Jan Blachowicz (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+3 Preview and Predictions

Are you going to be bored this coming weekend? Are you still stuck in the post-football doldrums and not quite sure what to do with yourself? Don’t worry, the UFC has your back! Fight fans have yet another card to look forward to on Saturday, Feb. 23, this time from the cozy confines of the beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic.

The main event is a light heavyweight bout between perennial title shot-nibbler Jan Błachowicz and Thiago Santos, who seemingly made the wise choice to move up to 205 pounds and is likely just one win away from a title shot. Błachowicz, a perennial contender, is on a four-fight winning streak, and a victory over a fast-rising contender like Santos would likely finally allow Błachowicz to grab the elusive brass ring.

The co-headliner is a potential battle of survival between Stefan Struve and Marcos Rogério de Lima. Struve has lost his last three fights. De Lima has alternated wins and losses over his last four bouts. The loser of this fight could be staring unemployment in the face, so it’s likely each man will enter the Octagon with more than a hint of desperation.


The remainder of the card is sprinkled with fighters capable of giving entertaining performances, including John Dodson, Petr Yan, Gillian Robertson, Michel Prazeres, Rustam Khabilov and Diego Ferreira.

The preliminary card begins at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN 2, with the main card following at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Matthew Petela get you ready for all the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Former middleweight Thiago Santos has been perfect through two contests since shifting his sights to the light heavyweight division. Will his run continue when he clashes with Jan Błachowicz, who has a solid four-fight winning streak of his own right now?

Petela: The winner of this fight might be next in line to challenge for the light heavyweight championship after Jon Jones and Anthony Smith square off at UFC 235 on March 2. If Santos is able to defeat Błachowicz and Smith defies the odds to emerge with a victory over Jones, then it could set up a rematch of their early 2018 middleweight fight where Santos was able to finish “Lionheart” with a body kick and follow-up shots on the ground in the second round. Should the pair meet again, this time at light heavyweight and with a gold belt on the line, it would be one of the strongest cases against weight-cutting, as both men have looked much better without having to drop down to 185 pounds.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Santos will be able to hold up his side, as I do not see him getting past Błachowicz. In his two wins at light heavyweight, Santos had dance partners that were more than willing to engage with him fully in wild flurries of strikes. Even in his victories, he was caught flush and hurt by both Eryk Anders and Jimi Manuwa. He won’t have the same luxury this time around when it’s former KSW light heavyweight champion Błachowicz standing across the cage.

Błachowicz has nine victories by decision, nine by submission, and five by knockout. In his last fight, he took on the highly touted Nikita Krylov, who was making his return to the UFC after he left voluntarily to improve his skills and also be closer to his home in Ukraine. Poland’s Błachowicz was able to smother and submit Krylov in the second round with an arm-triangle choke after winning the first round with his activity from his back after Krylov scored an unexpected early takedown. Before that contest, Błachowicz won a clear unanimous decision over the aforementioned Manuwa in London on St. Patrick’s Day 2018. He was able to dictate the distance of the striking exchanges against Manuwa and avoid a power-punching contest by entering the clinch and landing timely takedowns.

Błachowicz will be able to repeat this strategy effectively against Santos. He can grind out a decision now that he has seemingly solved the endurance issues that plagued the early part of his UFC career. A title shot before the end of 2019 could be on the horizon, which is something that never would have been imaginable two years ago after Błachowicz had lost four out of six fights to start his tenure with the UFC.

Huntemann: My esteemed colleague took the words out of my mouth. Błachowicz just seems like one of those guys that is always hanging around. You could even describe him as the ultimate seat-filler, in a way. Do you need a light heavyweight bout added to your UFC card? Błachowicz is your guy! Furthermore, a win here likely makes Błachowicz the top contender in a still incredibly shallow light heavyweight division that is now being lorded over once again by Jon Jones.

The move up to 205 pounds was the best decision Santos ever made. He has looked beyond dangerous in his new weight class, and his knockout of Manuwa was beautiful in its violence.

Would either Błachowicz or Manuwa stand a chance against Jones? No, probably not. But who would be the more dangerous match-up for Jones? That would be Santos, by a longshot. He has the power to knock out anyone, even Jones, and Jones would be foolish to take him lightly should Santos win this fight and earn a crack at the title.

Stefan Struve is on a three-fight skid. Can he turn things around against Marcos Rogério de Lima, or will this be the last we see of Struve inside the Octagon?

Huntemann: Struve’s lost three in a row? That shows you how much I pay attention to his career. My biggest (no pun intended) memory of him is watching him, in person, get powerbombed by Pat Barry and then choked out with a triangle on the only UFC card to take place in Washington, D.C. So, there you go.

Conversely, de Lima is a pedestrian 4-3 in the UFC and an even .500 over his last four fights. This is the very definition of forgettable. So, what was the point of my little story about Struve? To say that he gets the submission victory here and prolongs his career, of course. De Lima’s last three defeats have all come via some kind of choke. Since Struve has obscenely long limbs, he’ll perform the same feat in this fight.

Petela: Struve’s best days are behind him, which is strange since he is only 31 years old, an age where most heavyweight fighters are just entering their peak years of competition. He started fighting professionally at age 17, and in just more than three years, he had amassed a record of 16-2. He registered more fights before his 21st birthday than Cain Velasquez has in his entire career. However, since knocking out Stipe Miocic in 2012, Struve has gone 3-6 and has dealt with serious health issues, including a malfunctioning heart valve that kept him out of action for a year. Upon his anticipated return at UFC 175, Struve fainted in his dressing room and the fight was canceled.

Win or lose, I hope Struve’s UFC career comes to a conclusion in Prague. The match-up is one that he can win. De Lima is a fine fighter, but he is a clear notch or two below the upper echelon of the heavyweight division that Struve is accustomed to fighting. “The Skyscraper” will be able to earn a victory, but it will likely be an ugly win without a multitude of action. Struve will keep de Lima at distance for most of the fight. This match-up is not likely to produce any post-fight bonuses, and it should be a quiet way out of the promotion for Struve, whose career will be one to look back on and wonder what could have been had it not been for illnesses and injuries.

Klidson Farias, Ismail Naurdiev and Joel Alvarez — do we need to know these names?

Petela: Farias is a top Brazilian prospect with a 14-2 record in MMA. He has finished his opponent in all of his victories, which includes 10 submissions and four knockouts. Surging UFC fighter Johnny Walker fell victim to a rear-naked choke when he and Farias met in 2015. The young Farias, 26, is riding a six-fight winning streak going into his debut with the UFC in Prague. He combines elite Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with explosive striking and above-average wrestling, a combination that, as it matures, will guide him toward the top of the light heavyweight division. He will be ranked in the single digits for quite some time.

Farias stepped up on short notice after an injury to Darko Stošić and will take on Magomed Ankalaev on the main card. Ankalaev is a Master of Sport in sambo from Dagestan whose sole blemish on his 11-1 record is a last-second submission loss to Paul Craig by triangle choke in his UFC debut. Between the Brazilian’s BJJ and Ankalaev’s sambo background, this should be a closely contested fight that takes place almost entirely on the canvas and results in Farias having his hand raised with his first career decision victory.

Huntemann: Alvarez is ranked as the No. 1 Western European pro lightweight by the fine folks over at Tapology, which I guess counts for something. More to the point, he has only lost once in his 16-fight career. The majority of his wins have come by finish, specifically by some kind of choke. He is facing a fellow one-loss fighter in the 17-1 Damir Ismagulov, and we all know what fighters from that part of the world — Kazakhstan, to be exact — are like. Alvarez has a chance to make an emphatic statement in his first UFC fight, and I reckon that is something you should pay attention to.

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

Huntemann: Let’s stick with Joel Alvarez and Damir Ismagulov. They have a combined 34 pro fights between them, and only a combined two losses. What does this tell us? Well, the dudes know how to fight and how to win. Isn’t that what we all really want from MMA, at its essence?

Petela: Rustam Khabilov and Carlos Diego Ferreira. Khabilov is riding a six-fight winning streak, but his last fight against Kajan Johnson was close and the nod could have gone to Johnson. Ferreira has won three straight, including a decision over Olivier Aubin-Mercier and a pair of knockouts over Jared Gordon and Kyle Nelson. Khabilov is a former world champion in combat sambo, and Ferreira is a third-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, so their clash of grappling should make this one an entertaining fight from bell to bell.

Pair this card with…

Petela: As a person with primarily Polish ancestry, I will be watching these fights with my dad and showing my support for Jan Błachowicz with the beer that completes any Petela family get together: Zywiec. The main card starts at 11 a.m. ET, so I’ll be having a Polish breakfast of Kishka, which is delicious (although I don’t exactly know what it is made of, and I don’t think I want to know). Even if Błachowicz is unsuccessful, my dad and I will have done our part and probably both need a long afternoon nap at the conclusion of the event.

Huntemann: Aw, there is nothing like father-son bonding over Saturday-afternoon MMA filler. Make sure you keep your smartphone, tablet or mobile device of your choosing handy as well while watching this card. Outside of a few familiar faces, I reckon you will need to do plenty of Googling (is that an actual word?) to figure out who many of these fighters are.

Fight Picks

Fight Petela’s Pick Huntemann’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 2 p.m. ET)
LHW: Jan Błachowicz vs. Thiago Santos Błachowicz Santos
HW: Stefan Struve vs. Marcos Rogério de Lima Struve Struve
LHW: Gian Villante vs. Michał Oleksiejczuk Villante Villante
Women’s FlyW: Liz Carmouche vs. Lucie Pudilová Carmouche Carmouche
BW: John Dodson vs. Petr Yan Yan Yan
LHW: Magomed Ankalaev vs. Klidson Farias Farias Ankalev
Preliminary Card (ESPN2, 11 a.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Gillian Robertson vs. Veronica Macedo Macedo Macedo
WW: Carlo Pedersoli vs. Dwight Grant Pedersoli Pedersoli
LW: Damir Hadžović vs. Polo Reyes Hadžović Reyes
WW: Michel Prazeres vs. Ismael Naurdiev Naurdiev Prazeres
FW: Daniel Teymur vs. Chris Fishgold Teymur Teymur
LW: Rustam Khabilov vs. Carlos Diego Ferreira Khabilov Khabilov
LW: Damir Ismagulov vs. Joel Alvarez Ismagulov Alvarez