Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Stipe Miocic is moving on from his epic trilogy with Daniel Cormier only to find himself bumping up against another familiar obstacle.

Before the Cormier rivalry, Miocic made history by becoming the first fighter to defend the UFC heavyweight title three consecutive times when he earned a lopsided decision victory against Francis Ngannou at UFC 220 over three years ago. Ngannou entered that bout with the reputation of a destroyer, a reputation that has only grown since that first encounter, and once again it appears that he is destined to dethrone Miocic when the two rematch in Saturday’s UFC 260 main event.

It’s impossible to say how different the matchup will be this time around, with Miocic’s only appearances since UFC 220 being three fights with Cormier (an opponent who has little in common with Ngannou), and Ngannou decimating his opposition so quickly that we haven’t been seen more than the preternatural stopping power that we already knew he had. With Jon Jones waiting in the wings, you get the sense that this is the last time we see Miocic and Ngannou face off regardless of the outcome.

Former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley finds himself in the co-main event spot after the unfortunate postponement of the Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega featherweight title fight. This could be “The Chosen One’s” last chance to prove he’s still a contender as he faces Vicente Luque, a longtime standout at 170 pounds who has his own hill to climb. Woodley wants to make one last run at UFC gold, Luque wants to show that he’s more than just a bonus collector. Something has got to give.

In other main card action, bantamweight fan favorite Sean O’Malley looks to bounce back from his first loss when he faces Thomas Almeida, Gillian Robertson and Miranda Maverick meet in a clash of young flyweights, and lightweights Jamie Mullarkey and Khama Worthy get their chance to steal the show in the pay-per-view opener.

What: UFC 260

Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas

When: Saturday, March 27. The early prelims begin with a single fight on ESPN and ESPN+ at 7:30 p.m. ET. A four-fight preliminary card follows at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+. The pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available to watch through ESPN+.

Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou

It has to be Francis Ngannou’s time.

This pick is based around a lot of assumptions. The assumption that Ngannou has improved his wrestling defense enough to prevent Stipe Miocic from imposing his will on the fight. The assumption that Father Time and three wars with Cormier have taken their toll on Miocic. The assumption that Ngannou’s alliance with coach Eric Nicksick and UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman will provide at least an incremental advantage needed to triumph over maybe the greatest heavyweight in MMA history.

If all of those factors tilt in Ngannou’s favor and you add that to his prodigious gifts, it has to be enough. It has to be.

If not, then Miocic will once again have proven the oddsmakers wrong. Often overlooked, Miocic has done nothing but win, win, and win some more since he shocked the world by dispatching Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198. Miocic rarely sees any one of his skills singled out as elite, but somehow he’s found a way to beat Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, Olympic wrestlers, K-1 kickboxers, and yes, unstoppable prospects like Ngannou.

At this point, it seems silly to pick against Miocic even when you consider the absurd run that Ngannou has put together to earn his rematch. But the clock is ticking on Miocic, as it does for every fighter, and that countdown was accelerated by all the hard rounds against Cormier. He’s 38 years old, a battle-weathered 38 at that, and now he has to spend another 25 minutes avoiding the atom bomb fists of Ngannou.

Ngannou also has to avoid Miocic putting him on his back for 25 minutes, which is no easy feat. He’s put in the work though and if I have to choose, I’m going with Ngannou staying patient, keeping out of grappling range, and ending this fight on his terms when an opening presents itself.

And new, by knockout.

Pick: Ngannou

Tyron Woodley vs. Vicente Luque

I can’t in good conscience pick Tyron Woodley to win fights anymore.

That ship already sailed in his last outing against Colby Covington, where even the most optimistic fight prognosticator was hinging their Woodley support on “If Tyron can’t get up for this fight…” In the end, the worst case scenario played out for Woodley as he was not only unable to muster up any significant offense against his hated rival, he failed to even make it to the final bell as he succumbed to a rib injury.

It isn’t just that Woodley has lost three fights in a row. There aren’t too many welterweights who would come out on the positive side of a series against Covington, Gilbert Burns, and Kamaru Usman. It’s how he’s lost them. He’s looked hesitant. Gun shy. Lost. The Woodley that completely outclassed Darren Till and neutralized Demian Maia’s grappling is nowhere to be seen.

Is Vicente Luque so far down the contenders’ ladder that he should be considered a less difficult challenge for Woodley? Luque is one of the welterweight division’s most prolific finishers in addition to being one of its most exciting fighters, but has never been able to knock off a top-5 opponent in the rare opportunities that he’s had to do so. In theory, he should be catching Woodley at the right time.

Luque is aggressive, but not the kind of relentless, high-pressure fighter that Woodley has stumbled against. However, his power and technique could give Woodley pause and if Woodley doesn’t like what he sees early, fans might see the familiar sight of the former champion backed up against the fence looking for a perfect shot that never comes.

I’ve felt Luque is due for a breakthrough and it’s going to come at Woodley’s expense. I don’t know if Luque finishes this fight, but I expect him to convincingly take all three rounds.

Pick: Luque

Gillian Robertson vs. Miranda Maverick

There’s a lot of reasons to be excited about Miranda Maverick’s future, but it’s her poise and maturity and 23 that stand out the most for me. Forget the fact that she’s currently working on getting her PhD while also pursuing a career as a full-time fighter—wait, why would we forget that, that’s pretty damn amazing!—even if you didn’t know about Maverick’s academic aspirations, you’d be wowed by how composed she’s been in her first 10 pro fights.

That said, it sounds strange to call this a gatekeeper vs. prospect fight given that Gillian Robertson is only two years older than Maverick. We’ve certainly seen a lot more of Robertson as she’ll enter UFC 260 as the first women’s flyweight to make 10 octagon appearances, but it’s entirely possible she’s just scraping the surface of her potential as well.

With respect to Robertson, I like Maverick in this one because Robertson has struggled to win fights where her opponent sets the tone. Maverick isn’t great defensively either, but she has the right mix of striking and wrestling to keep Robertson off-kilter the whole fight. If Robertson can be first, that changes the story, I just see Maverick as being the one to start hot given her history.

Don’t count out Robertson being a contender someday, but Maverick is about to take her spot in line for now.

Pick: Maverick

Sean O’Malley vs. Thomas Almeida

The secret’s out on Sean O’Malley: Sweep the leg.

Obviously, it’s not that simple and even considering the issues that O’Malley has had with leg injuries, he has excellent movement and one has to think avoiding calf kicks is priority No. 1, 2, and 3 for Team Sugar. Because if it isn’t, Thomas Almeida is going to chew up that limb like a Rottweiler.

At his best, “Thominhas” is a berserker who sometimes falls prey to more patient, calculating strikers. It’s why he can go from the leading the dance one second to looking like he has two left feet the next. O’Malley’s flashy strikes and sharp counters could be a nightmare for Almeida.

They really make excellent foils for one another, which is why this is such a great piece of matchmaking. Were there weaknesses revealed in O’Malley’s last fight that Almeida can exploit? Can Almeida put on a complete performance to top O’Malley or will he slip on the proverbial banana peel at some point and be added to O’Malley’s highlight reel?

I have a good feeling about Almeida’s return to 135, his first proper bantamweight fight since January 2018 (yes, his loss to Jonathan Martinez at 145 pounds was essentially a fight between two bantamweights, but Almeida looked rusty and uncomfortable carrying that extra poundage). He’s only lost to top-10 opposition and I don’t rate O’Malley quite that high just yet.

Almeida gets the win and we can chalk this up as another learning experience for O’Malley.

Pick: Almeida

Jamie Mullarkey vs. Khama Worthy

Jamie Mullarkey is tough as nails and fun to watch, but can he put it together to score his first UFC win? The gritty Aussie will welcome a striking battle with Khama Worthy, which is both his best path to victory and a recipe for disaster.

He can take a punch, there’s no doubt about that, but Mullarkey hasn’t faced anyone with the quick-strike potency of Worthy. It will only take a few shots from Worthy to make Mullarkey think twice about standing and swinging away. If he can goad Worthy into a sloppy brawl though, it’s entirely possible that Mullarkey outlasts him on the feet and pulls away in the second half of the fight to secure a late finish or a decision victory.

That’s a legit argument for Mullarkey, which means it’s time for the “AK Special” in which I do a 180 pivot and pick the other fighter for reasons that are usually inexplicable. In this case, I foresee a finish for Worthy, whose speed and athleticism give him the edge in my eyes.

The only reason I don’t have this pegged as my Fight of the Night is because I think Worthy takes Mullarkey out inside of a round.

Pick: Worthy


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