The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, May 24 (10 P.M. EST, Pay Per View), as bantamweight titleholder Renan Barao (32-1 1 NC, 7-0 UFC) faces off against T.J. Dillashaw (9-2, 5-2 UFC) in the UFC 173 main event.
Unbeaten for more than nine years, Barao, who fights out of Rio de Janeiro's Nova União, is an impressive specimen, a fighter who embodies all the facets of mixed martial arts, combining dazzling and technical striking with black-belt-level Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Dillashaw, a product of Sacramento's Team Alpha Male, is a dominant wrestler, who has matured quickly since joining the UFC ranks in 2011.
Barao enters UFC 173 as a heavy favorite, having finished his last three opponents, but Dillashaw's athleticism and rapid improvements in the stand-up game will allow him to keep a distance from the champion's versatile attack of spinning back kicks and flying knees, before imposing his wrestling, takedowns, and top game.
While Barao has developed a reputation for making winning look easy, Dillashaw should, at the very least, keep this contest close in the early rounds.
In the end, Barao will prove to be too much, and take this contest by submission in the third or fourth round.
Co-main event: Daniel Cormier vs. Dan Henderson
A battle of former Olympic wrestlers, this light heavyweight matchup between Cormier (14-0, 3-0 UFC) and Henderson (30-11, 7-5 UFC) is a late addition to the fight card, but it's a contest that is sure to attract a lot of attention in the mixed martial arts world nonetheless.
A former heavyweight champion in the Strikeforce promotion, Cormier will make his second appearance at 205 pounds. But in Henderson, he finds his first true test in the weight class, after disposing of barista-turned-fighter Patrick Cummins at UFC 170.
Henderson, who also previously held a Strikeforce strap, as well as two belts in Japan's PRIDE organization, is currently the UFC's oldest active fighter at 43. And despite dropping three straight contests in 2013, Henderson recently returned to winning form, earning a TKO victory over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in March with a little help from his devastating right hand, commonly referenced as the "H bomb."
There is speculation that the winner of this fight could possibly earn a crack at UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, something that both men covet. So expect a grinding affair with plenty of time in the clinch, where Cormier earns the decision victory.
Robbie Lawler vs. Jake Ellenberger
Two months ago, welterweight Robbie Lawler (22-10 1 NC, 7-4 UFC) was just five minutes away from hoisting the UFC title, but eventually lost a closely contested bout against current champ Johny Hendricks.
Now set to make his return to the octagon, Lawler will go head-to-head with the heavy-handed Jake Ellenberger (29-7, 8-3 UFC), who is making his first appearance inside the cage in nearly 10 months, following a lackluster decision loss to Rory MacDonald in July 2013.
A leading candidate for "Fight of the Night," the matchup features two of the 170-pound division's hardest hitters, and two fighters that mirror each other on the feet. On the ground, however, it is Ellenberger who appears to have the advantage on account of his wrestling. But Lawler has exceptional takedown defense, evidenced in his outing against Hendricks, to compliment his vicious left hand.
Expect a high velocity, action-packed battle that goes the distance, with Lawler scoring a contentious win.
Takeya Mizugaki vs. Francisco Rivera
A battle of top-ten bantamweights, this mathcup between Mizugaki (19-7-2, 6-2 UFC) and Rivera (10-2 1 NC, 3-1 1 NC UFC) promises to be a fast-paced standup affair.
Originally slated to fight in 2011, Mizugaki and Rivera both bring exciting boxing into the octagon, but it's Rivera's athleticism, ground and pound, and killer instinct that gives him an edge.
Mizugaki enters UFC 173 riding a four-fight win streak against formidable opposition; he has won a few razor-thin decisions, improving as the fight enters the later rounds. But Rivera is relentless in his attack, throwing heavy strikes early and often.
Look for Rivera to land an early TKO; however, if this fight goes the distance, expect Mizugaki to take the decision.
Jamie Varner vs. James Krause
This pairing of lightweights kicks off the UFC 173 main card, and the matchup is most likely a must-win situation for both athletes.
Varner (21-9-1 2 NC, 3-4 UFC), a former WEC champion, was last seen on the wrong end of a vicious knockout at the hands of Abel Trujillo at UFC 169. A wrestler with solid submission skills, Varner has all the tools to close the distance on the taller Krause, but he's struggled with consistency, losing three of his last four.
Like Varner, Krause (20-5, 1-1 UFC) is also coming off a loss, having dropped his most recent bout to Bobby Green via TKO. A tall and long lightweight, Krause prefers the grappling game, and uses his reach and limbs to great advantage.
Another "pick-em" fight on the card, this contest should see Varner storm out of the gate and attempt to finish Krause early. But expect Krause to withstand the initial barrage and pick up a late round submission.