Jose Aldo (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 218 Preview and Predictions

Did you have your fill over the Thanksgiving holiday? What’s that? You did? Welp, get ready for more! The UFC is providing yet another stacked fight card on Saturday, Dec. 2, featuring a title rematch for a main event, a probable title eliminator in the co-headlining slot and one of the most anticipated pay-per-view main card fights of the year when it presents UFC 218 in Detroit.

UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway once again meets former champion José Aldo. Holloway officially arrived at UFC 212 in June, when he finished Aldo in the third round to capture the belt. The victory represented the pinnacle of Holloway’s career. It was his finest performance, without question. Aldo is getting another crack at gold after Holloway’s original opponent, Frankie Edgar, had to withdraw after undergoing surgery. Does history repeat itself? Will Holloway declare himself “King of the Featherweights” once and for all if he defeats one of the best fighters, regardless of weight class, in MMA history?

The co-headliner features another star on the rise. Francis Ngannou has torn through everyone he has faced in his UFC career, with three straight first-round finishes to boot. A victory over Alistair Overeem should all but guarantee Ngannou a heavyweight title shot, but Overeem has rebounded from his loss to current champion Stipe Miocic last year to win his last two fights. If Overeem beats the hot prospect, then he could lay his own claim to another shot at gold.


The fight most fans are looking forward to most on this card probably isn’t either of the aforementioned fights. Instead, it’s a lightweight clash further down the lineup. Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje will face off in a fight that pretty much defines the word “violence.” Gaethje, the undefeated former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion, had perhaps the best debut in UFC history when he knocked out Michael Johnson in a wild brawl over the summer. Gaethje and Alvarez were opposing coaches on the most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter, and they will settle their season-long rivalry in the Octagon in a fight that absolutely no one should miss.

The UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:15 p.m. ET on Saturday, Dec. 2, followed by the Fox Sports 1 preliminary card at 8 p.m. ET and the pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. In the meantime, Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Kyle Symes are here to get you ready for all the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Max Holloway was set to defend his title against Frankie Edgar, but Edgar sustained an injury. Now, Holloway rematches José Aldo instead. Can the legendary Aldo recapture the belt?

Symes: At one point in time, Aldo was among the top five pound-for-pound fighters in the world. His run of dominance was something special, but all of that matters little to the new crop of fans brought in by Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. Their lasting memory of Aldo is him getting starched in 13 seconds by McGregor. Aldo reminded fans of his dominant skills at UFC 200, where he defeated Edgar in their rematch. However, a loss to Holloway showed that the level of dominance Aldo once possessed was a thing of the past.

Still, it’s far too soon to say Aldo’s run as a top featherweight is completely gone. As much as people want to focus on the Brazilian’s offense, and particularly his vaunted leg kicks, his best attribute is perhaps his defense. Outside of the Mark Hominick fight in 2011, his rematch with Chad Mendes in 2014, and the lightning-fast knockout loss to McGregor, Aldo hasn’t suffered a great deal of damage in his bouts. His defensive skills will play a pivotal role in the fight with Holloway, a fighter who has the ability to keep a preposterous pace and ferocity inside the cage.

The Hawaiian fighter is on a roll that is unmatched inside the division. Holloway has won 11 consecutive bouts. He has shown an ability to end the fight standing up or on the ground, evident by his six knockouts and two submission wins through his current winning streak.

There are two factors that will decide this fight: cardio and grappling. We know Holloway isn’t going to tire over the course of a five-round affair. Can Aldo keep the pace of the fight at a level that he can sustain while producing a steady output? Part of his answer might be takedowns. We saw Aldo utilize grappling to neutralize the offense of Chan Sung-Jung in their title bout. Might we see a repeat of this strategy against another tenacious fighter? Andre Pederneiras claimed Aldo didn’t follow through on everything they had game-planned for in the first meeting with Holloway. I’d wager to guess that meant Aldo was supposed to throw more than one leg kick and mix in some takedowns to keep Holloway from always moving forward.

If Aldo can do implement his game plan this time around, then the fight may be a bit closer than their first encounter. However, Holloway will still come out on top. It’d be one thing if Aldo was finishing people in the first few rounds before he faded, but he’s not. Aldo hasn’t finished an opponent since 2013, when Sung-Jung suffered a shoulder injury and Aldo got the TKO stoppage. Before that victory, you’d have to go back to 2012 for the last time Aldo truly stopped an opponent. Holloway’s toughness and pace will ultimately be what wins him this fight.

Huntemann: I’ll let my esteemed colleague provide all the technical minutiae and analysis for this fight. Meanwhile, I’ll answer this question with one simple word: No.

When it comes to watching this wacky sport we all know and love, I like to keep it pretty basic. I go by what I see. While other fans and analysts break down angles and cage position and strike ratio and all of these other arbitrary factors, I just watch these fights and judge the performances of the fighters.

What I see now is that Aldo simply isn’t the same fighter he used to be. We can blame one man for this, and that man’s name is McGregor. Before Aldo and McGregor faced each other in late 2015, Aldo looked like the most dominant and unbeatable champion we had ever seen. He hadn’t lost in a decade. He won all of his fights in the WEC, with all but one ending by knockout. He lorded over the UFC’s featherweight division for more than four years and looked like he was going to become the greatest fighter in UFC history. Then Mr. McGregor came along.

Before their fight at UFC 194, McGregor built a luxurious mansion inside Aldo’s head. The Irishman’s insults and mind games worked better than he ever could have imagined. The usually cerebral Aldo became so emotional that he couldn’t look McGregor in the eye during the pre-fight instructions and then uncharacteristically walked right into McGregor’s right hand, all in a matter of seconds. To put it in layman’s terms, McGregor took Aldo’s soul that night.

Since then, Aldo has not been the same. He defeated Edgar at UFC 200 for the interim featherweight title, but we didn’t see the same killer instinct that defined Aldo for so long. Instead, we saw a fighter playing it safe and who was afraid to engage with his opponent. However, let’s give credit where it’s due and say that Aldo won the first two rounds during his first meeting with Holloway at UFC 212. Aldo even came close to getting a finish. However, once Holloway settled in and started using his reach and height advantage, he became the best version of himself and overwhelmed the formerly unbeatable Aldo.

To put it another way, Holloway is peaking right now and approaching his prime, if he’s not there already. I used to scoff at suggestions that Aldo’s best days were behind him, but now I’m rethinking my stance. He looks like a different fighter since his loss to McGregor, and I haven’t seen anything that makes me believe Aldo will fare any better in his rematch with Holloway.

Francis Ngannou has marched through five UFC opponents. All of those fights ended in a stoppage win for the up-and-comer. Now, he draws his toughest test yet, Alistair Overeem. Will Ngannou continue his upward climb, or can Overeem stop Ngannou’s rise?

Huntemann: Ngannou is a very scary man, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Just in case he reads this. He’s the best heavyweight prospect I’ve seen in the UFC since Cain Velasquez. Ngannou is huge, but incredibly athletic. He can score a knockout quickly and violently, or he can submit his opponent.

We’re all aware of Overeem’s experience and resume, so there is no need to go over that again. The kickboxer was knocked out in the first round by heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic last year, but he has rebounded nicely with two wins. He will definitely test Ngannou and see if the prospect can be patient and go the distance. So far, none of Ngannou’s UFC fights have gone past the second round.

I’m salivating too much at the idea of a showdown between Miocic and Ngannou. That’s a fresh and incredibly exciting match-up that we should all want to see. Ngannou will get the best of Overeem and leave no doubt who the No. 1 contender should be.

Symes: I don’t expect to see Overeem enter too many firefights with the massive Ngannou. The veteran has done a masterful job of utilizing his kicking game recently, but that might not be an option against the up-and-coming star, who has a longer reach. Overeem will win this fight inside, though. His clinchwork is legendary, and Ngannou’s athleticism won’t be as much of a factor if the two fighters are clinched up near the cage. Body strikes — particularly knees — and extended grappling exchanges are the kryptonite to an explosive fighter. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Overeem work to put Ngannou’s back to the fence or even attempt some takedowns to tire out his opponent.

Of course, getting inside means walking into the danger zone with Ngannou. As my colleague pointed out, Ngannou hasn’t gone deep in any of his fights. Does he have the stamina to go a full three rounds? Does it matter if nobody can last longer than 10 minutes? Ngannou has incredible power in his strikes and has shown he’s not adverse to finish a fight via tapout as well. He’s moved his training to Las Vegas, so one would expect his overall game to improve given the amount of talent that lives in Vegas and travels through the desert oasis.

It’ll also be interesting to see how Ngannou comes out, considering he’s been out of action since January. Meanwhile, Overeem will compete for the third time in 2017. Ngannou has the freakish athletic ability and fight-stopping power, but I’ll give the nod to Overeem in this one. Since his loss to Ben Rothwell in 2014, Overeem has only fallen to the current heavyweight champion, Miocic — and that was after Overeem came within moments of taking out the champion himself. Similar to in Yair Rodriguez’s fight with Frankie Edgar, this seems like a contest where the rising youngster might lose while learning plenty.

Allen Crowder — do we need to know this name?

Symes: Crowder is only 28 and competes as a heavyweight, so he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on. He’s won four straight fights, including a win on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series which earned him a UFC contract. The UFC’s heavyweight division needs not only depth but younger fighters as well. Does Crowder go on a tear through the top 10? Not necessarily. However, the average age of the top heavyweights is getting up there, and a young fighter is a welcome addition to the UFC roster.

Huntemann: I don’t put much stock into Dana White’s weekly showcase of struggling fighters who compete in front of him for table scraps. Yet, only one of Crowder’s nine wins went the distance, and his four consecutive victories have all come by knockout. You should pay attention to someone with that resume.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 218?

Huntemann: This will be an incredibly cliché answer and a bit of a cop-out, but I’m going to say the fans are the biggest winners. It’s also become cliché to say a fight card is “stacked,” but this one really is. When Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje are currently slotted to be the second pay-per-view fight, that speaks to the depth of this card. And when the showdown between Paul Felder and Charles Oliveira, which would land on pay-per-view any other time, is currently the featured bout on the preliminary card, you know you have a fight card that will deliver.

Symes: Stipe Miocic. The UFC’s heavyweight champion has been on the sidelines looking for a new contract. Inside the cage, it seems like the heavyweight division has become a bit stagnant. Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum have been racking up wins, but it doesn’t seem to matter given their top slots and Miocic being MIA. Cain Velasquez remains sidelined, Francis Ngannou has been gone since January, and the careers of both Mark Hunt and Derrick Lewis are questionable at best. If Ngannou or Overeem delivers an impressive knockout and the winning fighter says the right things on the mic, the interest in seeing Miocic against either man will likely push the UFC into getting its heavyweight champ back into the Octagon.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 218?

Symes: Anyone that has to fight after Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje clash. Both men are gamers, and there is simply no reason to ever miss a Gaethje fight. Expect both fighters to put on a show that’s going to be a tough act to follow for the remaining six men.

Huntemann: The loser of the Fight Pass preliminary card bout between Amanda Bobby Cooper and Angela Magana. Whoever comes up short in this fight might literally be out of a job. Cooper has lost twice in the first round through her three UFC fights, and the big stage of the UFC is probably a little too much for her right now. I’m also not sure why Magana is on the UFC roster. She’s lost four consecutive fights, including both of her UFC appearances, and hasn’t looked particularly impressive in either one. I’ll pick Cooper to win this fight and likely send Magana to the unemployment line.

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

Huntemann: The preliminary card bout between Paul Felder and Charles Oliveira. This is such a terrific clash of styles. Felder was originally supposed to face Al Iaquinta — that also would have been a terrific fight, by the way — but Oliveira is a more than adequate replacement after Iaquinta had to bow out. Oliveira is known for his submissions. Felder is one of the most effective and brutal strikers out there. Something has to give here, and it’s going to be really interesting to see whose style takes over.

Symes: That’s a solid choice.

I’d say Alvarez/Gaethje would be a sleeper fight, since neither man is even on the event poster and all the attention seems to have shifted to José Aldo stepping in on short notice against Max Holloway. However, I’ve already elaborated on that fight. Instead, let’s go with Henry Cejudo and Sergio Pettis. Cejudo looked like a different animal after losing back-to-back fights. Pettis is one of the division’s most exciting fighters. Both men will undoubtedly look to pick up a statement win to get a shot at flyweight champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, so fans can expect an action-packed bout.

Pair this card with…

Symes: A proper bathroom/snack break. The majority of this card is “Can’t Miss TV” for a slew of reasons, and you don’t want to be away from the TV when everything goes down inside the Octagon.

Huntemann: Whatever your favorite thing in the world is. Your favorite beer, your favorite snack, your favorite T-shirt, anything. This is a fight card that should make you happy, because it’s going to be amazing. Pair it with something that makes you excited and happy to be alive, because that’s how you’re going to feel all night long.

Fight Picks

Fight Symes’s Pick Huntemann’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
FW Championship: Max Holloway vs. José Aldo Holloway Holloway
HW: Alistair Overeem vs. Francis Ngannou Overeem Ngannou
FlyW: Henry Cejudo vs. Sergio Pettis Cejudo Pettis
LW: Eddie Alvarez vs. Justin Gaethje Gaethje Gaethje
Women’s StrawW: Michelle Waterson vs. Tecia Torres Waterson Torres
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Paul Felder vs. Charles Oliveira Felder Felder
WW: Alex Oliveira vs. Yancy Medeiros Oliveira Medeiros
LW: Drakkar Klose vs. David Teymur Teymur Teymur
Women’s StrawW: Felice Herrig vs. Cortney Casey Herrig Herrig
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:15 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Angela Magana vs. Amanda Bobby Cooper Cooper Cooper
WW: Abdul Razak Alhassan vs. Sabah Homasi Alhassan Homasi
LHW: Dominick Reyes vs. Jeremy Kimball Reyes Kimball
HW: Allen Crowder vs. Justin Willis Willis Crowder