Anthony Pettis (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 206 Preview and Predictions

José Aldo is sitting back atop the UFC featherweight division. Meanwhile, at the company’s penultimate pay-per-view event of the year, we’re going to get five rounds between two of the best in the sport to decide the recently re-crowned champion’s first challenger.

Originally set for the night’s co-main event before an injury led to the cancellation of the light heavyweight title fight between Daniel Cormier and Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, this weekend’s headliner between Anthony Pettis and Max Holloway is one of those fights that makes hardcore MMA fans salivate. Pettis is a former lightweight champion and one of the most lethal strikers in the game today. When he’s on, his brutality is rivaled only by his creativity in the cage. He’s going to have his work cut out for him against the streaking Holloway, who’s won a ridiculous nine in a row over good competition and is looking to prove that he’s the real deal as a 145-pound contender.

On a normal fight card, Pettis and Holloway would be the obvious write-in vote for “Fight of the Night” honors, but this is no normal card. Besides the potential “Fight of the Year” offering in the main event, the rest of the card is full of show-stealing fights. The co-headliner, which pits Donald Cerrone against Matt Brown, is practically guaranteed to deliver a barn-burner. There are a number of additional quality match-ups littering the card. This lineup may lack a bit in star power compared to the last few pay-per-view outings, but it more than makes up for it with a stacked lineup of exciting bouts.


UFC 206, which takes place on Saturday, Dec. 10, features 12 bouts from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Things will start as they usually do, with a couple of preliminary bouts on UFC Fight Pass getting you warmed up at 6:30 p.m. ET before moving over to Fox Sports 1 for the remaining prelims at 8 p.m. ET. Then, it’s straight to pay-per-view for main-card action at the usual 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Vince Carey preview the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Max Holloway finally gets his shot at a UFC title. However, it’s an interim belt and Holloway is pitted against former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis. Neither man has ever locked horns with recently re-coronated kingpin José Aldo. Which man poses the biggest threat to Aldo, and will that same fighter emerge with the strap once the dust settles on this main event?

Huntemann: The ugly truth is, this fight between Holloway and Pettis is to determine the third-best fighter in the UFC’s featherweight division. Even if he is no longer the featherweight champion, Conor McGregor is still the best fighter in the UFC at 145 pounds. Yes, MMA fans. UFC 194 did happen, and McGregor did knock out Aldo in 13 seconds. Aldo is the second-best fighter in the division, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But being given the undisputed featherweight title doesn’t change that fact, either.

Now that I’ve stepped off my little soapbox, let me actually answer this question. Right now, I think Holloway represents the biggest threat to Aldo. Pettis made the smart move by dropping down to 145 pounds, as he was just too lost in the logjam that is the UFC lightweight division. Pettis looked impressive in his featherweight debut against Charles Oliveira, even if he did appear to gas before he choked out Oliveira. I thought a Pettis/McGregor bout would have been awesome, and I was disappointed that Pettis didn’t call out McGregor after his victory. That could have been a fresh and intriguing match-up that might have convinced McGregor to defend the featherweight title one more time.

But Holloway is on an absolute tear right now, having won nine in a row. He’s gotten better with each fight since his loss to — ironically enough — the aforementioned McGregor in 2013. That was the first time McGregor had been taken the distance until his rematch with Nate Diaz in August. Holloway is one of the best strikers in all of the UFC and is always looking to finish. Even if his last two victories came via decision, he left no doubt who the more active fighter was in those fights.

Pettis will be a great addition to the featherweight division, but this is just a case of bad timing. Pettis is facing someone who’s at the top of his game right now. If Pettis were facing, say, a Ricardo Lamas or Cub Swanson, I would like his chances more. But Holloway is a man on a mission. I think he defeats Pettis for the interim belt and has a real chance of dethroning a fighter in Aldo who looked a little different against Frankie Edgar at UFC 200 than he did before his loss to McGregor.

Carey: Since my colleague got to jump on a soapbox, I’m going to go on a rant of my own.

I’m flabbergasted by the fact that this is an interim title fight. I get that once the promotion lost Cormier and Rumble, it lost the only championship bout on the card, but stripping McGregor of one belt, promoting Aldo’s interim status and then making an interim title fight makes absolutely no sense. I know that we’ve seen this same sort of ridiculousness from the UFC before, but this is one of the more glaringly unnecessary title fights in a long time. It drives me absolutely insane.

Once I put that complaint aside, however, this is one of those fights that makes me start pacing around my house with anticipation 12 hours before the event starts. Holloway is a guy we’ve seen grow up in the Octagon. From his first UFC fight at just 20 years old against Dustin Poirier, it was obvious the young Hawaiian had gobs of potential. Over the last five years, it’s been really cool to watch Holloway improve and become one of the best fighters in the world. At this point, not only is Holloway a huge threat to Aldo’s belt, but he is by far the biggest threat in the division. I’d be shocked if he never held UFC gold.

While Holloway is a fantastic striker who has beaten some good ones, Pettis is going to be the best stand-up fighter Holloway has fought outside of maybe the aforementioned McGregor. “Showtime” gets attention for his highlight-reel finishes, but he’s actually a very technical striker and one of the more lethal guys in the lower weight classes of the UFC. Holloway is going to have to be very careful early on. In fact, if I thought Pettis could keep up with Holloway’s pace for five round, then I’d have a much harder time picking this fight. However, as my colleague mentioned, Pettis ran out of gas a bit in his 145-pound debut. That scares me in a fight of this magnitude.

Pettis is going to be a top-tier guy at featherweight, and a Pettis/Aldo fight is almost bound to happen. It just isn’t going to happen directly after this weekend. Holloway is on his way to a UFC title, and he gets his first taste of (unnecessary) gold with a huge win in his first pay-per-view main event.

In addition to Pettis and Holloway in the evening’s headliner, this card also features showdowns between Donald Cerrone and Matt Brown, Cub Swanson and Doo Ho Choi, and Tim Kennedy and Kelvin Gastelum. Is this card wildly overlooked as an “Event of the Year” contender?

Carey: There have been a couple of fight cards this year, most notably UFC 200 and UFC 205, that have been so stacked from top to bottom that it’s going to be tough for any card to compete with them. “Event of the Year”? We’d have to see some epic finishes throughout the card and a “Fight of the Year” contender in the main event. That’s tough, but not impossible to imagine with the amount of entertaining fights in the UFC Fight Night 102 lineup. Regardless, this main card has the potential to be special, and that’s even with the loss of the awesome Cormier/Rumble fight.

I’ve already expressed my excitement for the main event, and the rest of this card just screams entertainment and violence. The moment Cerrone moved up to welterweight, Brown came to mind as one of the most fun opponents imaginable. The co-main event promises to be either a hell of a scrap or deliver a highlight-reel finish.

Choi is one of the most talented prospects and under-the-radar fighters on the roster — unless you play the UFC 2 video game, in which case it’s a well-known fact that Choi is amazing — and he’s taking on Cub Swanson, one of the better featherweights in the world.

I also love the matchmaking by the UFC to put Kennedy and Gastelum together after mishaps forced both men off the UFC 205 card last month. Kennedy was just unlucky — his fight with Rashad Evans was scrapped right before fight night — and Gastelum was yanked from his bout against Cerrone due to his weight-cutting mistakes, a repetitive problem that’s forced him up to middleweight for the second time in his UFC tenure. Both guys needed to get back into the cage as soon as possible. This was a great way to get it done.

Throw in Jordan Mein returning from his almost two-year retirement to take on Emil Weber Meek, who shocked everyone by knocking out UFC and World Series of Fighting veteran Rousimar Palhares earlier this year, and this main card is on par with just about anything the promotion has offered this year, though it still does lack a bit in star power compared to some of the other events.

Huntemann: I think “Event of the Year” is a bit of a stretch. Can this be labeled a supremely underrated card that could exceed expectations, à la UFC 204 in October? Sure. But, as my colleague said, other fight cards this year have been absolutely stacked, most notably last month’s UFC 205, a card that will not be topped by UFC 206 or any other one that takes place this year.

There are plenty of interesting match-ups on this card that bear watching, though. Despite all of the drama surrounding the main event that engulfed two weight divisions, Pettis/Holloway is still a damn good match-up. Cerrone/Brown is basically guaranteed to result in a finish and is extremely like to feature a highlight-reel knockout. There is a ton of buzz surrounding Choi, and he has a great match-up against Swanson, who lives to entertain.

There are also a batch of additional talented fighters from top to bottom on this card, including the aforementioned Gastelum, Nikita Krylov, Olivier Aubin-Mercier and Drew Dober. If you’re disappointed that we’re not getting Cormer/Rumble 2, or you’re disappointed that the featherweight division has become such a clusterfuck, I think your grievances can be eased by this card. UFC 206 may not go down as the best fight card of 2016, but it offers more than enough to be considered a damn entertaining event in its own right.

Donald Cerrone has a perfect 3-0 record with three “Performance of the Night” awards since moving up to the welterweight division, and there’s no denying that “Cowboy’s” popularity will put him in the title mix if he gets another win or two. Is Matt Brown the man to shut down Cerrone at 170 pounds? If not Brown, then whom?

Huntemann: Look, I appreciate a good striker as much as the next bloke. And I enjoy a good ol’ fashioned, bloody brawl as much as the next guy, too. But facts are facts, and the truth is, Brown has become the definition of a journeyman fighter, both in his overall record and in his recent performances.

When he faced Robbie Lawler in 2014 with a title shot on the line, Brown was thoroughly outstruck and outperformed. All the momentum he built through his six-fight winning streak leading up to that fight completely evaporated. Since his loss to Lawler, Brown is 1-3 with his only victory coming over fellow journeyman Tim Means. He was beaten by a fighter in Johny Hendricks who all of the sudden can’t make 170 pounds, and Brown was choked out by arguably the No. 1 welterweight contender, Demian Maia. Brown was also knocked out in the first round in his last fight against Jake Ellenberger.

So, what I’m saying is, I don’t think Brown is beating Cerrone. Will he and “Cowboy” deliver an entertaining fight? Most likely. Will they both basically just say “screw it” and swing for the fences for 15 minutes? Probably. But is Brown going to beat Cerrone? No. So who can derail Cerrone’s recent resurgence at 170 pounds? The answer’s easy: Cerrone himself.

Cerrone looked unstoppable leading up to his lightweight title fight against Rafael dos Anjos last year, and many people, myself included, picked Cerrone to finally claim gold. He was then knocked out in just over a minute and admitted after the fight that he had trouble getting into gear against dos Anjos.

If you can’t find motivation to perform at your best for a title, then when can you? Everyone loves Cerrone for being a wild man who plays by his own rules, but if he wants to be the best in the world, then he needs to do a better job conducting himself as such. MMA is a 24/7/365 job for those who want to be a champion and commit themselves to being the best in the world. If Cerrone wants to join the club, he needs to do a better job of “getting into gear” when it matters the most.

Carey: I didn’t even think about it until Mr. Huntemann brought it up, but he’s absolutely right. The biggest obstacle Cerrone is going to have to overcome is himself. On multiple occasions, Cerrone has put together the winning streak needed to either actually get a title shot or at least earn a No. 1 contender bout. Each time, “Cowboy” has looked like a shell of his usual self. Whether it was laying an egg for three rounds against Nate Diaz or getting demolished by Anthony Pettis and the aforementioned dos Anjos in high-profile matchups, Cerrone has never been able to get his head on straight in a major bout. He’s going to have to show the world he can win a big one before the MMA community believes in him again.

That’s the bad news for Cerrone. The good news is, this weekend’s fight against Brown isn’t for a title shot. It’s not even a fight that’s going to push “Cowboy” deeper into the mix. This is a fight for the fans. Nothing more, nothing less. At most, it provides a chance for Cerrone to add another win to his resume and another highlight to his reel. That’s pretty much exactly what I’m expecting Cerrone to do, but it’s almost guaranteed to be a ridiculous amount of fun before that happens.

Brown is as tough as they come. He had one of the most impressive career resurgences in UFC history a few years ago, but the “Immortal” has quietly reverted back to gatekeeper status over the course of his last few bouts. While he’s definitely a better fighter than his 20-15 record suggests, the competition isn’t getting any easier. After Brown suffered his first career loss by knockout in his previous bout, it’s warranted to wonder whether Brown’s habit of getting into wars has caught up with his chin as well.

Brown’s potentially fading chin is what makes this fight one of the easier ones to predict. Brown is tough as nails and nearly impossible to put away with strikes. Against someone like Cerrone, who thrives once he has an opponent in trouble and especially in scrambles, things get sketchy. It’s very easy to envision Brown getting dropped or rocked with a shot, and if he leaves his neck out there in the slightest, he’s going to get tapped out.

What does the future hold for Tim Kennedy and Kelvin Gastelum? Kennedy has been one of the most outspoken critics of the UFC’s Reebok deal and is a founding member of the recently announced Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association. Are we sure he even wants to keep fighting? Gastelum is probably one more missed weight cut away from a UFC pink slip. Does the winner of this fight even go anywhere in his UFC career?

Carey: One of the reasons I liked this fight so much when it was announced was because both Kennedy and Gastelum are in a transitional period in their careers. While both guys are high-caliber fighters, there’s also a decent chance they could be gone from the UFC roster in the near future.

Even though we’ve seen a ton of Kennedy lately after his UFC 205 bout twas canceled and the MMAAA was announced, the man hasn’t fought in over two years. He didn’t really seem all that interested to get back into the cage until a few months ago, either. Kennedy, 37, is likely getting close to hanging up his gloves for good, and I’m honestly not sure if he would be fighting again if the perfect situation would have come together for UFC 205. He was offered a fight in the UFC’s debut in New York against a marquee name like Rashad Evans. That is almost too good to be true for a fighter that hasn’t competed in so long, and the fact that the middleweight champion, Michael Bisping, is a guy that Kennedy has already beaten only made for additional persuasion for Kennedy’s return to action.

I’ll admit that Kennedy’s return makes sense, but I don’t see him sticking around for long. Gastelum is going to be a tough match-up. He could easily send Kennedy back home with a loss. Even if Kennedy wins this weekend, it’s hard to imagine him making a real title push in the crowded 185-pound title scene. It’s good to have a guy like Kennedy back, but I’m not expecting anything other than another fun fight or two out of the veteran.

I am expecting quite a bit out of Gastelum from this point on, however. Now that his weight-cutting problems have forced him up to middleweight for the second time, the former The Ultimate Fighter winner is probably out of chances with the UFC brass. The only thing holding Gastelum back in his career thus far has been Gastelum himself, and now that it seems like the UFC brass is going to force the 25-year-old to stay at middleweight, it’s time to see him try to make a legitimate run.

The 185-pound weight class is hard to navigate right now. It’s absolutely stacked in the top 10. However, if Gastelum were to beat a guy like Kennedy, it would be the kind of statement that should push him into one of those top spots.

I really like the talent Gastelum possesses, and I’d like to see him get his shit together and become the top-level fighter he should be. I’m picking him this weekend, and I’ve still got a bit of faith that he can make something of his UFC career in the future. The middleweight division is Gastelum’s home now, and it’s going to be a good one for him.

Huntemann: Indeed, Gastelum is a talented fighter who just needs to “get his shit together.” Why he insists on continuing to fight at welterweight, when he’s made it clear he cannot make that weight limit, boggles the mind. The middleweight division should be Gastelum’s home from now on if he wants to remain employed by the UFC.

This could be an interesting fight, but I don’t see the victor making any big headways in the grand scheme of things. It wouldn’t surprise me if Kennedy walks away after this fight, win or lose. He’s made several opportunities for himself outside of MMA that probably pay better than fighting does. I’m sure he’s still sticking to his anti-Reebok stance as well, and since he helped start the MMAAA and wasn’t on great terms with the UFC to start with, I just don’t see much upside for Kennedy with this fight — besides collecting a paycheck, of course.

If Gastelum wins, and especially if he gets a finish, I can see him becoming a player in the middleweight division, should he stay there. He’s still young, and he is talented and more dangerous than he may get credit for. This is an intriguing match-up between two guys who are probably aren’t the favorite sons of the UFC brass. I’m sure the winner would move up the middleweight ranks and better position himself for a title run. But especially in Kennedy’s case, will he think it’s really worth it?

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

Huntemann: I have high hopes for the bout between Olivier Aubin-Mercier and Drew Dober.

Aubin-Mercier has won four of five since losing in the finals of The Ultimate Fighter Nations: Australia vs. Canada. He is deadly on the ground, with seven submissions out of his eight total victories. Meanwhile, Dober is 3-1-1 in his last five, including a first-round knockout in his last fight and a submission victory against the always-tough Jamie Varner.

The winner of this fight could be knocking on the door of the top 15 at lightweight, the UFC’s deepest division. Now is the time for both of these guys to make a statement. They should feel like they have something to prove, which could make for an entertaining bout.

Carey: I’ve probably watched Lando Vannata’s war with Tony Ferguson once a month since it happened in July. After putting on one of the more memorable debuts in recent memory, the Jackson-Wink product steps into the Octagon again, and I’m excited to watch him perform.

Vannata took his 8-0 record into the Ferguson fight on extremely short notice and ended up almost finishing one of the five best lightweights on the planet on multiple occasions. That’s a way to make a name for himself, but now he has to prove it wasn’t just a fluke. John Makdessi is a really good match-up for him, too.

This fight is going to be a ton of fun.

Pair this card with…

Carey: The Fight Night card on Friday night. I know fights on back-to-back nights are rough sometimes, especially with football controlling the weekend, but hear me out here. In about a month, college football will be over. A month later, there’s the Super Bowl. While I could sit here and tell you to take in some pigskin while it’s still here, I’m saying don’t forget the sport that stays with you year round! When football season is over, baseball still hasn’t started, and basketball is months away from being important, MMA is still going to be here. Show some respect! (I’m kidding. Watch whatever you want. Pair this card with a Gilmore Girls marathon, for all I care. Go nuts!)

Huntemann: No, no, no! Don’t listen to my esteemed colleague. Do not pair this card with the insufferable Gilmore Girls, trust me. What you should do is, pair this card with your favorite takeout pizza and a six-pack of your favorite beer. This is the perfect type of card that you don’t have to put much thought into. Just sit back, kick up your feet and relax. Take a break from the hectic holiday shopping season and enjoy a night of solid fights.

Fight Picks

Fight Huntemann’s Pick Carey’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
Interim FW Championship: Anthony Pettis vs. Max Holloway Holloway Holloway
WW: Donald Cerrone vs. Matt Brown Cerrone Cerrone
FW: Cub Swanson vs. Doo Ho Choi Choi Choi
MW: Tim Kennedy vs. Kelvin Gastelum Gastelum Gastelum
WW: Jordan Mein vs. Emil Weber Meek Mein Mein
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
LHW: Misha Cirkunov vs. Nikita Krylov Krylov Krylov
LW: Drew Dober vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier Aubin-Mercier Aubin-Mercier
Women’s StrawW: Valérie Létourneau vs. Viviane Pereira Pereira Letourneau
BW: Mitch Gagnon vs. Matthew Lopez Lopez Gagnon
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Lando Vannata vs. John Makdessi Vannata Vannata
LW: Rustam Khabilov vs. Jason Saggo Khabilov Khabilov
FlyW: Zach Machovsky vs. Dustin Ortiz Makovsky Makovsky