As 2011 draws to a close, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will be looking to finish the year with a bang.  For that, they have brought out the big guns, as former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar makes his long awaited Octagon return to take on former Strikeforce and K-1 Grand Prix champion Alistair Overeem in a title eliminator to determine the next challenger for Junior Dos Santos‘ title. Before the heavyweights lock horns however, two of the lightweight division’s finest square off as Donald Cerrone looks to cap off a truly sensational year in style when he faces off against the always game Nate Diaz. Also in action is the second best welterweight on the planet, Jon Fitch, who will be battling rising prospect Johny Hendricks.

Preliminary Predictions:

* Diego Nunes to defeat Manvel Gamburyan by TKO in Round 3
* Matt Riddle to defeat Luis Ramos by Decision
* Jacob Volkmann to defeat Efrain Escudero by Decision
* Dong Hyun Kim to defeat Sean Pierson by Decision
* Danny Castillo to defeat Anthony Njokuani by Decision
* Ross Pearson to defeat Junior Assuncao by Decision

Main Card Predictions:

Featherweight Fight: Nam Phan vs. Jimy Hettes

After gaining a measure of revenge on Leonard Garcia in his last fight, Phan returns to the cage to face off against Hettes in what is a stylistically tricky match-up for the Vietnamese-American. Phan will have a major advantage on the feet, as Hettes’ stand-up remains raw and unpolished. In fact, Hettes will often ignore any potential stand-up action and simply rush his opponent in an effort to get the clinch, where he could utilize his takedowns and judo throws.

That is not  necessarily a bad strategy here, as Phan’s takedown defense isn’t his best asset, and despite being the better striker, he doesn’t quite control the distance all that well, making it somewhat easier to close in on him and look for the takedown. More interesting is the fact that Phan is at his best on the inside, where Hettes will have the chance to clinch up, nullify his opponent’s stand-up, and look to plant him on his back. If he fails to do so however, Hettes could be in for a world of hurt, as while Phan’s striking is limited to some body kicks from the outside, he can seriously put a beating on his opponent from close-quarters.

Phan is quite the expert at putting combinations together, and he mixes his strikes up very well by throwing a ton of body shots. His left hook to the liver in particular, is something Hettes wouldn’t want to feel. More importantly, Phan uses said body strikes to set up the shots to the head, and he will often come back with a right hook to the jaw after punishing the body.

Phan does tend to get lazy however, and while Hettes doesn’t have the power to punish him for it, he could capitalize on any shaky moment to put him on his back. Whether he can outright polish him off with submission remains to be seen, as despite Hettes’ vast arsenal of submissions — both from the top and the bottom — Phan isn’t exactly a dummy when it comes to defending submission attempts. What he needs to worry about more is his knack of sometimes getting positionally dominated, though recent fights saw him improve his ability to wall-walk and scramble up to his feet.

While Hettes’ strength plays right into his opponent’s weakness, Phan should be able to overcome a few shaky moments, on his way to a decision victory.

Official Prediction: Nam Phan to defeat Jimy Hettes by Decision

Light Heavyweight Fight: Vladimir Matyushenko vs. Alexander Gustafsson

In the classic clash between seasoned veteran and rising prospect, Matyushenko will look to derail Gustafsson’s rise up the light heavyweight ranks. Matyushenko’s second UFC run has been far more successful than originally anticipated, but he has his hands full with the talented Gustafsson.

What Matyushenko brings to the table is well documented at this point, and Gustafsson will need to fend of “The Janitor’s” takedowns to emerge victorious. Despite his wrestling pedigree, at 40 years of age, Matyushenko’s shot is far from being unstoppable. In fact, even in his earlier years, his wrestling, while very solid, has never been super dynamic.

Gustafsson has displayed consistent improvement in his wrestling, both defensively and offensively. In fact, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see the Swede take his opponent down, where he could utilize his extremely underrated top game. His ground-and-pound, guard passing, and especially, back control can give Matyushenko fits. Moreover, Gustafsson will likely gain the upper hand in scrambles, and this could prove crucial, as we are likely in store for numerous half-finished takedowns and chain wrestling sequences.

To Matyushenko’s credit, his striking continues to improve, as evidenced in his last outing against Jason Brilz. His right uppercut and right hook are his most dangerous punches, and he possesses more power than given credit for; at least when it comes to his right hand. Nevertheless, Gustafsson remains the better and more versatile striker. He can fight from both stances, possesses serious power in his leg kicks, will alternate them with high kicks, and is especially lethal on the inside. The knock on Gustafsson has been that he is at times a slow starter and it takes him a while to get his striking going in full flow. However, once he does, he will prove too much for Matyushenko to handle.

Official Prediction: Alexander Gustafsson to defeat Vladimir Matyushenko by TKO in Round 2

Welterweight Fight: Jon Fitch vs. Johny Hendricks

The second best welterweight in the world — and arguably one of the best fighters in the world — continues his quest of surviving tricky fights in which he has much to lose and little to gain, as Fitch returns after spending months on the sidelines to take on Hendricks.

Despite decent results, Hendricks’ actual progress in his skill set has been perhaps slower than most would have liked. His striking continues to be hit-and-miss while his wrestling hasn’t translated all that well to MMA. Nevertheless, he remains a very dangerous opponent for Fitch, as he possesses respectable power in both hands and a wrestling pedigree that should ostensibly allow him not get completely blown out of the water in that department.

Hendricks’ main issue with his striking is that he’s either too wild or too tentative and not dynamic enough, which makes for a frustrating problem. He is not particularly fluid or dynamic in his stand-up, and instead resorts to extremes: he either moves forward carelessly or simply sits back while failing produce much in terms of meaningful offense. He does possess a very solid left hook however, and his power could be a difference-maker in this fight as despite Fitch’s good chin, toughness and otherworldly recovery, he doesn’t exactly deflect punches with his jaw, and he is prone to getting rocked, as witnessed in both the Georges St. Pierre and Mike Pierce fights.

Despite people’s fascination with the whole “Jon Fitch is a boring grinder who can do nothing but lay on people” concept, Fitch is quite a capable striker. In fact, he will be the more technically sound striker of the two. His jab, body shots, and right cross are much underrated, and he knows how to use them just enough to close the distance, clinch up, grab a single, and do what he does best.

However unappealing a clinch fest might sound, the possibility for this fight to turn into one is there, and that favors Fitch significantly. Hendricks’ shot is more effective from the outside, and he will struggle to deal with Fitch from close-quarters. The issue with Fitch is that he’s a slow starter, and at times looks quite flat in the early going, which makes his wrestling quite pedestrian. However, he will undoubtedly gain the upper hand as the fight progresses, and he will certainly have the better cardio.

A physically draining wrestling match will ultimately take its toll on Hendricks, as Fitch scores yet another uninspiring decision win that leaves the MMA world furious and sees Dana White go on a typically unjustified rant about the “boring” nature of Fitch’s style.

Official Prediction: Jon Fitch to defeat Johny Hendricks by Decision

Lightweight Fight: Donald Cerrone vs Nate Diaz

In an absolutely sensational lightweight match-up, Cerrone steps inside the Octagon for the fifth (!) time this year to face off against the resurgent Diaz.

The real question leading up to this fight is whether Diaz’s brilliant performance against Takanori Gomi was simply an odd occurrence that had much to do with Gomi’s regression as a fighter, or a sign of true progress and maturity in Diaz as a fighter. In reality, it is undeniable that Diaz’s boxing looked much improved in that bout. He made full use of his reach and was able to sit on his punches and produce uncharacteristic power, while simultaneously displaying remarkable accuracy.

Using his reach advantage will be key for Diaz, as Cerrone has been fighting “rangy” in his last few fights, and if Diaz is able to force a role reversal and keep him at bay, “Cowboy” will have to change strategies. However, much like his brother, despite the reach advantage, Nate Diaz prefers to stand in mid-range and pepper his opponent with combinations both to the head and body.

Therefore, it will be important for Cerrone to use his footwork, circle, and utilize his leg kicks liberally. Diaz’s southpaw stance means Cerrone will be throwing inside leg kicks for the most part, and will also have the benefit of not worrying about the counter right cross. Diaz’s flat-footed stance makes him especially prone to leg kicks, and he will need to check them if he is to have any chance in this one. Cerrone does a great job of setting up the high kick with leg kicks, especially off of his lead leg. However, he has a habit of coming out flat at times, and despite a fantastic chin, he can be quite hittable. On the other hand, his boxing — both offensively and defensively — has improved considerably in his last few fights, but kicks remain his main path to victory.

Another marked improvement in Cerrone’s game has been his wrestling, especially on the offensive front. Diaz’s takedown defense has never been the best. In fact, when his opponent clinches in an effort to get the takedown, Diaz often resorts to working for a standing kimura and simply concedes the takedown. Against a grappler like Cerrone, this isn’t going to cut it. While Diaz possesses a terrific guard, Cerrone’s top game should be equal to it. The Team Jackson fighter will likely not have the easiest of times passing guard, but he should be able to fend off Diaz’s submission attempts from the bottom.

The scrambles is where the fight could get interesting, as Diaz’s constant work from the bottom helps him create a ton of scrambles and use them to his advantage. Cerrone himself excels in the scrambles as well. And while he won’t have too much of an easy time using them to take the back for instance, he should be able to get the better of Diaz more often than not. What Cerrone needs to worry about however, is Diaz’s guillotine, especially if he finds himself in the front headlock position. Conversely, Diaz needs to stay clear of fruitless and position-costing leg locks, as Cerrone is too good a grappler to fall victim to such attempts.

An entertaining back-and-forth affair will see Cerrone emerge victorious with a competitive but clear-cut decision.

Official Prediction: Donald Cerrone to defeat Nate Diaz by Decision