Daniel Cormier (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 230 Preview and Predictions

The biggest storyline of the UFC’s third trip to the famed Madison Square Garden in New York isn’t about the championship bout headlining the card, the heated rivalry in the co-main event, or the tremendous undercard. Instead, the biggest story is the lack of a true main event for the months leading up to UFC 230, which takes place on Saturday, Nov. 3.

The main event was simply listed on the UFC’s website as “TBA” versus “TBD” less than a month prior to the event. There was talk of welterweight champ Tyron Woodley stepping up to the plate. However, the champion needed hand surgery following his win at UFC 228 in September. Then, Jon Jones was handed down a retroactive, shortened 15-month USADA suspension for his failed test at UFC 214 in July 2017, which made him eligible to fight at UFC 230. The rumors started swirling about a potential Jones title bout, but the smoke was quickly extinguished. About a month away from the event, Valentina Shevchenko was moved from her initially schedule bout at UFC 231 to headline against The Ultimate Fighter 26 finalist Sijara Eubanks. The promotion felt the negative backlash from the fans, the lack of ticket sales, and the overall disinterest in the bout. So, the flip-flopping continued.

Following his incredible come-from-behind victory at UFC 229, Derrick Lewis was granted a title shot against reigning heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. Cormier and Lewis were given top billing at UFC 230, while Shevchenko moved back to UFC 231 in Toronto and Eubanks was relegated to the UFC 230 preliminary card against Roxanne Modafferi.


Just as the pay-per-view was starting to fill in, multiple injuries decimated the card and led to even more changes. The first hit to the main card was the loss of Luke Rockhold, who was scheduled to face former UFC champ Chris Weidman in an anticipated rematch. The injury led to a domino effect of matchmaking changes. Former Strikeforce champion Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza moved into the bout with Weidman, which left top-10 middleweight David Branch without an opponent until Jared Cannonier stepped up on short notice. Then, the co-headliner between top lightweight contender Dustin Poirier and Nate Diaz was scrapped when Poirier sustained a hip injury.

Following all the chaos, the UFC 230 lineup is still a solid fight card. Outside of the aforementioned contests, charismatic striker Israel Adesanya clashes with top-10 middleweight Derek Brunson, exciting featherweight Jason Knight battles Jordan Rinaldi, and stellar strikers Sheymon Moraes and Julio Arce will put it all on the line.

The fight card kicks off on UFC Fight Pass with the early prelims at 6:15 p.m. ET. The action moves over to Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET for the televised portion of the preliminary card. Finally, at 10 p.m. ET, the five-fight main card goes down on pay-per-view, culminating in the heavyweight title fight between Cormier and Lewis. Combat Press writers Matt Petela and Zach Aittama preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Derrick Lewis has won nine of his last 10 outings to earn a crack at heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier. How long can Lewis hang with Cormier? Is an early knockout his only realistic route to victory?

Petela: Lewis has never faced a wrestler the caliber of Cormier inside the cage. It is going to be a struggle for Lewis to not only remain standing with Cormier, but to avoid getting into the clinch, where Cormier does some of his best work.

Lewis realistically has a shot to land the big right hand at the beginning of each of the first three rounds. After that point, his cardio deficiency will take just enough power out of the thundering overhand that “DC” will be able to survive the blow — Cormier has shown a remarkable chin over his entire career.

If this fight goes past the third round, Cormier will win by a late TKO or a lopsided decision, but the three chances the “Black Beast” has to land the fight-ending punch are all big chances.

Aittama: Yes, the outcome of this fight for Lewis solely depends on whether he can land his big right hand. Lewis was able to put together one of the best heavyweight runs in the past few years based on his size, toughness, heart, will and some absolutely insane knockout power. He has defeated fighters who were more skilled, both on the feet and the ground, because of his fight-changing power.

I do have to slightly disagree with my colleague, though. Lewis could potentially end this fight late in rounds, which is what he has done in prior outings. He would conserve his energy, even while taking a beating in the process, just so he could come back stronger when he found the openings. If the “Black Beast” is fighting off his back for most of the round, however, then his chances will drastically decrease as the fight unfolds.

Cormier, the “Daddest Man on the Planet,” likes to exercise his ego on occasion. He carried a superior wrestling game into almost all of his fights, yet the two-division champion often decided to stand and trade with more experienced, skilled fighters on the feet. Ultimately, Cormier is fully aware of when he needs to use his wrestling over his striking. Cormier is likely to test out the dangerous waters against Lewis. His chin has been tested in the past against the likes of Jon Jones, Alexander Gustafsson, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Stipe Miocic. However, should Lewis land anything clean as Cormier comes in, expect the champion to put Lewis on his back, where he is most likely to finish the bout. Cormier is excellent at fighting at a high work rate, pressing forward, and setting a pace that most heavyweights cannot match.

Lewis is an incredibly tough fighter who has the raw physical talent to beat average to good heavyweights. Cormier has exhibited the skill set to beat every fighter he’s ever faced, except the aforementioned Jones. Is it possible Lewis can win by knockout? Sure, especially if it’s true that he’s actually been in the gym for longer than 30 minutes a day. Is it likely Lewis beats Cormier? Not at all. The skill disparity is too much to overcome in a short period of time. Can Lewis last five rounds? Maybe. If I’m a betting man, my money is on Cormier stopping Lewis with a submission at the end of the second round or midway through the third frame.

Outside of the headliner, every main-card fight is a middleweight scrap featuring at least one contender. Which 185-pound fighter will separate himself from the pack on Saturday night?

Aittama: The UFC middleweight top 10 is stacked with talent, from champion Robert Whittaker on down to experienced veteran Brad Tavares. Of the 11 fighters listed in the UFC’s middleweight rankings, five will be in action on Saturday night.

Former middleweight champ Chris Weidman was expected to face Luke Rockhold, who was lost to a knee and nose injury earlier this month. Now, Weidman will face high-level grappler and former Strikeforce champion Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. Weidman is looking to build upon his win over title challenger Kelvin Gastelum. Unfortunately, he’s making his return to the cage for the first time in 16 months against a perennial contender who is coming off a close split-decision loss to Gastelum. Both fighters have tremendous resumes — Weidman won 13 straight fights before losing three straight, and Jacare has won 11 of his past 14 bouts. Both fighters are ranked in the top five of the division. A victory for either fighter could mean a potential No. 1 contender bout next, with the top of the division still in flux with the upcoming title fight between Whittaker and Gastelum, plus Yoel Romero’s future undecided and Rockhold’s timetable for a return undecided.

Then there’s the top-10 battle between No. 6-ranked Derek Brunson and undefeated blue-chip prospect Israel Adesanya. The heat for this fight started to build following Adesanya’s dominant performance against the aforementioned Tavares in the headliner of The Ultimate Fighter 27 Finale. The two started to talk back and forth on Twitter, via a social-media exchange across the bar in a Las Vegas restaurant, and when they were face-to-face at the UFC’s 25th anniversary press conference. Outside of their heated verbal exchanges, the fighters are primed to clash early and often due to their contrasting styles. Adesanya, the high-level kickboxer-turned-MMA-fighter has impressed in his UFC stint by knocking off three opponents in 2018. Brunson is an aggressive puncher who has stopped his foe in 13 of his 18 wins, including victories over Lyoto Machida, Uriah Hall and Lorenz Larkin. The winner will put himself into the title mix with a strong performance, but will likely need another win or two before getting the opportunity to fight for the belt.

Top-10 middleweight David Branch is primed to continue his winning streak against late-replacement opponent Jared Cannonier. Branch was originally scheduled to face Jacare, but the Rockhold injury forced the UFC to make some changes. The aftermatch leaves Branch with an opponent who possesses a contrasting style to Branch’s original foe. However, Branch will push his winning streak to two and continue to work his way up the rankings.

In the remaining middleweight bout of the main card, both fighters are looking to rebound off of losses. Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series signee Karl Roberson fell short in his most recent bout against Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira following a successful promotional debut against Darren Stewart. He takes on Welshman Jack Marshman, who has traded wins and losses in the UFC in his four-fight stint. Neither fighter is likely to separate himself from the pack. However, this doesn’t mean the fight won’t be exciting or produce a “Performance of the Night.”

Adesanya is the fighter that separates himself from the pack. His slick fighting style, charismatic personality and monumental hype are the archetypal building blocks of a potential future star. Adesanya’s unblemished professional record and wealth of experience in the kickboxing ring gave him an excellent head start when he finally signed with the UFC in 2017. For those who followed his kickboxing career, his success hasn’t been surprising. Adesanya is one of the best strikers in all of MMA. In Brunson, the promotion gave him an appropriate step up in competition with a measured amount of risk. Now it’s up to the brash Nigerian to deliver an exciting performance.

Petela: Weidman. The former champ was set to face Rockhold in a rematch of a bout where he lost his championship and undefeated record in the same night. Since the defeat, Weidman took a devastating knee from Romero in the UFC’s first trip to Madison Square Garden, as well as a controversial TKO loss to Gegard Mousasi in Buffalo, N.Y. The All-American was able to right the ship at home on Long Island by scoring a third-round submission over the aforementioned Gastelum. With a victory over Jacare, not only will Weidman cement himself as the next challenger for the title he once owned, but he will also gain redemption in the very same place where he was brutally knocked out by Romero in front of over 20,000 people in his home state, just an hour away from where he grew up and trains.

The match-up against Jacare is one that MMA fans have been looking forward to for quite some time. Weidman and Souza have been two of the best middleweights in the world for several years, and it’s almost shocking that they have not faced each other previously. Their styles should make for a dynamic fight. Both men having superb ground games, but in different realms of the grappling world.

Jacare is an eight-time world jiu-jitsu champion and has parlayed his submission grappling skills into success in MMA both inside the UFC and before he made his way into the Octagon. Souza was middleweight champion in Strikeforce and holds victories over Tim Kennedy and Robbie Lawler under the Strikeforce banner as well as a win over Mousasi in 2014. At 38 years old, Jacare is nearing the end of his prime, but his skills still pose a threat to anyone standing across the cage from him.

Weidman’s bread and butter on the ground lies in the All-American wrestling skills he gained over a lifetime of competition that culminated at Hofstra University. He used his wrestling skills to take down former middleweight king Anderson Silva in the first round of their first bout at UFC 162. However, Weidman is far from just a wrestler at this point in his career. He is a black belt under his longtime jiu-jitsu coach, former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra. He has also been constantly improving his striking skills with coach and business partner Ray Longo at their Longo and Weidman MMA (LAW MMA) gym on Long Island.

As phenomenal as Jacare is on the mat as a jiu-jitsu player, most of his submission skills come from when he is on top of his opponent, slicing from their guard to side control or mount with relative ease. Weidman’s wrestling should give the former champ the ability to dictate where this fight takes place. If Weidman decides to take Jacare down, then the American won’t be in the riskiest position against his Brazilian counterpart. With a decisive victory at UFC 230, Weidman will prove the doubters wrong and be well on his way to regaining his title and cementing himself as one of the top three middleweights of all time. He could even to take the middleweight GOAT crown away from the man he twice defeated, the aforementioned Silva.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 230?

Petela: Jared Cannonier.

Cannonier takes on a formidable David Branch on short notice after the card was shuffled around as a result of Luke Rockhold’s injury. Cannonier will be the bigger man in the contest, and he should be able to dictate where the fight takes place. Branch was preparing for Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, a jiu-jitsu wizard, before the card was changed. Cannonier brings a completely different style to the cage, which should play to his favor.

Aittama: Derrick Lewis, win or lose.

Lewis is scheduled to make the most money he’s ever made, while also competing in the biggest bout of his career. The “Black Beast” has already fought three times in 2018, with a combined reported take-home pay of $910,000. Less than 18 months ago, Lewis announced his retirement from the sport following his loss to Mark Hunt. Shortly after hanging up his gloves, he reversed course. Lewis blamed his persistent back injuries that led to poor performances, a lack of training, and a canceled bout against Fabricio Werdum. While still plagued by the injury, Lewis made the most in his return with three straight victories, including his most important win against Alexander Volkov at UFC 229.

Lewis was well on his way to a lopsided decision loss against Volkov. However, he summoned his warrior spirit and knocked out the Russian with a series of punches while a collective of celebrities, fans and casual viewers erupted in cheers. His performance just so happened to take place on the biggest stage in the sport’s history. The aftermath of the event, which featured Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov and a post-fight brawl, led to an increased interest in Lewis. It also helps that Lewis took his pants off to proclaim to Joe Rogan that “my balls was hot.” The social-media response to his post-fight speech was palpable. Lewis quickly gained a million followers over the course of the month, which likely gave the UFC the idea to match him against Daniel Cormier.

Even if he gets absolutely dominated by the smaller man, Lewis is a big winner. He came into the sport at a late age, never really trained at the highest levels, or even had the desire to win a championship. Yet, here we are, one week away from his biggest fight for the UFC heavyweight title. It couldn’t get much better for the “Black Beast.”

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 230?

Aittama: The fans have been one of the biggest losers during this UFC 230 main-event fiasco. They were left to wait for the announcement of the headlining bout until after UFC 229. The main event was clouded in mystery for months while the promotion announced headliners for future pay-per-view events UFC 231 and UFC 232. The ticket sales, promotion of the event, and overall fan interest surrounding UFC 230 have all been rather lackluster. Again, all while this card had a solid supporting cast of well-known fighters and former champions.

One of those proposed main events was a battle of The Ultimate Fighter 26 runner-up Sijara Eubanks and No. 1 flyweight contender Valentina Shevchenko. The promotion initially announced that Shevchenko would fight for the vacant title at UFC 231 in Toronto against former strawweight champ Joanna Jędrzejczyk. Just two weeks later, Shevchenko was moved to the UFC 230 headliner opposite Eubanks. Six days after announcing the fight, the UFC brass instead decided to match two-division champ Daniel Cormier against Derrick Lewis, who was coming off a big win and social-media push following the UFC’s most successful pay-per-view event, UFC 229.

When the heavyweights took over the headlining slot in New York, Shevchenko was moved back to the co-headlining slot for UFC 231. Meanwhile, Eubanks was left frustrated. The No. 4 flyweight was obviously shocked when her potential second crack at the belt was taken away less than a week after it was received. The UFC delivered blockbuster cards with multiple championship bouts in its prior visits to Madison Square Garden. So, maybe, the promotion felt the interest in a vacant women’s flyweight championship bout wouldn’t be enough to sell the many remaining tickets still available.

Following the switch, Eubanks went to Twitter to voice her opinions. However, she wasn’t left without a fight. Now, she takes on Roxanne Modafferi, who filled in for her on the TUF 26 Finale when she was unable to compete. Eubanks previously defeated the longtime women’s MMA pioneer during the semifinals of the reality series. Despite her roller-coaster ride to fight night, Eubanks, with a victory, is surely in contention to face the winner of the upcoming bout between Shevchenko and Jędrzejczyk. However, she’s still one of the fighters who took the biggest hits from the UFC’s lack of forethought and planning for a big pay-per-view event.

Petela: Thanks to all the injuries and card shuffling that took place prior to UFC 230, the fans are certainly missing out on some of the best fights the UFC had to offer. However, all of the drama kept me glued to the edge of my seat day in and day out, waiting for the dust to settle time and time again.

That said, David Branch is perhaps the evening’s biggest loser. He is in a no-win situation on Saturday when he squares off against Jared Cannonier. Branch had been spending months training for Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, a world-class jiu-jitsu player, but with Jacare pulled into the co-main event against Chris Weidman, Branch now faces off against a far different — and far larger — opponent in Cannonier, who makes his way down from light heavyweight.

If Branch does get by Cannonier, his stock doesn’t rise all that much. If he ends up leaving Madison Square Garden with a loss, which is possible if not likely, then he drops out of the contender picture at 185 pounds.

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

Petela: Sijara Eubanks and Roxanne Modafferi.

Eubanks was once scheduled to square off against Valentina Shevchenko for the vacant women’s flyweight belt, but that bout was scrapped in order to allow Shevchenko to face off against Joanna Jędrzejczyk at UFC 231 in Toronto. Eubanks stays on the card after being very vocal on social media, and although it is on the prelims, a win puts her in line to be the next title contender no matter who picks up the vacant belt.

Aittama: The striking battle between Brazilian prospect Sheymon Moraes and former Ring of Combat featherweight champ Julio Arce.

Moraes was a highly touted prospect prior to his UFC run. This was in large part due to his striking acumen, athletic ability and experience in Muay Thai, including bouts in the famed Lumpinee stadium in Thailand. Moraes looks to build on his first UFC victory over Matt Sayles against Arce, another formidable striker. Arce brings a seven-fight winning streak into what should be a hotly contested fire fight. Arce scored his most recent submission win over skilled Swede Daniel Teymur. Neither fighter is near title contention or the top 15 of the divisions at this point, but both fighters are coming into the prime of their careers.

Pair this card with…

Aittama: Your imagination. Put yourself in a world where the UFC 230 lineup was announced as it currently stands. It has a title fight, a potential No. 1 contender bout, a mix of top-10 fighters and a number of prospects. That’s a solid fight card that rivals any average UFC pay-per-view. All of your worries about canceled fights, injuries and heartbreak are starting to disappear. Doesn’t that feel much better?

Petela: Middleweight IPA by Knockout Brewing. With four out of the five match-ups on the main card contested at 185 pounds, what better way to celebrate the top middleweights in the world than by drinking an IPA in their honor? And, at 4.6 percent ABV, it’s a great strength to enjoy throughout all the middleweight contests.

Fight Picks

Fight Petela’s Pick Aittama’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
HW Championship: Daniel Cormier v. Derrick Lewis Cormier Cormier
MW: Chris Weidman vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza Weidman Souza
MW: Dave Branch vs. Jared Cannonier Cannonier Branch
MW: Karl Roberson vs. Jack Marshman Marshman Marshman
MW: Derek Brunson vs. Israel Adesanya Brunson Adesanya
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
FW: Jason Knight vs. Jordan Rinaldi Knight Knight
Women’s FlyW: Roxanne Modafferi vs. Sijara Eubanks Eubanks Eubanks
FW: Julio Arce vs. Sheymon Moraes Moraes Moraes
WW: Lyman Good vs. Ben Saunders Saunders Saunders
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:15 p.m. ET)
LW: Matt Frevola vs. Lando Vannata Frevola Vannata
FW: Shane Burgos vs. Kurt Holobaugh Burgos Burgos
BW: Brian Kelleher vs. Montel Jackson Kelleher Kelleher
HW: Adam Wieczorek vs. Marcos Rogério de Lima Wieczorek Lima