Saturday marks the end of the UFC’s television deal with the Fox family of networks. The company certainly saved one of the best for last.
The UFC on Fox 31 main event is a rematch between Al Iaquinta and Kevin Lee. Iaquinta won the first contest via unanimous decision in 2014, but both fighters have grown substantially since they met over four years ago in Newark, N.J. Lee is coming off a TKO victory over Edson Barboza in a fight he controlled and dominated for nearly the entire contest, except for a moment in the third round when Lee found himself on the wrong end of a Barboza spinning heel kick. Iaquinta is coming off a unanimous-decision loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 in a fight the Long Islander took on just 24 hours’ notice after Tony Ferguson and Max Holloway were both forced out of the title bout with Nurmagomedov. The winner of this rematch will certainly cement themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the lightweight division.
The co-headliner features the aforementioned Barboza against New Zealand’s Dan “The Hangman” Hooker. Barboza has suffered defeats to Lee and the champion Nurmagomedov in his last two bouts. Hooker, on the other hand, will look to break into the spotlight by defeating a perennial contender on network television.
The main card also includes a bantamweight contest between Rob Font and Sergio Pettis. This marks the return to 135 pounds for Pettis, who fought his last eight UFC fights at flyweight. The combination of the draining weight cut and the uncertainty of the flyweight division forced Pettis back to bantamweight, where he gets a tough test against Massachusetts’ Font. Font looks to right the ship after most recently losing a unanimous decision to top contender Raphael Assunção in July. Prior to the loss, Font stopped Thomas Almeida with a head kick and flurry of punches in front of a hometown crowd at UFC 220 at the TD Garden in Boston.
The UFC says goodbye to Fox on Dec. 15 from the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. The UFC Fight Pass prelims kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET. The action moves to Fox for the televised prelims at 5 p.m. ET and stays on the network for the four-fight main card at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Lightweight headliners Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta both have recent failed bids for the title. Which man moves one step closer to another crack at the belt with a win here? Does either fighter have a title reign in their future, or have they reached their peaks already?
Kuhl: To be honest, Lee deserves his fourth-ranked position. He could, at some point, get a shot at a title. However, there is so much going on above him in the division, so who knows how far off that would actually be?
How long will Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor be suspended for their melee at UFC 229? Will Max Holloway move up to fight top-ranked lightweight contender Tony Ferguson? If so, does that winner get the next crack? What about Khabib-Conor 2? Unfortunately, the win over Iaquinta could still put Lee a couple years out from a title shot. His best bet might be an interim belt.
On the other hand, we have Iaquinta. It took brass balls for him to step up and fight Nurmagomedov in August on ultra-short notice, but he was already on weight and preparing to fight Paul Felder that night. Granted, Felder and Nurmagomedov are not even comparable, but it’s not like Iaquinta was coming in cold. However, he got absolutely mopped by the eventual champ. Iaquinta’s previous outing came one year prior, when he knocked out Diego Sanchez, and the fight before that was a split-decision win over Jorge Masvidal two years prior. How does a guy get an eighth-ranked spot and a fight with a top-five guy when he only fought three times in three years, and one of those was a loss, while another was a split decision?
Then, we get to the 800-pound elephant in the room. Iaquinta and Lee met once already when they faced off in Lee’s UFC debut almost five years ago. Iaquinta won by decision, but Lee was only 22 years old. Since then, Lee has progressively gotten better. He’s finished his opponents in five of his last six wins, with his only loss in this time coming to top contender Ferguson last year.
Iaquinta hasn’t done a lot in recent years, but he does have a history of being durable, while doling out TKO victories. Yet, I have to go with Lee in this one. He has been more active and improved with each outing. Lee is still only 26 years old, too. He has a good chance of handing Iaquinta his first submission loss in seven years.
Petela: Unfortunately for both men, lightweight gold doesn’t seem to be in either of their futures. Both men have grown as fighters since their first encounter, and Lee has also grown physically from the time he came into the UFC. His body has filled out to the point where making the lightweight limit has become a struggle over his last couple of fights. In his interim title bout with Ferguson, Lee stepped on the scale at 156 pounds on his first attempt and needed the extra time allotted by the commission to hit the championship limit of 155. Then, Lee missed weight prior to his victory over Saturday’s co-headliner, Edson Barboza. He weighed in at 157 pounds. Regardless of whether he can successfully make the lightweight limit when he steps in against Iaquinta, his days at 155 are limited. His greatest hope of claiming a championship in the UFC will be if the rumored 165-pound division comes to fruition.
Iaquinta simply isn’t active enough to make his way to the very top of the division and earn a legitimate chance at the title. The Long Island native is as tough and durable as they come, as he showed in the one-sided beating that he took from Nurmagomedov. He was able to make it to the final bell, unlike McGregor, but he never put Nurmagomedov in danger. Iaquinta’s issues with the UFC brass are well documented, and he only takes fights that particularly interest him, both from a competitive and financial standpoint. He is able to do this because of his flourishing real-estate business. While many fighters envy the position Iaquinta has put himself in, his lack of activity will ultimately thwart his development, stopping him just short of being a legitimate title contender.
Lee will show that he is the fighter who has improved more over the past four years. Toward the end of the second round in their first meeting, Lee secured a takedown and was nearly able to finish the fight with a rear-naked choke. Iaquinta escaped and took back control in the third round to earn a unanimous decision. This time around, though, Lee will be able to take Iaquinta to the canvas almost at will and prevent the Long Islander from escaping, giving the “Motown Phenom” a stoppage victory to keep his momentum going. A post-fight callout for the 165-pound division would make more sense than calling for a title shot in the log-jammed lightweight division.
Really, this card is packed full of rising lightweight contenders. Beyond Lee and Iaquinta, the co-main event includes Edson Barboza and Daniel Hooker. Further down the lineup, we also have Charles Oliveira, who meets Jim Miller, and Drakkar Klose, who tangles with Bobby Green. Of all these 155-pounders, which one makes the biggest statement at UFC on Fox 31?
Petela: Hooker is on a four-fight winning streak in the UFC. With a signature win over Barboza, he will announce himself to fans worldwide as a top contender. He is already a popular fighter among the people of Oceania, especially after he ended each of his last four fights before the judges were needed, with three knockouts and one guillotine submission.
Hooker’s most recent opponent, Gilbert Burns, is fresh in the minds of UFC fans after he won a unanimous decision over Olivier Aubin-Mercier last weekend at UFC 231. Hooker was able to knock out Burns in the first round in July at UFC 226, and “The Hangman” carries a lot of momentum into the fight with Barboza.
Barboza is no slouch, though. He will be a tough test for Hooker. Despite his last two appearances being lopsided losses to Kevin Lee and Khabib Nurmagomedov, Barboza remains one of the most dangerous strikers in the lightweight division. Hooker certainly doesn’t have the wrestling credentials of Lee or Nurmagomedov that would be required to put the Brazilian on the mat, so expect most of this fight to take place on the feet. The two elite strikers will exchange fierce leg kicks and sharp, accurate punches and elbows for 15 minutes.
Hooker’s four-fight finishing streak might come to a close, but he will make a huge statement by defeating Barboza and solidifying his place as a top-10 lightweight in the UFC’s premier division.
Kuhl: To echo my colleague, the only other lightweight fight beyond the headliner that has immediate implications is the match-up between Hooker and Barboza. However, I see this one playing out differently.
Hooker is an awesome fighter, and he’ll be around for a long time. However, Barboza’s back is against the wall. The Brazilian hasn’t had a favorable match-up in a while. Hooker is primarily a striker with a solid ground game, and it’s really hard to go against the wave of rising stars who are picking off veterans left and right, but, as stated above, Hooker is not a wrestler on the same level as Nurmagomedov or Lee. This is Barboza’s chance to prove he may have been down, but he’s not out.
The Brazilian will score a highlight-reel knockout to end the New Zealander’s current winning streak.
Dwight Grant, Jordan Griffin and Juan Adams — do we need to know these names?
Kuhl: Many people may not have heard of Juan “The Kraken” Adams yet, but they will, soon enough. He has burned through every opponent in his combined pro and amateur careers. Adams went 3-0 to kick off his pro career in the Legacy Fighting Alliance. Then, he won his fight on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series in July. Adams is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.
For his debut, Adams faces Chris De La Rocha, who is 39 years old, got a late start in his career, and is only 1-2 in the Octagon. Adams has a tremendous opportunity to make a big run in the heavyweight division.
Petela: If recent history is any indicator of what is to come, then Grant, a DWTNCS alum, is a fighter to keep an eye on when he makes his official promotional debut on Saturday. The welterweight prospect is a product of the American Kickboxing Academy, home of double champion Daniel Cormier and former champs Luke Rockhold and Cain Velasquez.
Grant gets a moment to shine when he takes on late-notice replacement Zak Ottow, who is trying to rebound from a TKO loss to UFC veteran and current ONE Championship fighter Sage Northcutt. Grant will show off the same hand speed and ferocious power that landed him a contract when he knocked out Tyler Hill on DWTNCS. He’ll make a statement in his Octagon debut.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Jared Gordon and Joaquim Silva.
This fight on the preliminary card could prove to be the most entertaining contest of all the lightweight bouts on the evening. Gordon is out to rebound from a TKO loss to Carlos Diego Ferreira, while Silva is coming off a unanimous-decision loss to Vinc Pichel. Neither man has fought since early 2018, and Silva has only fought four times since he signed with the UFC in 2015. Gordon is a product of DWTNCS, which seems to be the feeder system for not only talented, but exciting fighters. Silva is a product of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, the former feeding system for some of the UFC’s top fighters.
Both men are well-rounded fighters who trained in Muay Thai before entering MMA. Silva is also a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, while Gordon is a brown belt under the wizard, John Danaher. This should be a closely contested fight with its fair share of striking and grappling. Gordon will have his hand raised and look for a potential showdown with the winner of the bout between Bobby Green and Drakkar Klose.
Kuhl: That’s a perfect segue for my pick of Klose and Green. This will be a great one.
Green has not fought since January due to injuries, and, while he had a tough run, losing three in a row — almost four, had Lando Vannata not been deducted a point in their October 2017 fight — he came back with a nice win over Erik Koch. Green needs a victory to stay relevant, and that usually makes for a tough fight.
Klose comes in with a 3-1 record in the UFC. He scored a slight upset victory over the aforementioned Vannata in July. A win over Green will get him that much closer to a top-15 ranking, whereas a loss will push him back into non-relevance.
Pair this card with…
Kuhl: DirtWolf Double IPA from Victory Brewing. Wolves are a natural predator of foxes, and with ESPN taking over the broadcasting reins from Fox after this event, it truly is a victory for the UFC.
Petela: This is a heavy-duty card to close out the UFC/Fox relationship, so it needs a heavy-duty beer to go along with it. Nothing could be better than a hometown brew for just the occasion, which is why I’ll pair this card with a Milwaukee’s Best Ice. At 6.9 percent ABV, Beast Ice packs the same punch as these fighters will on Saturday when the UFC says so long to Fox.
|Fight||Kuhl’s Pick||Petela’s Pick|
|Main Card (Fox, 8 p.m. ET)|
|LW: Kevin Lee vs. Al Iaquinta||Lee||Lee|
|LW: Edson Barboza vs. Daniel Hooker||Barboza||Hooker|
|BW: Sergio Pettis vs. Rob Font||Pettis||Font|
|LW: Charles Oliveira vs. Jim Miller||Oliveira||Oliveira|
|Preliminary Card (Fox, 5 p.m. ET)|
|WW: Dwight Grant vs. Zak Ottow||Grant||Grant|
|Women’s FlyW: Jessica-Rose “Jessy Jess” Clark vs. Andrea Lee||Lee||Lee|
|LW: Drakkar Klose vs. Bobby Green||Klose||Klose|
|LW: Joaquim Silva vs. Jared Gordon||Gordon||Gordon|
|MW: Jack Hermansson vs. Gerald Meerschaert||Hermansson||Hermansson|
|FW: Dan Ige vs. Jordan Griffin||Ige||Ige|
|Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 3:30 p.m. ET)|
|LHW: Adam Milstead vs. Mike Rodriguez||Milstead||Milstead|
|MW: Zak Cummings vs. Trevor Smith||Cummings||Cummings|
|HW: Juan Adams vs. Chris De La Rocha||Adams||Adams|