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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will get reacquainted with Tampa, Florida, as it touches down with UFC Fight Night 161 -- an event headlined by a pivotal women’s strawweight battle between former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Michelle Waterson. Stakes are high across the board.
WHO HAS THE MOST TO GAIN?
Michelle Waterson: Despite putting together the longest winning streak of her UFC career thus far, Waterson is a significant underdog coming into her showdown with Jedrzejczyk. In the leadup to this event, Waterson has been outspoken about her desire for a title shot should she spring the upset, as she pushes toward her goal of becoming the first mom to win a UFC championship. Even with the majority of observers counting her out, a title shot will undoubtedly be in play if Waterson beats Jedrzejczyk. The keys to victory for “The Karate Hottie” revolve around keeping her opponent guessing and maximizing her versatility. If Waterson can keep Jedrzejczyk on her toes while refusing to allow her to establish a striking rhythm, perhaps she can score another one for the underdogs.
Kron Gracie: Though he enters UFC Fight Night 161 with only one appearance inside the Octagon and less than a third of his opponent’s professional fights, Gracie feels he is primed for a breakout campaign. It starts with Cub Swanson. Even with the lack of professional experience, the Gracie name is familiar to even the most fair-weathered MMA fans, and a win over an established veteran like Swanson would undoubtedly put the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt on the map in a big way. He would be wise to stick to his bread-and-butter skills and look to lock his opponent in grappling exchanges early and often. Some may call this matchup too much too soon for the inexperienced Gracie, but if he manages to get the job done against a seasoned veteran like Swanson, it will most definitely put the rest of the featherweight division on notice.
Luis Pena: It appears as though Pena has begun to build momentum as he navigates through the treacherous waters of the lightweight division. With only eight professional fights to his name, Pena is doing what few with his lack of experience have managed to do in the big show and is slowly but surely starting to look like a promising future contender. Under the tutelage of the American Kickboxing Academy, Pena has thrived; with a third consecutive win, he would force people to take notice. “Violent Bob Ross” will surely have his hands full with Matt Frevola, but if he can come out on top, do not be surprised if Pena’s name becomes associated with the future of the lightweight division. In his most recent bout against Matt Wiman, he showed impressive composure by not overpursuing the finish. It will be interesting to see how he capitalizes on his newfound momentum going forward.
WHO HAS THE MOST TO LOSE?
Joanna Jedrzejczyk: The fall from grace has been difficult for Jedrzejczyk. After losing three of her last four bouts, her confrontation with Waterson will be one of the most important of her career and, more importantly, her legacy. Jedrzejczyk has been outspoken about a potential title shot, and while she need not get ahead of herself, she could be in position to challenge Weili Zhang for the 115-pound championship with a decisive win over Waterson. A loss, on the other hand, will almost certainly put Jedrzejczyk in contender’s purgatory, with few options from which to choose. Although she will step into the cage as the unquestioned favorite, the former champion would be wise to treat her showdown Waterson as a title fight, as it carries that kind of significance. Look for her to stick to what got her to the dance and strike with her opponent for five rounds or until she can put the fight away.
James Vick: It has been tough sledding for Vick of late, and on the heels of three consecutive loses, he may be fighting for his job at UFC Tampa -- and in a new division, no less. In Vick’s welterweight debut, he draws Niko Price, a career welterweight with more than enough power to separate “The Texecutioner” from his senses. If Vick has any hope for success in this bout, he must make better use of his reach advantage than he has in past performances and look to tie up Price in grappling exchanges, where his long limbs will aid in submission attempts. It has come to the point where Vick’s questionable chin serves as a major hinderance to his MMA career, and while the easier weight cut may remedy this to an extent, he will need to proceed with the utmost caution as he attempts to rebuild his reputation in a different weight class.
Mackenzie Dern: After taking over a year off to start a family, Dern will climb back into the Octagon and look to extend her unbeaten streak to eight fights at the expense of Amanda Ribas. Dern has a chance to regain much of the momentum she lost after being sidelined, but a loss could cripple her advances and take her from promising prospect to forgotten-and-overlooked gatekeeper in the blink of an eye. This matchup is tricky for Dern. Ribas is more well-rounded than her past opponents and comes into the bout on the heels of back-to-back wins. This will tell us a lot about Dern’s dedication to the craft following such a major life change. A win means a strong push from the UFC on her way to ranked opposition, but a loss will undoubtedly stunt the rise to stardom many predicted when she initially signed with the UFC.