Amanda Nunes (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 207 Preview and Predictions

She’s back!

No, not the former champion who hasn’t fought in over a year and is coming off an embarrassing knockout loss. We’re talking about the hard-hitting champion, Amanda Nunes, who has stopped three of her last four opponents in the first round. The Brazilian will look to prove that she’s the best women’s bantamweight on the planet when she defends her belt for the first time against the former titleholder, Ronda Rousey.

But that’s not the only reason to tune in to UFC 207 on Friday, Dec. 30. The pay-per-view card also features a bantamweight title tilt between Dominick Cruz and knockout artist Cody Garbrandt. Joining the two title tilts will be former champion T.J. Dillashaw, who tangles with Brazilian John Lineker.


The action kicks off Friday from the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas with one fight streaming live on UFC Fight Pass at 7:30 p.m. ET. Four additional preliminary card bouts follow at 8 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1, with the five-fight main card airing live on pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET.

Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Rob Tatum break down all of the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Ronda Rousey is back, but will it be the same? Rousey’s aura of invincibility was brought to a screeching halt when she was blasted by Holly Holm and dropped her women’s bantamweight championship belt to the former star boxer. Now, more than a year removed from the loss, Rousey returns to challenge Amanda Nunes for the belt. Will Rousey regain her lethal form, or has the time away and the distraction of Hollywood caused her to slip? Will Nunes cement herself as a member of the elite by defeating the formerly unbeatable Rousey?

Kuhl: At then end of the day, Rousey is still one of the greatest female fighters to grace the Octagon. She is at the highest level of judo, her submissions are damn near unstoppable, and her striking has improved immensely over the years. The “Rowdy” one will always be a danger as long as she wants to be, which is really the biggest question mark. People can talk about her movie career, her boyfriend, her supposed depression after her loss to Holm and her time out of the cage, but the thing that is the most concerning is when she came out and said she won’t be fighting much longer. And that happened before she had even been back in action. Unless it’s just a ploy, that’s not a great mentality going into a title fight.

Nunes, on the other hand, is blazing hot right now. She’s hungry, she wants to fight Rousey, and she has all the tools to pull off a win. She’s also in a position over Rousey that only Miesha Tate has been in — she’s the champ. Nunes is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a judo brown belt, and she’s got nine knockouts in 13 fights. This is no easy opponent for Rousey, and, compared to her previous UFC opponents, Nunes has a serious mental advantage.

Rousey, unlike most professional athletes, has had this sort of regression, where the more she won, the more stubborn, pouty and immature she seemed to have become. I wouldn’t stop short of using the term “diva.” Of course she reacted the way she did after her loss, but most athletes will pick themselves up, dust off and get right back to work. She did not do that. This week, she went so far as to block Nunes on Instagram, which is not exactly a symbol of maturity. I don’t bring this up as a judgement on Rousey, because none of us are perfect. It does, however, lead me to believe that she is not in a good place mentally. Frankly, Rousey’s biggest advantage is that she has an opportunity to get redemption, which she did not have in the Olympics.

Nunes is not in movies. The Brazilian is not in a high-profile relationship. She has not acted like a diva, and she has no plans to retire any time soon. She has blazed through three veterans and took a decision win over high-level kickboxer Valentina Shevchenko – the Russian’s only loss in the last six years. I’m not a psychiatrist by any means, but I have to give the champ the advantage in this one.

I have Nunes winning by knockout.

Tatum: I can’t really argue with anything my colleague has said about this fight. I share the same concerns regarding Rousey’s mental state. Her long layoff may have been a great opportunity for her to improve on her weaknesses, but at this point there is little evidence of that happening. It appears that Rousey has one foot out the door before she even steps into the cage with Nunes. Add in her refusal to do any media prior to the fight, and the assessment that she is still struggling mentally seems like a sound judgment.

That said, there’s also the possibility that Rousey has been heavily focused and just wants to eliminate all of the distractions. The former champion had a hellacious schedule while the promotion milked her for every dollar it could generate. And with the schedule, she deserves credit for helping change the perception of women’s MMA, even if she wasn’t the first one to do it. She no longer has the aura of invincibility to live up to now that Holm kicked her from the mountain top. The concern, however, is that she hasn’t changed camps or taken any drastic measures to correct the glaring flaws in her stand-up game that were exposed by Holm. Nunes has to be chomping at the bit to attack those same weaknesses.

I’ve been fortunate enough to watch both of these tremendous athletes compete firsthand on many occasions, but that makes this fight even more difficult to assess. I was there when Nunes was rag-dolled by Sarah D’Alelio for three rounds. This is the same D’Alelio that Rousey submitted in 25 seconds. Or how about Cat Zingano? Nunes fell via third-round TKO, whereas Rousey finished Zingano in 14 seconds. MMA math rarely holds up, but it’s hard to ignore the common opponents.

Nunes has grown leaps and bounds since changing to American Top Team, but she cannot get overly aggressive with someone with Rousey’s ground skills. If she employs a strategy like Zingano, she may be tapping before she lands her first punch. But if she’s patient, Nunes has the striking skills to embarrass Rousey all over again. I’ll echo Dan’s prediction and take Nunes by first-round knockout.

After first-round knockouts in his last three fights, Cody Garbrandt is stepping up to challenge Dominick Cruz for the men’s bantamweight title. Can Garbrandt shine, or is Cruz going to prove too much for the young challenger?

Tatum: On paper, this fight looks like a bit of a mismatch. Cruz has dominated the 135-pound division for the better part of a decade, whereas Garbrandt just hit the double-digit fight threshold. The experience discrepancy grows even larger when you dive into each fighter’s resume a little deeper. Cruz has gone the full 25 minutes on six occasions. Garbrandt has only seen the third round on two instances and only once has he gone the distance. But the great equalizer in this fight could be the 25-year-old’s devastating knockout power.

Everyone knows what they get with Cruz in the cage. His footwork and movement is unmatched by anyone in the division. It has caused fits for every opponent he’s faced, including Garbrandt’s mentor Urijah Faber and former teammate T.J. Dillashaw. The champion is able to get in and out of the pocket very quickly and his opponents struggle to put their hands on him. When he does get hit, Cruz mixes in timely takedowns to keep his challengers guessing. It’s a strategy that has paid off time and time again, and even with his three-year injury layoff, Cruz hasn’t missed a beat inside the cage.

Although the focus in this fight will be Garbrandt’s knockout power — seven of his nine knockout victories have come inside the first round — fans shouldn’t ignore his 32-1 record as an amateur boxer, nor the fact that he was a state-champion wrestler in Ohio. His boxing background could be a bigger factor in this fight than his power. With the exception of the aforementioned Dillashaw, the majority of Cruz’s opponents have been overmatched on the feet and haven’t been able to touch him with regularity. Garbrandt’s use of angles and counterstrikes could change that. Couple that with his underrated wrestling and it’s easy to see that Garbrandt earned the title shot for more than just his pre-fight trash talk.

As for whether Garbrandt can solve the Cruz puzzle, that’s another story. Even with his boxing prowess, natural power and the knowledge supplied by the multiple-time Cruz foe Faber, it’s just hard to envision Garbrandt being able to keep up with the pace of the champion. His best bet will be early in the fight if he can establish range and stun Cruz. That’s something that no one has been able to do to date. Over the course of five rounds, Cruz will simply outwork Garbrandt and cruise to yet another decision victory.

Kuhl: I completely agree. Garbrandt is a power-puncher, and, while, in recent interviews, he claims he can go five rounds with Cruz, he has only gone to decision once, it was only three rounds, and it was against Henry Briones, who is not exactly known for frustrating opponents well into deep waters. It is not likely that Garbrandt will finish the elusive Cruz in the first or second round, which means he will likely enter uncharted territory with one of the most frustrating fighters in the business. The champ also has the height and reach advantage.

Cruz takes this one the distance and leaves Garbrandt battered and broken down. The youngster has a bright future and is by no means a flash in the pan, but this is not a great match-up for him.

In addition to the bantamweight title fight, this card also features former titleholder T.J. Dillashaw against Brazil’s John Lineker in what most see as a No. 1 contender match-up. Will Dillashaw prove to be too savvy for the hard-hitting Lineker, or will Lineker score another highlight-reel finish?

Kuhl: My initial response to the first question is yes. For a former NCAA Division I wrestler, Dillashaw is, by far, one of the most technically proficient strikers in all of MMA. It also doesn’t hurt that four of his last five fights were title fights. He also has a three-inch height advantage, which is pretty rare for him.

My answer to the second question could also easily be yes. Lineker is a fantastic fighter. He has a ton of experience — 36 fights at only 26 years old — and he’s been in the UFC for four and a half years, but he has routinely missed weight, which is likely why we’re just seeing him in a contender fight now. It was a split decision win over former flyweight title challenger John Dodson that put him in this position, and he also poses an interesting problem for Dillashaw in that he has never been knocked out.

This fight is an obvious “Fight of the Night” candidate. Both of these guys are technical, hard-hitting fighters with a tight ground game. Both of them want a shot at the coveted UFC bantamweight title, which Dillashaw used to hold, but, as of now, nobody has ever taken from Dominick Cruz. That could change when Cruz faces a tough test in Dillashaw’s former teammate Garbrandt, but one of these guys is next in line.

This is a tough one to call, but I’m going to go with Dillashaw by decision. His technical striking will earn him the nod on the judges’ scorecards.

Tatum: Just thinking about this fight gets me excited, but also frustrated that Lineker was never able to get a handle on his weight while competing in the flyweight division. Whether it’s Dillashaw or the champion Cruz, the Brazilian is going to have a size and reach disadvantage. Even with his fan-friendly, brawling style, he’s going to have to overcome a lot to hold a belt at 135 pounds.

Dillashaw’s striking is far and away more technical than anything Lineker can offer. Working with Duane Ludwig, the former champion has developed fluid combinations and a knack for getting in and out of the pocket without getting hit. It wasn’t enough to allow him to top Cruz, but against the wild-swinging Lineker, it should prove to be the difference in the fight.

Lineker thrives on forward pressure and backing his opponents against the fence. That allows him to work the body and overwhelm with flurries. It narrowly worked against the aforementioned Dodson, but Dillashaw’s footwork is much better than the footwork of Dodson. Lineker needs Dillashaw to make a mistake and then hope to catch him with a heavy shot — ironically, the same thing Dodson did when he fought Dillashaw. I just don’t see it happening, though. Dillashaw wins by decision.

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

Kuhl: I love the match-up between Tim Means and Alex Oliveira. Both guys are riding two-fight winning streaks. Their last two losses came against Matt Brown and Donald Cerrone, respectively, and both of them are strikers who love to go to war. This is going to be a great fight between two guys who have been slowly but surely climbing the division, and both need a big win to stay relevant in a super-stacked welterweight division.

Tatum: As much fun as Mean and Oliveira will be, I’m a little surprised that my cohort passed over the flyweight match-up between Louis Smolka and Ray Borg.

This fight has “Fight of the Night” written all over it. You have two of the best scramblers in the division squaring off to kick off the pay-per-view, and they’re both hungry for a win after dropping their last outings. Smolka was stunned by Brandon Moreno and saw his four-fight winning streak come to a halt, while Borg fell on the scorecard to Justin Scoggins to halt his three-fight streak.

Expect a lightning-fast pace throughout in this one. Smolka is slightly more technical, but Borg might have the speed advantage. There will be lots of submission attempts and crazy reversals, but Smolka will eke it out on the scorecards.

Pair this card with…

Tatum: As many bowls as possible… No, not the Diaz variety, but rather the college football variety. The UFC put this card on Friday not only because of the New Year’s holiday, but because Saturday will feature the semifinals of the college football playoffs. So sit back, enjoy a solid lineup of champions and former champions, and then follow it up by watching the best student athletes vie for supremacy on the gridiron. If you survive that gauntlet of action, finish it off with a glass of champagne… or another bowl.

Kuhl: C’mon, Rob. What’s wrong with the Diaz variety? In all seriousness, I would pair this card with a nice low-alcohol Session IPA in a cooler next to the couch. Between UFC Fight Pass, Fox Sports 1 and pay-per-view, it’s going to be a long night, and you won’t want to miss a single fight on the card. You also won’t want to be too hammered by the time the men’s bantamweight championship fight rolls around, because that could be a long one, and you will still need enough gas in the tank for the women’s title fight set to close out the evening.

Fight Picks

Fight Kuhl’s Pick Tatum’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
Women’s BW Championship: Amanda Nunes vs. Ronda Rousey Nunes Nunes
BW Championship: Dominick Cruz vs. Cody Garbrandt Cruz Cruz
BW: T.J. Dillashaw vs. John Lineker Dillashaw Dillashaw
WW: Dong Hyun Kim vs. Tarec Saffiedine Kim Kim
FlyW: Louis Smolka vs. Ray Borg Smolka Smolka
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Johny Hendricks vs. Neil Magny Magny Magny
MW: Marvin Vettori vs. Antônio Carlos Júnior Carlos Junior Vettori
WW: Alex Garcia vs. Mike Pyle Garcia Garcia
WW: Brandon Thatch vs. Niko Price Thatch Thatch
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7:30 p.m. ET)
WW: Tim Means vs. Alex Oliveira Means Means