Breaking Down UFC Fight Night 81: Dillashaw vs. Cruz

The bantamweight title is on the line this Sunday, January 17 (10 P.M. EST, FOX Sports 1), as champion T.J. Dillashaw looks to defend his title for the third time. Standing in his way will be former champion Dominick Cruz, who returns to action for the fist time in 16 months after suffering a torn ACL in 2014.

Billed as the biggest fight in bantamweight history, this matchup between Dillashaw and Cruz is one of the most anticipated bouts of 2016, as both fighters possess some of the fastest footwork in mixed martial arts. Their complimentary fighting styles ensure a non-stop affair.

Dillashaw (12-2, 8-2 UFC), who first captured UFC gold in May 2014, began his MMA career on account of his powerful wrestling. But in the years that have passed since his 2011 Octagon debut, Dillashaw has evolved into a fleet-footed striker, utilizing a unique brand of kickboxing with the help of long-time trainer Duane Ludwig.

Cruz (20-1, 3-0 UFC), the UFC's first ever bantamweight champion, has spent the better part of the last four years on the sidelines, recovering from a trio of well-documented knee injuries, along with a groin tear. He looked tremendous in his last Octagon appearance, a one-minute TKO over Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 178, but given the length of the layoff, ring rust could be a factor when Cruz takes the cage on Sunday.

While both fighters have traded words during the lead up to the bout, don't expect Dillashaw and Cruz to jump right out of the gate and attack each other. Both fighters use distance and feints to draw their opponents in, so the first round will likely involve a lot of feeling out.

But in the second, things should get interesting, as Dillashaw and Cruz will have a better understanding of range.

Ultimately, this bout boils down to Dillashaw's kicking game versus Cruz's boxing, and while the Dominick Cruz comeback is one of best storylines of the year, Dillashaw's kickboxing will prove to be the difference, as he finishes the bout via strikes in the championship rounds.

Co-main event: Anthony Pettis vs. Eddie Alvarez

Lightweights Pettis and Alvarez will square off in a pivotal affair that may likely determine the next challenger for the 155-pound belt.

A former champion, Pettis (18-3, 5-2 UFC) lost his title in March 2015 at UFC 185, when he was overwhelmed by Rafael Dos Anjos' pressure. Pettis now looks to return to the win column against Alvarez (26-4, 1-1 UFC), a fighter who is known to apply a very similar amount of pressure on his opponents.

Pettis, the longer fighter with a four-inch reach advantage, has always been considered one of the more dynamic strikers in MMA. His taekwondo acumen has led to some of the sport's top highlights and a number of head-kick knockouts. Pettis enters Sunday's bout with a re-invigorated wrestling regiment, designed to bring his ground game up to the same level as his standup.

Alvarez is a boxer and wrestler and a durable specimen. He jabs and feints his way into distance before clinching against the cage, and attacks and pressures at every possible step of the way.

Much like Dos Anjos, Alvarez will look to close the distance on Pettis and neutralize the kicking game. But Pettis will have learned his lesson after the Dos Anjos loss and stay out of Alvarez's boxing range.

And while Eddie Alvarez will win the first round on account of his aggression, Octagon control, and wrestling, Pettis will drop Alvarez in the second before taking the contest by submission.

Travis Browne vs. Matt Mitrione

On paper, heavyweight Travis Browne (17-3-1, 8-3-1 UFC) looks to have a huge advantage over opponent Matt Mitrione (9-4, 9-4 UFC). Browne, the bigger and taller fighter, has competed against a higher level of competition inside the Octagon and was a on the losing end of the 2015 Round of the Year.

Mitrione, a former NFL pro whose entire MMA career has been with the UFC, is a super athletic heavyweight with some heavy hands. But along with those big punches come a number of holes in the ground game and submission defense department.

Like most heavyweight bouts, this one shouldn't go the distance. And while Browne enters as the favorite, Mitrione pulls the upset here, landing the knockout in the second.

Ross Pearson vs. Francisco Trinaldo

A former The Ultimate Fighter winner, lightweight Ross Pearson (18-9, 10-6 UFC) possesses a flashy Muay Thai style, while Brazilian Francisco Trinaldo (18-4, 7-3 UFC) is a grinding grappler who likes to slow the fight down on the ground.

A classic striker-versus-grappler matchup, this bout will ultimately boil down to Pearson's takedown defense, as Trinaldo will stalk him from start to finish, pressuring to bring the fight to the mat.

Ultimately, Pearson will squeak out the decision, as he uses his kicks to keep Trinaldo at bay for the full 15 minutes.