept Jones from truly opening up with his large array of offensive tools. It wasn’t a bad performance for St. Preux, but he clearly lost four of the five rounds and didn’t really do very much over the course of 25 minutes.

St. Preux is an athletic fighter who likes to attack his opponents in bursts and wear them down with pressure in hopes of finding the finish. The former college football player has shown weaknesses in his grappling game, but those problems won’t be an issue heading into this bout with fellow heavy-hitting striker Manuwa. OSP, one of the more physically imposing fighters on the UFC roster, should have the advantage in the wrestling department, which will give him a big edge if the stand-up game isn’t going his way.

Manuwa is a solid athlete as well, but he will have to navigate the range carefully to avoid being put against the cage. St. Preux has developed as a striker over the past few years, and OSP’s newfound confidence on the feet bodes well for what Manuwa wants to do in this fight. The Englishman will need to push the pace a little more than usual in the hopes that St. Preux potentially tires and fades as the fight goes on.

Manuwa could very well get his hand raised if OSP employs too many risks in search of the finish. However, it seems unlikely that St. Preux heads into this bout without being completely prepared for Manuwa’s fight-finishing abilities. OSP should be extremely motivated following his failed title challenge, and he’ll pick up the big victory in enemy territory.

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

Aittama: Marc Diakiese and Łukasz “Wookie” Sajewski.

One of the best lightweight prospects outside of the UFC, Diakiese makes his long-awaited UFC debut after putting up nine wins and five finishes in his impressive career. He is only 23 years old, but he has already risen to the top of the list of British lightweights with stellar victories over formerly unbeaten fighters Jack McGann, Rick Selvarajah and, most recently, Kane Mousah. Diakiese dispatched of his past two opponents in a combined minute to win the BAMMA lightweight world title.

Polish prospect Sajewski welcomes Diakiese to the Octagon in his third fight with the promotion. Sajewski entered the UFC as an undefeated prospect, but he fell short against Nick Hein and Gilbert Burns. He had trouble breaking into the win column in the Octagon when he took a step up in competition in one of the sport’s deepest divisions. The 25-year-old looks to shock the English crowd and upset one of the world’s top prospects in the UFC Fight Pass opener.

This fight is a sleeper fight only because you may not know who either man is, but you will certainly remember the winner following this exciting match-up of young prospects.

Huntemann: Albert Tumenov and Leon Edwards.

For all the pro-wrestling fans out there, you know those t-shirts you can buy that say “I’m a Paul Heyman Guy”? Well, I’m an Albert Tumenov guy, and I’m definitely looking forward to his fight against Edwards.

Tumenov is such a dangerous striker. He was submitted in his last fight against Gunnar Nelson, but his previous fight against Lorenz Larkin was such a joy to watch. That fight showed striking at its finest. Also, Tumenov’s nickname is “Einstein,” which shows you he is truly not a guy to be trifled with.

Pair this card with…

Huntemann: Given the ages of some of the fighters competing on this card, some Metamucil would be a good choice. I kid, I kid. Tell you what. Since this card takes place in England, I propose you pair it with a nice room-temperature glass of your favorite lager, like our neighbors across the pond tend to enjoy. Maybe if you’re lucky, history will repeat itself and Henderson will give you another highlight-reel knockout of Bisping to almost make you spit out your warm beer.

Aittama: Your usual routine. Whether you head to the nearest bar, invite your friends over, or watch the UFC events at home, there is no need to change your routine if you live in the United States. However, if you live in England, where the UFC 204 card is taking place, you will find yourself watching the first preliminary fight a little after 10 p.m. If you can stay awake long enough, you may catch the main event featuring the first and only English UFC champion around 4 or 5 in the morning. So, unless you live in the United Kingdom and the UFC has decided to neglect you in favor of your American brethren, you won’t have to change any of your plans. If you do live in England or the surrounding European countries, you may need to down a gallon of coffee or black tea, because you’re in for a long night.

Fight Picks

Fight Aittama’s Pick Huntemann’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
MW Championship: Michael Bisping vs. Dan Henderson Bisping Bisping
MW: Vitor Belfort vs. Gegard Mousasi Mousasi Mousasi
LHW: Jimi Manuwa vs. Ovince St. Preux St. Preux St. Preux
HW: Stefan Struve vs. Daniel Omielańczuk Struve Struve
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Brad Pickett vs. Iuri Alcântara Alcântara Pickett
BW: Ian Entwistle vs. Rob Font Font Entwistle
BW: Davey Grant vs. Damian Stasiak Grant Grant
WW: Leon Edwards vs. Albert Tumenov Tumenov Tumenov
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
WW: Mike Perry vs. Danny Roberts Roberts Roberts
LW: Leonardo Santos vs. Adriano Martins Martins Martins
LW: Łukasz Sajewski vs. Marc Diakiese Diakiese Diakiese