Neil Magny (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC Fight Night 78 Preview and Predictions

On Saturday, Nov. 21, the UFC makes the trip to Mexico for the third time. The previous ventures south of the border to Mexico City were pay-per-view cards featuring the current UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum and other name fighters like former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and rising star Yair Rodriguez. There won’t be a heavyweight championship fight on this trip south, though. Instead, the UFC is offering a clash of top welterweights in the promotion’s first trip to Monterrey.

Top-10 welterweight Kelvin Gastelum will make his return to the welterweight division for the first time since missing weight by 10 pounds at UFC 181. The weight cut and inactivity led to Gastelum’s first loss in a bout where many pundits believed he could upset the top-five ranked Tyron Woodley. The beatdown of Nate Marquardt was Gastelum’s only fight at middleweight before attempting the cut back down to welterweight for this main-event bout against Neil Magny.

Magny stands just outside the top 10 at welterweight. The movement of Magny in the rankings over the past two years has come on the backing of seven straight wins before he tasted defeat at the hands of Demian Maia at UFC 190 in August. Magny didn’t let the loss derail the momentum of victories over welterweight prospect Alex Garcia, South Korean striker Hyun Gyu Lim and many others. Magny returned to his winning form in his last bout, a split-decision victory over Erick Silva at UFC Fight Night 74.


In the evening’s co-headliner, the original winner of The Ultimate Fighter, Diego Sanchez, makes his featherweight debut against top-five featherweight Ricardo Lamas. Sanchez was scheduled to fight at UFC 180 before injuries to his opponents kept him out of the bout. The popular brawler has not fought since a controversial split-decision win over Ross Pearson at UFC Fight Night 42. Lamas is coming off a loss to top featherweight Chad Mendes in the main event of UFC Fight Night 63. The knockout loss didn’t set Lamas back too far, as he will be making his return after having won six of his last eight and losing only to champion José Aldo and the aforementioned Mendes. Strong wins over Cub Swanson, Hatsu Hioki and Dennis Bermudez lend to the idea that Lamas isn’t too far outside of title contention, although he has a long line of contenders ahead of him.

Mexican fighter Efrain Escudero looks to hold off the surging Leandro “Buscapé” Silva in his fourth bout since returning to the UFC. The Ultimate Fighter 12 winner will be looking for his third consecutive win and second inside his home country. Silva has won bouts against Charlie Brenneman and Lewis Gonzalez since making his promotional debut in 2014.

A potential flyweight title shot is on the line when undefeated 2008 Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo clashes with former No. 1 flyweight Jussier “Formiga” da Silva. Both men are riding three-fight winning streaks inside the UFC, and the winner potentially will move on to face UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson in 2016.
The preliminary card is headlined by the return of Mexican striker Erik Perez, who takes on French fighter Taylor Lapilus. The 25-year-old Perez will seek to get back into the win column on home soil, while Lapilus looks to keep his five-fight winning streak alive. The Ultimate Fighter 19 cast member Hector Urbina returns to Mexico to take on Polish prospect Bartosz Fabiński. Two more Mexican fighters round out the televised prelims when Alejandro Perez takes on Scott Jorgensen and Gabriel Benitez fights Andre Fili.

The evening begins with three fights on UFC Fight Pass streaming live at 6:30 p.m. ET. The action continues on Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET with the four-bout preliminary card, followed by the four-bout main card at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Zach Aittama preview the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Kelvin Gastelum is back at welterweight after a botched cut forced a catchweight bout against Tyron Woodley and a UFC-mandated move up to middleweight against Nate Marquardt in his next fight. Will Gastelum show up on weight and in form for his headlining bout with Neil Magny? How bad will it be for Gastelum if he fails to make the welterweight limit?

Huntemann: Will Gastelum show up on weight and in form for his fight with Magny? Well, he better. If you ask him, the UFC paid for a nutritionist to make sure he did make weight for this fight. So, really, he has no excuse if his employer is actually helping him make weight. Gastelum has all the talent in the world. He pulled off a huge upset when he defeated Uriah Hall in the 17th season finale of The Ultimate Fighter, when basically no one gave him a chance because Hall spent the entire season putting on highlight-reel knockouts and sending guys to the hospital.

Gastelum’s lone loss came against Woodley, who’s pushing hard for a title shot at welterweight. So Gastelum has the talent, for sure. But why does he have such problems making weight? Does he have some kind of thyroid condition? An eating disorder? Does the guy just really like food? We don’t know. But this fight against Magny should be his last chance to prove he can make weight. If not, the UFC needs to give him an ultimatum: Move up to middleweight or you’re fired.

All that said, I still like Gastelum to prevail over Magny. This is actually a much tougher match-up than Gastelum’s original bout against Matt Brown. While Brown puts on bloody, memorable and exciting brawls, the plain truth is that he is a journeyman who struggles against elite competition. I’m not calling Gastelum elite (yet), but he would have taken care of Brown much like he took care of Marquardt, who showed he clearly has nothing left to offer the sport, at UFC 188.

Magny is a rangy, dangerous fighter who can beat opponents standing or on the ground. Gastelum better be on his A-game and on weight for this fight, and I think the roughly -250 to -275 favorite will do just that. If nothing else, because he has no choice.

Aittama: I do believe Gastelum will step on the scale as a welterweight (probably right at the limit of 171 pounds), but the battle against his weight will be the easiest fight he will have all week. Magny presents some issues that could cause trouble for the heavy favorite.

Inactivity and the weight cut led to Gastelum’s first loss against Woodley, but he made a successful return at UFC 188 in Mexico against the grizzled veteran Marquardt. The one-sided beatdown again showed the promise that the TUF 17 winner has shown since stepping inside the Octagon for the first time in 2013. Gastelum has quickly moved up the welterweight rankings with wins over Rick Story, Nico Musoke and Jake Ellenberger.

Magny returned to the win column against Erick Silva in his last fight, but his once seven-fight winning streak was snapped just months ago against grappling ace Demian Maia at UFC 190. Magny continues his journey to welterweight gold while fighting in his sixth different country in the past two years. He will be making his return on relatively short notice against a top-10 welterweight who has only lost once in his career.

Despite the odds against him in this bout, Magny has many tools that could make this fight much closer than expected. Magny will need to establish his jab, keep his back off of the fence and look to land with volume as the fight continues. Magny has the cardio to go the full five rounds, while Gastelum will be making his first cut to welterweight since missing by 10 pounds against Woodley. Gastelum’s athleticism and wrestling ability will win him this fight. It won’t be easy for the Mexican-American fighter, but the 24-year-old should get his welterweight title run back on track with a victory over the tough Magny.

Featherweights Ricardo Lamas and Diego Sanchez meet in the co-main event. These men have a combined 4-4 mark from 2013 to present. Is either man still a relevant contender in the division?

Aittama: Despite their downfalls in the past two years, there is still hope that one of these men can make his way back to title contention. The fighter that gets his hand raised on fight night will undoubtedly raise his stock in the featherweight division, with one fighter positioned to climb much further than the other. That fighter is Lamas.

Lamas is still the No. 4-ranked UFC featherweight. He lost his last fight to Chad Mendes, the No. 3-ranked featherweight in the UFC. Before the loss in April 2015, Lamas tapped top-10 featherweight Dennis Bermudez, stopping his seven-fight winning streak, and handed Nova União fighter Hacran Dias only his third loss in his 26-fight career. That doesn’t sound like a fighter who is too far gone from contendership in the featherweight division. What does make his road to the title difficult is the man currently holding the title and the three men just outside of his title grasp. UFC featherweight champion José Aldo fights interim champion Conor McGregor at UFC 194 in December to unify the featherweight titles. And while No. 2-ranked Frankie Edgar awaits his second title shot at featherweight, Mendes might make another appearance against Aldo or McGregor with another win. These fights and potential match-ups could keep Lamas waiting for quite some time in hopes of a second title shot.

Relevancy aside, Lamas is a very good fighter. He may be creeping into his mid 30s, but “The Bully” has continuously shown an ability to fight in any aspect of mixed martial arts. Lamas has finishing ability with his hands, both with strikes and with his submissions. He will be fighting one of the grizzled veterans of this sport, the 21-fight UFC vet Sanchez. Sanchez has proven to be one of the most entertaining fighters since his debut after the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. One of the original winners of the show, Sanchez has moved up and down in weight, even fighting for a title against B.J. Penn at UFC 107 in 2009. Sanchez has hit a rough patch of late, losing in his last three bouts. Oh, you looked at his Wikipedia page and it says he won his last fight? While he had his hand raised in victory against Ross Pearson at UFC Fight Night 42, Sanchez should have been handed the loss in the fight. His sheer inactivity and inability to land effective offense led to one of the worst decisions inside the Octagon in 2014. The fight was the last time Sanchez stepped inside of the cage, not leaving much to the imagination of how he will fair against a top-five featherweight in his first attempt at making the cut to 145 pounds.

While Sanchez still carries name value, a run at UFC gold is most likely out of the question. He is still a tough out and hopefully what we see on Saturday night is less of Sanchez vs. Pearson and more of Sanchez vs. Melendez from UFC 166: A rough and tumble version of the TUF winner and a never-say-die fighter who has come back and won against all odds. However, unfortunately for Sanchez, Lamas will get back on the winning track and put himself in the running for title contention.

Huntemann: Is either man still a relevant contender in the featherweight division? Quite frankly: No. But at least Lamas is closer to regaining relevance than Sanchez. Lamas went the distance with Aldo in 2014 for the featherweight title, but suffered a first-round TKO loss to Mendes earlier this year. He’s dangling perilously close to “gatekeeper” status, unless he shows he can beat the upper echelon at 145 pounds.

Again, he’s closer than Sanchez. Listen, we all love to watch Sanchez fight because we know he’s going to put on an entertaining performance. His fights with Melendez, Ellenberger, Martin Kampmann and Clay Guida will go down as some of the best and most entertaining fights in UFC history. But Sanchez’s willingness to bleed for our sins and “go out on his shield” has caught up with him. I agree with Dan Hardy, who said that MMA has evolved with fighters getting away from Sanchez’s style of pressing ahead and brawling and moving to more precision striking from different angles.

A win over Sanchez won’t really get Lamas much closer to another title shot, but Lamas will get that victory. If he follows Hardy’s advice and comes at Sanchez from different angles, I like his chances to win. However, if he follows Sanchez’s lead and engages in another bloody brawl, that’s still Sanchez’s wheelhouse. Plus, Lamas would run the chance of being on the bad end of a controversial split decision, like what ended up happening in Sanchez’s fights with Kampmann and Pearson. Lamas just needs to execute his game plan. If he does so, then he will be successful.

With the UFC’s third venture into Mexico, the promotion booked four Mexican fighters to fill the undercard. With many of the Mexican fighters competing at the previous two events in Mexico, which fighter has the potential to have a breakout performance on fight night?

Huntemann: I think Erik Perez can emerge from this card. His only losses in the UFC were to Bryan Caraway and Takeya Mizugaki, a pair of solid and tough, if not spectacular, fighters. Perez also triumphed over a game Edwin Figueroa in 2013 and has a great opportunity to make a name for himself in what’s currently a pretty thin bantamweight division.

However, it won’t be easy for Perez against Taylor Lapilus, who has only lost once in his career and is coming off a second-round TKO victory in his last fight. The opportunity is there for a new player to come on the scene at 135 pounds. The winner of this fight could go a long way to filling that role.

Aittama: I agree with the pick of Perez. He not only has the best track record of any of the Mexican fighters making their way to the fight card, but he fights with a style that can catch the eyes of fans. These two factors could potentially lead to Perez enjoying a coming-out party in front of his home country’s fans.

However, the name I believe that has the biggest potential to break out is Alejandro Perez (no relation to the aforementioned Erik Perez). The 26-year-old is the bantamweight winner of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America. He has fought on both of the previous Mexican fight cards, UFC 180 and UFC 188, and won the TUF Latin America title at UFC 180 against Jose Alberto Quiñones. Perez lost quickly in his last fight at the hands of Patrick Williams, who sunk the guillotine choke in against the cage in less than 30 seconds.

Despite the quick loss, Alejandro Perez has a huge opportunity to take out a veteran fighter in his home country. A win against WEC/UFC mainstay Scott Jorgensen could potentially catapult the career of Perez. The potential to see a breakout performance from Perez is there, but it may also be a case of too much, too soon for the Mexican fighter. We will find out Saturday night if Perez can make the necessary adjustments and have his hand raised to the applause of the Monterrey fans.

Should the winner of the Henry Cejudo/Jussier “Formiga” da Silva bout be considered the No. 1 contender at flyweight? More importantly, does either fighter have what it takes to dethrone champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson? So really, this question is threefold: Should the winner of this fight get the next flyweight title shot, who wins this fight and would they stand a chance against Mighty Mouse?

Aittama: Well, let’s tackle these questions in order then. Should the winner of this fight get the next flyweight title shot? This is the easiest question to answer. There is no other way around it: This is a flyweight title eliminator. The winner here will have earned four straight wins. Cejudo is currently undefeated with the promotion and Formiga’s only two losses came to top-five flyweights Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson, two men who have both challenged Johnson for the title twice.

Johnson defended his title four times against two members of the top-five who have a combined record of 13-0 when not fighting the current champion. That statistic doesn’t bode well for the title prospects of the rest of the flyweight division. Johnson has defended his title seven times since winning the belt at UFC 152 in August 2012. Unbeaten since a bantamweight title challenge against Dominick Cruz in October 2011, Johnson carries the aura of an unbeatable champion. One can only describe the champ’s game as complete. He is truly one of the best fighters in the world, from the technical and physical aspects to his unmatched ability to take his coach’s instructions and immediately implement Matt Hume’s words into his game plan. This ability to evolve mid-fight keeps Johnson open and ready to adapt to any situation he may see fight time. While a fighter like Dodson was able to succeed in the first meeting with his speed and striking power, Johnson made adjustments between the second and third round that completely changed the course of the contest. Johnson never looked back, while Dodson never got back into the fight. These intangible qualities, along with his blinding speed and flawless technique, will most likely keep the UFC title in the state of Washington. It is hard to imagine a world where Johnson can’t win another three fights with the belt around his waist in chase of Anderson Silva’s record of 10 title defenses, even after a week when the sport’s top pay-per-view star Ronda Rousey was put to sleep with a left head kick by Holly Holm at UFC 193.

I guess I didn’t answer the questions in order, but I wanted to focus on what was important in this match-up: the fight itself. The 2008 Olympic gold medalist Cejudo is still unbeaten in his nine-fight career. Cejudo has been met with criticism of his weight and motivation in the past, but he has already proven himself as a top-level flyweight with ever-improving boxing and the ability to take his opponent down at will.

The Nova União-trained Formiga has been a top-10 flyweight since long before the UFC added the division. It was an achievement he earned after defeating former top flyweight Shinichi “BJ” Kojima in 2009. Formiga continued to defeat strong fighters such as Alexandre Pantoja and Danny Martinez before hitting his first career roadblock, a decision defeat at the hands of current UFC flyweight Ian McCall. Formiga rebounded on the Brazilian circuit and made his UFC debut in 2012. Since joining the UFC, he has showcased his high-level grappling and improving striking.

The fight itself will rely heavily on the pace and output of Cejudo. If the former Olympic wrestler decides to keep the fight standing and work his hand combinations, we could be in for another dominating performance. If Cejudo decides to take the fight to the floor, the tables might turn in the direction of Formiga, especially in transition. The Brazilian has great positioning and has sunk in a rear-naked choke to finish many of his past fights.

I would not be surprised if Cejudo looked to combine game plans. If Cejudo can land his hands with regularity, avoid the grappling exchanges and work in an occasional takedown to control the 15-minute affair, he will surely be the favorite to have his hand raised on Saturday night. Cejudo takes this fight unless Formiga can catch him with a guillotine or back take during the wrestling transitions.

Huntemann: Well, I’m not sure I can deliver as much of an eloquent dissertation on the merits of flyweight title contendership as my esteemed colleague here. But I, too, will answer these questions in order.

Should the winner be considered the No. 1 contender at flyweight? Yes. Both fighters are in the top five in the division and enjoying multiple-fight winning streaks — and, in Cejudo’s case, an undefeated record. Johnson has basically cleaned out the flyweight division, and Cejudo and Formiga represent his last challenges before he could seriously contemplate a return to bantamweight.

Who do I think wins this fight? I really like Cejudo. Even if he was a bit sluggish in his last fight, he has all the talent in the world. He has speed that can at least approach the speed of Johnson. I expect this fight to go the distance, and it has the potential to steal the show. It wouldn’t surprise me if the veteran Formiga prevails, but I think Cejudo will win what should be a fast-paced, exciting match-up.

Can Cejudo hang with Johnson, though? Honestly, probably not. Thanks to Ronda Rousey’s loss over the weekend, Johnson is the last dominant champion standing in UFC. He genuinely outclasses every fighter he steps in the cage against. Cejudo would hang in there for a round or two, but eventually the otherworldly skill and experience of Johnson would win out.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Huntemann: I really think Henry Cejudo and Jussier “Formiga” da Silva can steal the show. There has been a lot of buzz surrounding Cejudo as a potential flyweight title contender. I mean, Demetrious Johnson has demolished and dominated everyone else at flyweight. If Cejudo wins this fight, why not give him a title shot? There’s no one else at 125 pounds that poses any sort of challenge to Mighty Mouse.

Cejudo wasn’t pleased with his last performance at UFC 188 (also in Mexico, for the record), which I believe he attributed to food poisoning. Hopefully this time around he avoids the delicious (but occasionally dangerous) Mexican street food.

But Formiga is not to be taken lightly, either. He’s won three in a row, including a first-round submission victory against a veteran in Scott Jorgensen. Formiga dominated Wilson Reis in his last fight and will pose the stiffest test of Cejudo’s young career. Don’t blink while watching this fight, because you might end up miss something exciting.

Aittama: The sleeper match-up on this fight card is the featherweight clash between Mexican fighter Gabriel Benitez and American Andre Fili. What makes this an exciting match-up is not only the clash of striking and grappling, but the potential that both men carry coming out of the contest.

While Fili has lost two of his last three bouts, he still carries potential to become a fun action fighter in a packed featherweight division. Benitez, on the other hand, has made a career for himself fighting on the regional circuit in Mexico before making the move to the southwest United States to take a step up in competition. Benitez made his way onto The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America before being eliminated from the competition in the semifinal round. He made a successful Octagon debut at UFC 180 against Humberto Brown Morrison and then returned to Mexico at UFC 188 to defeat the tough Clay Collard after 15 minutes.

Benitez will have a chance to make large gains in popularity in his home country with yet another win on home soil inside the Octagon. Team Alpha Male’s Fili will seek to return to the win column and continue his trek towards featherweight title contention. This is a fight you don’t want to miss.

Pair this card with…

Aittama: While this weekend is filled with combat+sports action from the boxing world to major fight cards overseas, this fight card features exciting matchmaking and a hometown narrative. With the UFC making the trip to Mexico for the third time, the promotion is hoping for one of the hometown fighters to take a major step toward becoming a star in their home country. With what looks to be a regular visit south of the border, the UFC will need Mexican-born fighters like Yair Rodriguez and Erik Perez to continue their evolution into complete mixed martial artists. On the same weekend that middleweight stars Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Miguel Cotto clash in the boxing ring, this is just the fight card to celebrate the long-standing traditions of fighting in Mexico with some tamales, gorditas and a big bowl of menudo, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Huntemann: A cold beer, so you can relax. There seems to be a bit of an adrenaline dump among MMA fans after the shocking upset of Ronda Rousey by Holly Holm last weekend. This card features some exciting fights, but it’s possible most of us will still be coming down from our UFC 193 high. So grab a cold beer, kick back, relax and enjoy some free fights. There may not be any “holy shit!” moments with this card like there was when Holm knocked out Rousey, but hey, if you’re still the adrenaline type, maybe you’ll get lucky!

Fight Picks

Fight Huntemann’s Pick Aittama’s Pick
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
WW: Kelvin Gastelum vs. Neil Magny Gastelum Gastelum
FW: Ricardo Lamas vs. Diego Sanchez Lamas Lamas
LW: Efrain Escudero vs. Leandro Silva Escudero Escudero
FlyW: Henry Cejudo vs. Jussier “Formiga” da Silva Cejudo Cejudo
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Erik Perez vs. Taylor Lapilus Perez Perez
WW: Hector Urbina vs. Bartosz Fabiński Urbina Fabiński
BW: Alejandro Perez vs. Scott Jorgensen Jorgensen Jorgensen
FW: Gabriel Benitez vs. Andre Fili Fili Fili
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Valmir Lázaro vs. Michel Prazeres Prazeres Prazeres
WW: Erick Montano vs. Enrique Marin Montano Montano
WW: Vernon Ramos vs. Alvaro Herrera Ramos Ramos