Khabib Nurmagomedov (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 223 Preview and Predictions

After what’s been a fairly drab and uninspiring winter — not just weather-wise, but for the UFC as well — fight fans finally seem to have something to be excited about as we begin the still-too-slow transition to spring in some parts of the country. The first “big” fight card of the year is upon us. UFC 223 takes place on Saturday, April 7, and it has multiple title fights and recognizable names to go with it.

We’ve all heard the expression, “Third time’s the charm,” right? Well, in this case, we hoped the fourth time would be the charm. However, it appears a bout between UFC interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov just isn’t meant to be. This is the fourth failed attempt to match the two fighters together, as Ferguson had to withdraw on April Fool’s Day, of all days.

Of course, the replacement fighter who agreed to step in is definitely no joke. UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway will face Nurmagomedov on just six days’ notice. This fight is still allegedly for the undisputed lightweight title as well, since the UFC plans to strip current champion Conor McGregor. Will Holloway cement his place as one of the pound-for-pound best fighters on the planet by becoming a two-division champion? Or will Nurmagomedov finally receive UFC gold and keep his undefeated record intact?


The co-headliner is a rematch of the biggest upset of 2017, when Rose Namajunas dethroned Joanna Jędrzejczyk in the women’s strawweight division. Namajunas shocked the world when she finished the formerly undefeated Jędrzejczyk at UFC 217 with a first-round knockout. The Polish fighter seems hellbent on regaining the title from Namajunas and reminding everyone that she is one of the best female fighters on the planet. Will Namajunas prove her win wasn’t a fluke and that she is perhaps the only fighter who serve as Jędrzejczyk’s kryptonite?

The two title fights at UFC 223 round out what is one of the UFC’s most solid offerings to date. The lineup also boasts Michael Chiesa, Anthony Pettis, Paul Felder, Al Iaquinta, Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Felice Herrig.

The UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:15 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 7, 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 Jaewon Paik get you ready for the UFC’s first great card of 2018 in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov were set to meet for the lightweight title in the evening’s headliner. However, this fight appears to be cursed. Ferguson withdrew with an injury, leaving an opening that has been filled by UFC featherweight titleholder Max Holloway. Will Nurmagomedov finally claim a UFC championship, or will Holloway, entering on six days’ notice, become a two-division champ?

Paik: I’m glad that I didn’t guarantee anyone anything, because it turns out that was the right move, unfortunately. It’s almost like the universe is playing some kind of cruel joke on all of us. I can’t even describe how I’m feeling right now. This fight has been scheduled four times and has failed to happen four times. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Who knows what the UFC is thinking at this point, but Ferguson and Nurmagomedov might never be matched up again.

With that being said, the UFC has consoled all of us pretty well by replacing its original pairing with another amazing match-up. Holloway is now in Ferguson’s place to fight for the undisputed lightweight title. This, while quite out of nowhere, is an incredible fight.

What makes this fight so interesting is that, for one, Holloway’s winning streak has been just as impressive as Ferguson’s streak, if not more so. Sitting at 12 victories, Holloway’s streak includes some of the biggest names in the sport, such as José Aldo and Anthony Pettis. Furthermore, Holloway isn’t really at a size disadvantage, considering how big of a featherweight he always has been, and his frame allows him to move up to the lightweight division without much trouble. Plus, this is a brilliant move by Holloway to take this fight. He once again earned the love of a lot of fans and at the same time has a chance to make history.

However, let’s look at the match-up realistically. Had Holloway been given a full training camp to prepare for someone like Nurmagomedov, then I would be much more enthusiastic about his chances in this fight. While I’m not going to count Holloway out, I am going to give the edge to Nurmagomedov. It’s quite hard not to do so.

Huntemann: Man, we were so close, weren’t we? We were so close to the seemingly impossible fight happening. But alas, cruel fate rears its ugly head once again. However, it couldn’t have picked a better day to appear than on April Fool’s Day.

As far as replacements go, Holloway is as good as they come. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for agreeing to step in on short notice against a fighter like Nurmagomedov. Yet, it’s really a no-lose situation for Holloway.

If he wins? Then he is a double champion, just like his old pal Conor McGregor. At that point, it almost makes too much sense to book the rematch between the two men and guarantee Holloway a huge payday.

If Holloway loses? Then he is still the featherweight champion and still receives praise from all corners for stepping on short notice. He also still gets a good payday, to boot. Holloway is really playing with house money. He has nothing to lose, and that makes him dangerous in this fight. His striking is second to none, and he is the most dangerous opponent Nurmagomedov has faced to date. You could easily make the argument that Holloway is more dangerous than Ferguson for Nurmagomedov.

All that said, I’m sticking with my original pick of Nurmagomedov to win this fight. If Holloway gets his striking going early, then his reach and defense is enough to keep Nurmagomedov at bay. However, Nurmagomedov won’t face a much different fighter stylistically than he would have if he ended up in the cage against Ferguson. Holloway will give Nurmagomedov all he can handle and the fight will go the distance, but Nurmagomedov gets his takedowns and does enough on the ground to pull out a close win.

Rose Namajunas is tasked with a women’s strawweight title defense against Joanna Jędrzejczyk, the woman Namajunas defeated for the belt. Will Namajunas prove that her first win was no fluke?

Huntemann: Namajunas’ shocking upset of Jędrzejczyk was one of the true feel-good moments of 2017, especially if you’re at all familiar with Namajunas’ backstory. What was most shocking was just how unprepared Jędrzejczyk seemed to be for Namajunas. It’s probably a safe bet that the Polish star didn’t take Namajunas seriously as an opponent, and it cost her dearly.

We’re going to see the best version of Jędrzejczyk we have ever seen for this fight. This is saying something, considering the impressive performances we’ve already seen her put on to date. Jędrzejczyk lost her belt, though, and she was humiliated on worldwide television. She should now be supremely motivated.

I’m sure Namajunas is expecting the best version of Jędrzejczyk also and has prepared as well as she can. We shouldn’t expect this fight to end in the first round again, nor should we expect Jędrzejczyk to be caught flat-footed and unprepared. Namajunas has a terrific story and stands as a great fighter, but Jędrzejczyk will reassert her claim to the title as one of the best strikers in MMA and convincingly pepper Namajunas en route to reclaiming the gold.

Paik: Every time there’s a discussion about the pair’s first meeting at UFC 217, there is always some mention of how it was a fluke or an accident. To tell you the truth, I am absolutely sick of hearing about it. Two fighters were scheduled to fight under the same exact conditions, so where was the fluke? If Jędrzejczyk had a bad weight cut and it affected her performance, then guess what? It’s still a part of the game. I don’t see why anything has to be taken away from Namajunas’ victory, which was an extremely impressive one, to say the least.

My view couldn’t be further from that of my colleague here. Jędrzejczyk was asked the question multiple times, and every time, even before the fight, she said she takes all of her opponents seriously. Credit should be given where credit is due, and Namajunas deserves all the credit in the world for being the one to take down the most dominant female champion in history.

When an extremely dominant champion gets dethroned in the way Namajunas dethroned Jędrzejczyk, it doesn’t favor them in the rematch — José Aldo and Anderson Silva come to mind as examples of this trend. All the momentum is on Namajunas’ side going into the rematch. Sure, Jędrzejczyk will be motivated to get her belt back, but Namajunas is a 25-year-old champion who is just as hungry to keep the strap as Jędrzejczyk is hungry to get her belt back.

Anything is possible in this sport. We have seen it time and time again. So I’m not going to count anyone out, but I will say I’m leaning toward Namajunas in this rematch. There are more than enough reasons to do so.

Mike Rodriguez — do we need to know this name?

Paik: Ah, Rodriguez. He’s another fighter discovered on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. I have to say, the way he earned his contract was extremely impressive, so I’m going to say yes to the question. Depending on his performance, further questions will be answered. I wouldn’t say to expect a lot, but I would say to keep an eye on him.

Huntemann: I really don’t have much else to add beyond what my colleague has said. Rodriguez got hit shot on DWTNCS and made the most of it with a vicious knockout. He should defeat Devin Clark, an apparent journeyman, so sure, why not? Let’s pay attention to the guy.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 223?

Huntemann: The fans, without a doubt. As I’ve said before, the fight cards put on by the UFC up to this point in 2018 have been severely underwhelming, to say the least, with the exception of a few singular moments. UFC 223 represents a true “big” fight card that the UFC is still capable of putting on that is able to capture the fans’ imagination, even despite the late changes. There are two title fights and exciting match-ups throughout this card, which should make fans who either shell out the money to order at home or visit their local sports bar feel as if they’re actually getting their money’s worth for a change.

Paik: My previous answer to this question was the lightweight division, but that’s not the case anymore, thanks to the late change in the lineup. However, I feel pretty good with my new answer, in saying that the bigger winner now is going to be Max Holloway.

Holloway takes a pretty much risk-free fight after coming off an injury that took him out of UFC 222. He has a chance to make the history on this card and become the second-ever two-division champion. And if he loses? Well, nothing happens and he’s still the featherweight world champion, and he still gets to walk out with a whole lot of new fans on his side. So, regardless of the result, Holloway will have a pretty damn good night on Saturday.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 223?

Paik: Without a doubt, it’s Conor McGregor.

It’s not only about money, either. As big of a star as McGregor is, the respect from fans for him is falling each day. McGregor may not be a loser from the perspective of star power — his stardom will be there no matter what, and he can fight Nate Diaz or another big name when he comes back — but the respect for him will be gone a whole lot more once he is stripped of the UFC lightweight belt. The Irishman’s course of action lately has been disappointing, and my own respect for him has dwindled with each passing day he stays outside of the Octagon.

Huntemann: McGregor has more money than he knows what to do with. He is seemingly receiving endorsement deals right and left, and he can basically do whatever the hell he wants. McGregor will be just fine, no matter what happens on this card. So, as much as I hate to disagree, I’m totally going to.

I’m going to go outside the box and say the biggest loser is whoever comes up short in the featured UFC Fight Pass preliminary bout between Alex Caceres and Artem Lobov. This fight is the closest as the UFC has come to a loser-leaves-town fight since Amanda Cooper mercifully ended Angela Magana’s stint in the UFC late last year. The loser of this contest probably won’t stick around, even if Caceres has a cool nickname and Lobov is McGregor’s training partner.

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

Huntemann: The easy answer is the main-card match-up between Paul Felder and Al Iaquinta, but that’s just too obvious a choice. If my colleague wants to wax poetic on that one, then he can go right ahead.

I’m actually going to pick the prelim bout between Evan Dunham and Olivier Aubin-Mercier. Dunham has experienced a career renaissance of sorts, going 4-0-1 over his last five fights and re-entering the lightweight top 15. However, Aubin-Mercier is unbeaten in his last three fights, with two submission wins. A win over a fighter the caliber of Dunham could secure Aubin-Mercier an official ranking of his own. Both guys will be hungry in this fight, but for different reasons. They’ll put on an early, entertaining display for fans.

Paik: I don’t disagree with either of my cohort’s picks, but I’m going to go with Ray Borg’s flyweight fight against Brandon Moreno. These two 125ers are still very young and developing fighters. Both men are likely future contenders, too. With the most dominant champion in UFC history sitting atop the weight class and considering super fights, the flyweight division is in dire need of some fresh faces who can give Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson problems and prevent him from wandering outside of the 125-pound ranks.

With Borg and Moreno both coming off important losses in fights that could have truly propelled them to the next level, I’m very excited to see what kind of improvements they’ve made. Both combatants are only 24 years old and still have plenty of room to improve, so this should be a good one.

Pair this card with…

Paik: I’m going to head off to Buffalo Wild Wings with a few of my friends for this card, and I would personally suggest the same, if there is one nearby. What better way to enjoy the best card of the year (so far) than chilling with your buddies and eating some good wings?

Huntemann: Since this UFC card is the first of the year to seem worthy of spending money on, then I say why not go all out? Buy the finest six-pack of craft beer you can find. Order the most decadent pizza your local pizza joint offers. Hell, order two. Load up on junk food, all the junk food. We finally have a big fight card on our hands, so who cares?

Fight Picks

Fight Paik’s Pick Huntemann’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
Interim LW Championship: Max Holloway vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov Nurmagomedov Nurmagomedov
Women’s StrawW Championship: Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jędrzejczyk Namajunas Jędrzejczyk
FW: Calvin Kattar vs. Renato Moicano Moicano Kattar
LW: Michael Chiesa vs. Anthony Pettis Chiesa Pettis
LW: Al Iaquinta vs. Paul Felder Iaquinta Iaquinta
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Felice Herrig vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz Kowalkiewicz Kowalkiewicz
FlyW: Brandon Moreno vs. Ray Borg Borg Borg
LW: Joe Lauzon vs. Chris Gruetzemacher Lauzon Lauzon
LW: Evan Dunham vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier Dunham Aubin-Mercier
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:15 p.m. ET)
FW: Artem Lobov vs. Alex Caceres Caceres Lobov
Women’s FlyW: Ashlee Evans-Smith vs. Bec Rawlings Rawlings Rawlings
LHW: Mike Rodriguez vs. Devin Clark Rodriguez Rodriguez
FW: Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Kyle Bochniak Magomedsharipov Magomedsharipov