With heavyweights Fabricio Werdum and Cain Velasquez pulling out of their UFC 196 headlining title fight just last week, the mixed martial arts deck has been shuffled. And on the other side, a pay per view event that nearly crumbled in the wake of injury has been resurrected as a free Fight Night card, headlined by top-10 welterweights Johny Hendricks and Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson.
Set to meet inside the Octagon at the MGM Grand Garden Arena this Saturday, February 6 (10 P.M. EST, FOX Sports 1), Hendricks and Thompson agreed to up the ante and increase their bout to five rounds, the standard for UFC main events. But it's unlikely that the pair will need the full 25 minutes to settle their score.
For Hendricks (17-3, 12-3 UFC), a former UFC champion, success always starts with his NCAA All-American pedigree wrestling. A formidable grappler with a bevvy of takedown techniques, Hendricks has also developed a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the division, putting many opponents to sleep with his vicious left hand. But weight-cutting issues have been a problem for Hendricks of late, after an intestinal blockage forced him from UFC 192 on the eve of the event.
Thompson (11-1, 6-1 UFC), who has won five straight contests inside the Octagon, is one of the most technically sound strikers in the UFC. A former world kickboxing champion, Thompson dazzled in his last outing, knocking out Jake Ellenberger at The Ultimate Fighter 21 Finale with a spectacular spinning head kick. Saturday's fight against Hendricks represents his toughest test to date.
A classic MMA striker-versus-grappler matchup, this bout features one of the division's best wrestlers against a superlative kicker. And while Thompson has shown improvement with every fight, this contest will ultimately go to Hendricks, who will use his power, control, and top game to stop Thompson.
Co-main event: Roy Nelson vs. Jared Rosholt
There's a general matchmaking practice that pits fighters on win streaks against other winners, while athletes who suffer a loss are partnered against others who have recently tasted defeat. So it's quite an anomaly to see Nelson, a loser of three straight, taking on Rosholt, who is riding three straight wins.
Nelson (20-12, 7-8 UFC), one of the more popular fighters in the UFC on account of his caveman beard, braided mullet, and portly frame, is also one of the most feared knockout artists in the heavyweight division. Oh, and he also happens to be a highly skilled Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt.
Rosholt (14-2, 6-1 UFC), who most recently topped Stefan Struve in a forgettable bout at UFC 193, is a wrestler first. He's also a wrestler second, and third, on account of his lay-and-pray style that relies completely on takedowns and top control.
And while Rosholt has the game to bring Nelson to the mat, "Big Country," as Nelson is known, does possess a deceiving ground game off his back and should be able to escape from Rosholt's repeated takedowns and attempts.
Still, Nelson will continue to hunt for the one-punch knockout. And when he can't find it early in the fight, he'll face issues in the cardio department.
Rosholt wins this bout via a very slow and boring decision.
Ovince St. Preux vs. Rafael Cavalcante
This battle of top-15 light heavyweights features college football player-turned-fighter St. Preux against former Strikeforce champion Cavalcante.
St. Preux (18-7, 6-2 UFC), who lost his most recent bout via technical submission (yes, that means he was choked unconscious), has otherwise looked better with every fight inside the Octagon, showing improved striking and counter-striking skills every time out.
Conversely, Cavalcante (12-6, 1-3 UFC) has not shown much since joining the UFC roster in 2013. He's lost two in a row, including a bloody affair against Patrick Cummins at UFC 190.
This bout will ultimately go to St. Preux, who will show patience against Cavalcante's attacks. And late in the fight, St. Preux will capitalize on his range and catch Cavalcante making a mistake.
St. Preux by TKO.
Joseph Benavidez vs. Zach Makovsky
Joseph Benavidez is the best flyweight in the world not named Demetrious Johnson.
A polished wrestler and striker, Benavidez (23-4, 10-2 UFC) has won four-straight bouts against many of the division's best. In fact, his only losses inside the Octagon have come against Johnson.
Makovsky (19-6, 3-2 UFC), a former bantamweight champion under the Bellator banner, is primarily a wrestler, who uses pressure and jabs to set up takedowns.
In what will be an action-packed bout, expect Benavidez to come forward and take the fight to Makovsky immediately. And while Makovsky will look to implement his wrestling, Benavidez will capitalize early on and sink in a submission to earn the win.
Josh Burkman vs. K.J. Noons
Headlining the undercard (8 P.M. EST, FOX Sports 1) is a pair of welterweights, both desperately in need of a win. It's likely the loser goes home for good.
A former competitor on The Ultimate Fighter, Burkman (27-12 1 NC, 5-7 1 NC UFC) has suffered his fair share of defeat inside the Octagon, losing five of his last six under the UFC banner, dating back to 2008.
Noons (13-8 1 NC, 2-2 1 NC UFC), who debuted with the UFC in 2013, possesses a competent kickboxing style, but on the ground, he's often outclassed.
With both fighters needing a win, badly, it's likely that they'll throw every technique and trick in their arsenals. And when it's all said and done, Burkman will walk away the victor on account of his more diverse skill set.