Demetrious Johnson (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 215 Preview and Predictions

“Life is true to form; records are meant to be broken” — Mark Spitz

Much like the Olympic efforts of swimmer Michael Phelps at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson has a chance to unseat a record that many thought would remain intact for years. Phelps earned eight gold medals in 2008 to break Mark Spitz’s Olympic record of seven, a record which stood the test of time for 36 years. Now, Spitz’s words apply to Johnson’s dominant reign as the UFC flyweight champion.

Anderson Silva burst into the UFC with an absolute mugging of Chris Leben. To the western audience, Silva was considered an unknown commodity despite competing at the top level of the sport. The Brazilian continued his path of destruction when he ran through then-champion Rich Franklin in less than a round to win the middleweight title in only his second UFC fight. Silva’s reign wasn’t all praise. He was met with much criticism following his lackluster affair against Demian Maia, but Silva broke Matt Hughes’ title defense record on that night in Abu Dhabi.


Johnson’s dominance as champion has had a similar roller coaster of events. Despite impressive performances, an ability to finish fights, and marked improvements in each and every bout, Johnson still hasn’t caught on with the casual sports fan. He’s carved out a niche following of gamers that works for him outside of fighting. However, Johnson’s work inside the cage has gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media. Could a record-breaking performance be the instance that helps Johnson push through to the masses?

Johnson is set to defend his title for a record 11th time when he faces skilled challenger Ray Borg in the UFC 215 headliner. The Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter will have some extra incentive on the line with the chance to become the first man to defeat Johnson at flyweight and the first to unseat the king, much like Chris Weidman was able to do before him against the current record holder Silva. We will find out if records are meant to be broken on Saturday night.

In the co-headliner of the evening, UFC women’s bantamweight titleholder Amanda Nunes is set to meet No.1 contender Valentina Shevchenko for the second time. The pair originally battled back and forth at UFC 196. Nunes captured the title from Miesha Tate a few months later. She was scheduled to meet Shevchenko again at UFC 213, but Nunes suffered from a flare up of a recurring illness that made her unable to compete in Las Vegas. Sin City’s loss is Edmonton’s gain.

The pay-per-view main card also features a battle of top-10 welterweight Neil Magny and former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. Sweden’s Ilir Latifi looks to stop the rise of light-heavyweight prospect Tyson Pedro, and the pay-per-view kicks off with former Strikeforce lightweight champ Gilbert Melendez making his much-anticipated return against the always game Jeremy Stephens.

The event kicks off with the UFC Fight Pass early prelims at 5:30 p.m. ET. The event continues with the remaining prelim fights at 8 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. Then it’s off to pay-per-view for the main card at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Bryan Henderson and Zach Aittama break down all the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Demetrious Johnson has dominated every opponent put in front of him in his title reign. A few have had moments of hope, but Johnson has quickly shut the door on them. Should we expect anything different when Ray Borg steps up to challenge the flyweight legend?

Henderson: The broadcast team during any Johnson fight likes to tout how the opponent of the moment is Johnson’s biggest test, his toughest challenge or the first guy to really push the champ. Tim Elliott had his moments, and so have a few others, but Johnson might be the modern-day, pint-sized equivalent of Fedor Emelianenko. He’s untouchable.

That said, Borg does stand out as a deserving challenger. In any other scenario, he’d even be a real title hopeful. However, it’s difficult to see Borg as the man who can conquer the legend. We can’t dismiss Borg completely, but the New Mexico native’s showing against Justin Scoggins in early 2016 should be enough to shut down the idea of a Borg title win on Saturday. Scoggins leaned heavily on takedown defense, solid ground work and superior striking to neutralize Borg. If Scoggins could do that to Borg, just imagine what an elite entity like Mighty Mouse could accomplish.

Johnson’s biggest battle right now is actually his battle of wills with UFC President Dana White, who would much rather promote a showdown between the flyweight champ and former bantamweight kingpin T.J. Dillashaw.

Aittama: Speaking of Dillashaw, there is no reason that fight can’t be made in the future. However, throwing together a fight on short notice without any extra incentive for your long-reigning champion and moving your No. 1 contender out of a title fight in his own weight class seems like a short-sighted decision on White’s behalf. There was no other motivation to make that fight happen than to plug in a hole on an upcoming card.

That’s why it is so absurd to see fans saying Mighty Mouse is running from Dillashaw. The pound-for-pound king, who has more tools than any other fighter today, has fought the majority of his career at bantamweight. People tend to forget Johnson fought for a title as a 135-pounder before making the drop to flyweight. Since his move down, Johnson has been largely untested against the elite competition in the division.

In his last outing, Johnson put on maybe his most complete performance against Wilson Reis at UFC on Fox 24. He dominated the contest from the opening bell to the fight-ending, third-round armbar submission, the first time the high-level grappler Reis had ever been submitted. Johnson systematically broke the Brazilian’s will with his excellent fighting at range, in the clinch, and in the grappling exchanges. Johnson was largely untouched after three rounds of one-sided traffic.

Enter Borg, who is indeed a talented fighter who stands a chance against any of the top fighters in the division. However, he is facing a living legend who is superior in every facet of the fight game. If Borg stands a chance, he needs to live up to his nickname as “The Tazmexican Devil.” Borg needs to keep the pressure on and always keep moving when grappling. Borg is an excellent grappler, but Johnson displayed excellent ground control in his five-round title fight with the aforementioned Elliott, a much bigger fighter and another strong grappler. Borg needs to make Johnson work every time the fight hits the floor — scramble, look to reverse or sweep him, capitalize on the few mistakes he will make and, most importantly, keep him guessing and take him off his rhythm.

Ultimately, Johnson will be too skilled for Borg to match on fight night. The only flyweight champion in the company’s history will remain as such. Johnson will break Anderson Silva’s UFC title defense record after another stellar performance and stoppage win in the championship rounds.

After beating Miesha Tate for the women’s bantamweight title and defending the belt against Ronda Rousey, Amanda Nunes now draws Valentina Shevchenko, whom she previously defeated by unanimous decision to earn a title shot. Is this her toughest title fight yet?

Aittama: There’s no question this is Nunes’ toughest fight to date. She won the title in spectacular fashion against Tate and destroyed Rousey in just over a minute in her first title defense. The outcomes were fantastic, thrilling and a beautiful display of aggressive, forward pressure. Nunes is no stranger to quick wins, either. Six of her seven UFC victories have come by way of first-round stoppage. The Brazilian has only gone the distance once in her UFC career, but that was against the current title challenger, Shevchenko.

Nunes was less than one round of work from being completely exhausted and outworked in the third round of that 15-minute affair at UFC 196. We knew heading into her bouts with Tate and Rousey that if Nunes was able to get her strikes off on her opponents early, then she would have a good chance of finding a finish. That’s exactly what she did. However, Nunes has not demonstrated that she addressed the issues that plagued her against Shevchenko in their first meeting. Many don’t accurately recall what transpired in that fight. Despite claims Nunes absolutely handled Shevchenko in the first two rounds, Shevchenko did well in the first and Nunes only took the frame with a late takedown. Nunes absolutely dominated the second round. She turned up her striking output and found dominant positions on the ground. She battered Shevchenko’s face with ground-and-pound and nearly locked in a rear-naked choke. Shevchenko showed her ability to adjust in the third frame. “The Bullet” used her Muay Thai experience to dominant the clinch with knees and striking on the outside against a clearly exhausted opponent.

So, do we know how Nunes will react if Shevchenko can take her best punches and keep coming forward? This is a five-round fight. Nunes has surely addressed some of her previous issues while working with the coaches at American Top Team. However, Shevchenko also made some key changes in her training camp. The Kyrgyzstan-born striker moved to Colorado to train with top UFC strawweight Rose Namajunas. Shevchenko is an endurance machine who is now getting the high-level looks she needs to improve her grappling and wrestling game. Those improvements were apparent when she locked on a fight-ending armbar from the guard in the second round against Julianna Peña earlier this year.

Not only is Shevchenko the stiffest title fight in Nunes’ career, but she is the best fighter Nunes has ever faced. She was born into a family of martial artists and has experience the highest levels in kickboxing, Muay Thai and MMA. Shevchenko has continued to improve and refine her game since making the switch to focus solely on MMA in 2015.

Nunes absolutely could pull out another big win with a massive right hand or a series of combinations inside. The champion is the bigger fighter, and size will certainly play a factor in the early rounds. However, these same advantages will be her downfall in the championship rounds. Shevchenko will start to find a home for her strikes in the third frame, and UFC President Dana White will be wrapping the UFC women’s bantamweight title around a new waist following the co-main event.

Henderson: Shevchenko does seem like a tougher task for Nunes, even if she hasn’t yet earned the elite reputation that accompanied Tate and Rousey to the cage. Shevchenko pushed Nunes in their first encounter, but she’ll get 10 extra minutes to wear down the Brazilian in this rematch.

However, Nunes gained a lot of confidence with her wins over Tate and Rousey. She’s an improved fighter from the woman who met Shevchenko in early 2016. You can bet Nunes and her coaches have spent some time reviewing the tape of the pair’s first fight. They’ll focus on tuning the Brazilian’s game to where she does more of what she did in round two.

The biggest concern for Nunes will come in the championship rounds, if the fight lasts that long. The Brazilian has to be concerned about her stamina. Can she stay as strong in rounds four and five as she can be in rounds one and two? That could be the difference between a win and a loss for Nunes, but her rise to the championship didn’t happen by accident. It’ll be a competitive fight, but the champion will retain her crown.

Arjan Bhullar — do we need to know this name?

Henderson: Not likely.

Bhullar has posted an undefeated mark through six pro outings, but the Canadian has hardly proven himself to be of UFC caliber. The 31-year-old former Battlefield Fight League heavyweight champ scored his biggest victory in his most recent outing when he edged 16-fight veteran Joey Yager on the scorecards. For perspective’s sake, Yager lost his only Resurrection Fighting Alliance appearance and both of his Bellator fights. Outside of the win over Yager, Bhullar has faced a group of opponents who held a combined 10-5 record when they locked horns with the Canadian. That group includes one rookie fighter and one man who sported a sub-.500 record.

Bhullar is lined up opposite Luis Henrique. The Brazilian is definitely the most accomplished opponent Bhullar has ever encountered. The 24-year-old isn’t perfect in his UFC venture, but his losses came to Marcin Tybura and Francis Ngannou. Meanwhile, Henrique has defeated the likes of Dmitry Smolyakov and Christian Colombo. That’s not exactly a head-turning list, but it demonstrates that the Brazilian makes for a sturdy welcoming-committee test. Henrique tends to turn away less-accomplished rivals while dropping fights to the better opposition he’s faced. That trend should continue against Bhullar, who will be fortunate to receive a return invite from the UFC after this fight.

Aittama: Bhullar’s MMA resume might not be impressive, but his wrestling career certainly has been. The Canadian-born freestyle wrestler competed in the 2012 Olympics and won a gold medal during the 2010 Commonwealth games. He is proud of his family’s long heritage in both wrestling and Indian culture. His family emigrated to Canada in the 1950s for new opportunities, and his bloodlines have flourished ever since.

Bhullar’s determination as a man who wants to grow MMA in Canada and India will push him to find the right way to develop and mold into a complete fighter. He hasn’t quite shown all the tools to find success at the top level, but as he gets more opportunities and hopefully finds high-level trainers, he has a chance to make some moves in the aging heavyweight division.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 215?

Aittama: This fight card could produce a few big winners, depending on who performs and how the fights play out. Demetrious Johnson is set to make history with his record-breaking title defense against Ray Borg. Valentina Shevchenko has a chance to unseat Amanda Nunes to become the UFC’s fifth women’s bantamweight titleholder. Welterweights Neil Magny and Rafael dos Anjos could move themselves into title contention with a victory. However, the man I suspect to leave the event with the most momentum and, more importantly, a turnaround from a series of close losses and unforeseen events over the past three years, is former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez.

“El Niño” has hit a tough road since entering the UFC in 2013. Melendez, 35, arguably defeated Benson Henderson for the UFC lightweight strap at UFC on Fox 7. However, the judges didn’t see it that way. After an absolute war with Diego Sanchez at UFC 166, Melendez earned another crack at the belt. Following a strong first round against Anthony Pettis at UFC 181, Melendez again failed to leave with the championship after he was submitted with a guillotine choke in the second stanza. The California native’s bad luck continued against Eddie Alvarez and Edson Barboza. His in-cage performances weren’t his only setbacks. Melendez went through three stretches with more than a year off in the past four years due to multiple injuries and a failed drug test.

After 13 months since his last outing, Melendez has a chance to turn his fortunes around in a new weight division. Melendez, an all-time great among lightweights, decided a drop back to featherweight would benefit his chances to compete for a UFC title. He competed in the featherweight division during his career in Shooto, more than 12 years ago, and he seems confident in his weight cut moving forward. The time off, too, might be an unexpected gift for a fighter who has been in so many battles during his 15-year career. If Melendez returns to the Octagon refreshed, confident and ready to implement his game plan against tough competitor Jeremy Stephens, then “El Niño” will surge into contendership in his new division.

Henderson: Fighters making comebacks.

This card marks the return of two fighters who have been out of action for a significant amount of time. While it’s doubtful that both warriors will emerge with a victory, the accomplishment of returning to the UFC’s Octagon is a huge win for Kajan Johnson and Sarah Moras.

Johnson, a Canadian fighter who appeared on The Ultimate Fighter: Nations, has been in the spotlight more recently for his willingness to speak up at the UFC Athlete Retreat. He’s been away from the Octagon, though, since a September 2015 win over Naoyuki Kotani. In addition to advocating for fighters, Johnson also built up the Tristar Vancouver gym. He’s 2-1 in his UFC career, and he rides a two-fight winning streak into his fight with Adriano Martins.

The 29-year-old Moras, who also hails from Canada, has not seen action since a July 2015 loss to Jessica Andrade. “Cheesecake” took part in the 18th season of The Ultimate Fighter, where she upset Tara LaRosa and Peggy Morgan before losing to Julianna Peña. She went 1-1 in official UFC competition, with a win over Alexis Dufresne and the loss to Andrade, before suffering an injury that forced her to withdraw from a slated February 2016 bout against Lauren Murphy. In her return to action, Moras meets Ashlee Evans-Smith.

Johnson has a solid chance at a win against Martins, but Moras is facing a tougher uphill battle. “Cheesecake” draws a fighter who went the distance with Ketlen Vieira and scored a win over Marion Reneau. However, Moras has a habit of scoring upsets, so she can’t be counted out.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 215?

Henderson: Francis Ngannou.

The big man has put together a five-fight winning streak that culminated with a victory over former UFC champ Andrei Arlovski at UFC on Fox 23. The 30-year-old up-and-comer had the opportunity to solidify his name as a contender with his bout against Junior dos Santos at UFC 215, but then dos Santos was flagged for a violation of the USADA’s anti-doping policy. Now, Ngannou loses the chance to beat another former UFC champ whose last outing was a title challenge. “The Predator” was set for a high-profile bout that could have stamped him as the new No. 1 contender, but instead he doesn’t even have an opponent lined up for this or any other upcoming card.

Aittama: No argument here. Ngannou would likely have gotten serious consideration for a title shot if he were able to topple Santos. However, let’s look at a more tragic loss instead.

The hope is this event will bring change to how the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission operates. Executive director Pat Reid has come under fire following the death of UFC veteran Tim Hague in June. Reid’s perplexing approval of Hague to fight in a June 16th boxing match, following numerous knockout losses that should have rendered him ineligible to compete, has led to much scrutiny of the ECSC. If not for Reid’s negligence in his seat of power, maybe Hague would still be here to parent his 9-year-old son.

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

Aittama: Henry Cejudo and Wilson Reis.

Cejudo looks to return to the win column following back-to-back losses. The Olympic wrestling gold medalist fell short in his bid to stop Demetrious Johnson’s title reign and lost a close and controversial split decision to perennial No. 2-ranked flyweight Joseph Benavidez. Cejudo has a chance to showcase his improved striking against the elite grappler Reis. The Brazilian is coming off a failed title bid himself and will be out for redemption against the skilled Cejudo.

This fight could take place on the feet, against the cage, or on the ground. However, every moment should offer excitement and a look into each fighter’s future in the division.

Henderson: Cejudo and Reis certainly can deliver, especially for those flyweight fans among us, but it’s not the only sleeper bout on this card. There’s even one hiding on the main card. How about that light heavyweight contest between Tyson Pedro and Ilir Latifi?

Pedro really is an intriguing 205-pounder. He’s only six fights into his pro career, but he’s already notched six stoppages, including four submissions, and he’s never been out of the first round, even through two UFC outings. Pedro’s Octagon debut ended in a first-round submission of The Ultimate Fighter alum Khalil Rountree. The Aussie’s sophomore UFC appearance resulted in a first-round technical knockout finish of Paul Craig. It’ll be interesting to see if Pedro can keep it going as he climbs up another rung on the ladder to fight Latifi.

The Swede probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves within the UFC’s light heavyweight ranks. Yes, he is ranked at No. 10 in the division by the UFC — Pedro sits in the 13th spot, by the way — but Latifi is probably best remembered for his lackluster affair with Gegard Mousasi in Mousasi’s UFC debut. Since then, however, Latifi has compiled a 5-2 mark inside the Octagon and scored four first-round finishes of his own. He does have a couple of black marks on his record — a first-round defeat against Jan Błachowicz and a second-round knockout handed to him by Ryan Bader.

The combined stopping power of these two men could provide us with plenty of fireworks, but the fight has gone largely unnoticed on a card that contains two title fights and a strong supporting cast of Neil Magny, Rafael dos Anjos, Gilbert Melendez and Jeremy Stephens.

Pair this card with…

Henderson: Low ratings expectations and another discussion of the flyweight division’s failure to deliver. I’m a huge fan of the UFC’s flyweight division. It tends to deliver some of the most exciting and technical fights in the entire league. However, the division doesn’t usually sell pay-per-views. It’s getting support from a women’s bantamweight championship bout in the co-headliner slot, but let’s remember that UFC 213, which was initially supposed to feature that particular title fight, only scraped by with roughly 150,000 buys. Now, tack on the recent blow to the pocketbooks that was the $100 fee for the Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor boxing mega-fight, and we’re probably looking at a number of fans who will pass on this event, regardless of how strong the top of the lineup might seem to some of us. That’ll bring on the inevitable talk of the demise of the division, even if its champ is providing us with absolute brilliance inside the Octagon.

Aittama: Your MMA 101 book and a glossary of techniques, because the main and co-main events are going to offer a special night of fighting. Sure, there might only be a fraction of people that tune in for the fights that also tuned in for the lopsided mismatch between Mayweather and McGregor. Sure, Johnson isn’t a draw and this event likely won’t break any pay-per-view records. However, aren’t we all here to watch high-level fights? Does it really take a name for you to tune in to appreciate the sport? Wherever your level of fandom stands, this most certainly will be a night of high-level fights at the top of the card, and it’s well worth the price of admission.

Fight Picks

Fight Henderson’s Pick Aittama’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
FlyW Championship: Demetrious Johnson vs. Ray Borg Johnson Johnson
Women’s BW Championship: Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko Nunes Shevchenko
WW: Neil Magny vs. Rafael dos Anjos Magny dos Anjos
LHW: Ilir Latifi vs. Tyson Pedro Pedro Latifi
FW: Jeremy Stephens vs. Gilbert Melendez Melendez Melendez
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
Women’s BW: Sara McMann vs. Ketlen Vieira McMann McMann
FlyW: Henry Cejudo vs. Wilson Reis Cejudo Cejudo
Women’s BW: Sarah Moras vs. Ashlee Evans-Smith Evans-Smith Evans-Smith
FW: Gavin Tucker vs. Rick Glenn Tucker Tucker
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 5:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Mitch Clarke vs. Alex White Clarke Clarke
HW: Luis Henrique vs. Arjan Bhullar Henrique Bhullar
LW: Kajan Johnson vs. Adriano Martins Johnson Martins