With the dust around the media circus that was International Fight Week and UFC 200 finally starting to settle, the UFC’s annual summer card in Chicago is upon us. UFC on Fox 20 delivers a women’s bantamweight headliner with major title implications.
Looking to get back into the win column after dropping her title in her first defense against Miesha Tate this past March, Holly Holm makes her return to the cage against fellow striker Valentina Shevchenko in a fight that could propel Holm into another title shot. With Amanda Nunes now at the top and Ronda Rousey nowhere in sight, the door is wide open for Holm to impress this weekend and earn another title opportunity. Of course, this is by far the biggest fight of Shevchenko’s career, and an upset win over a bona fide superstar would throw her straight into the title mix as well.
The original co-main event of this card was supposed to be a light heavyweight brawl between Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Glover Teixeira, but Rumble was forced to pull out of the bout a few weeks ago and the exciting lightweight scrap between Edson Barboza and Gilbert Melendez was promoted to the co-feature. Melendez is a former Strikeforce champion and UFC title challenger, but he’s struggled lately and hasn’t won a fight in almost three years. Coming off a year-long suspension, “El Niño” needs to get back on track in a big way. That won’t come easy against Barboza, who just earned one of the biggest wins of his career over former champion Anthony Pettis and is looking to confirm his status as a true contender to the lightweight strap.
UFC on Fox 20 kicks off from Chicago with a few preliminary fights on UFC Fight Pass at 4 p.m. ET. The card moves to Fox for another batch of prelims at 6 p.m. ET and the four-fight main card will follow on the same channel at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Vince Carey break down the finer points of the card in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Holly Holm seemed to be deeply entrenched as a top-tier fighter alongside the likes of Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. Now, she’s fighting Valentina Shevchenko. Is this more risk than reward for Holm?
Huntemann: Can I choose a third option? While this fight is definitely a risk for Holm, it is also a form of punishment for her. Or, more specifically, for Holm’s manager. When Holm defeated Rousey for the title late last year, the UFC wanted to wait and give Rousey her rematch. However, Holm and her management didn’t want to wait around for Rousey to decide whether or not she wanted to fight again. UFC President Dana White was not happy about that, and he made his feelings about Holm’s management clear.
It’s been eight months since Holm’s fight with Rousey, who still hasn’t really shown any clear indication she’s coming back beyond making a Reebok commercial. So Holm got her wish, stayed active and ended up losing the belt to Tate earlier this year.
Should Holm have received an immediate rematch with Tate? I think so. Holm was clearly winning the fight on the scorecards and just fell victim to an improbable comeback by Tate. Also, to her credit, Holm never tapped out, instead electing to be choked unconscious.
But we all know what’s happened since then. Tate was pummeled in her first title defense against Amanda Nunes at UFC 200 and lost the title, and now Holm is fighting the 10th-ranked Shevchenko in a fight where Holm doesn’t have much to gain and everything to lose. If Holm wins, she just defeated an opponent she was expected to defeat. But if Holm loses, then she may never get another shot at the title.
None of this is meant to disrespect Shevchenko, by the way. However, she’s just 1-1 in the UFC and is coming off an uninspiring unanimous decision loss to the current champion. I just can’t help but think this is another one of White’s attempts to get fighters to fall in line by giving them fights they don’t really want, but can’t really afford to turn down because they want to stay active and get paid.
Carey: I agree. This fight is being set up as more of a punishment for Holm’s management team than anything else, and that’s what makes this such a huge risk for the former champ. While Shevchenko doesn’t have the name value of someone like Tate or Rousey, she’s still an extremely dangerous fighter who just lost her first fight in six years and remains the only person to go the distance in the Octagon with the current champion. Most fans may not know Shevchenko’s name, but she’s the biggest threat on the feet that Holm has fought in her brief MMA career and could push “The Preacher’s Daughter” in ways we haven’t yet seen in Holm’s handful of UFC bouts.
Shevchenko is probably the best technical striker outside of Holm in the women’s 135-pound division, which makes this fight very interesting. The bout is definitely not as lopsided in Holm’s favor as most fans think. Everyone knows about Holm’s success as a boxer, but Shevchenko is a highly decorated striker in her own right who’s held multiple kickboxing and Muay Thai championships over the course of more than a decade in combat sports.
Even more impressive, Shevchenko showed off some really good grappling in her UFC debut against Sarah Kaufman. She scored multiple takedowns and showed some good control on top. And while my colleague called Shevchenko’s loss to Nunes uninspiring, I can’t say I agree. After dropping the first two rounds, Shevchenko came out on fire in the third frame and was close to stopping the current champ before she ran out of time.
Stylistically, though, this striker-vs.-striker fight may be the most natural match-up Holm has fought in her MMA career thus far. Holm’s opponents have primarily tried to take her to the mat, but she may have finally found a woman willing to stand and trade with her and be able to hold her own.
Shevchenko is really good. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her open some eyes this weekend. However, the reason Holm is seen along the same lines as women like Rousey and Tate is because she’s one of the best fighters in the world. As unpredictable as the women’s bantamweight division has been lately, Holm is still capable of proving herself against a game opponent this weekend. That should be enough to push her right back into the title picture.
Edson Barboza has been playing the win one, lose one game a lot in his UFC career. He’s coming off a win over Anthony Pettis. Now, he’s set to clash with Gilbert Melendez, who is on a two-fight skid. Is this the fight that finally gets Barboza over the hump?
Carey: Barboza is one of those fighters who has been dripping with potential since the moment he stepped foot in the Octagon, but it hasn’t been until lately that he’s truly started to put it all together and compete at a high level against top-shelf opponents. His victory over the former champ Pettis silenced a lot of doubters that said Barboza was unable to hang with the top-ranked fighters at 155 pounds. Yes, Pettis may be in the middle of a slump right now, but he still has gobs of talent and is one of the more dangerous fighters in the UFC when he’s able to get some offense going. The win may not mean as much as it would have 18 months ago, but it’s still a nice feather in Barboza’s cap. He was coming off a “Fight of the Night”-worthy scrap with top-five ranked Tony Ferguson, too, which only solidifies the Brazilian’s spot as a borderline contender.
That being said, Barboza still has some work to do if he wants to make the jump from his current position into a bona fide title challenger. He can make a big statement toward this goal with a winning effort against Melendez this weekend. The fight presents a similar scenario to the Pettis bout. Melendez has been struggling over his last few bouts — he hasn’t won since his war with Diego Sanchez in October 2013 — but the former Strikeforce champion is still a ranked lightweight and he’s going to be coming into this one with a chip on his shoulder after being suspended for the last 12 months. As big as this fight is for Barboza to continue to prove he’s for real, it’s equally important for Melendez.
Barboza is the better fighter at this point and should be able to handle Melendez pretty easily, but it’s still tough to predict a victory for the Brazilian. In the past, I’d point to Melendez’s potential to work his grappling and make this an ugly fight, but Barboza’s takedown defense has improved dramatically over his UFC tenure. When Barboza is able to stay upright, he’s one of the hardest fighters to beat in the division.
However, we’ve seen Barboza put on impressive showings time and time again, only to come up short once he hits the upper echelon and the pressure starts to grow. He broke snapped the trend against Pettis, but can he do it again? Yes, he can. However, another underwhelming Barboza performance wouldn’t surprise me either.
Huntemann: Barboza’s striking is crisp, precise and deadly. His head-kick knockout of Terry Etim in 2012 is still one of my favorite knockouts. It hurt to watch his fight with Paul Felder last year, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. The way Barboza’s strikes and kicks smacked into Felder’s body were reason enough to wince while watching the fight.
However, Barboza has definitely stumbled a bit since winning seven of his first eight fights in the UFC. To be fair, his recent losses were to the aforementioned Ferguson, who really should be the No. 1 contender at lightweight, and Michael Johnson, who recently went the distance with Nate Diaz and is still one of the more talented fighters at 155 pounds, and Donald Cerrone, who’s one of the pound-for-pound toughest fighters in all of the UFC. It’s not like Barboza has lost to some bums recently.
Barboza will get back on track in a big way against Melendez. The Brazilian looked very convincing in defeating Pettis, who previously submitted Melendez. Honestly, I’m not sure if Melendez has much left to offer in the lightweight division and, at best, can probably just entrench himself as a gatekeeper. Barboza will win convincingly over the Skrap Pack member and position himself to make another run at the top of the lightweight division.
Felice Herrig was one of the main attractions when the UFC decided to add the women’s strawweight division to its roster in 2014, but since then she’s only compiled a 1-1 record and has become a bit of an afterthought. Is this the fight where Herrig starts to live up to her name and becomes a player in the division, or will the underrated Kailin Curran prove too much for “The Lil’ Bulldog” to handle?
Huntemann: It’s funny, when you think about it. During that season of The Ultimate Fighter when the UFC introduced the women’s strawweight division, it seemed like Herrig was going to be the “blonde bombshell” that would be the face of the division and one of the faces for the UFC to build around. Then another blonde fighter named Paige VanZant came along and completely outclassed Herrig when the two faced each other last year.
Herrig hasn’t fought since then. She has become an afterthought at strawweight. That’s too bad, because she still might have something to offer, at the very least as a gatekeeper. At one point in her career, Herrig won five fights in a row and six of seven.
While Curran submitted Emily Kagan last year, I’m not sure beating someone who’s won one fight since 2013 is really something to hang your hat on. Curran actually had VanZant in trouble, though, when she welcomed the young star to the UFC in 2014. VanZant, however, pulled off an impressive comeback.
While Herrig probably won’t follow VanZant’s lead and appear on Dancing With The Stars anytime soon, I do think she wins this fight against Curran.
Carey: Herrig’s inactivity has pushed her firmly into the background of a really competitive 115-pound division, but a good win over Curran could turn that around pretty quickly due to the wide open nature of the bottom half of the strawweight rankings.
It did appear that the UFC was ready to push Herrig as the face of the division before her loss to VanZant. That means it may be as simple as Herrig earning just a single win for her to get a shot at a top-15 fighter. If she’s able to get back into the rankings, the former Invicta and Bellator veteran will be right back on track.
Of course, in order for that to happen, Herrig needs to get past a tough test in Curran, who will be competing in her first fight in over a year. Curran may be only 1-2 in her UFC career, but she actually performed pretty well in both of her losses. The back-and-forth brawl with VanZant earned Curran “Fight of the Night” honors, and she was dominating her fight with Alex Chambers before she was caught by an armbar halfway through the third round.The UFC obviously took note and granted Curran a third bout inside the Octagon, which she won. It would be tough to recover from a 1-3 UFC start, though, and the Hawaiian has to know her UFC tenure could be on the line against Herrig.
These women are extremely tough, and I don’t see a finish happening here unless someone gets a little lackadaisical on the mat. Therefore, I’m leaning toward Herrig getting the victory on Saturday. “The Lil’ Bulldog” has over twice as many fights as her opponent and a lot more experience fighting on a big stage. With this being Curran’s first fight on a UFC main card and with a lot of pressure to get a W, it’s easy to see her trying to do too much too soon and having it end up costing her in the latter half of the fight, much like it did in her first two fights in the Octagon.
Does Eddie Wineland have anything left in the tank? The one-time bantamweight title contender has lost two in a row, and he considered retirement after breaking his jaw a second time in 2014. Will Wineland’s fight against Frankie Saenz be the veteran’s swan song? With younger and more skilled fighters populating the bantamweight division, is there still a home for Wineland?
Carey: Win or lose this weekend, Wineland won’t make any sort of late-career resurgence in this young and suddenly stacked 135-pound division. The bantamweight top 10 is stronger than it’s ever been, with guys like Cody Garbrandt, John Lineker and John Dodson adding new threats to a division that already had plenty of talent at the top. It doesn’t look like Wineland fits into all of this. It’s doubtful that Wineland, even with a win over Saenz on Saturday, makes a real push back into contention — or even the top 10.
While there’s little doubt that Wineland can still put just about anyone away if he can land a solid shot, it feels like one big shot is kind of all he has at this point. The former title challenger has a decent top game, but he’s decided to forgo the mat in order to throw hands. Things haven’t gone well, as the broken jaw would suggest. There’s a good chance Wineland comes out more willing to grapple this weekend than he has in his past few outings, but I have my doubts about his ability to take down Saenz, who’s a good wrestler in his own right.
Saenz doesn’t do anything spectacular in the cage, but he’s a really well-rounded fighter who fights intelligently. He should provide a tough match-up for Wineland. The former WEC champ Wineland throws a lot of looping punches while looking for a knockout, but Saenz has good hands and a solid jab and should be able to more than hold his own on the feet. Wineland has great takedown defense, so I’m betting on this being primarily a stand-up fight. If that’s the case, then I’m taking Saenz’s volume and accuracy over Wineland’s knockout power. Saenz by decision.
Huntemann: I’m inclined to agree with my esteemed colleague.
The bantamweight division has passed Wineland by. He’s only 32 years old, but with 33 total fights and two broken jaws on his resume, he probably has the body of a fighter who’s closer to 40. He’s already fought some of the best at 135 pounds, including Urijah Faber, Renan Barão, Joseph Benavidez, Scott Jorgensen and Bryan Caraway. Wineland is as tough and as game as they come, but there’s a whole new breed of elite fighters in the bantamweight division and, frankly, they’re all terrible match-ups for Wineland.
Saenz may not be elite, but he’s a tough fighter who made Faber earn every minute of his victory last year. A split decision victory for Wineland wouldn’t be shocking here, but a convincing victory by Saenz should probably signal to Wineland that it might be time to pursue new opportunities.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Huntemann: Don’t sleep (see what I did there?) on the fight between Kamaru Usman and Alexander Yakovlev. I watched the season of The Ultimate Fighter where the Blackzilians competed head-to-head against American Top Team. Usman was one of only two fighters on that show who I felt had any sort of future in the UFC. His wrestling and ground-and-pound skills were impressive.
Usman will have a stiff test in Yakovlev, who’s won two in a row, including a first-round knockout and a victory over one-time title contender Gray Maynard. Usman is undefeated in his UFC career so far, and a victory over the battle-tested Yakovlev can begin Usman’s ascent into a crowded welterweight division.
Carey: How about 12th-ranked featherweight Darren Elkins trying to hold onto his spot against Godofredo Pepey, who’s absolutely on fire right now?
After starting his UFC career with a 1-3 record, Pepey has seen things come together in a big way over his last three fights. First, he landed a big knee to upset undefeated Noad Lahat in the first round of their fight last year. He followed that performance up with a quick triangle-armbar submission of Dashon Johnson a few months later. In his most recent affair, the TUF Brazil season 1 finalist pulled off yet another upset when he submitted highly touted Team Alpha Male prospect Andre Fili with a beautiful flying triangle in the first.
Pepey is quickly making a case to enter the 145-pound rankings, but he’s going to have to defeat Elkins, one of the most underappreciated fighters of the last five years. The grinder has put together a rock solid 10-4 UFC record since entering the organization in 2010, and he’s beaten a lot of tough and dangerous guys over the last six years in the cage. The Indiana native hasn’t been able to get the big win to push himself into title contention, but he’s one of the more reliable gatekeepers in the UFC and will instantly let us know if Pepey’s recent winning streak is a sign of things to come.
Pair this card with…
Carey: A summer cookout. I don’t know how it’s already the end of July, but the summer is flying by and in just a couple of months the days of lounging in the sun and throwing some steaks on the grill will be long gone. There have been so many fights over the last month that it feels like most of my weekends have been spent inside, but since this isn’t the most essential card, take a chance to enjoy the summer weather for a bit before coming back in and catching a few of the featured fights.
Huntemann: Some easy-listening radio. This isn’t the sexiest or most exciting UFC on Fox card on paper, let’s just admit it. While fights like Barboza/Melendez and Saenz/Wineland could entertain, it’s possible this card won’t exactly get your adrenaline flowing like, say, UFC 200 might have done earlier this month. But that’s not a bad thing. After an exciting and jam-packed card like UFC 200, this UFC on Fox show might just be what you need to come down a little while still getting your fight fix.
Main Card (Fox, 8 p.m. ET)
Women’s BW: Holly Holm vs. Valentina Shevchenko
LW: Edson Barboza vs. Gilbert Melendez
HW: Francis Zavier N’Gannou vs. Bojan Mihajlović
Women’s StrawW: Felice Herrig vs. Kailin Curran
Preliminary Card (Fox, 6 p.m. ET)
BW: Eddie Wineland vs. Frankie Saenz
FW: Darren Elkins vs. Godofredo Pepey
WW: Kamaru Usman vs. Alexander Yakovlev
LW: Michel Prazeres vs. J.C. Cottrell
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 4 p.m. ET)
WW: Alex Oliveira vs. James Moontasri
WW: Hector Urbina vs. George Sullivan
FW: Jim Alers vs. Jason Knight
HW: Luis Henrique vs. Dmitry Smolyakov
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