Robbie Lawler (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 201 Preview and Predictions

Well, UFC 201 is finally upon us. Obviously, that is a statement that has not been heard often in the mainstream media, but it is a card that should excite fans. Headlining the card is a much-awaited showdown — at least, in the eyes of the challenger — between welterweight champ Robbie Lawler and NCAA Division I All-American wrestler Tyron Woodley.

Lawler took the MMA world by surprise when he revived his career during his second UFC incarnation by going 8-1 in the last three years. He beat the who’s who of the division, captured the belt from Johny Hendricks and defended it against Rory MacDonald and Carlos Condit. His current run includes five “of the Night” performances and one “Fight of the Year” performance, and the list of challengers is quickly adding up. Woodley is next in line.

Woodley is coming off a couple of wins in late 2014 and early 2015 which put him on the road to a title shot. However, a strange turn of events led to him choosing the bench over competition, and that’s where he has been for a year and a half. The native of Missouri has been watching time go by for too long and is ready for his shot, which will finally come this Saturday night at the Philips Arena in Atlanta.


The co-headliner is a strawweight throwdown with title implications between unbeaten Polish fighter Karolina Kowalkiewicz, who is on a two-fight UFC winning streak and is looking to keep her record unblemished, and “Thug” Rose Namajunas, the runner-up from season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter who is currently riding a three-fight winning streak. Both women have dynamic fighting skills, which will make for a fantastic match-up.

Rounding out the main card is a battle of veterans between Matt Brown and Jake Ellenberger, a bantamweight match-up between Francisco Rivera and Erik Perez, and the return of Ian “Uncle Creepy” McCall against young striker Justin Scoggins.

UFC 201 kicks off from Atlanta with a few preliminary fights on UFC Fight Pass at 6:30 p.m. ET. The card moves to Fox Sports 2 for another batch of prelims at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card will follow on pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Vince Carey and Dan Kuhl break down the finer points of the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Tyron Woodley is finally getting his shot at the welterweight crown against champion Robbie Lawler, but he seems to be overshadowed by other contenders waiting in the wings, including Stephen Thompson, Demian Maia and Carlos Condit. Is Woodley a big threat to Lawler’s reign, or is he just a stopgap opponent until the other contenders are ready for their turn?

Carey: Woodley really does feel like an afterthought when it comes to the welterweight division right now. It feels like Thompson has earned his title shot twice after a couple of impressive wins to start the year, Maia is in the middle of the best winning streak he’s had since he won his first five fights in the Octagon, and Condit arguably did enough to steal the belt from Lawler when they went toe-to-toe in January in a “Fight of the Year” candidate. Meanwhile, Woodley hasn’t been seen in the Octagon in well over a year and is only riding a two-fight winning streak heading into the biggest fight of his life. When you stack him up against the other contenders in the division, it’s not surprising at all that the MMA community is overlooking T-Wood.

I’m picking Lawler to win this fight and keep his completely unexpected (yet extremely entertaining) title run going. But with how crazy the MMA world has been over the last 12 months, it’s hard to feel good about a supposed “sure thing” in a title fight. Sure, we’ve been saying that anything can happen in MMA pretty much since its inception, but if we ever need a reminder, then the UFC has given us plenty as of late. There was Nate Diaz over Conor McGregor. Michael Bisping over Luke Rockhold. Amanda Nunes over Miesha Tate, who overcame Holly Holm, who in turn overcame Ronda Rousey, because the women’s bantamweight division is batshit crazy at the moment. The MMA gods have been having a lot of fun recently, and it makes it increasingly difficult not to doubt even the most confident of picks at the moment.

Despite most champions playing hot potato with their titles right now, it’s a little too difficult to see how Woodley wins this fight. Standing and trading with Lawler is one of the most daunting tasks an opponent can undertake. While T-Wood has good power and his striking has improved by leaps and bounds over the years, can anyone really see him putting away Lawler, who hasn’t been knocked out in over a decade? On the flip side, while Woodley has better wrestling credentials on paper, Lawler has fought some excellent wrestlers in the aforementioned Hendricks and MacDonald during his run and has kept things standing rather easily. Maybe Woodley will surprise everyone and pull off a huge upset, but I honestly don’t see how he’d do it. Lawler by TKO.

Kuhl: Is it possible for a guy to sit for 545 days and then come back with a victory? Sure. Is it possible to come back after a 545-day layoff to beat Lawler for the UFC welterweight title he has won and defended twice? Let’s not be silly here. Lawler hasn’t taken 545 consecutive days off in his entire 15-year pro career. This is not a simple case of ring rust. This is a big problem, and it was certainly not Woodley’s intention.

Woodley has consistently competed in one sport or another since he was a kid, but the UFC has a strange way of breaking streaks. To make a long story short, Woodley was at least on his way to earning a title shot when a dangerous combination of scheduling and Hendricks’ weight got in the way. Woodley didn’t have to fight anyone else to get a shot at Lawler, but a lot of time passed along the way.

A big part of fighting is the mental and physical timing. Staying active keeps the mind sharp. It affects muscle memory, quick-twitch reactions and the general cohesiveness of the body. The symbiotic relationship comes full circle when the mental acuity is on point. Thompson has it more than most, but Maia and Condit aren’t far behind. But problems start to arise when a fighter’s mind and body do not go through the ebb-and-flow of training camps, and the longer you wait, the worse it gets. Call it ring rust or whatever else, but Woodley has never been through this before. Meanwhile, life has been business as usual for Lawler.

Woodley may be able to step back in and pull off a win in a tune-up fight, but this fight is against a dominant, streaking champion who, even as one of the most seasoned vets, is still only 34 years old. There are just not enough intangibles in Woodley to pull this off, even if it was on his normal schedule. As for pulling it off with a long layoff before facing Lawler in his prime? Not a chance.

I will echo my colleague and take Lawler by TKO.

Rose Namajunas is a popular women’s strawweight fighter who has bounced back from her loss to Carla Esparza with wins over current Invicta champ Angela Hill, UFC star Paige VanZant and longtime contender Tecia Torres. Now, Namajunas draws another tough match-up when she faces undefeated Polish fighter Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Can Namajunas keep her winning streak alive? Will a victory here be enough to vault her — or Kowalkiewicz, if the KSW vet edges Namajunas — to a title shot?

Kuhl: I’ve always had mixed emotions about Namajunas. Frankly, her performances say a lot when you look at them through the right set of eyes. When she entered her season of TUF, hardcore women’s MMA fans knew very well who she was and knew she would be a game competitor. She won all three of her TUF fights by submission, and she still holds one of the best highlight-reel flying armbars ever executed in competition, but she’s still really young and her recent wins have not been over truly top-level opponents. Hill’s current streak has a lot of asterisks when you look at her opponents, an incredibly overmatched VanZant was able to make it all the way into the fifth round, and Torres went the distance for a second time, almost warranting a rubber match. When you compare that with the girls Kowalkiewicz has been swimming with, there is a stark contrast in the depth of opponents.

The Polish fighter fought at 125 pounds for most of her career until she made the drop down to 115 to enter the UFC. She’s used to fighting larger opponents, even though she is two inches shorter than Namajunas. Her expertise is striking, and this is glaringly obvious in her statistics. Kowalkiewicz lands almost twice as many strikes per minute, and she has better striking accuracy as well as defense. Namajunas has a much better ground game, but Kowalkiewicz is defending 95 percent of takedown attempts. The biggest factor to consider here are the intangibles.

Namajunas seems to have the perfect attitude for a fighter, both in and out of competition. Whether her nickname is “Thug” or not, she certainly doesn’t act like a thug. She has an unmatched will to win that she exhibits in both her training and her fights, but she also exudes a certain gracious, soft side the second the fight ends. There is something about this balance that makes her a very scary competitor.

On paper, I would consider this fight a toss-up, but reality is not on paper. Kowalkiewicz has all the tools in place to stake a claim in the UFC’s strawweight division, but Namajunas has that scary attitude switch she can flip to complement her well-rounded skill set. Namajunas is due for another submission win, and it will come against Kowalkiewicz. The victory will put Namajunas within one fight of a title shot, but nothing immediate.

Carey: Full disclosure: Namajunas is one of my favorite fighters in the sport right now. She’s entertaining as hell, she fights with a ton of heart and passion, and her attitude is among the best in the sport. I’d love to see her compete for gold one day, and I’d especially love to see Namajunas try to figure out the puzzle that is Joanna Jędrzejczyk’s striking and cardio. However, I don’t have enough faith in her striking to see her pulling off wins over top-level strikers like the champion quite yet.

If Kowalkiewicz’s first couple of bouts in the Octagon are any indication, she might have some of the best stand-up in the division. In her UFC bouts against Randa Markos and Heather Jo Clark, Kowalkiewicz has looked fantastic once she finds her range. Her takedown defense has been damn near impeccable thus far, too. Her time as a flyweight seems to have paid off in a big way in terms of her ability to keep upright and shut down her opponent’s takedown attempts, and her accurate and unpredictable striking have turned her into a fast contender. A fight against Namajunas will be her toughest test yet, but as long as her takedown defense continues to hold up, I don’t see a reason why she won’t pull it off.

Even if “Thug” Rose can get the fight to the floor, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kowalkiewicz prove she’s able to at least hang around and survive. In her fight against Markos, the Polish fighter was able to reverse a grappling situation to her advantage and start raining down strikes from top position. In her last outing against Clark, Kowalkiewicz came close to locking in an armbar of her own when her opponent became too aggressive. While she certainly isn’t on the level of Namajunas, Kowalkiewicz has enough on the mat to hold her own.

I’m taking Kowalkiewicz to win by decision. However, regardless of who wins this fight, that person will be next in line for Jędrzejczyk’s belt. There isn’t another obvious contender now that Claudia Gadelha has had her shot. This will be the third straight fight for Namajunas in a main or co-main event slot, so the promotion obviously thinks highly of her. She’s basically being groomed for her shot if she wins this weekend. On the flip side, Kowalkiewicz will have improved her undefeated record to 10-0 with a win. Furthermore, the Polish fighter’s striking style could result in a really fun fight with the champion, who has actually handed Kowalkiewicz a loss.

Unless the UFC wants one of its most popular champions sitting on the sidelines waiting for a contender to emerge, the promotion is going to have to pick someone to get the next title shot. The winner of this fight makes as much sense as any.

Jake Ellenberger and Matt Brown are two longtime vets who have been on the skids for a couple years now. Who will win this fight, and does it even matter for the winner’s career?

Carey: Conventional wisdom says that both of these guys have already seen their best days inside the Octagon, but who are we to count out Brown after he’s already basically come back from the UFC graveyard once?

The world had all but written Brown off when he dropped four of five fights between 2010 and 2011, but “Immortal” shook it off and ended up winning seven straight over the course of the next three years to become a contender. After losing three of his last four, though, it appears that Brown’s career resurgence has officially come to an end. However, he’s losing tough fights to tough guys and has only been finished by a Demian Maia submission. Brown won’t get back into title contention after this fight, but he does have a few good performances left in him.

I’m not quite as confident about my fellow Omaha native Ellenberger, who’s had a really tough time finding ways to win over the last few years. “The Juggernaut” has dropped five of his last six bouts and his lone win came against a fighter in Josh Koscheck that was struggling just as badly as Ellenberger was at that point in his career. Even worse, Ellenberger’s been finished in three of those losses and suffered some brutal knockouts in the process at the hands of Robbie Lawler and Stephen Thompson. For a fighter that already was a bit prone to getting rocked before these losses, Ellenberger’s propensity for being put away has me more than a little worried.

As sad as it is, I think this weekend might be the last we see of Ellenberger in the Octagon. The fact that he’s still even on the UFC roster after his recent stretch of fights shows just how much goodwill and respect he’s earned from the UFC brass over the years, but it’s getting harder and harder to justify his roster spot. A win over Brown seems like a tall order at this point. “Immortal” has never been knocked out, so one of Ellenberger’s vintage right hands seems unlikely to get the job done, and it’s just too hard to see Ellenberger successfully returning to his wrestling roots and grinding out a win against someone as dangerous as Brown. Eventually, these two are going to start trading punches, and I don’t know if Ellenberger’s chin can hold up in the exchanges.

Brown wins by TKO.

Kuhl: This fight has such an interesting setup, because it appears that Ellenberger’s and Brown’s careers look all but washed up. That is a sentence I don’t think anybody thought they would be reading just two years ago. However, that assessment might just be paper-deep.

The pair’s recent losses have come to the top guys in the welterweight division, with opponents like current champ Lawler, former champ Hendricks, former challenger MacDonald and future challengers Thompson and Maia posing some major issues for them. It is important to note, however, that Brown is the only person to beat Thompson in his combined 34-fight kickboxing and MMA career. A couple wins by either could put them back in a much better position.

Ellenberger and Brown are tenacious fighters. I will make a couple qualifications, as well, in saying that I, too, am an Omaha native, and I’ve also been one of the many fans of Brown. There are reasons these guys are still in the game.

Many people credit Ellenberger with bringing the “wet blanket” style of wrestling-infused MMA to the Midwest from his days of training at the original Team Quest. While not being the most exciting style to watch at times, it is very effective and can neutralize even the best strikers. Brown, on the other hand, has extreme tenacity, a ferocious striking attack and a great submission grappling game. These two guys combined to give Lawler over 28 minutes of war to begin his current run, and they could give each other hell going into Saturday night.

All told, even with all the turnover taking place throughout most of the divisions, the welterweight waiting line is just too long at this point, and it is not likely that either of these guys will ever get a shot at UFC gold. However, both have a lot to fight for and are badly in need of a win. Ellenberger has a couple tools that could yield him a victory, but Brown is more well rounded, more of a quick starter, and, as my colleague suggested, has a really good chance of touching Ellenberger’s chin.

Brown by TKO.

Ian McCall may only hold a 2-3-1 record in the UFC, but his losses are to some of the best the flyweight division has to offer and his two bouts with Demetrious Johnson are still the closest of Johnson’s 125-pound career. After taking more than a year off following a loss in his last bout, can “Uncle Creepy” get back on track against Justin Scoggins and eventually earn the title shot that’s eluded him in his UFC career?

Kuhl: As a big fan of McCall’s work from the WEC days, I really felt that he would have staked a much bigger claim in the UFC by now. If his only skid involved the losses in the UFC championship realm, I would be OK with that. But then came John Lineker, handing McCall a loss in his last UFC outing, which he followed up with an injury last summer. McCall has now been sidelined nearly a year, and you have to wonder if the 32-year-old really has made the correct overhaul or if he has just gotten mossy.

The 24-year-old Scoggins, on the other hand, is part of the new generation of fighters. It’s hard to gauge what to expect from the Kenpo black belt. It’s clear that the UFC positioned Scoggins as a tune-up fight for McCall, but the youngster has a better takedown record and an equally impressive striking game as “Uncle Creepy.”

At this point, the UFC needs McCall to win. The flyweight division has less depth than a one-night stand, and while Scoggins might be a great fighter down the road, McCall has a better potential to sell tickets. The matchmakers know this, too. If McCall comes in as a young 32-year-old instead of an old one after his time on the bench, then his experience should get him past the dynamic striking of Scoggins to lead him to a unanimous decision win.

Carey: I, too, expected more from McCall by this point in his UFC career, especially after the back-to-back tough battles with “Mighty Mouse,” but things just haven’t come together the way McCall would have hoped. He’s barely even mentioned among the 125-pound elite anymore. A win this weekend probably isn’t going to change that either, but taking out a young and talented fighter like Scoggins would go a long way toward putting McCall back in the elite category.

To be honest, I really don’t know what to expect from McCall this weekend. It’s been so long since his last bout and it’s unclear how motivated he is at this point in his career. In a May interview with MMA Junkie, McCall talked about how his body was beat up and that he was having a hard time getting the proper motivation to fight. Two days later, he posted on Twitter saying he was back and fighting Scoggins, one of the “young, hungry” fighters he said that he didn’t want to fight without being physically or mentally ready. McCall is notorious for having some fun with the media, and the timing definitely suggests that he knew a fight with Scoggins was on the table, but we won’t really know how serious those comments were until we see him in the cage again.

Even though there are a lot of red flags around McCall concerning his health and state of mind, the fact remains that “Uncle Creepy” hasn’t lost to anyone that isn’t an absolute beast since he’s been in the UFC. I’m not willing to bet against him quite yet. I’m extremely high on Scoggins as a prospect and a future top-ranked guy in the division, but I’m going to remain on the McCall bandwagon until I see a reason to believe otherwise. A good performance by McCall on Saturday could be the push in the right direction he needs in order to get back on track, and I’ll say he gets it over a game Scoggins.

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

Carey: Nikita Krylov and Ed Herman. This fight likely won’t be a “Fight of the Night” candidate if Krylov’s history of quick fights in the Octagon is any indication, but I’m really intrigued to see how the young Ukrainian does against the longtime veteran Herman.

Krylov is currently riding a four-fight winning streak with a stoppage inside of 10 minutes in all of those bouts, but he’s never fought someone with the UFC experience and veteran savvy that Herman possesses. This fight should be an excellent way to find out if the 24-year-old is as good as he’s looked recently.

Herman may not be an elite fighter, or even a gatekeeper, but he’s a tough guy to finish and he knows what it takes to grind out wins in the Octagon when he needs to. “Short Fuse” will likely be in survival mode early against the ultra-aggressive Krylov. If Herman survives the early storm, then it will be a lot of fun to see if he can hold up against a man who has never been to a decision in 24 professional fights.

Conventional wisdom says someone is getting finished in this one, and regardless of who that man is, this fight is going to answer some questions about the surging Krylov.

Kuhl: Well, someone just totally stole my thunder.

The Krylov-Herman fight is not to be missed. Herman is a longtime member in the “of the Night” club, bringing in six phenomenal performances in his 10-year UFC career. The 24-year-old Krylov, on the other hand, has finished his opponents in all of his five UFC wins, and his first of two UFC losses was in his promotional debut as a 21-year-old heavyweight against Soa Palelei. His only other UFC loss was to Ovince St. Preux during OSP’s rise to light heavyweight title contention. I absolutely despise this cliche, but this fight truly has “fireworks” written all over it.

Krylov is riding a four-fight winning streak and Herman is coming off a second-round TKO of fellow veteran Tim Boetsch. Herman is indeed playing gatekeeper to the new wave of fighter, and Krylov has a big future ahead of him. While both men are dangerous just about everywhere and have finished most of their respective opponents by a well-crafted combination of striking and grappling, Krylov is the one who has never been to a decision. He’ll come in with a ton of momentum and finish Herman by submission.

Pair this card with…

Kuhl: An international buffet. With 11 different nations represented in 12 fights, this is going to be a very international affair. In fact, only three of the fights feature an American versus an American, which rarely happens on a card located in the United States. The trash talk, though, could get lost in translation.

Carey: Personally, I’ll be pairing this fight with some birthday cake as I celebrate my younger brother’s 19th birthday on Saturday — shout out to Sam! — but this is a good card to share with your casual fight-fan friends. Unlike UFC 200, which was full of star power but also full of fights that we knew stylistically probably wouldn’t be the most fun to watch, UFC 201’s main card feels like it’s going to be extremely exciting despite the lack of big names. Robbie Lawler always brings it, the ladies in the co-headliner promise to put on a show, and the other three fights on the main card either have “Fight of the Night” potential or a high chance of a finish occurring. This might actually be a decent sleeper pick for “Card of the Year” in a few months if it lives up to its potential.

Fight Picks

Fight Carey’s Pick Kuhl’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
WW Championship: Robbie Lawler vs. Tyron Woodley Lawler Lawler
Women’s StrawW: Rose Namajunas vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz Kowalkiewicz Namajunas
WW: Matt Brown vs. Jake Ellenberger Brown Brown
BW: Erik Perez vs. Francisco Rivera Perez Perez
FlyW: Ian McCall vs. Justin Scoggins McCall McCall
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 2, 8 p.m. ET)
LHW: Nikita Krylov vs. Ed Herman Krylov Krylov
WW: Jorge Masvidal vs. Ross Pearson Masvidal Pearson
FlyW: Wilson Reis vs. Hector Sandoval Reis Reis
FlyW: Fredy Serrano vs. Ryan Benoit Serrano Serrano
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
WW: Mike Graves vs. Bojan Velickovic Graves Velickovic
HW: Damian Grabowski vs. Anthony Hamilton Hamilton Grabowski
LW: Damien Brown vs. Cesar Arzamendia Brown Brown