Stipe Miocic (Gleidson Venga/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 203 Preview and Predictions

The newly crowned City of Champions, Cleveland (maybe?), Ohio, will host the latest incarnation of the UFC when it presents UFC 203 on Saturday, Sept. 10. The city best known for the neverending anguish of its sports fans is still riding high after the Cleveland Cavaliers and native son LeBron James finally handed the city its first championship in more than 50 years.

However, prior to the Cavaliers’ winning a title, the city of Cleveland was actually already home to a champion. Another native son, Stipe Miocic, knocked out Fabricio Werdum to win the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 198 in May. Miocic gets to make his first title defense on his home soil when he takes on Alistair Overeem. You would have thought Overeem would have already had a title shot or even a title reign in the UFC by now. But surprisingly, this is Overeem’s first opportunity to claim gold in the Octagon. The former K-1 and Strikeforce heavyweight champion has a resume that is virtually unparalleled in mixed martial arts. He has shared the cage with some of the biggest names in the sport’s history, and now he’ll share a cage with Miocic.

The heavyweights will be on heavy display (no pun intended) on this card, as the co-main event features what might be a No. 1 contender bout between former champion Werdum and Travis Browne.


Oh yeah, and some guy named CM Punk is making his UFC debut despite having no MMA experience whatsoever.

The action kicks off with the obligatory UFC Fight Pass exclusive prelims at 6:30 p.m. ET, before sliding over to Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET for the remainder of the preliminary card. Then it’s off to pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET for the five-fight main card.

It promises to be a unique night in the city by the lake on Sept. 10, and Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Zach Aittama are here to get you ready for all the action.

Four heavyweights top this card: UFC heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic, challenger Alistair Overeem, former champion Fabricio Werdum and borderline contender Travis Browne. Does youth (Miocic, Browne) trump experience (Overeem, Werdum)? Is a Miocic vs. Browne rivalry the inevitable final outcome in what is otherwise an aging heavyweight division? Is Browne capable of making that move to the true elite?

Aittama: Does youth trump experience? UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic and top contender Travis Browne are just two years younger than the 36-year-old Alistair Overeem and five years the youth of Fabricio Werdum. There isn’t much of an age difference here, as both the champion and Browne are well into their mid-30s.

The heavyweight division, as it stands today, is in dire need of a massive influx of young talent. The youngest fighter in the UFC’s top 10 is the 31-year-old Derrick Lewis. After Lewis, Miocic is the youngest at 34. Browne and former champion Cain Velasquez are just a few months older. There are fighters coming up the pipeline, like 29-year-olds Ruslan Magomedov and Francis Ngannou. However, as a whole, the heavyweight division is definitely in need of some youth, but that is a topic for another day.

Most of the top 10 in the heavyweight division consists of fighters who have fought and beaten each other, with some having done so multiple times. In the main event of the evening, we get a fresh match-up between two men with the power to end the fight at any moment. When Miocic and Overeem clash, there won’t be much room for forgiveness. One punch, one kick or one knee could be the end of the fight. That’s why this is a such an intriguing match-up.

Overeem was previously scheduled to fight for the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 146 against then-champion Junior dos Santos. The former Strikeforce heavyweight champ made his much-anticipated UFC debut against former UFC heavyweight kingpin Brock Lesnar at UFC 141. The 2010 K-1 World GP champion decimated the WWE superstar’s body with kicks to earn a title shot with the first-round victory. The title shot never came to fruition, however, because Overeem tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone in a pre-fight screening. The failure sent Overeem down what would become a career freefall. He returned to the Octagon to lose back-to-back fights by knockout against Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and the aforementioned Browne. The losses seemed to signal a lost opportunity for “the Reem.”

The muscle-bound heavyweight looked like an unstoppable force when he compiled 10 straight wins leading up to his Octagon debut. That notion was over by the time Ben Rothwell put Overeem away in the first round. Then something happened. Overeem changed his body, his preparations and his training. He moved to the Jackson-Winkeljohn camp, and the decision started to pay off in the cage. Overeem picked up impressive wins over Stefan Struve, Roy Nelson, dos Santos and, most recently, Andrei Arlovski. He was back and more efficient than ever. Overeem was able to eliminate some of the flaws that led to past losses. Those changes have led to Overeem being in the position he is in today, one win away from the UFC title.

Miocic took a similar path to the belt. He shocked many when he put away all-time heavyweight Werdum in under one round. The way he landed powerful counter punches while moving back showcased the full-time firefighter’s most valuable trait, his punching power. Miocic has finished 11 of his 15 wins by knockout.

Don’t let the experience fool you. Yes, Overeem has been inside the cage and ring much more frequently, but Miocic hasn’t taken nearly the same amount of damage as the Dutchman. That’s why this fight is so intriguing, and why youth might trump experience in this contest. Two of the heaviest hitters in the world are going to exchange strikes for our enjoyment, and the likely outcome is a brutal contest ending in spectacular finish.

The other match-up of top heavyweights features a rematch between the former UFC heavyweight champ Werdum and the athletic contender Browne. Werdum dispatched of Browne in impressive fashion on his way to winning the UFC crown. It may be that I have little faith in Browne’s development under Edmond Tarverdyan, or that I just don’t believe Browne has the tools to beat Werdum, but I’m not really giving Browne much of a chance the second time around. Werdum may be 39 and he may have just been knocked out in May, but the former titleholder still has the athletic tools, size and diverse skill set to beat Browne in all facets of the sport. Werdum’s striking evolved under the tutelage of King’s MMA and Rafael Cordeiro. His jab, exceptional array of kicks and ability to keep the fight where he wants makes for a dangerous match-up for the 6-foot-7 striker.

So, to answer the question of whether a Miocic and Browne rivalry is inevitable, I would be surprised to see the fight happen unless both men lost on Saturday night. The main event is a true pick’em fight despite the many skill advantages favoring the challenger. I don’t consider the co-main event to be so close. That’s where the potential rivalry between Miocic and Werdum, or a rubber match between Overeem and Werdum is much more likely. Perhaps Browne can get a win or two and flirt with the title, but I don’t see him getting a crack at the belt anytime soon. My entire argument could be moot if Browne lands a few elbows to the side of Werdum’s head on a takedown entry. However, I just don’t see how Werdum will make the same mistakes he did against Miocic. The Brazilian gets his hand raised and pushes Browne outside of the title mix for the time being.

Huntemann: Wait, so we consider 34 years old (the age of both Browne and Miocic) to be “young,” still? Sweet. Now I don’t feel so old after turning 32 last week. (I didn’t get a birthday greeting from any of you guys either. Just saying.) Oh, right. The fights. I think Overeem is the most dangerous match-up Miocic could have had for his first title defense. Overeem has been all over the world, fought basically everyone there is to fight and is one of most dangerous strikers at heavyweight.

Both he and Miocic are perfectly capable of landing a one-punch knockout, so I wouldn’t expect this fight to go the distance. However, people are underestimating Miocic, which is funny since he’s the champion. We all saw what he did to Werdum back in May, right? Werdum was seen as a champion on the rise — ironic, since he’s 39 — with Muay Thai skills and the backing of King’s MMA, which has become one of the premier gyms in MMA. Miocic shocked the world when he knocked out Werdum on Werdum’s home soil in Brazil.

Now Miocic will defend his belt on his home turf against Overeem. Even if you think “The Reem” will win, let’s not forget that before his recent winning streak, he had a very uneven UFC career that included the losses to Rothwell, Browne and Bigfoot. Overeem has finished his last two fights against high-level strikers in definitive fashion, though. So I really think we’ll see a highlight-worthy finish in this fight.

As far as the second part of this question goes, Browne just lucked out with Werdum’s original opponent, Rothwell, dropping out because of injury. Kudos to Browne for stepping up to the plate, but I don’t see his fight with Werdum going any better than their first meeting two years ago. Werdum will put on another impressive performance and solidify his claim to a title rematch.

Phil “CM Punk” Brooks is finally set to make his UFC debut. Will the former WWE superstar impress? If so, how quickly does the UFC push him into fights against more experienced opponents?

Huntemann: Here’s a fun fact that probably puts me on par with many MMA fans. Prior to starting my MMA fandom in 2009, I was a pro-wrestling nerd. From the age of 7 until I was 25 or 26, I was as big a pro-wrestling fan as you would find. I was a fan of CM Punk in the WWE too, so when I saw him appear at the UFC pay-per-view in late December a couple years ago and announce he was going to fight in the UFC, I’m not going to lie, I thought it was pretty cool.

Now, do I think Punk will impress in his debut fight against Mickey Gall? To be honest, I’m not sure. I’ve watched the documentary series the UFC put together about Punk getting ready for his first fight — I’m one of the very few people who are watching it, if the abysmal ratings are to be believed — and he very much looks like a guy who has no previous MMA experience. The only thing Punk has going for him is that footage is more than a year old, so it’s possible he has made noticeable improvements since then. But if he hasn’t? Then, boy, he’s in for a long night.

Of course, Gall only has five total fights (three amateur, two professional) on his resume, so it’s not like Gall has a tremendous advantage in experience over Punk. An advantage? Sure. But is Gall miles and miles ahead of Punk? Not necessarily. Also, the two guys Gall defeated in his professional career each made their pro debut against Gall. So, I think people who expect Punk to be annihilated in short order in this fight will be disappointed.

I expect a very cautious approach by both guys. Whether or not Punk admits it, he will have butterflies when he steps into the Octagon and therefore will take a defensive approach. Gall might be amped to take out the former pro wrestler, but I also think he doesn’t want to take unnecessary risks and suffer a “humiliating” loss. This fight goes the distance, and it won’t be particularly exciting to watch. Also, even if Punk defeats Gall, I wouldn’t count on him to face Robbie Lawler in his next fight. Just saying.

Aittama: I could definitely see the fight being a tepid affair. However, I think Gall goes for broke early. He has the opportunity of welcoming Punk to the Octagon for the first time. I believe Gall wants and believes he will run through Punk. There is something to be said of the confidence of Gall. He was brought in during UFC President Dana White’s Lookin’ for a Fight show to specifically face Punk. Gall called out the former WWE wrestler after winning his professional MMA debut. He then found himself in a superfight eliminator when he took on MMA media personality and kickboxer Mike Jackson. It wasn’t a close fight, as Gall blitzed Jackson with punches and sunk in the rear-naked choke shortly after. Jackson’s inexperience in the ring was on full display in the UFC 196 fight. Could Punk fall to a similar fate when he first steps inside the Octagon?

No one really knows what will happen until Punk finally steps into the cage. Former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis commented on Punk’s ability during their training at Roufusport in Milwaukee. Pettis said the man chasing his MMA dream has plenty of heart. As we know, when the skills and athletic abilities of fighters are equal, often times the fighter with the most heart and willpower can usually take a beating and come back stronger as the fight progresses.

The skill level is a major question mark for Punk in this fight. He trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under the Gracie family lineage before ever taking up his pursuit of combat sports. Training in a gym and getting inside of the cage are two very different things, however. Once you step through that door and onto the mat, the feeling can often be overwhelming. Punk made a living in the WWE by performing in front of large crowds of people. However, the pressure he will feel in a competitive endeavor will be like nothing he has ever felt while wrestling inside of the WWE ring.

I, too, was a fan of pro wrestling as a kid. My days as a die-hard WWE fan waned as I began to pick up my martial arts training as a young teen. I will occasionally catch the obscure Japanese pro-wrestling event, but for the most part my days of watching fake fighting are over. There just isn’t enough time in the day for the average sports fan to be up-to-date on the ins and outs of every real sport, let alone the ones purely for entertainment. My obsession for the past 14 years has lied inside of a cage, and I don’t mean the steel cage. Punk won’t have the cage lowered down from the ceiling or need a ladder to grab a belt. He needs to shred his WWE personality, strap on the UFC gloves and get ready for what could be one of the greatest moments of his life — or maybe one of the worst beatdowns in the UFC’s 23-year history. We truly don’t know what to expect until Punk makes the walk to the cage and “Big” John McCarthy yells, “Let’s get it on!”

Despite his first-round loss to Cain Velasquez at UFC 200, Travis Browne possibly seems in line for another opportunity at a title shot if he defeats Fabricio Werdum in the UFC 203 co-main event. This is Werdum’s first fight since losing the belt to Stipe Miocic earlier this year. Should Browne be considered for a title shot if he wins? Will Browne avenge his decision loss to Werdum from 2014?

Aittama: I was a little surprised to see this question geared toward Browne. Yes, he is still in title contention despite his loss against Velasquez not even two months ago, but let’s not kid ourselves here. Velasquez absolutely dominated “Hapa” from bell to bell. It didn’t even take Velasquez the entire five minutes in the first round to decimate Browne. And Velasquez was returning from his own layoff of more than a year after losing the belt to Werdum in Mexico City.

Werdum is the fighter we should be talking about. He already holds a win over Browne in a fight that displayed the King’s MMA product’s expanded striking arsenal and ability to control a fight for the full 25 minutes. Werdum strung together five wins on his way to the interim title, including victories over former Pride champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, former K-1 champion Mark Hunt and the aforementioned Browne. He put Hunt away with a stepping knee in the second frame to capture the belt. He went to war with Velasquez at UFC 188 to capture the undisputed title with a third-round guillotine choke submission. The win put Werdum in the discussion of the greatest heavyweights of all time based on his stellar record that includes wins over Fedor Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Roy Nelson.

That’s why the focus on Browne in this fight is so confusing. It’s not like the 6-foot-7 athlete is stepping into the prime of his career. The 34-year-old has traded wins and losses since dropping the unanimous decision to Werdum at UFC on Fox 11. He earned stoppages of former UFC fighters Brendan Schaub and Matt Mitrione, but fell short against Andrei Arlovski in a “Fight of the Year” contender. Browne’s wins over Overeem and Josh Barnett look great on the Hawaiian’s resume, but let’s not forget how short the Barnett fight was and how close Browne was from being stopped by Overeem before stopping him with a front kick.

I haven’t observed the consistency needed for me to consider Browne the next title challenger. The fight is set up for one fighter to grasp the opportunity and put on an impressive performance for a potential title shot. I could see an angle to sell a Browne and Overeem rematch if both men were to win their respective bouts at UFC 203. However, the likelihood of wins for both fighters is slim. If Browne can beat Werdum and continue to impress in his following bouts, then I would like to see him get his shot at the title. For now, there are two quality contenders waiting in the wings: Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. There are a few other fighters just outside title contention, too, including Barnett and Derrick Lewis.

And with all of that said, I don’t see many paths to victory for Browne against the former champion. Werdum comes back to the Octagon re-invigorated and hungry for redemption.

Huntemann: Gee, don’t hold back man. Tell us how you really feel.

Browne is surprisingly the choice to be the first fight for Werdum after the Brazilian lost the title to Miocic. He’s there instead of someone who may be more deserving of a title shot, like Velasquez. However, if Browne could somehow manage to pull off the upset against Werdum, then he has as much chance of receiving a title shot as anyone. Granted, Browne was a replacement opponent for Werdum, but as they say, a closed mouth doesn’t get fed. Bully for Browne for stepping up.

The heavyweight division is in a weird place right now. There’s no real bona fide No. 1 contender. Werdum hasn’t received his rematch. Velasquez demolished Browne at UFC 200, but given Velasquez’s injury history, can we count on him to stay healthy long enough to receive another shot at the belt? Hell, people are floating the possibility of Barnett as a title contender after he defeated Arlovski last weekend in Germany. Barnett. Just think about that. I haven’t even mentioned dos Santos, either.

All that said, Werdum was dominant when he and Browne faced off the first time in 2014. I don’t see that changing. Werdum became better after that fight and enjoyed a reign as champion, whereas Browne basically seemed to stagnate in his career. Werdum is driven to regain his title, and he will make pretty easy work of Browne to get another shot at the belt.

Bantamweight prospect Jimmie Rivera is set to face his toughest opponent to date. Can Rivera extend his winning streak to 19 against perennial contender Urijah Faber? If Rivera pulls off the upset, who should he face next in the division?

Huntemann: We’re definitely witnessing the downward slide of Faber’s illustrious career. He was “The Man” and the coolest cat around in the WEC and when he first came to the UFC in 2010. He’s had some great moments and performances in the UFC, including his wins over guys like Brian Bowles, Michael McDonald and Alex Caceres. But facts are facts, and Faber has lost his last seven title fights and was thoroughly outclassed (again) by UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz at UFC 199.

Faber, 37, is on the wrong side of 35. He is like that guy who still hangs out at the sports bar in your hometown, even though he’s far and away the oldest person there and the bar typically only caters to college students. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but Faber is really and truly a gatekeeper at this stage in his career.

This is why I think he comes up short against Rivera. Even if Faber represents Rivera’s toughest test to date, Rivera hasn’t lost since his second-ever pro fight in 2008. He doesn’t have many finishes among his 18 wins, and Faber is still tough enough that he will make Rivera go the distance. But Rivera is younger, faster and more explosive. He’s already shown he can land the big knockout in the UFC when he finished Marcus Brimage in his UFC debut.

If Rivera defeats Faber, the UFC should welcome him to the top 10 at bantamweight and pair him with another young, exciting fighter who’s still looking to make a name for himself: Aljamain Sterling. That would be an exciting match-up.

Aittama: I agree with my colleague’s opinion that Faber is on the downside of his MMA career. It’s hard to say that Faber has slipped greatly after spending more than a decade ranked in the top 10 at featherweight and bantamweight. However, Faber has struggled more and more with the level of fighters he used to blow out of the water. The former WEC champion was tested by Francisco Rivera in 2014, and he took losses to former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and, most recently, the aforementioned Cruz. Those losses don’t stick out — both were expected — but the Edgar loss in October 2015 was Faber’s first non-title fight loss since 2005 and only his second non-title fight loss in his entire career.

On paper, these are numbers that are hard to match in any division and at any level. Faber has spent more time in the top-10 rankings than Rivera has spent time fighting. Rivera still hasn’t cracked the top 10 despite his monumental 18-fight winning streak. The 27-year-old picked up solid wins against top prospect Pedro Munhoz and former top-10 fighter Iuri Alcântara in his past two bouts. Rivera was eliminated during his bid on the 14th season of The Ultimate Fighter when he faced future top-10 featherweight Dennis Bermudez. Rivera wasn’t ready for the big time in 2011, but by the time he stepped into the cage in 2015 he was a well-oiled machine working toward his place among the bantamweight elite.

Faber lost in his fourth attempt to win the UFC bantamweight title (a ridiculous number of chances) when he fell short against Cruz in June. The “California Kid” certainly could enter the Octagon on Saturday and put on a stellar performance to walk away with his hand raised against the rising prospect. However, Rivera presents some major issues with his speed, athleticism and overall boxing ability. Rivera can hang with Faber in the wrestling exchanges, but it does get a little dangerous the more Rivera finds himself in transitions with the vaunted submission artist. Faber has a knack for wrapping up the guillotine or working his way to the back for the rear-naked choke. That’s how I could see Faber getting the job done.

I would like to see Rivera make positive gains in a division that’s finally getting the influx of young talent we’ve been waiting for. If he can pull off the big win in Cleveland, the UFC has a few options for Rivera going forward. I like my colleague’s idea of a match-up against Sterling. Rivera could also be matched with a top-10 bantamweight on a winning streak, like Bryan Caraway or the undefeated Cody Garbrandt. Garbrandt has made it apparent that Caraway turned down a fight between the two. If Rivera gets the job done, a match-up between him and Faber’s Team Alpha Male prospect could be a potential No. 1 contender fight. The promotion has options whether Rivera gets in the win column or tastes defeat for the first time in eight years.

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

Aittama: One of the flyweight division’s top fighters finally returns to the Octagon after more than 18 months on the shelf. Ian McCall, the former consensus No.1-ranked flyweight in the world, makes his return after struggles with injuries, personal issues and, most recently, his opponent badly missing weight before the fight. McCall was scheduled to face top-15 ranked Justin Scoggins at UFC 201 before the 24-year-old prospect was pulled from the bout due to issues while cutting weight. McCall has redirected his anger and frustrations at the last man Scoggins was able to defeat, Ray Borg.

Borg, 23, has won three of his five UFC bouts. His only setbacks came against the aforementioned Scoggins and former top-10 flyweight Dustin Ortiz. “The Tazmexican Devil” brings an exciting submission attack to the Octagon that should push McCall in all of the right areas of the fight game.

McCall dropped his last outing against an overweight John Lineker at UFC 183. McCall won’t have to contend with one of the pound-for-pound hardest punchers in the sport when he takes on Borg. McCall’s extensive wrestling background and improved striking gives him the slight advantage heading into the bout. However, the more than a year and a half away from the cage is the great equalizer in this fight.

Huntemann: That’s a good choice, but I have my eye on (see what I did there?) the preliminary bout between Jessica Eye and Bethe Correia.

I’m just really hoping this is a good ol’ fashioned slugfest. Both Eye and Correia love to stand and bang, and both — especially Eye — are in dire need of a win. Eye has lost four out of five and only defeated Leslie Smith thanks to a doctor’s stoppage. Correia has lost two in a row, albeit with one of those losses coming to former UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. The loser of this fight likely faces the chopping block, so both women will come in desperate to put on an impressive performance and secure a victory. Hopefully that means lots of flying fists and a knockout.

Pair this card with…

Huntemann: YouTube. Between dangerous strikers like Miocic, Overeem, Werdum and Browne, and the debuting CM Punk, there is a strong likelihood of some highlight-quality finishes that will make their way onto YouTube after this card is over. So to adequately prepare yourself for this card, you should fire up your laptop/tablet/smartphone and search for some highlight-reel knockouts to get the adrenaline flowing.

Aittama: The WWE. For all of the crazy characters that have graced the cage and ring over the past 25 or so years, some of MMA’s top fighters have come from a professional-wrestling background. MMA and pro wrestling were synonymous during the evolution of the sport in Japan. Many of the Japanese fighters transitioning to an MMA career early in the sport’s history and well into the heyday of the Pride Fighting Championship became some of the sport’s biggest stars in the land of the rising sun. Kazushi Sakuraba was the biggest and most known star, but the relationship between pro wrestling and MMA was made apparent in almost every promotion from through the biggest stars and strangely matched “worked” MMA fights on pro-wrestling events.

The wild world of Japanese pro wrestling and MMA are the obscure step-children that played a major role in the growth of combat sports in Japan, along with the success of K-1 Kickboxing. The most notable fighter to transition from the WWE to the UFC is former UFC and WWE heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, who still competes in pro wrestling and most recently in MMA at UFC 200. CM Punk gets his first opportunity in the sport after nearly two years of training. I’m sure many WWE fans will be tuning in to see how their beloved heel performs in his promotional debut.

Fight Picks

Fight Aittama’s Pick Huntemann’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
HW Championship: Stipe Miocic vs. Alistair Overeem Overeem Miocic
HW: Fabricio Werdum vs. Travis Browne Werdum Werdum
WW: Phil “CM Punk” Brooks vs. Mickey Gall Gall Gall
BW: Urijah Faber vs. Jimmie Rivera Rivera Rivera
Women’s StrawW: Joanne Calderwood vs. Jessica Andrade Andrade Calderwood
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
Women’s BW: Bethe Correia vs. Jessica Eye Eye Eye
LW: Michael McBride vs. Nik Lentz Lentz Lentz
MW: Brad Tavares vs. Caio Magalhães Tavares Tavares
FlyW: Ian McCall vs. Ray Borg McCall McCall
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
WW: Yancy Medeiros vs. Sean Spencer Spencer Medeiros
MW: C.B. Dollaway vs. Francimar Barroso Dollaway Dollaway
LW: Drew Dober vs. Jason Gonzalez Dober Dober