Cristiane 'Cyborg' Justino (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 222 Preview and Predictions

If you’re a fan of the Terminator films, then you know the machines are to be feared for their apparent capability to become sentient and decide that the human race is a threat that needs to be exterminated. However, in the case of UFC 222, it was a “Cyborg” who swooped in to save the day.

The original main event for the UFC’s latest pay-per-view offering on Saturday, March 3, was supposed to be the long-awaited meeting of UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway and challenger Frankie Edgar. The fight was originally supposed to take place at UFC 218 last year, but Edgar had to withdraw at that time due to injury. Well, as cruel fate would have it, this time it was Holloway’s turn to bow out due to injury, and fans have yet again been deprived of the marquee match-up.

However, another featherweight has stepped up to the plate to try to salvage the card. UFC women’s featherweight champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino agreed to defend her title in the new headliner of UFC 222. Her opponent comes from Invicta FC in the form of Yana Kunitskaya, who was the promotion’s reigning bantamweight champion. Cyborg is an overwhelming betting favorite over Kunitskaya, and there is frankly little reason to doubt that Cyborg will successfully defend her belt once again.


Edgar is still scheduled to compete at UFC 222, but instead of fighting for the featherweight title, he will now face Brian Ortega in a probable title eliminator in the co-main event. The undefeated Ortega is coming off a dominant submission victory over Cub Swanson last year, and a win for him over a former champion and one of the toughest fighters in the entire UFC would almost assuredly guarantee that Ortega becomes the new top contender in the featherweight division.

The UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the Fox Sports 1 prelims at 8 p.m. ET and the pay-per-view main card at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Kyle Symes are here to get you ready for all of the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Here we are again, with UFC women’s featherweight champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino defending her belt against a challenger who typically competes in the women’s bantamweight division. Is Yuna Kunitskaya an actual threat to end Cyborg’s reign?

Symes: I mean, I guess. It is MMA and anyone can lose on any given night. But have we really seen anything from Kunitskaya to make us believe she’s the one to dethrone Cyborg at 145 pounds? Her two biggest wins are against Cindy Dandois in 2010 and Raquel Pa’aluhi at Invicta FC 25. Pa’aluhi is a talented grappler, but she’s gone just 6-6 in her MMA career. It’s not exactly the best resume to back someone on when they’re facing the seemingly unstoppable force that is Cyborg.

Unless Cyborg comes in totally unprepared, I don’t see how Kunitskaya takes the belt from around the Brazilian’s waist.

Huntemann: Let me try to make this the shortest answer ever: No.

Wait, I still need to keep going? All right then. I applaud Cyborg for agreeing to step in and defend her title after the original main event fell through. In a day and age where certain fighters twist themselves into knots to avoid taking short-notice fights, a marquee fighter like Cyborg agreeing to step into a main event and defend her title on (fairly) short notice should be lauded.

All that said, let’s not pretend Cyborg is facing a dangerous opponent where she would benefit from having additional prep time. No disrespect to Kunitskaya — she should also be applauded for agreeing to face someone as dangerous and dominant as Cyborg — but as my esteemed colleague already pointed out, Kunitskaya hasn’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of opponents up to this point in her career. Cyborg is more talented and dangerous than all of the fighters Kunitskaya has previously faced, combined. If this fight lasts longer than two full rounds, it will be a shock.

Frankie Edgar was slated to get a crack at UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway, but Holloway was forced out of the bout with an injury. Now, Edgar meets Brian Ortega instead. Does Edgar pick up another win and cement his status as top contender, or will Ortega use this opportunity to snag the next title shot?

Huntemann: This is an extremely dangerous fight for Edgar. He deserves all of the credit in the world for still agreeing to fight on this card, rather than just sitting back and waiting for Holloway to get healthy. Edgar is a fighter’s fighter, all the way through.

Ortega is an incredibly tough match-up for Edgar. He is undefeated for a reason, and all but one of Ortega’s UFC wins have come by way of knockout or submission. His submission of Cub Swanson last year was about as tough and tight of a guillotine choke as you will ever see — I’m pretty sure I felt my neck tighten up a little while watching it.

Edgar’s only losses in the last five years have come to former featherweight champion José Aldo. Edgar has faced and defeated some of the best the UFC has to offer. So, just as Ortega is a dangerous match-up for him, the opposite also applies. This fight will be an excellent test to see if Ortega is truly ready to fight for a title.

When I first heard this fight was taking place, I thought it was finally going to be Ortega’s time. Upon further reflection, I believe Edgar has one more run left in him. Ortega will give Edgar everything he can handle, but the scrappy “underdog” of the UFC will pull it out. This fight goes the distance and turns into a likely “Fight of the Night” winner.

Symes: Edgar does deserve all kinds of props for taking this fight. He was pegged to fight for the title, and he would’ve had every right to remove himself from the card and wait for Holloway. Instead, he faces the dangerous Ortega.

On paper, this is a fight you’d look at as a case of where the new breed takes over for the old guard. However, we haven’t seen Edgar slip up or start to fade like we have other fighters who’ve been on top as long as he has. It’s a testament to Edgar’s toughness and abilities — along with his coaching staff — that Edgar has competed at an elite level for such an extended amount of time without showing any signs of slowing down. The last time the UFC put Edgar in a spot against a young up-and-comer was his fight with Yair Rodriguez that turned into a massacre in the Octagon.

Ortega has shown he belongs in the upper echelon of the division, evident by his win over Swanson. His submission skills are no joke, and we’ve seen him display some striking skills with a pair of knockouts in his run. Granted, those knockouts came against an aging Clay Guida and the knockout-prone Thiago Tavares, but it showed that Ortega is capable of ending the fight on the feet as well as on the ground.

This contest has the makings of an instant classic, and Edgar will get his hand raised. There’s a reason he’s the undisputed No. 1 contender. Ortega will show that he’s no slouch and that he belongs in the title picture with his performance, but, ultimately, Edgar manages to get the W.

Mackenzie Dern — do we need to know this name?

Symes: Pretty sure if you’re an MMA fan, you already know the name.

Pegged as the next Ronda Rousey due to her grappling skills and good looks, Dern has been a name MMA fans have been keeping tabs on for the past few years. Her jiu-jitsu is insane, and despite the sport progressing away from specialists, women’s MMA has such a large skill gap between the top and bottom of the divisions that a specialist like Dern could make a serious run.

Dern is facing Ashley Yoder, who’s gone 0-2 in the UFC and is no doubt being set up as a stepping stone to propel Dern up the promotional ladder. I just hope the UFC lets Dern develop her MMA game instead of throwing her to top contenders, but with the organization’s desperate need of starpower, I don’t have much faith in that.

Huntemann: I echo my esteemed colleague’s comments once again. I’m admittedly not as knowledgeable about Dern as other members of the MMA Twitterverse. All I really know about her is that she is one of the best jiu-jitsu practitioners in the world, but that other parts of her MMA game are still very raw. And yes, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Dern has a very marketable look (i.e. she is an attractive woman).

However, let’s hope UFC President Dana White learned his lesson from pushing Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant too much, too soon, and does not try to hotshot Dern before she is truly ready. Pitting Dern against the run-of-the-mill Yoder is a good start, and I expect Dern to win her UFC debut via submission.

Something else that also works in Dern’s favor? She isn’t a fitness model masquerading as an MMA fighter. She seems to truly want to compete and be the best competitor she can be.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 222?

Huntemann: I don’t see how the answer isn’t Brian Ortega, even if he loses to Edgar. Ortega gets to test himself against one of the very best in the UFC. Even if he comes up short, Ortega is going to be in the title conversation and will likely still end up fighting for a belt sooner rather than later. If Ortega defeats Edgar? Then his next fight will be for a title — an opportunity that he will have taken from Edgar. So, it’s a win-win for Ortega.

Symes: Ortega is a great pick. Since my fellow panelist tabbed him, I’ll go one fight lower on the card and pick Sean O’Malley. This kid became an overnight sensation after his fight on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. After picking up a win in his UFC debut to prove he belongs, he now gets a chance to be introduced to a much wider audience as a part of a featured fight on a pay-per-view main card. O’Malley can become a marketable fighter for the UFC. With the exposure he’ll get by appearing on the main card, it’s tough to argue fans won’t clamor for more O’Malley even if he doesn’t get his hand raised.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 222?

Symes: Hypothetically, the biggest loser could be Frankie Edgar if he drops the fight to Brian Ortega. But since we’re looking at this before the fights go down, I’ll say it’s Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. After campaigning for a superfight with women’s bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes, Cyborg has to settle for yet another bantamweight jumping up to 145 pounds. Worse yet, her opponent, Yana Kunitskaya, is unknown to the vast majority of fans. A win gains Cyborg nothing. It seems like she’s taking this fight to collect a paycheck and to stay active while waiting for the Nunes fight to come together. That’s assuming Nunes gets past Raquel Pennington, of course.

Huntemann: Since my colleague was so kind as to not pick Edgar, I’ll go ahead and take up that baton. However, I will add the caveat that Edgar is only the biggest loser if he comes up short against Ortega, which I don’t think he will. If Ortega keeps his undefeated streak intact and gets the best of Edgar? Then yeah, ol’ Frankie will have screwed the pooch pretty bad and opened himself up to all sorts of second-guessing.

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

Huntemann: The preliminary-card match-up between C.B. Dollaway and Hector Lombard. Dollaway is still looking to get his career back on track after going 1-3 in his last four fights, albeit against some incredibly tough competition. Lombard has lost four straight and likely needs a win here to avoid a pink slip. Lombard never lived up to the hype that followed him when he came to the UFC from Bellator MMA all those years ago. Both he and Dollaway are desperate fighters, and desperate fighters usually deliver spirited performances.

Symes: I’ll pick two match-ups.

First, Cat Zingano and Ketlen Vieira. Zingano makes her much anticipated return. She is a wild woman in the cage, and Vieira is undefeated thus far in her career. This could be an explosive battle of wills.

The second fight is the heavyweight showdown between Stefan Struve and Andrei Arlovski. Somehow, these two haven’t fought before. Both men have a history of being knocked out, so we could be in for a highlight-reel finish here.

Pair this card with…

Symes: Whatever your poison of choice is for fight night. This card doesn’t have much for casual fans outside of the top two fights, so you might need some herbal or alcohol assistance to enjoy the lower portions of the card.

Huntemann: Since this card takes place during the last weekend of college basketball’s regular season, before we enter March Madness, you should keep your cable bill down and check out this card at your local sports bar. That way, you can watch some fights and enjoy some exciting college basketball at the same time. It’s the best of both worlds!

Fight Picks

Fight Symes’s Pick Huntemann’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
Women’s FW Championship: Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino vs. Yana Kunitskaya Cyborg Cyborg
FW: Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega Edgar Edgar
BW: Sean O’Malley vs. Andre Soukhamthath O’Malley O’Malley
HW: Stefan Struve vs. Andrei Arlovski Arlovski Struve
Women’s BW: Cat Zingano vs. Ketlen Vieira Zingano Vieira
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Mackenzie Dern vs. Ashley Yoder Dern Dern
LW: Beneil Dariush vs. Alexander Hernandez Dariush Dariush
BW: John Dodson vs. Pedro Munhoz Dodson Munhoz
MW: Hector Lombard vs. C.B. Dollaway Lombard Dollaway
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
WW: Mike Pyle vs. Zak Ottow Pyle Pyle
BW: Bryan Caraway vs. Cody Stamann Stamann Stamann
LHW: Jordan Johnson vs. Adam Milstead Johnson Milstead