MMA Barometer: Rocky Road to Vegas
MMA Barometer: Rocky Road to Vegas

This article is part of our MMA Barometer series.

Finally, Conor McGregor's return to the Octagon is upon us. His long layoff has come to an end, and the former two-division champion is being thrown right back into the fire to try to recapture the UFC lightweight championship he never actually lost. In his latest test, "The Notorious" will take on the undefeated (26-0), Dagestani fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov. After a fiery press conference, the two combatants are chomping at the bit to face each other on Oct. 6. Khabib is a monster, but McGregor has faced many elite fighters in the world and rarely stumbled.

The path for the winner of this fight has taken several twists and turns in the last few days. Social media-fueled rumors have been rampant that Nate Diaz and Dustin Poirier will square off in the main event of UFC 230 for the title in a new division, 165 pounds (yet to be given an official name). While the UFC has yet to make this official, the two fighters are close to forcing the promotion's hands by generating plenty of buzz with the fans. The fact the UFC still doesn't have an official main event for the Nov. 3 card has only exacerbated the situation.

It seems possible that either fighter would move up to face the champion of the new division after a win next Saturday. McGregor would almost certainly move up if Diaz was the victor. It would be an opportunity to complete the trilogy between the two fighters, as well as to make McGregor the first three-division champion in UFC history.

It would be an attractive option for Khabib to move up, as he has had a notoriously difficult time making the cut to 155 pounds. No matter the outcome of the UFC lightweight championship fight Oct. 6, it will be interesting to see which direction the new lightweight champion decides to go with his career.
As always, below is your MMA barometer with rising, falling, and check status fighters.

Rising

Alexander Volkov, UFC, Heavyweight

Volkov has taken the UFC heavyweight division by storm since joining the promotion in 2016. He has four-straight victories and has been dominant in his last three fights, with two coming via KO/TKO. With these performances, the former Bellator heavyweight champion has inserted himself squarely in the UFC heavyweight title picture.

Volkov has drawn No. 2-ranked UFC heavyweight Derrick Lewis as his next opponent at UFC 229 on Oct. 6. This fight presents an unique clash of styles. Lewis is a pure power puncher who doesn't land a high volume of strikes, but can shut the lights out on his opponent in any fight. Volkov tends to land a higher volume of strikes, as he has landed 120+ in just three rounds in two of his last three fights. After a review of Lewis's fights, it seems as if Volkov landing a high volume of strikes will be able to wear down the less conditioned fighter and likely earn the Russian a decision victory.

Next Fight: Derrick Lewis, UFC 229: Khabib vs. McGregor (October 6, 2018)

Sean O'Malley, UFC, Bantamweight

O'Malley is a rising star in the UFC. At only 23 years old and sporting a 10-0 record, he is a hidden gem in the bantamweight division. He recently gained notoriety by appearing on the Joe Rogan Experience and getting ridiculously stoned with the famous UFC play-by-play commentator, and even the UFC's main apparel sponsor, Reebok, has embraced his persona.

Turning to his Octagon prowess, "Sugar" is a creative striker and a finisher. He has finished seven of his 10 professional victories. His next opponent, Jose Quinonez, likes to box. That would be a good opportunity for O'Malley to show his unorthodox strikes and get a finish, thus continuing his ascension up the bantamweight rankings.

However, Quinonez does have 12 takedowns through his first four Octagon appearances. If he does ground the young bantamweight, O'Malley will have to show he can be effective off his back. O'Malley is a young fighter and constantly evolving, so it would not be surprising if he had some slick new submissions in store for Quinonez.

Next Fight: TBD Note (10/1): Since this column was published, O'Malley was forced to withdraw from his UFC 229 matchup against Jose Quinonez due to being flagged for a potential USADA violation.

Jessica Andrade, UFC, Strawweight

Andrade stunned many fans with the display of her punching power at UFC 228, starching Karolina Kowalkiewicz with an overhand right in the first round. Andrade kept the pressure on from the opening bell, and it was a very one-sided fight. Her one-punch knockout was surprising because strawweights generally do not possess that degree of finishing power, and that may change how DFS players will view her fights moving forward.

Andrade's knockout surely earned her a title shot against Rose Namajunas in her next fight. Her style is a very difficult matchup for the champion and should have DFS players drooling. Namajunas is mainly a stand-up fighter, although she does have tricky submissions on the ground. The issue for "Thug Rose" is Andrade's scary power and strength, which allows her to have a stellar 75 percent takedown defense rate in the UFC.

Effectively, if the striking doesn't go Namajunas's way, the champion will have difficulty getting the fight to the ground to work her submissions. Taking into account that Andrade's only loss (since moving to bantamweight) is to former champion Joanna Jedrejczyk, it is likely Andrade will be a rare betting favorite as the challenger in a championship fight.

Next Fight: TBA

Check Status

Conor McGregor, UFC, Lightweight

McGregor will make his long awaited return to the Octagon in one week at UFC 229 on Oct. 6. This will be his first Octagon appearance since Nov. 12, 2016. The long layoff was due to a new child, as well as his historic boxing match with Floyd Mayweather Jr. His extended absence brings the age-old question of ring rust. Will he be sharp and accurate with his strikes? Or, will it take him a round or two to become re-accustomed to the Octagon atmosphere?

Though the ownership projects to be high, McGregor is a gamble in DFS lineups at $7800. His opponent, Khabib Nurmagomedov, is 26-0 and has not lost a round in 10 UFC appearances. If it takes McGregor a while to get back into the flow of the UFC, it could be too late. Nurmagomedov takes his opponents down early and often, tiring them out and often finishing them in later rounds, or grinding them down for a decision.

However, if the Conor of old returns to the UFC, it could result in a quick knockout. Nurmagomedov has a propensity for getting clipped in the first round when he moves in for his initial takedown. This was exemplified in his contest with Michael Johnson, and if Khabib gets caught by McGregor, he will likely not survive as he did in that fight. If McGregor wins, there is a good chance it will come via first-round knockout, therefore making him a potentially valuable pick for a lineup.

Next Fight: Khabib Nurmagomedov, UFC 229: Khabib vs. McGregor (October 6, 2018)

Falling

Mark Hunt, UFC, Heavyweight

Hunt has essentially lost four of his last five fights. His loss to Brock Lesnar was changed to a "no contest" when Lesnar tested positive for PED use. The 44-year-old fighter has shown the effects of his age, as his normally granite chin has diminished. This was evident in his knockout lost to Alistair Overeem, and when he got clipped by Aleksei Oleinik two weeks ago. Couple his ailing chin with a serious deficiency in grappling (see his loss to Oleinik), and there is not much room for success in the UFC left for Hunt.

Hunt has one fight left on his UFC contract, which will take place in Adelaide on Dec. 2 against Justin Willis. In my first draft of this column, I had written that only way to trust him to win a fight would be if he was fed an unranked, or very low-ranked, opponent for his swan song at the event scheduled to be held in Adelaide, Australia. Willis is almost just that, though he recently broke in at No. 15 in the UFC rankings after his third-straight UFC victory. While Willis is no walk in the park, this will represent an excellent opportunity for Hunt to go out on top after a legendary career.

Next Fight: Justin Willis, UFC Adelaide (December 2, 2018)

Renan Barao, UFC, Bantamweight

Barao has lost five of his last six fights dating back his second UFC bantamweight title fight loss to TJ Dillashaw. Gone is the once explosive striker who had a laundry list of highlight reel knockouts and sported a ridiculous 34-1 record. His diminishing abilities have an uncanny relationship with the time the UFC began the rigorous PED testing involved with the implementation of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Barao has been a different fighter since that time and does not have a finish since the USADA program began.

To compensate for his lack of explosiveness, Barao seemed to have the right idea in his last fight. He attempted five takedowns in the three-round fight, which is an unusually high number for the former champion. He was successful on three of the attempts. It was a sound strategy, but the Brazilian still lost a close split decision. This was a discouraging loss, as the former headliner was relegated to fighting an Octagon newcomer. With another defeat, Barao could be issued his walking papers from the UFC.

Next Fight: TBA

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Evan Dahl
Evan Dahl is a law student who has been a die-hard MMA fan for over a decade. Outside of MMA, he roots for the Broncos, Brewers and Bucks.
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