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UFC 189: Mendes vs. McGregor Preview & Predictions

Ariel Shnerer / July 11, 2015 - 12:00pm

A raucous sell-out crowd is expected to pack the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night for UFC 189: Mendes vs. McGregor, the highest-grossing live event in the promotion’s storied Las Vegas history.

In the main event, the interim featherweight championship will be contested as former two-time title challenger Chad Mendes steps in on short notice to battle Irish superstar Conor McGregor. Another title is on the line in the co-feature, as welterweight kingpin Robbie Lawler rematches top-ranked Canadian contender Rory MacDonald for the division’s top prize.

Let’s take a closer look at Saturday’s stacked line-up:

Main Card (PPV, 10 p.m. ET)

-Chad Mendes (17-2) vs. Conor McGregor (17-2) - interim UFC featherweight title

The 30-year-old California native Mendes jumped at the opportunity to replace champion Jose Aldo, who was forced to withdraw due to a rib injury, on just 12 days’ notice. He steps in to challenge the 26-year-old Irishman McGregor in an explosive interim title bout.

Mendes obliterated Ricardo Limas this past April to rebound from his second setback against Aldo last October, a fight that will go down as one of the best in divisional history. Meanwhile, the Team Alpha Male product dominated all competition not named Aldo, including notable victories over Nik Lentz, Clay Guida, Darren Elkins, Rani Yahya and Cub Swanson.

An NCAA Division I wrestler, Mendes possesses ferocious punching power and a smothering top game. Stylistically, he’s the worst possible matchup for McGregor, who has yet to taste defeat inside the octagon. His 38 completed takedowns in the UFC and WEC are a divisional record. Meanwhile, he’s never conceded a takedown in his career. Mendes is also the record holder for best significant striking defense in the division at 71.6 percent.

To be quite honest, I thought McGregor would have the upper hand against Aldo. After all, the Brazilian would play into his strengths by sticking to a standup fight, not to mention all the head games in the months of lead-up. With that being said, MMA math doesn’t always add up. Despite losing to Aldo twice, Mendes has all the tools to make it a rough night for one of the sport’s most popular stars.

McGregor joined the UFC as a two-division Cage Warriors champion in 2013, dismantling Marcus Brimage, Diego Brandao, Dustin Poirier and Dennis Siver, while claiming a triumphant decision over Max Holloway.

The names are impressive, but McGregor’s performances have been nothing short of outstanding. The SBG Ireland-trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt likes to engage in mental warfare leading up to fights, but to his credit, he’s backed it all up.

McGregor last tasted defeat in November 2010, succumbing to a submission against fellow UFC prospect Joseph Duffy in just 38 seconds. He’s since rounded out his arsenal, though a rangy striking game remains his most dangerous offensive weapon. He’s knocked out 15 of his 17 career victims and currently averages the shortest fight time in the division at 5:46.

McGregor’s takedown defense and sprawl will be critical to his success. Mendes has become increasingly comfortable with his hands, but I expect him to bullrush McGregor early, forcing him to defend aggressive shots.

Mendes utilizes lateral movement particularly well, so he could circle out of potential danger, while disturbing the Irishman’s rhythm with takedown attempt after takedown attempt. McGregor should have the technical striking edge, but he still risks eating a potent counter from the American. Conversely, we’ve seen Mendes gas in fights before, not to mention he didn't have a full training camp. McGregor, meanwhile, pushes a frantic pace and shows no signs of letting up, though it remains to be seen how that gas tank holds up during championship rounds.

This should be a fantastic fight consisting of numerous shifts in momentum, but Mendes’ wrestling will be the difference maker. He’ll need to implement exactly the same game plan Chael Sonnen employed against Anderson Silva. McGregor has never faced a wrestler even close to Mendes’ caliber, so he may have bit off more than he can chew. It will be close, as I suspect McGregor will win a few rounds by landing at a higher volume, inflicting more damage and maintaining a vertical base, but Mendes will be the one enforcing his will for longer intervals during the fight. As such, I think Mendes comes away with the decision in a barnburner of a main event.

Verdict: Mendes via Decision

-Robbie Lawler (25-10) vs. Rory MacDonald (18-2) - UFC welterweight title

The 25-year-old Canadian MacDonald seeks redemption in his rematch with the 33-year-old California native Lawler.

Lawler has come full circle since returning to the UFC in February 2013. In addition to outpointing MacDonald, Lawler defeated Josh Koscheck, Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown. Most recently, he conquered Johny Hendricks in their rematch, winning a razor-thin decision to avenge his loss eight months prior.

A battle-tested veteran whose MMA journey dates back to 2001, Lawler was initially cut from the UFC in 2004 after successive setbacks against Nick Diaz and Evan Tanner. After his release, he would have ups and downs competing all over the world, but he seemed outmatched at 185 pounds.

The longtime Pat Miletich and Matt Hughes pupil rekindled his fire since joining American Top Team. Always renowned for his big punching power, Lawler’s athleticism has shined in recent performances. He’s added more kicks to his repertoire, he’s sprawling effectively, and his speed and timing have never been better. His wrestling is another overlooked tool, as his 80 percent takedown completion rate is the best in UFC history.

MacDonald, meanwhile, has rattled off a trifecta of impressive victories over Demian Maia, Tyron Woodley and Tarec Saffiedine since their first encounter.

The British Columbia native likes to work behind a stiff jab and front kick, but he’s been more comfortable turning up his offense in recent outings, a breath of fresh air for a fighter with such vast potential. He’s also a proficient wrestler with a strong top game, a potential key to flourishing against the champion.

MacDonald is at his best when he can control range, but it won’t be easy. In their first meeting, Lawler found his chin on numerous occasions, though both fighters have made considerable improvements since that fight. Conditioning is another major factor here, as the Canadian’s feverish pace could pay off down the stretch.

Still, Lawler has never looked better and he’s 3-0 in career rematches. In all honesty, I expected MacDonald to dominate him in their first go-around. Sure enough, I was proven wrong. Lawler is an enigma, a fine wine that keeps getting better with age. It will be a competitive affair with the tide swaying back and forth, but Lawler will pace himself like a true veteran, inflicting the most damage over the course of five rounds. In another brilliant and complete performance, Lawler’s aggression and greater desperation will earn him a hard-fought victory on judges’ scorecards.

Verdict: Lawler via Decision

-Dennis Bermudez (14-4) vs. Jeremy Stephens (23-11)

The No. 8-ranked 28-year-old New Yorker Bermudez tangles with the No. 11-ranked 29-year-old Iowa native Stephens in featherweight action.

Since succumbing to a submission against Diego Brandao at The Ultimate Fighter 14 Finale in 2011, Bermudez has constantly improved, going on to amass seven straight octagon wins, including notable conquests over Max Holloway, Jimy Hettes and Clay Guida. The former NCAA Division I All-American is on the rebound trail, however, as he suffered a first-round submission loss against Ricardo Lamas this past November.

The Alliance MMA product Stephens won his first three bouts at 145 pounds over Estevan Payan, Rony Jason and Darren Elkins, but he’s on a two-fight skid, having dropped successive decisions against Cub Swanson and Charles Oliveira. A heavy-handed veteran, Stephens also owns lightweight wins over champion Rafael dos Anjos, Cole Miller and Sam Stout.

Both featherweights can crack, but Bermudez should benefit from a speed advantage. Additionally, they’re both competent wrestlers, but Bermudez should have a slight advantage. He defends 92.3 percent of his opponents’ takedown attempts, a UFC featherweight record. Bermudez does some of his best work in the scramble, while Stephens is usually content exchanging bombs in the pocket.

Bermudez should be favored to outwork Stephens over three rounds, but one clean shot could alter the landscape of the contest, and Stephens should have ample time getting his opponent’s timing down. With his back against the wall, I expect Stephens to make a breakthrough, blitzing Bermudez with a flurry that closes the curtain midway through the fray.

Verdict: Stephens via TKO, Round 2

-Gunnar Nelson (13-1-1) vs. Brandon Thatch (11-2)

In an exciting welterweight clash of styles, the 26-year-old Icelandic submission specialist Nelson takes on the free-swinging 30-year-old Denver native Thatch.

The vaunted BJJ black belt Nelson won his first four UFC bouts, three by way of submission, but he struggled when presented with a step up in competition this past October, dropping a hard-fought decision against Rick Story in Sweden.

The Grudge Training Center product Thatch suffered a similar fate in February. He dismantled Justin Edwards and Paulo Thiago in his first two promotional appearances, but Benson Henderson rose to the occasion as a short notice replacement in February, smothering and ultimately submitting Thatch in the fourth round.

SBG Ireland’s Nelson is far from a one-dimensional submission player, as he first broke into martial arts by earning a karate black belt. He employs an unorthodox striking style that often resembles the elusive style made famous by Lyoto Machida. But his strongest suit is his ground game, as he transitions beautifully from positional advances to submission attempts.

Thatch is no slouch on the ground, but he needs to keep it upright, as his athleticism and raw power are visible strengths. Since Nelson struggles with physically stronger fighters in close quarters, Thatch will showcase his striking prowess early. Having earned all his career wins in the first round, Thatch’s gas tank failed him against Henderson, so the longer the fight goes, the greater chance Nelson will have to impose his grappling acumen. Thatch is a special talent and I suspect the loss against Henderson was just a bump in the road. He should be back to top form on Saturday night, storming out of the gate with savage kicks, knees and haymakers, forcing Nelson into a defensive shell, then turning his lights out with a searing combination.

Verdict: Thatch via KO, Round 1

-Brad Pickett (24-10) vs. Thomas Almeida (19-0)

Kicking off the festivities, the 36-year-old Brit Pickett faces the 23-year-old Brazilian Almeida in a bantamweight tussle.

A representative of American Top Team, Pickett returns to 135 pounds after dropping a pair of decisions against Ian McCall and Chico Camus at flyweight. The experienced power puncher owns notable career wins over Demetrious Johnson, Ivan Menjivar, Yves Jabouin and Mike Easton.

The undefeated Muay Thai black belt and BJJ brown belt Almeida extended his perfect mark to 19 with UFC triumphs over Yves Jabouin and Tim Gorman. Anchored at Brazil’s Chute Boxe Academy, the former Legacy Fighting Championship beltholder has given us a glimpse into some flashes of brilliance, but the odds are blown out of proportion here.

Not only is Pickett far more experienced against far stiffer opposition, he’s one of the heaviest hitters the division has ever seen. Moreover, we’ve seen Almeida struggle to defend takedowns, while Pickett has made vast strides with his wrestling over the years. In fact, Pickett’s top game is one of of his most effective tools these days.

Almeida simply has far more upside. He can hurt you anywhere, whether it’s at range, in the clinch or on the ground. He can also threaten with submissions if the fight spills to the canvas. On the other hand, Pickett does seem to be regressing at this stage of the game. Unless he can repeatedly drive the Brazilian to the floor, he’ll likely be outclassed and outworked in the standup realm. I expect Almeida’s sprawl to be on point and while Pickett’s chin usually holds up, Almeida’s volume, accuracy and aggression should earn him the nod if it goes the distance.

Verdict: Almeida via Decision

Preliminary Card (FOX Sports 1/TSN, 8 p.m. ET)

-Matt Brown (21-13) vs. Tim Means (24-6-1)

In a fantastic preliminary welterweight matchup, the 34-year-old Ohio native Brown throws down with the 31-year-old Oklahoma native Means.

The all-action fan favorite Brown amassed a seven-fight winning streak between 2012 and 2014, beating the likes of Stephen Thompson, Mike Swick, Jordan Mein, Mike Pyle and Erick Silva, but he’s coming off a pair of decision losses against champion Robbie Lawler and former champ Johny Hendricks. A BJJ brown belt renowned for his aggressive, pressure-first style, Brown’s fights are often candidates to steal the show, and this one is no exception.

The former King of the Cage two-division champion Means has built some momentum since dropping a decision against Neil Magny in his May 2014 UFC return, winning four straight bouts, including back-to-back finishes of Dhiego Lima and George Sullivan this year. Means’ willingness to brawl may have hindered some of his early success, but he’s evolved into a dynamic and technically sound kickboxer with a strong clinch game and excellent defensive awareness.

Brown’s aggressive nature can always lead to an early finish, evidenced by his 17 finishes in 19 career wins, but I expect Means’ evolution to be on full display in this fight. A finisher in his own right with 20 stoppages in 24 victories, Means will circle well, anticipating Brown’s offensive bursts and tactically countering his foe with well-placed combinations. If everything goes according to plan, we will bare witness to Means’ coming out party, as he procures the biggest win of his career with a disciplined three-round performance.

Verdict: Means via Decision

-John Howard (22-11) vs. Cathal Pendred (17-2-1)

The 32-year-old Boston native Howard battles the 27-year-old Irishman Pendred in a welterweight contest.

After a three-fight skid led to his initial UFC departure in 2011, Howard made the most of his return in 2013, winning a pair of decisions over Uriah Hall and Siyar Bahadurzada. It’s been downhill ever since, as Howard looks to salvage his contract following three straight setbacks against Ryan LaFlare, Brian Ebersole and Lorenz Larkin.

The former Cage Warriors champion and Conor McGregor teammate Pendred is 4-0 since joining the UFC last year, though his decision gift over Sean Spencer in January was one of the worst decisions in recent memory. Since that dubious call, he won another decision in June by outpointing Augusto Montano in Mexico.

Howard can knock you out with a good punch and he possesses a strong wrestling base, but that pretty much sums it up. Pendred is your prototypical grinder, initiating clinches and sapping his opponents’ power. His striking still leaves plenty to be desired, but Randy Couture was never a great striker and it seemed to work for him. All things considered, it should be fairly competitive, but Pendred’s size advantage should pay off if they engage in a game of positional warfare. As such, I think he comes away with another narrow decision.

Verdict: Pendred via Decision

-Mike Swick (15-5) vs. Alex Garcia (12-2)

It's been 945 days since we last saw him in action, but he's back. The 36-year-old Texan Swick returns to the organization that made him famous for a welterweight showdown with the 27-year-old “Dominican Nightmare” Garcia.

Since he was knocked out by Matt Brown in December 2012, Swick has spent most of his time honing his craft in Thailand. The longtime American Kickboxing Academy member owns career wins over Joe Riggs, David Loiseau, Josh Burkman and Ben Saunders.

Garcia defeated Ben Wall and Sean Spencer after joining the UFC in 2013, but he tasted defeat last August when he dropped a unanimous decision against surging contender Neil Magny. The explosive Montreal-based Tristar Gym product is a powerful striker with solid wrestling skills.

With the exception of a flash knockout or sneaky submission, Swick’s options will be fairly limited against Garcia’s power-first approach. He no longer possesses the same speed that set him apart from much of the division, plus his increasingly hittable chin is unlikely to hold up against Garcia’s vicious bombs. A merciless offensive onslaught from Garcia will drop Swick early, making him seriously contemplate calling it a career once and for all.

Verdict: Garcia via KO, Round 1

-Cody Garbrandt (6-0) vs. Henry Briones (16-4-1)

The unbeaten 24-year-old Ohio native Garbrandt takes on the 34-year-old Mexican hopeful Briones in bantamweight action.

The Team Alpha Male product Garbrandt vanquished Marcus Brimage in his promotional debut this past January to improve to 6-0 as a pro. With a collegiate wrestling and amateur boxing background, Garbrandt’s upside is massive.

A cast member on The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, Briones submitted Guido Cannetti in the second round of his UFC debut this past November. He’s unbeaten in his last eight pro bouts.

Garbrandt should completely outmatch Briones in terms of athleticism and technical striking. He can also drive him to the canvas at will, further highlighting the lopsided nature of this fight. A wicked combination from Garbrandt will wipe out Briones in the opening frame.

Verdict: Garbrandt via KO, Round 1

Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. ET)

-Neil Seery (15-10) vs. Louis Smolka (8-1)

In a flyweight outing, the 35-year-old Irishman Seery meets the 23-year-old Hawaiian Smolka.

The former Cage Warriors torchbearer Seery dropped a decision against Brad Pickett in his March 2014 UFC debut, but he’s since registered a pair of decision wins over Phil Harris and Chris Beal.

The judo brown belt Smolka has alternated wins and losses since debuting in January 2014, beating Alptekin Ozkilic and Richie Vaculik, while dropping a decision against Chris Cariaso.

We should be in for a treat as these two like to push a high pace. In a traditional boxing match, Seery would have the edge, but Smolka’s more dynamic output will include a cavalcade of kicks, wild scrambles and snappy takedown attempts. Smolka’s scrappy offensive showcase will leave a lasting impression on the judges in what should be a spirited back-and-forth affair.

Verdict: Smolka via Decision

-Yosdenis Cedeno (10-4) vs. Cody Pfister (11-4-1)

The lightweight opener pits the 30-year-old Cuban standout Cedeno against the 24-year-old Texan Pfister.

A karate black belt based at MMA Masters in Miami, Cedeno has gone 1-2 since his promotional debut in February 2014, stopping Jerrod Sanders, while dropping decisions against Ernest Chavez and Chad Laprise.

Pfister fell short in his promotional debut this past February, succumbing to a second-round rear-naked choke against James Moontasri, which snapped an eight-fight winning streak on the regional circuit.

Cedeno’s technique should trump Pfister’s wrestling and reliance on physical strength. He’ll time his counters, eventually swarming his adversary with a fight-ending barrage.

Verdict: Cedeno via TKO, Round 2

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