Two heavy-handed fighters meet on the main card of UFC 196, as veteran Gian Villante meets Swedish up and comer Ilir Latifi. Villante has made improvements in recent years and has won three out of his last four fights. Latifi has also been performing well recently, as he has won four out of his last five. Gian Villante (14-6 MMA, 4-3 UFC, +170 underdog) The former college football standout for Hofstra University has been steadily improving his game and now looks to make a serious run in the light heavyweight division. Villante entered the UFC after a five fight stint with the now defunct Strikeforce promotion that saw him go 3-2. After a disappointing decision loss to Ovince St. Preux in his UFC debut, Villante earned his first UFC win by knocking out Cody Donovan in the first round at UFC 167. Since then he has compiled a 3-2 record, with three of those wins coming in his last four fights. The Long Island, New York native is one of the main training partners of former UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman. Getting to train with the excellent fighters at Longo and Weidman MMA has undoubtedly done wonders for Villante’s career. On the feet Villante throws nice punch-kick combinations and has considerable power in his hands. Hard leg kicks have become one of his best weapons in recent fights and he is not shy about throwing them. High volume and quality strike variation are staples of the New Yorker’s game. While Villante is above average offensively, he sorely lacks the defensive skills that are necessary to compete with the division’s elite. He is quite slow and does not possess good head movement or striking defense. Further, Villante tends to overcommit and leave himself wide open for counters, which was the case when he got knocked out by Tom Lawlor in July. Villante is also a decent wrestler that throws bombs from top position but he rarely uses his wrestling these days. Stout takedown defense and durability make up the rest of his game. Ilir Latifi (11-4 (1 NC) MMA, 4-2 UFC, -200 favorite) Not many fighters in the UFC had a tougher debut than Latifi, as he stepped up in on short notice in early 2013 to face top contender Gegard Mousasi. While he lost the matchup via decision, the Swede nevertheless still managed to earn a roster spot in the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion. Latifi made good on his chance by compiling a 3-1 record since his loss to Mousasi, with all three wins coming by finish. Currently riding a two fight win streak, Latifi looks to continue his run with a win over Villante on Saturday night. The Allstars Training Center representative is one of the true powerhouses in the light heavyweight division. Latifi makes up for his lack of height and reach with tremendous power and explosiveness. The Swede can fight out of both stances and is adept at countering his opponent with powerful overhand rights and left hooks. Thudding leg kicks have been one of the recent additions to his growing tool box. Latifi’s main issue is when he is not able to get inside and is forced to fight from range, where he is not very effective. Long, technical strikers have given him trouble for that very reason. While the 32 year old is known for his knockout power, he actually started out as a wrestler. He possesses authoritative takedowns in open space and in the clinch and throws hard ground and pound from top position. Further, Latifi has a solid arsenal of chokes and topside submissions. Thoughts This is a compelling matchup between two improving fighters that are trying to put together a run in the somewhat stale light heavyweight division. Villante, the #12 ranked fighter in the division, will enjoy a sizeable height and reach advantage against the compact Latifi. He also has more weapons from range, which will benefit him greatly if he can keep Latifi on the outside. However, Villante’s defensive deficiencies and lack of speed make that a tough task. Latifi’s power and explosiveness should be the deciding factors in this one, as he lands a big punch in the first round that closes the show. The Prediction: Ilir Latifi defeats Gian Villante via knockout (round 1).