UFC 246 predictions

The hype surrounding Conor McGregor’s next fight isn’t quite as ubiquitous as it once was, but sure enough, “The Notorious” is back.

McGregor fights for the first time in 15 months on Saturday, and outside of this being a relatively rare appearance, his main event matchup with Donald Cerrone at UFC 246 has been devoid of drama. McGregor likes Cerrone. Cerrone likes McGregor. Isn’t it great when everybody gets along?

There’s plenty that “Cowboy” could sink his teeth into too if he wanted to enter the Octagon with a chip on his shoulders. He’s been criticized for not being able to win the big one. He’s been called a tune-up opponent for McGregor before he moves on to another championship opportunity. He’s even had to deal with accusations that he might throw the fight.

Cerrone has been down this road too many times to let any of that noise deter him from his primary goal in life: fight, get paid, rinse, repeat. It’s that emphasis on the bottom line that reminds you he and McGregor may have more in common than you think.

In the co-main event, Holly Holm faces Raquel Pennington in a bantamweight rematch that most people probably don’t even realize is a rematch. Their first meeting at UFC 184 didn’t set the the world ablaze, but it did serve as Holm’s UFC debut, and nine months after beating Pennington by split decision, she went on to take the bantamweight title from Ronda Rousey.

Perhaps there’s another reality where Pennington beats Holm and prevents the rise of “The Preacher’s Daughter,” and we never get the “Head Kick Heard ‘Round The World;” If there isn’t, at least Pennington has a chance to avenge her loss in this one.

Also on the main card, heavyweight veteran Aleksei Oleinik goes for win No. 58 against Maurice Greene, bantamweights Brian Kelleher and Ode Osbourne get their chance to steal the show after being bumped up from the prelims, and former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis faces the streaking Diego Ferreira.

What: UFC 246

Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

When: Saturday, Jan. 18. The two-fight early preliminary card begins at 7 p.m. ET and will air on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, followed by a four-fight preliminary card on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available for purchase exclusively through ESPN+.

Conor McGregor vs. Donald Cerrone
Before we break this down, I’m going to do something that one should never do when dealing with anything MMA-related, especially when it comes to the UFC.

I’m going to use logic.

Logically, Conor McGregor shouldn’t be as prepared for Saturday’s main event as Donald Cerrone is. He hasn’t fought since October 2018 and by his own admission (or excuses, depending on how you choose to view McGregor’s self-appraisal) wasn’t as focused as he should have been heading into his grudge match with Khabib Nurmagomedov. He hasn’t won a fight since November 2016.

Cerrone, on the other hand, has been as active as ever during the time that McGregor has been away, fighting 11 times during that stretch. And though it’s been a while since he’s picked up a win against truly elite competition (his losses in that span include Justin Gaethje, Tony Ferguson, Leon Edwards, Darren Till, Robbie Lawler, and Jorge Masvidal), consistently stepping into the Octagon with the best-of-the-best has to sharpen the metaphorical iron. Simply put, even taking into account wear and tear, he’s in better game shape than McGregor.

Logically, “Cowboy” also excels in areas that have typically been problematic for McGregor. His submission game is deadly and he has cardio for days, so if this one goes to the later rounds then conventional wisdom favors Cerrone. Of course, Cerrone’s reputation as a slow starter would seem to play into McGregor’s hands (particularly his left one) and those expecting a vintage McGregor knockout could see that scenario play out. And as mentioned, Cerrone has lost more often than he’s won when facing world-class competition. But is McGregor still on that level?

We don’t know exactly what he’s been up to during this latest break from fighting, though based on the headlines he’s made outside of the cage it’s fair to say that he has not been 100 percent dedicated to his craft. All this talk about McGregor having his head in the right place and being re-focused and re-energized, none of that matters if he hasn’t been putting in the work in the gym. He has a lot of catching up to do.

Combat sports and logic go hand in hand. This is what I’m telling myself as I make this pick.

There’s certainly precedent for a top fighter to return from a lengthy hiatus and score a win over a quality opponent. Just recently, we saw McGregor rival Nate Diaz return from a three-year break to defeat Anthony Pettis. And welterweight great Georges St-Pierre retired for four years before making a spectacular one-off return against middleweight champion Michael Bisping.

Is McGregor made from the same mettle as Diaz and GSP, two fighters known for sticking to their unrelenting training regiments even when out of competition? We’ll find out Saturday.

Pick: Cerrone

Holly Holm vs. Raquel Pennington
Raquel Pennington has the kind of style needed to muck things up for Holly Holm and keep her from getting into a groove. What she doesn’t have is the striking ability to win a point battle with the former UFC champion, nor the wrestling to put her on her back.

This is an odd choice for a rematch outside of the fact that the two have been hanging around in the top-5 at 135 pounds seemingly forever. Though both have made great strides in their careers, it’s hard to picture this one playing out much differently from their first encounter. Holm is still excellent at controlling distance and strong in the clinch, Pennington is still a grinder with great cardio.

You need to have at least one elite skill to get past Holm and that’s something that Pennington still hasn’t developed. Holm by decision once again.

Pick: Holm

Aleksei Oleinik vs. Maurice Greene
This is a unique challenge for Aleksei Oleinik. It’s no secret that he wants to get this to the ground as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter if he’s on top or on his back, he has a very particular set of skills and he will find you and he will submit you. However, in Maurice Greene he has an opponent who will be happy to mix it up with him on the mat.

If Oleinik is known as the master of the Ezekiel choke, Greene deserves at least some recognition for his affinity for the triangle choke, a finisher he’s successfully pulled off three times in his 11-fight career. “The Crochet Boss” prides himself on his ground game and you have to think he won’t squander this opportunity to test Oleinik’s grappling.

That said, it’s also likely the two are similar enough in style that they neutralize each other, resulting in the dreaded “low-level heavyweight kickboxing contest.” It’s a toss-up at that point, though I’d favor Greene slightly.

My prediction is that this one does turn into a ground battle and that it’s Oleinik who comes out on top despite a spirited effort from Greene.

Pick: Oleinik

Brian Kelleher vs. Ode Osbourne
Though there were higher-ranked fighters on the prelims that could have been given a main card spot with the Alexa Grasso-Claudia Gadelha fight getting canceled, once fans get a glimpse of Brian Kelleher and Ode Osbourne they’ll understand why this bout was given the upgrade.

These two are going to be hungry to show that they deserve recognition in the increasingly crowded bantamweight rankings. Kelleher is an absolute gamer, well-rounded and willing to scrap with a sneaky submission game. Those ground skills may come in handy against Osbourne, who showed flashes of being a dynamic striker in his Contender Series tryout against Armando Villareal. He actually ended up winning that fight by submission, the fourth of his career and third in his last four fights, so he could generate some fun scrambles rolling with Kelleher.

Osbourne been competing professionally for a little less than five years and has a ton of potential, but I’m leaning towards the more experienced Kelleher to win a decision after a back-and-forth battle.

Pick: Kelleher

Anthony Pettis vs. Diego Ferreira
Anthony Pettis and his team have made it clear that the second half of his career is all about chasing big names and tough fights. Diego Ferreira might not be the former, but he is certainly the latter.

The 34-year-old Brazilian appears to have turned a corner in his last two fights, outworking Mairbek Taisumov and Rustam Khabilov, both of whom were on six-fight winning streaks before Ferreira tripped them up. Ferreira always had potential, with several impressive finishes scattered across his UFC career. He’s grown into a more fast-paced offensive fighter and that’s exactly what he needs to be to deal with the skilled Pettis.

Health issues have plagued Pettis for years, not only keeping him on the shelf, but also leading directly to poor performances or outright stoppages due to mid-fight injuries. Perhaps it’s just a consequence of his crowd-pleasing style. Either way, he has become the textbook definition of a glass cannon.

Pettis does well with his back against the wall and as much as Ferreira has evolved, I think he gets caught with a classic “Showtime” move on Saturday.

Pick: Pettis

Preliminaries

Maycee Barber def. Roxanne Modafferi

Sodiq Yusuff def. Andre Fili

Askar Askarov def. Tim Elliott

Nasrat Haqparast def. Drew Dober

Aleksa Camur def. Justin Ledet

JJ Aldrich def. Sabina Mazo

— MMA FIGHTING

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