The UFC heavyweight championship will be on the line this weekend and in front of an expected crowd of 40,000-plus Brazilian fans at Arena da Baixada in Curitiba, Brazil.
Defending champion Fabricio Werdum will meet No. 1 contender Stipe Miocic in the main event of UFC 198 on Saturday. The event will feature a long list of Brazilian veterans, including Vitor Belfort, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Cris "Cyborg" Justino, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
Let's take a closer look at the UFC's massive event in Curitiba's soccer stadium.
Fabricio Werdum (20-5-1) vs. Stipe Miocic (14-2)
UFC heavyweight championship
Odds: Werdum -160; Miocic +140
Leading up to this weekend, Werdum has mentioned this "underdog" tag the public has given him throughout his career, and (even though he's technically favored to win on Saturday) it does seem to be showing up again.
Here's a guy who is coming off a dominant finish against Cain Velasquez, has won nine of his past 10 (and the one defeat to Alistair Overeem was, although weird, hardly a blowout) and will enjoy a nice home-field advantage in Brazil. He's facing a highly regarded challenger in Miocic, though one with a fraction of his credentials. And yet the betting line predicts this should be a very close fight.
And it very well might end up being one, but there's a lot of reasons to side with the defending champion right now. For starters, Werdum's demeanor itself has become a luxury. He's just so ... loose.
Plenty of athletes seem to enjoy themselves in the cage, but few more so than Werdum, and that alone can be an advantage. He doesn't seem to waste any nervous energy. He's unpredictable, and those calm nerves can carry a steady pace through an entire round. We talk a lot about fighters who can keep a high pace for five rounds. Werdum can do that as well as look fresh in the last minute of each individual round, which is rare in a division filled with 265-pound guys.
Miocic prides himself in maintaining a high pace as well. You can see that simply by looking over his total strikes landed on the stat sheet or, even easier, just watch him operate. Even when he was knocked down by Junior dos Santos in a 2014 fight, his first step after getting back up was forward. He's best when attacking and hasn't shown all that much in the way of blistering counterpunching.
His aggression is different from Velasquez, though. Whereas Velasquez wants to push opponents to the fence and smother, Miocic presses forward while maintaining his boxing range. He's composed, steadily applying pressure with feints, setting up openings for his best punch (right cross) and wrestling. His takedowns aren't overwhelming -- his UFC success rate sits at 34 percent -- but he is effective from top position when he gets his man down.
Miocic's style sets up an interesting matchup on the feet. Velasquez ran into trouble against Werdum because of his desire to fight in a phone booth against the fence played into Werdum's exceptional Thai clinch. Really Velasquez more or less got the fight where he wanted, it just turned out he wasn't ready for Werdum's clinch (plus, maybe, the Mexico City altitude) and he gassed out. Miocic's boxing combinations from that middle range might prove to be more successful.
For Miocic to win, it will be necessary for him to win first on the feet. Doing so might eventually lead to him getting takedowns and scoring points from the top, but my guess is that will come late in the fight. I doubt we'll see Miocic frantically looking to wrestle in the early going.
Prediction: Defending the UFC heavyweight championship might be the most difficult task in the sport. No one has done it more than twice consecutively. Werdum gets his first defense here by second-round knockout.
Ronaldo Souza (22-4) vs. Vitor Belfort (25-11)
Odds: Souza -320; Belfort +260
The general consensus seems to be this is Souza's fight to lose, but as long as Belfort is on his feet, we've got a fight on our hands.
Belfort's knockout ability -- you know about that. It's diverse, it's quick -- he doesn't let you off the hook once he has you in trouble. His cage awareness has to be on point if he's to beat Souza. Souza's takedowns are outstanding once he has pushed his opponent to the fence. Out in open territory, they're less effective.
Belfort is good at taking the center of the cage, in part because opponents have so much respect for his striking. When Belfort takes one step toward you, the basic human instinct is to take two steps back. Even against a strong grappler and effective pressure fighter like Chris Weidman, Belfort did a pretty good job of staying off the fence. Even though Weidman did eventually get him down (and relatively easily so), the fence wasn't Belfort's demise.
Souza has plenty of power in his right hand, but if this is to be a 15-minute standup fight, I favor Belfort quite a bit. Souza doesn't use a lot of lateral movement, and he tends to hang out at one range between exchanges. Belfort has had a lot of success lately with head kicks, but you wonder how busy he'll be with those against an opponent he can't really afford to be taken down by.
Prediction: Belfort scores the upset knockout.
Other featured fights:
Cris "Cyborg" Justino (15-1) vs. Leslie Smith (8-6-1)
Courageous move by Smith to accept a fight others certainly wanted no part of. But unless the weight cut negatively affects Justino, this should be a successful UFC debut.
Prediction: Justino by first-round KO.
Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (23-10) vs. Corey Anderson (8-1)
Is the 26-year-old Anderson mentally ready for the hostile territory and this easily being the biggest fight of his career? Physically, he'll have a ton of advantages.
Prediction: Anderson via KO.
Demian Maia (22-6) vs. Matt Brown (20-13)
Maia's dominant victories against Gunnar Nelson and Neil Magny are looking even more impressive now, considering how well those two have performed. His grappling will be too much for Brown.
Prediction: Maia via decision.