UFC 286 staff picks and predictions
See who we're picking to win at UFC 286.
The UFC is back in London, England this weekend and with it is Leon ‘Rocky’ Edwards hoping to defend his UFC welterweight title on home turf. Ex-champ Kamaru Usman is hoping to play spoiler and prove his dethroning by Edwards last year was just a blip in what had been a welterweight, and UFC, legacy that had started to rival those of the Greats.
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Below are the BE staff picks for this event and you’ll see that we mostly agree that Usman is going to get back his crown in the United Kingdom. If you’re a paid subscriber you can see all of our picks below.
Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman
Anton Tabuena: Prior to the head kick, that second meeting was probably Usman’s best performance already. Considering his mileage and return from a brutal KO, I think it’s fair to not expect him to match that. On the other hand, Edwards came out flat, was off with his range and timing, and didn’t look at all like himself then. I expect him to fight far better this time around, but will an improved outing be good enough to actually pick apart even a slightly diminished version of Usman? Maybe, but Usman’s pressure really gave him a lot of issues. For what it’s worth, Victor and I were the only two people here to correctly pick Edwards last time, but I guess you can say we still weren’t really right about how the fight would play out. Either way, there’s no point turning back now. I’m going with Edwards again. At his best, I still think he’s one of the worst style matchups for Usman, and at his worst, he still managed to stay in the fight long enough to make something happen. Leon Edwards by decision.
Victor Rodriguez: Leon’s gonna walk into this with a lot more confidence in his heart and that brings with it a greater sense of urgency. He’s seen what Usman has in his bag of tricks, and he might be right — Usman’s not gonna be dramatically different this time around and may indeed be snakebitten. That feeling of giving an opponent everything you’ve got for them to obliterate all that hard work in the final minutes can be crushing. I don’t doubt Usman’s resolve and determination to come back better, but what does better even look like? More importantly, to what end? Edwards knows what Usman does best and how he fights since they’ve both done this dance twice now. What’s more, he’s had even more time to work against Usman’s wrestling while sharpening his offense as well. So much of this looks like it’s going to be mental to me, and I’d have to go with the guy that’s got the swagger in his pocket and might just have the other dude’s number. Leon Edwards by TKO.
Tim Bissell: I don’t see lightning striking twice here. I think it’s more likely Usman has learned how to avoid that one kick than Edwards has learned how to avoid Usman’s varied wrestling attacks. And it wasn’t like Edwards’ entire striking performance was giving Usman trouble. On the contrary, Usman was actually doing enough on the feet to compliment and extenuate everything else he was doing on course to what would have been a pretty dominant decision win. We have a great storyline heading into this trilogy fight, but I think, unlike the previous edition, this one will have a predictable ending. Kamaru Usman by decision.
Zane Simon: I know Edwards just walked away from this fight with his hand raised a few months ago, but going back to that bout the narrative for far too much of it was ‘Wow, Leon Edwards looks very overwhelmed and dispirited.’ I do have concerns about the way Usman steps through distance, especially if he isn’t going to be as high-output as he used to be. He’s always been easy to hit and not too hard to hurt while moving forward, and he’s had moments in most of his recent fights where he looked like he got badly stung and had to recover. That said, one exceptional flash KO does not make a whole fight. And for the most part Usman ate all Edwards’ shots, backed him up, landed hard, and took him down and controlled him. If he just steps on the gas harder this time, it seems likely he’ll only find more success doing the same things. I’m not nearly so sure of that with Edwards, who often finds himself wrestling when he’s got a big advantage in the cage. Kamaru Usman via decision.
Tim Burke: I’m surprised that there’s this much Edwards love here. Sure, he scored a beautiful head kick KO. But it was in a fight he was losing, and looking pretty ineffectual at that other than some decent wrestling in the first. I think Usman is going to be ultra-motivated to reclaim his name and his belt, and it might not be pretty, but he’s going to smother Edwards. He’s not going to sit at range with him and let Edwards have another opportunity for a home run shot. Five rounds of frustration for Edwards, and an unhappy London crowd at the end. Kamaru Usman via decision.
Staff picking Edwards: Kristen, Anton, Victor
Staff picking Usman: Chris, Lucas, Bissell, Stephie, Eddie, Dayne, Zane, Tim
Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fiziev
Anton Tabuena: This is a big step up for Fiziev, who will take on a far more experienced opponent and also the most dangerous striker he’s faced in MMA. That being said, I still think Fiziev will be the more technical and diverse kickboxer. Will he be baited into playing Gaethje’s style of fight though? Stylistically, I think he can still win that way, but it’ll be a far more difficult fight than it has to be. I’m really curious with how Fiziev deals with that pressure. It’s either Gaethje forces his game and overwhelms him early, or it becomes a wild fight that eventually has Fiziev picking him apart. Either way, UFC should probably sign the bonus checks already, as this is guaranteed to be fun no matter the outcome. Rafael Fiziev by TKO.
Victor Rodriguez: Look, man... I’m gonna bring it up every time: Alvarez killed Justin’s body to neutralize him, and Poirier did something similar. Justin’s propensity to get into wild and dumb brawls often obfuscates his true talents as a striker. And I say that as someone that constantly defends the idea that he’s a very smart fighter most of the time. The problem here is Fiziev has more layers to his striking, defends takedowns effectively and really knows how to punish guys on the way out in standing exchanges — something Gaethje knows pretty well since it aided him in the Palomino fights and earned him a sensational knockout against Edson Barboza. Fiziev knows where Gaethje is most vulnerable and has the tools to counter early and often, and a size/reach disadvantage is probably not going to be a dilemma for him. Rafael Fiziev by TKO.
Tim Bissell: I know this is being billed as a fireworks show. But I actually think Fiziev is more measured and reserved than we give him credit for. I don’t think Gaethje knows any way to fight other than all-out violence and that’s gotten him in trouble on many occasions. However, while Fiziev can do that, I think he can also better pick his shots and — crucially — identify risks and adjust around them. I think Fiziev is going to give himself a taste of a fun war, but soon identify what he needs to do to capitalize on Gaethje’s flurries and land something that ends the fight. Rafael Fiziev by TKO.
Zane Simon: Really don’t like to see so many of us picking against Gaethje here. He may be less of a pressure-forward juggernaut than he used to be, but he’s absolutely still a fighter that is dangerous every single time an opponent gets close to him, and targets all levels with violence. Fiziev is the slicker, more careful, more technical striker, but that didn’t stop him from getting iced by Magomed Mustafaev. That said, the base truth is that lately Gaethje’s style has evolved into one where he wants opponents to walk onto him and engage in his kind of brawl. Oliveira and Chandler were both very willing to do so, but Fiziev seems much more likely to be happy with his power kicking game from outside. Even when Gaethje was pressuring more, Dustin Poirier’s consistent evasive footwork and Eddie Alvarez’s body striking were enough to keep him from ever truly taking over momentum. I’ll take Fiziev to do the same. Rafael Fiziev via TKO, round 2.
Tim Burke: I’m with Zane on some, but not all of his analysis. When Fiziev doesn’t engage happily like a lot of his opponents, Gaethje will do it himself and pressure. The issue here is, as good of a striker as Fiziev is, can he handle the onslaught of a brutal striker that’s completely unafraid to get hit? To me, Fiziev is very calculated and looks for small windows to do what he does best. It’s worked for him so far. But if Gaethje never gives him a moment to breathe, I can’t see Fiziev finding the right space and opportunity to consistently get ahead. Body work is key against Gaethje for sure though. If this was a five-rounder, I’d lean Fiziev. It’s not. So Justin Gaethje by decision.
Staff picking Gaethje: Chris
Staff picking Fiziev: Lucas, Kristen, Bissell, Stephie, Eddie, Anton, Victor, Dayne, Zane
Gunnar Nelson vs. Bryan Barberena
Anton Tabuena: Stylewise, this should be Gunnar’s fight to lose if he’s at his best, but Barbarena has a way of making things ugly and taking people out of their comfort zone. I can see this going either way, but I’m going with Gunnar Nelson by decision.
Tim Bissell: I called Barberena the spoiler king in something else I wrote this week and I won’t be surprised if he upsets the Euro fans in London by clubbing Nelson into oblivion here. However, I just think Nelson will get himself into many positions where Barberena can do that. I’m not sold on Nelson as a top gun in the division anymore, but I certainly think he has enough grappling acumen to still beat a fair chunk of guys outside of the rankings. Gunnar Nelson via submission.
Victor Rodriguez: Gunni gotta get it to the ground first and Barberena’s turning into a goddamned Sebastian Shaw out there. Hit him hard and he’ll just harness that to hit you even harder. Don’t hit him hard enough, he’s gonna drown you. Now, Nelson has the inside clinch takedowns and strikes to work Bryan standing and whittle him down. But it also seems Nelson has been declining for a bit while Bryan has turned a corner. Daddy’s feeling reckless, so Bryan Barberena by TKO, round 2.
Zane Simon: I think we might need to drug test Vic. Gunnar Nelson via submission, round 1.
Tim Burke: Love Bam Bam. Awful fight for him. Gunnar Nelson via sub, round 1.
Staff picking Nelson: Chris, Kristen, Bissell, Stephie, Eddie, Anton, Dayne, Zane
Staff picking Barberena: Lucas, Victor
Jennifer Maia vs. Casey O’Neill
Zane Simon: It may be that Maia gets entirely overwhelmed by Casey’s raw size and aggression here, but if so, that would be a pretty damning indictment of her abilities IMO. O’Neill is a prospect, but she’s still a very raw one, and Roxanne Modafferi had no trouble both staying on her feet and landing at will when they faced off. Sure O’Neill put up huge numbers, but Maia hits harder and has much better active defense. She shouldn’t have to fight that same kind of brawl. Jennifer Maia by decision.
Victor Rodriguez: Tough one, because Maia’s striking isn’t quite getting things done like it used to and now her grappling seems to be more effective. Casey’s got skills, but still a bit raw despite her 9-0 record. She can totally win this in terms of basic skill, no problem. I just think Maia’s experience and more complete game will give her the advantages she needs to win here. Jennifer Maia by decision.
Tim Bissell: I think O’Neill has an intensity that will win out over Maia’s veteran savvy. O’Neil lands an incredible 8.65 significant strikes per minute at 57% accuracy. Maia’s striking accuracy is a paltry 37%. The grappling stats favour O’Neill, too, with 44% accuracy on takedown versus 30% and 60% defense versus 55%. Casey O’Neill via TKO.
Staff picking Maia: Stephie, Victor, Zane, Tim
Staff picking O’Neill: Chris, Lucas, Kristen, Bissell, Eddie, Anton, Dayne
Marvin Vettori vs. Roman Dolidze
Zane Simon: Dolidze is an absolute wild man in the cage, but that’s not really been the kind of guy that beats Vettori. He’s entirely too bullish, hard headed, and technically solid on the mat to just run over with a moment of flashy brilliance. It usually takes much more technically gifted fighters to really stop Vettori from having his kind of fight. Marvin Vettori by decision.
Victor Rodriguez: Jesus Eusebius Christ on a moped, this is gonna be sad. It’ll be a great showcase for Roman, but bad for Marvin. I’ve said it many times and will continue to do so: Marvin Vettori has some of the worst fight IQ I’ve seen in a fighter at this level. It would be amusing if it weren’t so frustrating to see in action. Roman’s got depth to his striking and grappling, he’s capable of matching him on a strength and speed level, plus he won’t hesitate to walk in there with a bandana and suplex that man through the canvas. This will not be good for Marvin, and no amount of volume striking is going to help him when he runs out of weapons like he did against Adesanya. Bow before your new deity, Roman of the Georgian... hills, or whatever the hell the topography looks like over there. Roman Dolidze by TKO.
Tim Bissell: I’ve been very impressed by Dolidze and what he did last year. Obviously, we don’t know if he could replicate those results against the calibre of fighters Vettori has been seeing as of late. However, it’s time to find out. I think Dolidze has the power to stop Vettori and that it might come after exhausting and frustrating the Italian with wrestling/grappling. Roman Dolidze via TKO.
Staff picking Vettori: Chris, Eddie, Anton, Dayne, Tim
Staff picking Dolidze: Lucas, Kristen, Bissell, Stephie, Victor