A breakdown of the fights on the main card of Sunday’s UFC Fight Night 124 card at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, with picks from the Review-Journal’s Adam Hill and Heidi Fang:
Jeremy Stephens (26-14) vs. Doo Ho Choi (14-2)
Line: Choi -160
Storyline: Choi has been out of action for more than a year after dropping one of the best fights of 2016 to Cub Swanson. It marked the end of a 12-fight winning streak. “The Korean Superboy” is immensely talented, but is racing against the clock as a mandatory two-year military term and forced hiatus from the sport is on the horizon. He wants to earn a title shot before that happens, and a win over Stephens, a durable veteran with power, is essential to that plan. Stephens has dropped two of his last three, but is coming off a win over Gilbert Melendez. Stephens will be willing to engage Choi in a brawl, but Choi would be better served to move around and not allow Stephens to just set his feet and throw. Stephens is a much different fighter when he is forced to move around in the cage, and it should open up a spot for Choi to land his powerful right hand. Still, Stephens is tough to knock out.
Hill’s pick: Choi by decision
Fang’s pick: Stephens by fourth-round knockout
Paige VanZant (7-3) vs. Jessica-Rose Clark (8-4, 1 No Contest)
Class: Women’s flyweight
Line: Clark -125
Storyline: There had been speculation VanZant would leave the sport to pursue opportunities after her breakout performance on “Dancing With The Stars” was followed up by a crushing loss to Michelle Waterson in December 2016. Instead, VanZant has reaffirmed her desire to become a UFC champion. It helped that the new flyweight division opened up in late 2017. She moved up to the new class and believes the easier weight cuts will translate to better performances. It also means fighting larger opponents, however. Clark will look to build off a successful UFC debut in November. She showed an impressive ability to use her feet to put herself in optimum positions to throw her strikes. VanZant probably will look to limit that movement by moving forward and keeping constant pressure on her. VanZant’s most success is likely to come in the clinch and against the cage. It will be challenging to keep that up for three rounds, though VanZant’s impressive cardio is only going to be helped by cutting less weight.
Hill’s pick: Clark by decision
Fang’s pick: Clark by decision
Kamaru Usman (11-1) vs. Emil Meek (9-2-1 1 No Contest)
Line: Usman -620
Storyline: Meek earned his way into the organization with a win over Rousimar Palhares on a Venator card in Italy and then made the most of his opportunity with a victory in his UFC debut over Jordan Mein. Usman represents a huge step up. The former Division II national champion wrestler has mauled his opposition since entering the UFC through the “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2015. He won Season 21 with a win over Hayder Hassan and has won his next five to extend his overall winning streak to 10. Usman’s top control is suffocating, and he has grown more confident in his power on the feet, recording his first UFC knockout in his last bout. Meek will be competitive on the feet, but it will be a challenge to try to keep the action off the mat. Once it gets there, Usman will take control.
Hill’s pick: Usman by second-round submission
Fang’s pick: Usman by decision
Darren Elkins (24-5) vs. Michael Johnson (18-12)
Line: Johnson -175
Storyline: Johnson has been vociferous in his irritation that this fight in his home state was left off the main card. That got rectified Saturday when Uriah Hall had difficulties cutting weight and his bout against Vitor Belfort was removed from the card. Now Johnson gets his wish of a bigger spotlight in front of his friends and family as he makes his debut at 145 pounds. He hopes the drop helps him get back on track after dropping four of his last five fights. While Johnson has faced top competition and was part of the best fight of 2017 when he lost to Justin Gaethje, he knows he needs a win. His combination of striking power and wrestling base should put him in a good position to get it. The 33-year-old Elkins, however, is in the midst of a career resurgence. He has won five straight fights, rallying on several occasions after taking early damage. Elkins is so difficult to finish and is never out of the fight. His durability might be tested again.
Hill’s pick: Johnson by decision
Fang’s pick: Elkins by decision