Justin Gaethje (Phil Lambert/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 2 Preview and Predictions

The UFC must have thought long and hard before deciding what fight would be the headlining contest in the promotion’s return to Philadelphia after not holding an event in “The City of Brotherly Love” for nearly eight years. The reputation of Philadelphia sports fans for being difficult to please and quick to voice their displeasure is well documented, so the lightweight fight between all-action contenders Edson Barboza and Justin Gaethje makes perfect sense.

After dropping consecutive fights to Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee, Barboza righted the ship with a third-round TKO of Dan Hooker in December, punishing the Kiwi fighter throughout the fight until a punch to the body finally proved to be too much for Hooker to withstand. Gaethje also won his last fight via stoppage, but his was a far less prolonged assault, knocking James Vick out cold with one right hand just a minute and a half into the first round. The knockout win over Vick also snapped a two-fight skid for Gaethje, who suffered his first two professional losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier in a pair of “Fight of the Night” thrillers. Both men will seek to close the show before the final horn sounds in a fight that has all the makings of an instant classic.

A middleweight contest between David Branch and Jack Hermansson will serve as the co-headliner. These two fighters have both held championships in other organizations, and they now look to move into the top 10 at 185 pounds in the UFC. Branch, the former World Series of Fighting middleweight and light heavyweight champ, will try to rebound after he was on the wrong side of a first-round TKO in his last fight against Jared Cannonier. Hermansson, who held belts in Cage Warriors and Warrior Fight Series, can extend his winning streak to three if he can get past Branch.


The main card also features a contest at 115 pounds between former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz and former Invicta FC atomweight champion Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson. Both women have aspirations of wrapping UFC gold around their waist, and the winner will keep her name on the short list of potential challengers in an increasingly crowded strawweight division.

Josh Emmett returns to action after nearly a year removed from a TKO loss at the hands of Jeremy Stephens that resulted in the Team Alpha Male product having surgery to fix multiple orbital fractures. Michael Johnson, another former lightweight who now calls featherweight home, stands across the Octagon from Emmett. After dropping his first fight at 145 pounds in front of a hometown crowd in St. Louis, Johnson has put together back-to-back decision wins over Andre Fili, Emmett’s Alpha Male stable mate, and Artem Lobov. An Emmett victory would go a long way in rebuilding the momentum he had prior to the Stephens fight, while a win for Johnson could put a number next to his name for the first time since he entered the featherweight division.

The UFC on ESPN 2 action goes down on Pattison Ave. in South Philly, inside the Wells Fargo Center. The early prelims kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET and air live on the ESPN+ streaming service. At 5 p.m. ET, the televised prelims air live on ESPN, followed by the six-fight main card at 7 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Bryan Henderson and Matt Petela break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Lightweight headliners Edson Barboza and Justin Gaethje have been floating around near the top of the division for a while now. Can either one of these men finally put it all together, win this fight and march on to a future title reign?

Henderson: These guys are perennial contenders, but they’ve both had trouble breaking through that last barrier and claiming a title belt. Both men still have plenty of time to make it happen, too, seeing as how they are in their early thirties.

Barboza’s been at this for nearly a decade now, after making his Octagon debut in 2010. His losses have come against a very respectable crew of Jamie Varner, Donald Cerrone, Michael Johnson, Tony Ferguson, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee. The potential is there, too. He’s topped the likes of Paul Felder, Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez to prove that his contender status isn’t built off of a padded record. The problem is, every time he gains momentum, he falters.

That brings us to Gaethje. The Elevation Fight Team product has put on some amazing shows at every stop on his way to this fight. Hell, his 2011 debut was a slam knockout of Kevin Croom, who has gone on to establish himself as a decent regional fighter. Gaethje didn’t taste defeat through his first 18 pro bouts, snagging a World Series of Fighting title belt and a UFC debut victory along the way. However, he was stopped in consecutive outings by Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. Gaethje rebounded with a stoppage of his own over James Vick, but he hasn’t seen the inside of the cage since August.

There’s but one guarantee in this main event. It will certainly turn out to be an entertaining war. Gaethje has taken part in three “Fight of the Night” bouts since joining the UFC, and his only other affair garnered a performance bonus for a knockout finish of the aforementioned Vick. Shockingly, Barboza has only managed six “Fight of the Night” showings and two bonuses for knockouts through his lengthy tenure with the company. Also of note, these men have combined for 28 knockouts through 47 total pro fights — that’s a finishing rate of more than 50 percent!

Gaethje can be rattled, but he usually gives even more than he takes. Barboza will be a very dangerous opponent for the former WSOF champ, but consistency is key. Gaethje should be able to win this war, and eventually his aggressive style might be enough to land him the title in the UFC.

Petela: There has been a lot of news in the lightweight division recently, with an interim title to be won by either Poirier or Max Holloway, a fight between Al Iaquinta and Cerrone scheduled, the aforementioned Lee moving up to welterweight to take on Rafael dos Anjos, Conor McGregor making news in Miami for all the wrong reasons, and Ferguson dealing with significant personal issues. This could put the winner of Saturday’s main event one fight away from a title shot, given that they will both probably need time to heal their bodies after they inflict serious damage to each other in Philadelphia.

The fighters who have given Barboza trouble have largely been the ones who look to nullify his striking and force the fight to take place on the canvas. In Gaethje, he will have a dance partner who is more than willing to stand and trade. They both have some of the best leg kicks not only in the lightweight division but in the entire UFC. Barboza stopped Marcelo Giudici and Mike Lullo with leg kicks, and Gaethje has the ability to get nearly chest to chest with his opponent and still deliver thudding leg kicks that quickly limit their movement. The fighter who is able to land the more effective of these blows will come away victorious, as the effects of those kicks take away their opponent’s ability to move and defend against shots to the head and body.

Gaethje gets his hand raised and closes the show before the judges are needed. Even when he gets his bell rung, his instincts are to move forward and slug back. That led to his downfall against Alvarez and Poirier, but it just might be exactly what gives him the opportunity to land the fight-finishing blows on Barboza. As long as Gaethje stays inside kicking range, Barboza won’t be able to land anything to separate “The Highlight” from consciousness. Gaethje will force Barboza against the fence and land overwhelming punches to end the fight in a similar fashion to his UFC debut against Johnson.

The forgotten aspect in Gaethje’s arsenal is his wrestling. At the University of Northern Colorado, he was an NCAA Division I All-American at 157 pounds. The reason people forget that he is a good wrestler is that he prefers to turn every fight into a slugfest, regardless of whether or not it is the best route to victory. Gaethje has admitted that he probably has only five fights left if he continues to get into war after war. Now 30 years old, Gaethje’s professional priorities are shifting, and adding a UFC championship is becoming increasingly important to him. That’s where his wrestling abilities will come into play, not only prolonging his career but also giving him new ways to win fights against the best of the best. Before all is said and done, Gaethje will have the UFC belt wrapped around his waist.

Will the women steal the show in Philadelphia?

Petela: It’s going to be a tough task to outshine the headliner, but the women’s strawweight fights will impress fans in Philadelphia.

The main-card affair between Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Michelle Waterson pairs two top-10 contenders in a match-up that will keep the winner in the title mix and force the loser to face a steep climb in the crowded division. How close the winner is to a title shot will largely depend on the outcome of the championship bout in Brazil at UFC 237 on May 11, when champion Rose Namajunas takes on Jessica Andrade.

Andrade earned the title shot by knocking out Kowalkiewicz with a blistering right hand in the first round of their September 2018 contest. If Andrade is able to defeat Namajunas, then it will be tough for Kowalkiewicz to convince the UFC to run that one back. If Namajunas retains the title, then there is a much stronger case for Kowalkiewicz, who edged Namajunas via split decision in 2016 and remains the last fighter to hand “Thug” Rose a loss.

If Waterson comes out with a win, then it would put her on a three-fight winning streak with this being the biggest win of her UFC career. Andrade and Waterson have never fought, but the “Karate Hottie” was submitted via rear-naked choke by Namajunas in 2017. The likelihood of a title shot for Waterson is higher if Andrade comes away the newly crowned champion in May.

The fight itself should display some of the highest-level technical striking that MMA has to offer. Waterson, as her nickname suggests, is a black belt in American freestyle karate and fights with a blend of karate and Muay Thai. Kowalkiewicz began as a Muay Thai fighter and will likely have more power behind her strikes, but she hasn’t record a knockout or TKO since her professional debut in 2012. While it might not end in devastating fashion, this fight will be exciting to watch and will show how far women’s MMA has come since its inception.

Also in the strawweight division, Marina Rodriguez takes on Jessica Aguilar on the preliminary card. Aguilar is taking the fight on just a week’s notice, replacing Alexa Grasso and marking the second time a scheduled bout between Rodriguez and Grasso has been scratched. Rodriguez is undefeated as a professional through 11 fights, including 10 wins and a draw. Her UFC debut against Randa Markos marking the first and only time she hasn’t come away with a victory. Rodriguez earned her spot on the UFC roster with a TKO victory on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series and has finished half of her victories by knockout or TKO.

Former WSOF strawweight champion Aguilar is looking to bounce back from a submission loss to Weili Zhang that has dropped her to 1-3 in her last four fights. Despite the recent rough patch, Aguilar will be a tough test for Rodriguez. The outcome of this fight will show whether or not the Brazilian prospect is ready to contend with the best 115-pound fighters in the world.

Henderson: The headliner is definitely the most anticipated showdown in this lineup, but the ladies featured on this card have a lot more on the line in terms of title hopes than any of the supporting male cast.

Kowalkiewicz and Waterson are definitely fighting for the privilege to enter into battle with either Namajunas or Andrade, and Aguilar sorely needs a big showing to revive her flagging UFC career. Kowalkiewicz has had a lot of extremely close fights since arriving in the UFC, so Waterson can expect a tough night in the cage in Philly. Meanwhile, Aguilar has the advantage of entering as a late replacement for a fighter with an entirely different style. Rodriguez might not be ready for Aguilar’s often grinding approach.

There’s also the one flyweight affair, featuring Maryna Moroz and Sabina Mazo. It doesn’t quite have title implications, but it serves as an introduction to Mazo for UFC fans against a very tough opponent. If Mazo can pass this test, she could be on the fast track to title contention.

Kennedy Nzechukwu, Kyler Phillips and Sabina Mazo — do we need to know these names?

Henderson: This is a pretty interesting freshman class. Two of these fighters impressed on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, and one of those two also appeared on The Ultimate Fighter. Meanwhile, the remaining UFC newcomer arrives on the heels of a title reign with the Legacy Fighting Alliance.

Nzechukwu is a rather unexpected part of the main card, which is a rare placing for a lesser-known prospect. He demolished Dennis Bryant on DWTNCS, but it was his second appearance on the series following an earlier victory via split decision over Anton Berzin. The 26-year-old Nigerian, who trains in the Dallas area, also made a stop with the LFA. He’s a very tall and long light heavyweight whose measurements put him in Jon Jones territory, but he also has a whole lot to prove. His resume, including the DWTNCS and LFA bouts, lacks serious competition. He meets Paul Craig, who could prove to be a reality check for Nzechukwu.

Phillips, who turned pro in 2016, was rolling along with victories for California Xtreme Fighting, the LFA and DWTNCS. His 46-second victory over James Gray in the latter of those promotions wasn’t enough to place Phillips immediately on the UFC roster, but he did join the TUF 27 cast. While fighting one division above his normal weight class, he managed to press eventual TUF champion Brad Katona to a majority verdict in his one and only fight on the show. His next fight also ended in a close loss on the scorecards, this time for CXF, but it came against established veteran Victor Henry. Phillips finally punched his ticket to the big show when he scored a first-round finish of Emeka Ifekandu at LFA 59. Phillips doesn’t get an easy first UFC fight, though. He meets former flyweight contender Ray Borg, who should be able to outwork Phillips and take the victory.

Mazo is perhaps the most accomplished of the trio, and yet she’s the furthest down the card. The Colombian fighter should be a solid addition to the women’s flyweight roster for the UFC. Her resume already includes victories over such notables as Alejandra Lara, Reina Cordoba, Jamie Thorton and Carol Yariwaki. The victory over Yariwaki served as Mazo’s lone defense of the LFA belt she had won with a decision nod over Shannon Sinn. Mazo draws Maryna Moroz for her Octagon debut, which might lead to her first setback. Overall, though, Mazo has the talent to make a long-term home for herself inside the UFC’s Octagon.

Petela: With all due respect to the debuting fighters, only Mazo currently shows the promise to become a mainstay or contender inside the promotion.

Nzechukwu trains at Fortis MMA, which head coach Sayif Saud has quickly turned into an elite fight camp. Home to Geoff Neal and Charles Byrd, among others, Fortis MMA is a great place for young fighters to go and develop into elite competitors. With only six professional fights and Craig as his first opponent, Nzechukwu will learn that there is still work to be done before he can compete at the highest level.

The same can be said for Phillips. He is a talented prospect from a great camp who is biting off more than he can chew. At only 23 years old, Phillips gets some of the best tutelage the sport has to offer at the MMA Lab under John Crouch and Benson Henderson. The UFC is doing him no favors, though, by matching him up against former flyweight title challenger Borg. He may eventually have a successful career in the UFC, but his first stint will be more of a learning experience than anything else.

Mazo may very well face the same fate as her fellow newcomers and drop her debut against Moroz, but she will have a longer runway for success due to her division. The women’s flyweight division is still developing. In under two years of existence, its depth of talent is quickly catching up to the strawweight and bantamweight divisions. At age 21, Mazo will mature as the division matures. By the time it becomes saturated with talent, she will have honed her skills and improved to the point where people aren’t questioning whether or not she belongs.

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

Petela: Ross Pearson and Des Green.

This could be the last time we see the losing fighter from this contest in the UFC. Green is coming off a loss to Mairbek Taisumov and is 1-3 since joining the UFC. It’s worth noting that two of his losses came to fighters who missed weight, badly. Both Taisumov and Michel Prazeres tipped the scales at 161 pounds, a staggering five pounds over the limit, for their outings with Green. All of Green’s UFC fights have gone the distance, too.

When you combine Green’s past performances with a subpar winning percentage and his issues outside the cage — he was involved in a car accident that resulted in two people losing their lives just two weeks after being cited for driving with a suspended license and without insurance — his future doesn’t look good. Unless he comes away with an impressive victory over Pearson, it would make sense for the UFC to part ways with the Rochester, N.Y., native.

Coming up on a decade in the UFC, Pearson has gone 1-5 over his last six contests. Prior to this, he had alternated wins and losses dating back to 2014. One of the most popular British MMA fighters in UFC history, “The Real Deal” needs a win to fend off the narrative that he’s just another fighter who held onto the fight game too long.

Henderson: Call me crazy, but I like the opening fight of the evening between Alex Perez and Mark De La Rosa.

Sure, this fight isn’t going to produce a title challenger in the bantamweight division — not even close — but it could be one of the more entertaining displays from the preliminary card. Perez, a member of Team Oyama, has 10 career finishes and three across the DWTNCS and UFC organizations. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old De La Rosa, fighting out of Factory X Muay Thai, has secured six submission victories in his career and is now set to meet a fighter who has suffered the majority of his defeats via submission.

Both men are still young and have the talent to develop into UFC mainstays. Their camps are on the rise, too. However, what really makes this a sleeper fight is the uncertainty in who will win. Both men lack consistency, but they are capable of turning in impressive performances. It’s a great way to kick off a night of fights.

Pair this card with…

Henderson: A roller-coaster ride. This lineup is going to be big on ups and downs, in more ways than one. There is a solid sprinkling of potential barn-burners here, but there are also a few possible snoozers. More importantly, however, there’s the thrill of the headliner. This one could take twists and turns, it could rattle you to your core, and it’d be a real shock if it doesn’t live up to expectations. Get ready for one fun ride.

Petela: A viewing of When the Smoke Clears, a documentary that chronicles the life and times of Joe Frazier. With the UFC in Philadelphia, the references to Rocky Balboa will be plentiful. It’s criminal that the first thought people have when they think of fighting and Philadelphia is a fictional character and not one of the best heavyweight boxers of all time, the man who defeated Muhammad Ali in “The Fight of the Century.” Frazier is constantly overlooked and not shown the reverence and appreciation he deserves, even in the city he called home. The famous statue of Rocky Balboa on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art should be a statue of “Smokin Joe” throwing his devastating left hook. So, watch When The Smoke Clears, and when the broadcast inevitably pans to a shot of the famous statue of a guy who never existed before showing cheesesteaks at Pat’s and Geno’s, know that they are leaving out the most important of the fighting history of Philly.

Fight Picks

Fight Henderson’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET)
LW: Edson Barboza vs. Justin Gaethje Gaethje Gaethje
MW: David Branch vs. Jack Hermansson Branch Hermansson
FW: Josh Emmett vs. Michael Johnson Emmett Emmett
Women’s StrawW: Michelle Waterson vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz Kowalkiewicz Kowalkiewicz
LHW: Paul Craig vs. Kennedy Nzechukwu Craig Craig
FW: Sheymon Moraes vs. Sodiq Yusuff Moraes Moraes
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Jessica Aguilar vs. Marina Rodriguez Aguilar Rodriguez
LW: Ross Pearson vs. Des Green Pearson Pearson
FW: Kevin Aguilar vs. Enrique Barzola Aguilar Aguilar
MW: Kevin Holland vs. Gerald Meerschaert Meerschaert Meerschaert
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 3:30 p.m. ET)
BW: Ray Borg vs. Kyler Phillips Borg Borg
Women’s FlyW: Maryna Moroz vs. Sabina Mazo Moroz Moroz
BW: Alex Perez vs. Mark De La Rosa Perez De La Rosa