Brian Ortega (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC Fight Night 123 Preview and Predictions

Coming off a crazy weekend of fights between UFC 218, GLORY 48, Bellator 189 and The Ultimate Fighter 26 Finale, fans may be feeling a bit of a hangover going into this weekend. While the UFC has put together a relatively low-key card for the mainstream fan, the real MMA enthusiast will not be disappointed when UFC Fight Night 123 heads to the SaveMart Center in Fresno, Calif., on Saturday night.

The card is headlined by a featherweight showdown with title implications. Longtime veteran Cub Swanson, who is currently sitting at fourth in the division, takes on sixth-ranked Brian Ortega a rising star in the division. Both men have surged up the rankings in the last couple years, and the winner could easily step right into line for a title shot.

The co-main event features another featherweight battle. Jason Knight, coming off a first-round knockout loss to third-ranked Ricardo Lamas, takes on Gabriel Benitez, who is also coming off a loss. Both men are on the brink of irrelevance inside the Octagon, and that usually makes for a great fight.


The main card is rounded out by a pivotal bantamweight match-up between former World Series of Fighting bantamweight champ Marlon Moraes and Aljamain Sterling, a lightweight fight that pits Darrell Horcher against Scott Holtzman, and a much-anticipated battle of undefeateds Eryk Anders and Markus Perez.

The action kicks off with three preliminary-card bouts on UFC Fight Pass at 6:30 p.m. ET. From there, it’s off to Fox Sports 1 for the four remaining prelim affairs at 8 p.m. ET. The action will stay on Fox Sports 1 at 10 p.m. ET for the main card. Combat Press writers Jaewon Paik and Dan Kuhl preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Brian Ortega finally gets a headlining spot after a pretty impressive run through the UFC’s featherweight division. He’s topped quite a few formidable opponents along the way, but now he takes another step up to meet elite 145-pounder Cub Swanson. Will Ortega impress again, or is Swanson poised to be the first man to hand Ortega a loss?

Paik: Since defeating Renato Moicano, Ortega is officially the only undefeated man left in the top 10 of the featherweight division. Easily the hottest prospect right now at featherweight, Ortega has been constantly climbing the ladder. What is the most impressive about him is his ability to finish fights very flexibly. He can find a stoppage from all positions, and he has finished all of his UFC fights so far, with the exception of a tiny slip against Mike De La Torre, which was overturned to a no-contest after Ortega tested positive for drostanolone — not a good first impression, since it was in Ortega’s UFC debut.

Since then, Ortega has gone on a tear. He has shown the versatility of his finishing ability, with excellent submissions and improved striking ability. Ortega has earned two “Fight of the Night” honors along the way.

Swanson is a guy that doesn’t need much introduction. He’s a UFC veteran who has been competing with the best in the world for years now. Swanson has also been constantly improving, picking up solid wins and is now knocking on the door of a title shot. However, with the UFC booking Max Holloway and José Aldo for UFC 218, Swanson had to take on one more fight. It’s an extremely risky one for Swanson, too.

Ortega possesses well-roundedness like no one Swanson has fought in recent memory. The up-and-comer can put Swanson in danger both on the feet and on the ground. By no means will either of them have an easy fight here, but I like Ortega’s chances.

Swanson’s case might just turn into what we’ve seen with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. He’s been knocking on the door of a title shot for a long time, but eventually could end up losing to an up-and-coming prospect, which would knock him down a few rungs. Ortega is very quick on his feet. In the Moicano fight, he demonstrated that he is as good as anyone when it comes to locking up submissions in an instant. Swanson will have a lot of trouble with that.

Kuhl: Frankly, this is the perfect fight for the UFC featherweight division, which is finally out of stall mode with Conor McGregor, sort of, now at lightweight.

I agree with a lot of what my colleague has said, but I would hardly call Ortega a “prospect.” He was a prospect four years ago, when he captured the Resurrection Fighting Alliance featherweight title. Since then, he has run through all of his UFC opponents, and the aforementioned “slip” was a weird one, because I don’t know a single 23-year-old surfer dude that needs to use a straight-up ‘roid like drostanolone. That seems more like a late-stage 30-year-old’s type of performance-enhancing drug. Regardless, Ortega hasn’t popped since, he’s still only 26, and he is an insane athlete with a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

“Killer” Cub has his work cut out for him. Swanson was a mainstay in the WEC and kept his momentum rocking straight into the UFC. He has fought a who’s who of featherweights for a decade, and he is no stranger to performance-bonus accolades. The complete war he had with Doo Ho Choi a year ago is still one of the best fights in history.

Here’s the thing. Ortega’s first 13 fights look really similar to Swanson’s first 13 fights. The problem is that Swanson has a lot of miles on his chassis and hasn’t stopped anyone in over four years. Swanson’s last two losses were final-round submissions, and a final-round stoppage is how Ortega has won his last four fights. Ortega is young, he’s loose, and he has all the skills he needs to win. Barring any flash knockouts, he’ll take out Swanson in the third frame by submission.

The other key fight on this main card is the bantamweight clash between Marlon Moraes and Aljamain Sterling. Moraes has fought to two split decisions in his UFC campaign. Will this fight be just as close?

Kuhl: Moraes may have had his last two fights go to a split verdict, but that’s no different than Sterling taking his last four fights to decision — two splits and two unanimous. As a side note, when it goes split, Sterling is 1-2 in his career.

Moraes is stepping into this battle as a short-notice injury replacement for fellow Brazilian Rani Yahya. The former WSOF champ picked up a win over John Dodson just a few weeks ago. Prior to his loss to Raphael Assunção in his UFC debut last June, Moraes went 13 fights in a row with no losses. Those 13 wins were a mixed bag of knockouts, submissions and distance wins, with one being the WSOF bantamweight title win, followed by five title defenses. To say that Moraes is “no joke” is a gross understatement. There is a reason why he is currently ranked seventh in the division.

Sterling is an impressive fighter, too. He has an NCAA Division III wrestling pedigree and is no stranger to fighting veterans. Since joining the UFC almost four years ago, Sterling has faced eight opponents with a combined record of 149-38-2. Sterling, who currently sits in the eighth spot, badly needs a big win to crack into the top five, but Moraes also needs a big win to prove that he is truly a world champion.

This leads to the answer to the ultimate question. This will definitely be a close fight. Moraes and Sterling are both natural bantamweights. They both have stamina, knockout abilities and high-level grappling. Moraes has more experience on the feet, and if it goes the distance, the Muay Thai black belt will land a much higher level of significant strikes en route to the decision.

Paik: Undoubtedly this fight won’t be a blowout for either man. It has far more chance to go to a decision than it has to end in a finish. Between these two fighters, there have been zero stoppages against them in the UFC.

Since losing back-to-back fights to Bryan Caraway and the aforementioned Assunção, Sterling bounced back phenomenally against Augusto Mendes and former UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barão.

What we have to consider here is that Moraes is stepping in on relatively short notice, which could turn out to be a huge factor in the fight. The Brazilian has been on the constant rise, with only a little hiccup against Assunção. He immediately got back on the winning track against Dodson, but he’s making a very quick turnaround, in less than a month’s time, and against someone as talented as Sterling. It could backfire.

The fight will be a pretty close one, but Sterling will edge out Moraes pretty comfortably and handedly. Nonetheless, it figures to be a great fight.

Markus Perez, Benito Lopez, Alex Perez and Merab Dvalishvili — do we need to know these names?

Paik: Markus Perez comes into the fight with a 9-0 record. He has been a force to be reckoned with in his previous promotions, including the Legacy Fighting Alliance, but he will face his toughest competition to date on this card. If he can get by Eryk Anders, then there is certainly a case to be made about his up-and-coming status.

Lopez was discovered on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. He has been an interesting prospect to watch. His fight against Steven Peterson showed versatility and grit, and he, like Perez, will face his first true step up in competition as he makes his UFC debut against Albert Morales. Keep an eye on him, however, as he has a very interesting style and the potential to be big.

Alex Perez has the same case as Lopez. He was discovered on DWTNCS as well. He makes his UFC debut with an impressive 18-4 record, and he brings a great set of submission abilities. At only age 25, he is another promising prospect. His fight on Saturday will tell us a lot more about his future.

Dvalishvili makes his Octagon debut against battle-tested Frankie Saenz. This will be an extremely tough task for Dvalishvili. Saenz has fought some of the best fighters in the 135-pound weight class, including Urijah Faber and Eddie Wineland. He brings a ton of experience against Dvalishvili. If Dvalishvili can get by Saenz in impressive fashion, then most definitely put him on your watchlist.

Kuhl: The one I will most closely watch is actually the only one of the four who will lose on Saturday.

Brazilian Markus Perez basically came out of nowhere, took out two UFC vets in Ildemar Alcantara and Paulo Thiago, and crossed the Caribbean to submit previously undefeated prospect Ian Heinisch on his own home turf in Colorado. Perez will suffer his first defeat this weekend, because his opponent is the freakish former Alabama linebacker Anders, but, if history repeats itself, Perez could easily shock the masses and take home another unlikely victory.

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

Kuhl: The rematch between Alexis Davis and Liz Carmouche. This comes four years after their first encounter, where Carmouche took a decision. Both are hard-grinding fighters on the outer edge of the UFC’s women’s bantamweight top 10, and both need a win to gain any sort of relevance in what has become a somewhat thin division after the additions of the female featherweights and flyweights. Davis has fought as recently as April, when she beat Cindy Dandois by unanimous decision. Carmouche, on the other hand, hasn’t fought in over a year, due to injury. I’m inclined to give the nod to Davis. Either way, both need to win, which can make for a great battle.

Paik: I like Davis and Carmouche as well, but I’m really looking forward to the scrap between Benito Lopez and Albert Morales.

Lopez is able to bring an exciting style into the cage that includes a fancy set of striking skills and great speed. If he can get by Morales in impressive fashion, then he looks like he could become a real star in the making. Lopez, 23, along with Sean O’Malley could be the future stars of the 135-pound division.

Pair this card with…

Paik: A relaxed and laid-back night with family and friends. This card is not the most stacked Fight Night card of all time, but it has a few very interesting match-ups. We all know how Cub Swanson fights, and you won’t be falling asleep while he’s in the cage. Marlon Moraes and Aljamain Sterling provide for an excellent match-up, too, and Jason Knight won’t be disappointing, either. Consider this as an off-week after another sensational pay-per-view delivered by the UFC last weekend. Don’t sleep on this card.

Kuhl: A good honey-do list is in order for this one. Most of these fights have the potential to end in a finish, and when we have a Fox Sports 1 card with a lot of finish potential, we also have the potential for a lot of commercial downtime. If all goes as planned, I will have a stellar night of multi-tasking.

Fight Picks

Fight Paik’s Pick Kuhl’s Pick
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
FW: Cub Swanson vs. Brian Ortega Ortega Ortega
FW: Jason Knight vs. Gabriel Benitez Knight Knight
BW: Marlon Moraes vs. Aljamain Sterling Sterling Moraes
LW: Scott Holtzman vs. Darrell Horcher Horcher Horcher
MW: Eryk Anders vs. Markus Perez Anders Anders
BW: Benito Lopez vs. Albert Morales Lopez Lopez
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Alexis Davis vs. Liz Carmouche Davis Davis
BW: Luke Sanders vs. Andre Soukhamthath Sanders Sanders
FlyW: Alex Perez vs. Carls John de Tomas de Tomas Perez
BW: Frankie Saenz vs. Merab Dvalishvili Saenz Dvalishvili
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
BW: Iuri Alcantara vs. Alejandro Perez Alcantara Alcantara
LW: Chris Gruetzemacher vs. Davi Ramos Gruetzemacher Ramos
MW: Antonio Braga Neto vs. Trevin Giles Giles Giles