Julianna Pena (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on Fox 23 Preview and Predictions

The UFC returns to Fox this weekend, as it seems like the first month of 2017 has just flown by. This year still offers a lot of uncertainty as to when we might see some of the UFC’s top fighters compete and against whom, but hopefully the main event of this card will at least somewhat clear up the picture in one of the UFC’s women’s divisions.

Since bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes thoroughly and emphatically dispatched Ronda Rousey last month, “The Lioness” finds herself in need of a new challenger. The main event of UFC on Fox 23, which features Valentina Shevchenko faces Julianna Peña, should answer that question.

The last time Shevchenko competed on a Fox card, it was also in a main event. She outstruck and outpointed former bantamweight champion Holly Holm en route to a unanimous decision victory, which came as a surprise to many. Some thought Shevchenko’s victory over Holm might be enough to warrant her a title shot, but Peña had ambitions of her own. She’s campaigned for a title shot for almost a year and is undefeated in her UFC career. She’s coming off a convincing unanimous decision victory over former title contender Cat Zingano and threatened to “raise hell” if she doesn’t receive a title shot if she defeats Shevchenko. While Peña’s threat has yet to be substantiated, the question of whether Nunes finally has a brand new challenger for her belt is an interesting plot for this card.


To whet your appetite for the main event, fan-favorite Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone will face off against Jorge Masvidal in a bombastic bout that is a heavy favorite for “Fight of the Night” and should definitely bring the crowd to its feet. Cerrone has looked reborn while competing at 170 pounds and could put himself on the short list of title contenders with a victory here.

The main card begins at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, on Fox, with preliminary bouts on UFC Fight Pass at 4 p.m. ET and on Fox Sports 1 at 5 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Dan Kuhl are here to get you ready for the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Julianna Peña decisioned top bantamweight fighters Jessica Eye and Cat Zingano over the course of her last two fights. Can she add Valentina Shevchenko, who lost to current champ Amanda Nunes but defeated former champ Holly Holm, to her list of victims? If she does, will she be next in line for a title shot?

Kuhl: Peña is a great fighter who has never lost in the UFC. Shevchenko has only lost once in the last five and a half years, and it was to Nunes, who turned out to be a dominating champ. This is probably one of the toughest fights to call on the card, and it is definitely worthy of its headlining status, as one of these women will get a title shot in the near future.

Can Peña add Shevchenko to the kill list? Of course. Can Shevchenko stop The Ultimate Fighter champion? You know it.

Both of these womenare hard hitters with a great ground game. While Peña remains close to her Sikjitsu camp in Washington state, Shevchenko and her sister, Muay Thai champion Antonina, train all over the world. Shevchenko’s head coach follows them wherever they go, too. The Shevchenko sisters get an international level of training that most cannot relate to, and they both are kickboxing world champions. Valentina brings a level of striking to the table that Peña has not quite faced yet. Sure, Peña faced Zingano and Eye, but they are not exactly internationally renowned strikers. Shevchenko will likely be too much for Peña in the stand-up.

Peña has the ability to win this battle, but I just don’t see it happening. Shevchenko’s striking game is on a level that she cannot relate to, and the grappling is a wash. I have Shevchenko taking this one by unanimous decision. Her striking output will overwhelm the aspiring title contender.

Huntemann: OK, before I actually answer this question, I have to point out a glaring error. I’m sorry, but Eye is not a “top” fighter. I’m sure she’s a lovely person, but she’s also lost four fights in a row. That’s pretty much the antithesis of being a “top” fighter. Also, as highly as I think of Zingano, she’s lost two fights in a row and has only fought twice since 2014. So I’m not sure that meets my criteria for being a “top” fighter either.

Now, onto the actual question at hand. Can Peña defeat Shevchenko? Sure. Peña’s ground-and-pound is second to none in the women’s bantamweight division. If she gets her opponent on the ground, chances are good they’re not getting up. Peña effectively grounded Zingano into the mat at UFC 200 last year, and she’ll need to do the same to Shevchenko to have a chance to win.

Like Zingano, Shevchenko is a dangerous and effective striker. That was on full display in her victory over Holm last year. Not many people seemed to give Shevchenko a chance going into the fight, but she outworked Holm for the whole 25 minutes and exercised precision striking to make an emphatic statement and enter the women’s bantamweight title conversation.

The winner of this fight should be considered the No. 1 contender. Nunes needs a new opponent and, frankly, there aren’t any other deserving candidates. Peña has won four fights in a row. Shevchenko has won two of her first three UFC fights, with the only loss coming to the current champ. If you can find two more worthy challengers, then please enlighten us.

Donald Cerrone and Jorge Masvidal are doing the opposite of what most fighters do — they’re moving up in weight, rather than down. Cerrone is a perfect 4-0 since his shift to the welterweight division. Masvidal is a less stellar 3-2. Is Masvidal capable of derailing Cerrone’s momentum?

Huntemann: To use a weird pronunciation of a word, “coitanly.” The dude is called “Gamebred” for a reason, after all. Masvidal comes to fight every single time, and both guys live to throw strikes and bang. If there ever was a more obvious candidate for “Fight of the Night,” I don’t think we’ve seen it.

But will Masvidal derail Cerrone’s momentum? Welp, I don’t see it happening, honestly. Cerrone looks like a brand new fighter since moving up full-time to 170 pounds. He has been on an absolute tear, winning four in a row, all via finish, including three consecutive knockouts.

Yeah, I like Masvidal as much as the next bloke. But if he had a chance to test the free-agent market lately, he probably should have taken advantage of that, because I don’t see him winning this fight.

Kuhl: The answer is no.

Masvidal is a super game fighter, and I will never take that away from him, but Cerrone is red-hot. Cerrone is fighting in his hometown, and he’s not only 4-0 as a welterweight, but he also finished all four of those opponents, as my colleague noted. As a frame of reference, almost all of Masvidal’s fights in both Strikeforce and UFC have gone the distance, and that’s mostly at lightweight.

Cerrone is a finisher. He seals the deal. Masvidal is tough and he may take it three rounds, but that’s highly unlikely against a guy with Cerrone’s striking prowess. Cerrone should take this one handily by knockout. Masvidal is not the guy that’s going to slow the Cowboy’s momentum, especially in Denver.

Francis Ngannou has exploded onto the UFC heavyweight scene, finishing all four of his opponents and enjoying first-round stoppages in his last two fights. He faces a stiff test in veteran Andrei Arlovski, who’s still hanging around at the age of 37. Will this fight be Ngannou’s official coming-out party, and will he join other heavyweights like Derrick Lewis as a member of the new batch of big guys ready to dominate in the UFC?

Kuhl: To be honest, I was never sold on Arlovski’s late-stage comeback in the sport, and his last three losses, after going the distance with an aged Frank Mir, was more proof than I needed. Rewind 10 years and I give this to Arlovski without even blinking, but Ngannou is no freaking joke. The dude is one inch taller with a six-inch reach advantage. He’s younger, he’s hungrier, and he is definitely one of the new faces of the UFC heavyweight division.

As a disclaimer, I am a huge old-school Arlovski fan. He will always be one of my favorite fighters ever. I just feel that he has slowed down, and even though he possesses a skill set that most fighters will never reach, it’s time for the younger guys to start blazing their trails. Ngannou could easily be the guy to push Arlovski aside. I mean, if not him, then who?

Ngannou hits hard, he’s quick, and he’s got ground skills, but he’s never fought anyone near Arlovski’s pedigree. The nerves will be rocking that night, but if the up-and-comer plays it smart and fights his fight, then he definitely could beat one of the greatest fighters of all time. Ngannou takes this one by knockout.

Huntemann: The UFC’s heavyweight division is still pretty top-heavy (no pun intended). After champion Stipe Miocic and guys like Fabricio Werdum, Cain Velasquez (when he’s healthy) and Junior dos Santos, the talent pool is somewhat shallow. However, guys like Ngannou and Lewis have given the division a real shot in the arm. Simply put, they are scary dudes.

All nine of Ngannou’s victories have come via finish. He’s just as likely to make an opponent tap as he is to knock them out. If you’re eager to see a knockout on this card, you should pay close attention to Ngannou’s fight with Arlovski. As we’ve seen before, Arlovski is more than willing to engage his opponent and just trade blows — remember Arlovski’s fight with Travis Browne? — so I would not recommend blinking when this fight takes place.

I do like Ngannou to add Arlovski’s name as a notch on his belt. As 2017 unfolds, we’re going to see both Ngannou and Lewis become major players in the UFC’s heavyweight division.

The preliminary card brings the return of rising star Aljamain Sterling coming off his first career loss to Bryan Caraway last May in a bout that ended in a split decision. Sterling will face longtime veteran Raphael Assunção, who is coming off a decision loss to former bantamweight champ T.J. Dillashaw. Does Sterling have what it takes to get past his highly experienced opponent, and does he have a shot at being the new face of the bantamweight division?

Huntemann: Sterling’s loss to Caraway was a definite learning experience. Sterling was being fast-tracked to instant stardom in the UFC, and Caraway was looked upon as little more than a stepping stone to an inevitable title shot. Yet, Caraway proved that he’s more than just Miesha Tate’s boyfriend when he served the young upstart some humble pie.

Sterling’s talent has never been in question. His loss to Caraway refocused him. It won’t be an easy task against Assunção, but the Brazilian’s loss to Dillashaw showed that he struggles somewhat against fast, explosive, athletic fighters that bring the pressure. These are all qualities that can describe Sterling.

Assunção will make Sterling work for it, but Sterling will have his hand raised and still have more than enough time to establish himself as one of the new faces of not just the bantamweight division, but the entire UFC.

Kuhl: Yes, Sterling is talented. Yes, Sterling is one of the new faces of the UFC. And, yes, he will have a long, successful career. However, the veteran Assunção is not going anywhere.

Assunção took Dillashaw the distance twice. His ground game is very high level, and he’s got an iron chin, which no one has truly touched in almost six years. Even as a 5-foot-7 bantamweight with a 71-inch reach, Sterling is going to have a tough time knocking out Assunção. Then what? Submission? Assunção has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Sterling has a very bright future. He is definitely ready for a high-level vet, but I’ve seen Assunção in way too many wars. The up-and-comer will put on a great performance, but the vet takes this one by decision.

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

Kuhl: Have you ever heard of Jason Knight?

For most mainstream fans, and potentially some hardcore fans as well, the answer is probably not. Well, you do not want to miss this guy when he faces Alex Caceres.

Everybody knows “Bruce Leroy,” because he was a big focus of his season on The Ultimate Fighter. He has been in his fair share of high-profile fights, and he looks exactly like his moniker suggests. He’s won some, lost some, and has an above-average record of split decisions. Who’s he fighting again?

Oh yeah, Knight. Knight is a 24-year-old up-and-comer who trains at Alan Belcher MMA in Mississippi. Nobody knows what he’s going to do. He’s got stamina, good stand-up and ground skills, and he needs this name on his record.

It’s likely that Caceres may be too much, but you never know with these young guys.

Huntemann: It’s probably just my personal bias showing, but I’m looking forward to seeing “Smile’n” Sam Alvey and Nate Marquardt square off.

I had the tremendous pleasure of interviewing Alvey recently — shameless plug alert! — and, honestly, if you’re not a fan of “Smile’n” Sam, then you have a problem with yourself, as Jim Rome likes to say.

Alvey and Marquardt also have a shared background, since Marquardt coached Alvey on a previous season of The Ultimate Fighter. Perhaps familiarity will breed contempt, even if we always see Alvey with a smile on his face.

Pair this card with…

Huntemann: Your favorite type of fast food. This card isn’t flashy. It’s not the most star-studded affair, and it likely will be largely forgotten by the time 2017 ends. But you know what? This card serves its purpose. There are some notable fights and fighters, and there are a couple fights that can entertain. It’s quick, easy and efficient — like most fast food should be.

Kuhl: The card’s in Denver. Now, what could you pair a card with in the Mile High City? It is an herb-an environment, and, in many of these match-ups, someone is likely getting smoked. You do the math. Just make sure you do the math before you pair this card with any of the local delights, because after that…

Fight Picks

Fight Kuhl’s Pick Huntemann’s Pick
Main Card (Fox, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Valentina Shevchenko vs. Julianna Peña Shevchenko Shevchenko
WW: Donald Cerrone vs. Jorge Masvidal Cerrone Cerrone
HW: Andrei Arlovski vs. Francis Ngannou Ngannou Ngannou
FW: Jason Knight vs. Alex Caceres Caceres Knight
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 5 p.m. ET)
MW: Sam Alvey vs. Nate Marquardt Alvey Alvey
BW: Raphael Assunção vs. Aljamain Sterling Assunção Sterling
WW: Jingliang Li vs. Bobby Nash Nash Li
LHW: Luis Henrique da Silva vs. Jordan Johnson da Silva da Silva
MW: Alessio Di Chirico vs. Eric Spicely Spicely Spicely
MW: Marcos Rogério de Lima vs. Jeremy Kimball de Lima de Lima
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 4 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Eric Shelton vs. Alexandre Pantoja Pantoja Shelton
LW: Jason Gonzalez vs. J.C. Cottrell Cottrell Cottrell