The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to the Garden State this weekend with one of the best fight cards of the year from top to bottom. Headlining this superb event is an expected middleweight title eliminator bout between former light heavyweight champion Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida and former Strikeforce middleweight champion Luke Rockhold. We’ll also see an underrated middleweight juggernaut look to push his winning streak to eight, a young, fast-rising featherweight square off against one of the most lethal punchers in the sport, a highly-anticipated bout in the women’s strawweight division and more.

On Saturday, April 18, the UFC invades the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ—the site of five previous pay-per-view events (UFC 78, 111, 128, 159 and 169)—to bring its 15th free fight card to Fox. The major network will be broadcasting this jam-packed event starting at 6 p.m. with four preliminary fights before switching to its main card for four more contests at 8 p.m.

But the night begins with its early prelims at 4:30 p.m., airing live on UFC Fight Pass. Kicking off the night will be hard-hitting Eddie “Truck” Gordon taking on Chris Dempsey, who’s making his 185-pound debut. The Ultimate Fighter 14 winner Diego Brandao—3-3 since winning the show’s tournament and without a win since Aug. 2013—will then go up against Jimy “The Kid” Hettes, a crafty submission specialist. George “The Silencer” Sullivan takes on Tim “The Dirty Bird” Means in the final bout of this section.

Expect immediate fireworks when the card switches to Fox, as #6 bantamweight Takeya Mizugaki squares off against Aljamain “Funk Master” Sterling, a two-time Division III All-American wrestler who’s never been defeated in MMA. TUF 19 light heavyweight winner Corey “Beastin 25/8” Anderson will then look to stay perfect when he takes on Gian Villante, a dangerous New Yorker who trains with current middleweight champion Chris Weidman.

The last two preliminary bouts are expected to be slugfests, as #8 light heavyweight Ovince Saint Preux opposes #15 Patrick “Durkin” Cummins, and #13 lightweight and Jersey native Jim Miller goes up against Iranian Beneil Dariush, who’s stepping in on short notice after submitting Daron Cruickshank just last month. Miller is the perfect person to close out the prelims by fighting in his home state, but he’s 0-2-1 in his last three Jersey fights, and Dariush has been on an absolute tear.

The main card gets underway with a bang, as #8 women’s strawweight Felice “Lil Bulldog” Herrig challenges #10 Paige “12 Gauge” VanZant. VanZant made her UFC debut a successful one back in November, as she finished Kailin Curran in the third round of her fifth professional fight. The 21-year-old’s stock has soared since, having recently signed to Reebok and being praised by UFC president Dana White, who told ufc.com, “Some people have that ‘it factor’ that you can’t teach people, and Paige has it.” While VanZant has stolen the headlines over the last few months, Herrig has been training like a soldier, posting updates on a daily basis on her social media pages of her lifting, sparring, grappling and more. Herrig is in arguably the best shape of anyone in the sport, boasting a shredded physique that most people can only envy. Will Paige continue to see her stock rise, or will the stronger, much more experienced kickboxer show that she’s a title contender in the 115-pound division?

Another intriguing matchup takes place next in the featherweight division, as #5 Cub Swanson takes on #9 Max “Blessed” Holloway. While Holloway is riding a nice five-fight win streak, Swanson is coming off a disappointing loss to former lightweight champion, Frankie Edgar. Holloway is a lanky, versatile fighter who can dominate wherever the fight goes, able to use his impressive takedown defense to keep the fight standing and unload with big shots. But Swanson—an elite striker with as much one-punch knockout power as anyone in the sport—represents Holloway’s toughest challenge yet, and he’s sure to be fired up after losing for the first time since 2011. Look for this one to stay standing and for these two brawlers to throw everything but the kitchen sink.

The co-main event was expected to be a middleweight clash between #1 Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Yoel Romero, but Romero had to pull out of the fight last week, and stepping in on just a few days’ notice is Chris Camozzi, who’s 0-4 in his last four UFC fights (including a May 2013 loss to Souza). Jacare has long been overlooked in the division, despite destroying each of his last seven opponents, and the 35-year-old—perhaps in line for a title shot should the two headliners fail to impress—is going to be the heavy favorite here.

#2 Lyoto Machida has always been a fan favorite. The soon-to-be 37-year-old karate master has been in a number of wars over the years, is a bona fide legend in the sport, and is desperately trying to wear the belt once more. He’ll have his hands full here against #4 Luke Rockhold, a free-swinging 30-year-old in the prime of his career. At 13-2 with 10 first-round finishes, Rockhold will presumably fight the winner of Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort should he upend The Dragon on Saturday. It won’t come easy, however; Machida knows he’ll presumably never get another run at the title should he lose here, and that makes him even more dangerous than he already is. Ultimately, Rockhold will be looking to put Machida on his back, attempt a number of submissions with his deadly ground game and secure some takedowns, but with 20 percent takedown accuracy and Machida’s solid 77 percent takedown defense, that will be easier said than done.

The Aquarian Weekly will be on hand to cover UFC Fight Night – Machida vs. Rockhold on Saturday, April 18, and will be posting live, blow-by-blow updates on theaquarian.com, so be sure to follow along. We’re taking Machida, Souza, Swanson, Herrig, Dariush, Saint Preux, Anderson, Sterling, Sullivan, Brandao and Gordon for the wins.

Enjoy the fights!

giorgio@theaquarian.com

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