SI.com analysts Ben Fowlkes, Loretta Hunt, Jeff Wagenheim and Jon Wertheim provide their predictions for UFC 144 on Saturday in Japan.
Frankie Edgar vs. Ben Henderson
FOWLKES: Edgar’s giving up some size and strength to Henderson, but when you’re a 155-pounder who doesn’t cut weight, you’ve got to be used to that. Edgar’s speed and unpredictability rules the day in a close one. Edgar by decision.
HUNT: Edgar’s a solid champion with fast hands, but I’ve been waiting for Bendo to get his shot for a while. He has the physical strength, flexibility and scrambling superiority to outscore Edgar — it won’t be easy, but it’s doable. Henderson by decision.
WAGENHEIM: Henderson has no quit in him, but I don’t think he’ll have an answer for “The Answer,” who is speedy, active and grappling-savvy enough to determine where the fight will be fought. Edgar by decision.
WERTHEIM: Edgar’s wrestling and cardio are top-shelf (if not peerless). He takes a punch and he fights smart. Hard to see Henderson cracking that code. Edgar by decision.
Quinton Jackson vs. Ryan Bader
FOWLKES: Bader’s chin is questionable and Jackson’s power isn’t. A chance to fight in Tokyo again should be all the motivation “Rampage” needs to take this seriously and get the job done. Jackson by TKO.
HUNT: Jackson lost his passion for the game a while ago. (Becoming an international movie star in The A-Team reboot can do that to you). However, he packs a meaner punch than Bader’s and can match wits in wrestling. Jackson should also get the jump start he needs back on Japanese soil, where his greatest days will come flooding back to him. Jackson by TKO.
WAGENHEIM: It’s a homecoming of sorts for “Rampage,” so he wants to put on a show. But Bader has a higher purpose motivating him: He’s loath to take another step backward. And if the wrestler needs to make this a not-so-entertaining 15 minutes to get the job done, so be it. Bader by decision.
WERTHEIM: Potential Fight of the Night. Which Rampage shows up? The aging veteran choked out by Jon Jones; or the savvy fighter who decisioned two good opponents before that? It says here the latter. Jackson by decision.
Mark Hunt vs. Cheick Kongo
FOWLKES: Kongo’s particular brand of wrestling/clinching won’t be too effective against Hunt, which will eventually force him to stand and trade instead. Bad idea. Hunt by TKO.
HUNT: This should be a fun back-and-forth to start, but has huge potential to get messy or, worse, boring as stamina becomes an issue in the later moments. Kongo lacks finishing power and Hunt is uber-resilient. Kongo by decision.
WAGENHEIM: Who’ll shoot for a double leg first? Yeah, just what I thought. Kongo by knockout.
WERTHEIM: Another potential Fight of the Night. Winner gets a Klitschko brother? Two big heavyweights. If Hunt lands the big shot, he wins. If the fight goes to the ground, he loses. Kongo by decision.
Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Jake Shields
FOWLKES: I believe Akiyama will do his best to make a fight of it, but Shields will get it to the mat and grind out another one. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective. Shields by decision.
HUNT: It’s Shields first real fight back since the sudden passing of his father. (Shields lost to Jake Ellenberger on auto-pilot.) Akiyama is more a name than a contender, though he’s never lost by submission. Shields by decision.
WAGENHEIM: I hope Akiyama likes pretzels, because Shields is going to twist him into one when this tussle goes to the mat. Jake isn’t taking a third straight tumble. Shields by submission.
WERTHEIM: Not sure why Akiyama would a) want to move to 170 pounds and b) take Shields as his first opponent once got there. Shields does everything better, especially on the ground. Shields by decision.
Yushin Okami vs. Tim Boetsch
FOWLKES: Almost seems like Boetsch is tailor-made for Okami’s slowly advancing, power-grappling style. But after all the work he’s put in, he deserves a win in front of the home crowd. Okami by decision.
HUNT: Okami is an anomaly among Japanese fighters in the higher weight classes; he’s a physically-strong wrestler. That’s all he needs to slow down Boestch, a decent but not stellar striker. Okami by decision.
WAGENHEIM: Okami is simply at a different level, as his hometown fans will see. Having the crowd rooting against him is the least of Boetsch’s concerns. Okami by TKO.
WERTHEIM: Two experienced fighters who, realistically, are at the band ends of their careers. Okami has more skills, Boetsch has more power, and this has the makings of a cautious Okami points win. Okami by decision.
Hatsu Hioki vs. Bart Palaszewski
FOWLKES: Unless Hioki has improved significantly since his narrow win over George Roop, he could be in serious trouble against the slugger Palaszewski. He doesn’t go away easily, and all he needs is one punch to change your night, er, morning in Japan. Palaszewski by decision.
HUNT: Palaszewski’s coming off a career-best KO victory over a suddenly shaky Tyson Griffin, but Hioki has more ways to win here and the key home-crowd advantage. Hioki by submission.
WAGENHEIM: Hioki won his UFC debut in October, but jt was a ho-hum performance. The former Shooto and Sengoku champ had better look good this time if he wants to remain among the top tier. Hioki by decision.
WERTHEIM: The latter (a/k/a Bartimus) did his hard time at Pat Miletich’s camp and is transitioning from a straight boxer to a fine MMA fighter. Palaszewski by knockout.
Anthony Pettis vs. Joe Lauzon
FOWLKES: This is my pick for Fight of the Night, but in the end I think Pettis is just a little too athletic for Lauzon to keep up with. Should be plenty of fireworks as they figure it out, though. Pettis by decision.
HUNT: Lauzon’s too smart to get stuck in a striking standoff with Pettis, but the Duke Roufus-trained Pettis is beyond hungry for another Matrix-kick moment like the one he had against Henderson 14 months ago. The question is can Lauzon ground Pettis or catch him from his back? Pettis by decision.
WAGENHEIM: Lauzon was a surprise winner last time against Melvin Guillard, and I think he has another surprise in him. Lauzon by submission.
WERTHEIM: This one intrigues. J-Lau’s wiry frame — and ground game — can pose problems especially if Pettis doesn’t strike early. Lauzon by submission.