On Saturday, the UFC returns to China just one day shy of the anniversary of Kelvin Gastelum’s knockout of Michael Bisping. That fight in Shanghai would prove to be the final fight of Bisping’s career, causing the middleweight to exit the UFC on two consecutive losses. Bisping’s loss to Gastelum came less than a month after he dropped the middleweight belt to Georges St-Pierre. It was also a pivotal fight for Gastelum, who rebounded nicely after his July loss at the Nassau Coliseum to Chris Weidman. The win over “The Count” earned Gastelum a shot at another elite middleweight, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, in a fight Gastelum would win by split decision to set up his title shot against Robert Whittaker. Gastelum may not be present on this card, but there are title implications in the top match-up on the bill.
The headliner is a rematch between two thunderous heavyweights, Francis Ngannou and Curtis Blaydes. In their first contest, Ngannou was able to hand Blaydes his first and only professional loss, coming by way of a doctor’s stoppage at the end of the second round when it was determined that Blaydes could not see out of his right eye. In Beijing, Blaydes is out to even the score against Ngannou and subsequently put the former title challenger on a three-fight skid, which is a long fall from the seemingly indestructible machine who landed a shovel hook in December 2017 that nearly put Alistair Overeem into orbit.
The co-main event features the aforementioned Overeem against Sergey Pavlovich, an undefeated Russian prospect who is making his promotional debut. Overeem’s last two fights have not ended well for the Dutch kickboxing legend. He followed up the hellacious knockout loss at the hands of Ngannou with a TKO defeat in the third round against Blaydes. “The Reem” has to be mindful in this fight against Pavlovich, as the Russian has finished nine of his 12 fights by knockout or TKO.
The first UFC event in Beijing airs live from the Cadillac Arena and will have the American audience awake at an unusual time. The preliminary bouts begin at 3:15 a.m. ET, and the main card kicks off at 6:30 a.m. ET. The entire event streams exclusively on UFC Fight Pass. Combat Press writers Zach Aittama and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe to Toe.
The heavyweights take the spotlight on this card. In the headliner, Curtis Blaydes meets Francis Ngannou. In the co-main event, it’s Alistair Overeem and Sergey Pavlovich. Which two fighters win, and which of those men is the most deserving of a crack at the title?
Aittama: Most deserving and title shot aren’t exactly mutually exclusive when it comes to the UFC. Outside of the most recent heavyweight championship bout featuring Derrick Lewis, which you could easily argue was deserving with Lewis having won nine of his last 10 fights, the UFC has lined up potential fantasy match-ups with Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones. Lesnar re-entered the USADA testing pool, but he’s still the current WWE universal champion. Rumors have it that Lesnar and the WWE are still negotiating for a contract extension, which would certainly give a poor outlook on any Lesnar fight actually happening.
Meanwhile, the current UFC champ, Daniel Cormier, is likely to retire by March 2019, whether he fights one more time or not. The most obvious match-up for Cormier would be the fight with Jones. It features the deepest storyline and offers the chance for Cormier to avenge his losses against the former No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. So, to answer the second question first, neither of the winners will be in line for the next shot at the title.
If Blaydes gets past Ngannou, then he immediately takes hold of a position in the top three. Stipe Miocic, the former champion with the most title defenses in UFC heavyweight history, is far more likely to get the shot should Lesnar or Jones not make it to the dance with Cormier.
A victory for Pavlovich over Overeem in the Russian’s Octagon debut would be gigantic. The promotion could use Pavlovich, as well as the stockpile of Russian prospects it has signed over the past two years, to truly break into the Russian marketplace, which has been in flux due to financial issues for some of the country’s top promotions, including Absolute Championship Berkut and Fight Nights. On the other hand, if Overeem wins, then he keeps his name among the best in the division but remains unlikely to get another crack at the title before he retires.
Ngannou is a gifted talent with the raw power and physical strength to knock out anyone at any moment. After back-to-back losses, his shine has fallen off after being touted by UFC President Dana White as the next greatest thing in the heavyweight division. At 32 years old, Ngannou is still young by heavyweight standards. He could make the right moves to continue his technical development, but he made all of the wrong decisions following his championship defeat. Against a fighter like Blaydes, the opportunity to land one big power punch is not impossible, but it is far more unlikely. Blaydes has won five straight since his prior loss to Ngannou. Blaydes has since made the right changes to bring in the proper training to further develop his striking game.
Blaydes will be able to hold his own on the feet. Expect him to get this victory on the ground, especially if the fight goes five rounds.
Petela: Pavlovich gets the biggest opportunity of his fighting career by making his debut against the former title challenger and world kickboxing champion Overeem. The Russian will be able to land one of his heavy hands on Overeem’s chin and shut the lights out. At this point in Overeem’s career, it just seems like he has lost the ability to take a punch — he has been knocked out in three of his last five UFC bouts.
The rematch between Blaydes and Ngannou is one that should play out much differently than the first time these two met in 2016. Blaydes’ striking has grown tremendously, whereas Ngannou has not shown any advancements in his wrestling. Blaydes will take down Ngannou and hold him down en route to a TKO in the first or second round.
Blaydes sets himself up nicely for a title shot, though ultimately it depends on how things play out with the aforementioned Lesnar and Jones as potential opponents for Cormier. Maybe a fight — and victory — over the former champ Miocic is the one more fight Blaydes needs to be the clear-cut top contender and undeniable choice for a shot at the heavyweight belt.
The women’s strawweight division also takes a prominent spot on the card with the inclusion of Xiaonan Yan, Syuri Kondo, Jessica Aguilar and Weili Zhang. Which of these ladies will deliver a standout performance in Beijing?
Petela: The depth of the women’s strawweight division is criminally overlooked. It doesn’t have nearly the name recognition from top to bottom of the marquee weight classes like lightweight and welterweight, but the talent level has increased rapidly ever since the division’s inception four years ago. I expect to be impressed by all of the strawweights on this card, but when all is said and done, the fighter the fans will be talking about is Weili Zhang.
Zhang scored a unanimous decision in her UFC debut against Danielle Taylor to increase her winning streak to 17 fights. The only blemish on her record came in her first professional outing. Zhang takes on Aguilar, who is coming off her first win in the Octagon since vacating her World Series of Fighting title and beginning her UFC career in a title eliminator against Claudia Gadelha in 2015. Due to an ACL injury that required surgery and a medical issue that prevented the NYSAC from allowing Aguilar to fight Jodie Esquibel at UFC Fight Night 131 in June, Aguilar has seen limited action since joining the promotion.
Aguilar joined the UFC as a highly touted prospect. It hasn’t gone as planned for the WSOF and Bellator veteran, but she is still a prominent name in the world of MMA. Therefore, a Zhang victory over Aguilar would be a major statement, especially if it comes in Zhang’s home country. Zhang stopped her opponent in 15 of her 17 victories, with a combination of nine knockouts and six submissions. It is unlikely that she will be able to tap the multiple-time submission grappling world champion Aguilar, but Zhang has the defensive grappling prowess to keep this fight standing, where she should be able to show off her striking abilities.
If Zhang claims victory, then it should be the kickstart that she needs to make her ascent up the ranks and prove to be one of the many world-class strawweights that has a chance to be a title contender in the coming years.
Aittama: That’s a spot-on prediction.
Zhang is a high-level striker with a deep background in competition, both in MMA and kickboxing. She can fight in all ranges on the feet. She throws a variety of front-leg hook kicks, spinning back kicks, teep kicks and brutal low kicks at distance. If the fight goes inside, she has an array of elbows unlike any other woman in the division, including the likes of former strawweight queen Joanna Jędrzejczyk. Zhang is continuing to improve her wrestling and grappling. However, her technical proficiency at controlling the distance, pace and location of the fight has allowed her to be very aggressive throughout her career. If she thrives against a veteran like Aguilar, the sky’s the limit for Zhang as she comes into the prime of her career.
As for the other women on the card, it will be a clash of strikers. China’s Yan hasn’t been able to finish her opponents inside of the Octagon, but she’s already picked up solid victories over Kailin Curran and Viviane Pereira. The 29-year-old is an excellent striker, which leads to the reason why we should be excited about her bout with Kondo, a multi-sport athlete who has competed in karate, kickboxing, Shoot boxing, and even pro wrestling.
Kondo transitioned to MMA in 2016 with a huge victory over Rizin tournament winner Kanna Asakura. The former Krush women’s champion won her UFC debut against Chan Mi Jeon, but fell short against Poliana Botelho after eating a crushing kick to the body.
While the winner of the bout between Yan and Kondo won’t likely outdo Zhang’s work against Aguilar, they will certainly put on one of the best fights of the night.
Sergey Pavlovich, Vince Morales, Martin Day and Sumudaerji — do we need to know these names?
Aittama: Clearly, there is one name among the four that stands above the rest. Pavlovich, the Fight Nights heavyweight champion, has been one of the best heavyweights outside of the UFC for a few years now. The undefeated fighter has competed against some of the top talent in Russia and holds victories over Mikhail Mokhnatkin, Kirill Sidelnikov and Alexei Kudin. He puts his undefeated mark on the line against former Strikeforce and K-1 World GP champion Alistair Overeem.
The other fighter to watch is China’s Sumudaerji. The Wu Lin Feng 57-kilogram champ is an experienced striker with a very exciting style. The 22-year-old is a Sanda fighter, which means he employs a variety of kicks, good fundamental boxing, solid control in the clinch, and the flair to garner some interest from fans. His highlight reel features devastating knockouts and knockdowns against fighters who are more skilled than their records may suggest. Sumudaerji makes his debut on short notice against Louis Smolka, who has won three fights since being cut by the UFC in 2017. Smolka is more than a two-to-one favorite, but don’t be shocked if Sumudaerji pulls off the upset victory in his Octagon debut.
Day and Morales are both Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series veterans. Day, 30, has fought on the California and Hawaiian regional scenes. His chances in his debut look bleek against experienced Chinese opponent Pingyuan Liu, who made a successful UFC debut on the last card held on mainland China. Morales, 28, has stopped his opponent in seven of his eight victories, with his biggest win coming against WSOF vet Brandon Hempleman. Morales is scheduled to make his debut against 20-year-old Chinese prospect Yadong Song, who has stopped both of his UFC opponents inside of two rounds. Don’t expect either fighter to make much noise inside of the Octagon.
Petela: As the year comes to a close, the UFC may be looking to fill its fight cards any way it can, including through the use of fighters who won’t necessarily belong performing on the highest stage.
The one fighter mentioned here where that is not the case is Pavlovich. The UFC thinks highly enough of the Russian star to put him up against Overeem, a legendary striker, in a featured bout. Pavlovich is a dynamic striker himself and prefers to end fights with his fists. He has scored nine knockouts among his 12 total victories. With a win over Overeem, Pavlovich puts himself right in the mix of the log-jammed top 10 at heavyweight, where he would bring some fresh blood into what has always been considered the land of the dinosaurs.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: DWTNCS standout Kevin Holland takes on SBG Ireland’s John Phillips in a fight that could steal the show.
Holland made his official UFC debut on short notice against powerful Brazilian Thiago Santos in August at UFC 227. Even in defeat, Holland looked like a natural entertainer and a fighter born to compete under the bright lights.
Holland’s opponent is also making his sophomore appearance in the UFC. Phillips suffered a submission loss to Charles Byrd in his Octagon debut, and now the Welsh fighter will seek to rebound and give the UFC a reason to keep him around. Phillips is a grinder who has one-punch knockout power, as evidenced by his 18 knockout wins.
Holland won’t be an easy target for Phillips, and he should look to use the same elusive style he did against Santos to avoid Phillips’ best shots while countering with crisp shots from unconventional angles. It could prove to frustrate Phillips and turn this into a match-up of matador against bull. The audience will be on the edge of their seats to see if Phillips can land a fight-ending strike or if Holland can successfully dodge the power to come away with a victory.
Aittama: Given the nature of Fight Night cards like these that feature talent from outside of the United States and don’t offer big names on the undercard, many of the fights can be categorized as sleepers. The one that stands above the rest, however, is the battle for positioning in the women’s strawweight division between China’s top female prospect Weili Zhang and former top-10 fighter Jessica Aguilar. The winner of this high-level contest will put themselves in prime position to ascend up the rankings.
Zhang used her diverse array of kicks, elbows and boxing combinations to put on a show against Danielle Taylor at UFC 227. Zhang, 29, can finish the fight anywhere the contest goes. She is one of the most experienced fighters from the region and boasts a strong background in kickboxing. She even fought to a decision against one of China’s most promising female kickboxers, Guan Acui, in the finals of a one-night, eight-woman kickboxing tournament. The hype is real for Zhang, who faces her toughest opponent to date.
Aguilar was once considered the best strawweight on the planet. She was heralded as the best following back-to-back victories over one of the greatest female fighters of all-time, Megumi Fujii, despite controversy in both contests. Aguilar went on to dominate her opponents in the World Series of Fighting, where she captured the championship belt and built hype for her eventual UFC debut. Unfortunately for Aguilar, that debut came against perennial contender Claudia Gadelha. Aguilar tasted defeated once again when she met Cortney Casey, but then returned to the win column against Jodie Esquibel. She has a chance to continue her momentum against Zhang.
Pair this card with…
Aittama: Your crystal ball. Many of China’s top prospects are featured on the fight card. However, the UFC announced big news this week that the promotion is building a 93,000 square foot training and development facility in Beijing. The second performance institute will feature a program to develop the next wave of prospects, while offering a high-level gym and coaches to those who cannot travel to Las Vegas. Eventually, it will host live fights and programming from the Eastern hemisphere. The UFC is re-committing to Asia, and the future looks bright.
Petela: Leftover turkey from Thanksgiving. This card may come on at a weird hour, but the main and co-main events are enough to stoke the excitement and make it worth waking up early. Why not have a nice breakfast of sliced turkey on rye bread while catching these fights?
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 a.m. ET)
HW: Curtis Blaydes vs. Francis Ngannou
HW: Alistair Overeem vs. Sergey Pavlovich
BW: Yadong Song vs. Vince Morales
WW: Jingliang Li vs. David Zawada
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 3:15 a.m. ET)
WW: Kenan Song vs. Alex Morono
Women’s FlyW: Yanan Wu vs. Lauren Mueller
LHW: Rashad Coulter vs. Yaozong Hu
Women’s StrawW: Jessica Aguilar vs. Weili Zhang
Women’s StrawW: Xiaonan Yan vs. Syuri Kondo
MW: John Phillips vs. Kevin Holland
BW: Louis Smolka vs. Sumudaerji
BW: Pingyuan Liu vs. Martin Day
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