On Saturday, March 9, the UFC hosts its six consecutive event without a weekend off. The headlining bout of UFC on ESPN+ 4 from the INTRUST Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan., is a showdown between top-10 heavyweights Derrick Lewis and Junior dos Santos.
The heavy-hitting Lewis looks to bounce back from a loss in his first bid for the UFC heavyweight title against champion Daniel Cormier. Dos Santos seeks to put together his third straight victory since his first-round loss when he tried to reclaim the belt from Stipe Miocic in their 2017 rematch. In the cloudy picture that is the heavyweight division, the winner of this fight should put himself a win or two away from another crack at the belt.
In the co-main event, surging welterweights Elizeu Zaleski and Curtis Millender square off in a match-up that could vault the winner into the upper echelon of the 170-pound division that has recently been shaken up with Kamaru Usman’s defeat of former long-reigning champion Tyron Woodley at UFC 235. Zaleski is riding a six-fight winning streak and looks to show off his flashy capoeira skills against Millender, who is on a nine-fight winning streak of his own and is trying to improve his UFC record to 4-0 while taking his unbeaten streak to double digits. The two men share recent unanimous-decision victories over the gritty and durable Max Griffin. This should be a competitive match-up, with both fans and fellow welterweights interested in who comes away with the victory.
The card also includes fights between exciting welterweights Niko Price and Tim Means and hard-hitting heavyweights Ben Rothwell and Blagoy Ivanov. The preliminary card gets started on ESPN+ at 5 p.m. ET. The main card stays on the streaming service and kicks off at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Bryan Henderson and Matt Petela break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Derrick Lewis lands another marquee fight when he takes on former champ Junior dos Santos in the evening’s headliner. Lewis has scored some big wins in his UFC tenure, but he came up short recently against champion Daniel Cormier. Does he bounce back with a win here and set himself up for another crack at the gold?
Henderson: The overall success we’ve seen from Lewis really defies logic. This is a big man who looks gassed almost right out of the gates, and certainly by the second round. He can be smothered if he ends up on his back against an opponent, and some men have even had him “on the ropes” when exchanging on the feet. Yet, the “Black Beast” is a far-from-shabby 12-4 inside the Octagon. He’s emerged with his hand raised against the likes of Roy Nelson, Francis Ngannou and Alexander Volkov. He even produced a miracle comeback in the Volkov fight. Of course, he also challenged for the heavyweight championship.
So, it’s hard to say how Lewis will perform on any given night. He seems more focused now that he’s among the UFC’s top heavyweights, but this is a man who was dropped by Matt Mitrione, Shawn Jordan and Mark Hunt. He was also handily controlled by Cormier. Dos Santos is undeniably the second-best heavyweight Lewis has ever seen, trailing only the aforementioned reigning champ. Lewis can always score the big knockout, but what happens if he doesn’t find that clean shot?
Adding to the unpredictability of this fight, dos Santos has had his bell rattled on numerous occasions as well. Cain Velasquez did it. So did Alistair Overeem. Most recently, it was Stipe Miocic that delivered the fight-ending blows against the 35-year-old. Lewis could definitely follow suit.
The thing is, Lewis doesn’t stack up favorably with the guys who have found success in the cage with dos Santos. Velasquez was at the top of his game as a bruising and relentless wrestler with cardio for days. Overeem was a skilled kickboxer in the midst of his best stretch as a UFC fighter. Miocic, too, has a wrestling base and strong stand-up skills, plus a championship pedigree. Lewis, on the other hand, is more of a brawler. If dos Santos can replicate the technical performance from his victory against Tai Tuivasa at UFC Fight Night 142, then this one could go the Brazilian’s way and further derail Lewis’s title aspirations.
Petela: Agreed. It comes down to whether or not Lewis can land one big strike to change the course of the fight or end it immediately. Dos Santos is certainly the more technical striker of the two big men, but, as my colleague noted, he has taken more than his fair share of punishment over the years. Lewis carries his power deep into fights, as he proved with the third-round knockout of the aforementioned Volkov.
As the headliner, this fight is scheduled for five rounds. Lewis has never been to a fifth round in his career, and he’s only seen the fourth round twice. Most recently, he lost via TKO to the aforementioned Hunt in the fourth frame of their contest. The only other time he was pushed to a fourth round, Lewis defeated Shamil Abdurakhimov via TKO. Dos Santos, on the other hand, has gone the distance four times in five-round fights, amassing a 3-1 record in those contests.
Dos Santos will utilize his superior technical boxing skills to wear down the “Black Beast” and avoid his show-stopping power for 25 minutes. Lewis may land a desperation shot, but it won’t be until the final round, and by then his power will have been diminished enough that dos Santos is able to survive and come away with a decision victory.
The lineup features a number of fringe top-15 welterweights, plus one ranked 170-pounder (Elizeu Zaleski). Will any of these men post a breakthrough performance in Wichita?
Petela: I’m expecting a lot out of Curtis Millender this weekend. He is riding a nine-fight winning streak, including a 3-0 record inside the UFC. In the co-headliner, Millender faces a stiff test in the aforementioned Zaleski, but a victory should solidify his case for having a number next to his name.
Zaleski is coming off back-to-back knockouts, so Millender will have to mind his Ps and Qs in this fight so that he doesn’t become the third consecutive and 15th overall opponent of Zaleski to be on the wrong side of a knockout. Millender broke onto the UFC scene with a “Performance of the Night” bonus when his left knee landed flushly on Thiago Alves’ head to end the fight. Since then, he has earned two unanimous decisions, bringing his career total to 11 wins by decision and six by knockout. If he is to earn a win over Zaleski, it will likely come via decision.
Henderson: It feels like the fight between Millender and Zaleski has to produce the welterweight breakout performance of the night. The other fighters in the mix — prelim foes Tony Martin and Sergio Moraes and main-card competitors Niko Price and Tim Means — have had too many letdowns in their own UFC campaigns. Price is just 2-2 over his last four outings, Means is 2-3 over his last five fights, Moraes has had far too many split verdicts, and Martin has had a rocky road that’s only recently turned smooth.
Millender delivered a couple of highlight-reel finishes with the Legacy Fighting Alliance to punch his ticket to the big show. He’s fared a lot better inside the UFC’s Octagon than he did in the Bellator cage, where he suffered two of his three career losses. Millender also has never suffered a knockout loss, which adds to the intrigue for a fight with a guy who has knockouts all over the place on his record.
Zaleski has put together a solid UFC run outside of a loss to Nicolas Dalby. That defeat is understandable, though, given that it came against a then-undefeated Dalby in Zaleski’s Octagon debut. The Brazilian has rebounded for six straight wins. However, Zaleski’s level of competition in this stretch doesn’t stack up to what Millender has seen.
After those Bellator setbacks and one additional loss, Millender seems to have found his groove. He should give Zaleski fits en route to a knockout victory of his own.
Grant Dawson and Jeff Hughes — do we need to know these names?
Henderson: Two newcomers, each with only one professional loss, make their Octagon debuts in Wichita. Both men earned their way here through Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, too. However, one’s future looks a little more promising than the other. It has a lot to do with their weight classes.
Dawson is a featherweight. He scored a rear-naked choke of Adrian Diaz on DWTNCS, but he lost to the 5-2 Hugh Pulley just three fights earlier. The 25-year-old could stick inside the UFC, but he’s coming off a lengthy absence — his last fight was the Diaz bout in August 2017 — and his resume doesn’t include any convincing evidence to suggest he can break into a crowded featherweight field. He draws the wildly inconsistent Julian Erosa for his Octagon debut. He might get a win here, though even that could be a stretch, but don’t expect him to run roughshod over the UFC’s 145-pounders.
Hughes has the benefit of residing in the heavyweight division. This weight class has seen a recent injection of fresh talent with rising stars like Francis Ngannou and Tai Tuivasa, but there’s still plenty of room for another up-and-comer or two to break into the ranks. The 30-year-old Hughes isn’t a bad candidate for this role. He defeated Richard Odoms to become the Legacy Fighting Alliance titleholder, and he impressed again when he defended the belt against his upcoming opponent, Maurice Greene. If Hughes can manage a repeat in this rematch, he’ll be on his way. He might never be a champion, but he could stick around the UFC for more than a few appearances.
Petela: Both of these newcomers will stick around the UFC for quite a while, but it’s unlikely that either man will have a championship belt wrapped around his waist in the world’s premier MMA organization. Both men have somewhat favorable match-ups in their respective debuts. The rematch between Greene and Hughes is particularly interesting, since the two men fought less than a year ago and Hughes emerged with a unanimous-decision victory.
Dawson is a Nebraska native and has spent the bulk of his career fighting in the Midwest, so this bout is somewhat of a home game for “The Prophet.” If he can handle the Octagon jitters after a nearly 18-month layoff, then he has a good chance of making a solid statement in his debut. He has shown the talent and ability to compete at a high level, and it won’t be a surprise if he ends up becoming a ranked UFC fighter before all is said and done. The depth in the featherweight division will likely keep him from ever fighting for the title, though.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Tony Martin and Sergio Moraes.
Both of these men have finished more than 50 percent of their victories by submission, and their grappling skills are largely going under the radar. Moraes certainly has the more accomplished career in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a four-time world champion who perhaps most notably defeated Kron Gracie in 2008 at the world championships to hand Gracie his first loss as a black belt.
Martin is also a BJJ black belt. In his most recent bout, he defeated Jake Matthews by technical submission with an anaconda choke. It will be interesting to see if these two grapplers engage on the ground or if they respect each other’s submission abilities to the point where this fight largely remains standing.
Henderson: Yana Kunitskaya and Marion Reneau.
It’s disappointing that a fight with so much star power resides this low in the lineup. Kunitskaya challenged for the UFC women’s featherweight championship just two fights ago. Reneau is 3-1-1 over her last five outings and could have been closing in on a title shot had she not stumbled against Cat Zingano. These two ladies are legitimate bantamweight contenders who should put on a war on the preliminary card.
Before Kunitskaya stepped up to the featherweight level to challenge Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, she gave Tonya Evinger a real run for her money, twice, for the Invicta bantamweight crown. Evinger was running through the competition until Kunitskaya showed up. The 29-year-old Russian could add to her case for a UFC women’s bantamweight title shot if she impresses against Reneau.
Reneau is no easy out, though. The 41-year-old managed a modest 2-2 mark over her first four Octagon appearances, but she’s managed to improve upon that with three victories over her last five contests. This stretch includes wins over Milana Dudieva, Talita Bernardo and Sara McMann. She fought to a draw with Bethe Correia and suffered the loss to Zingano, a perennial contender.
Reneau is getting up there in years, which means her career might be coming to a close soon. She still has a chance for one final push toward the top, but Kunitskaya will make her earn it.
Which fighter will turn in the biggest surprise showing at this event?
Henderson: Drew Dober has been flying under the radar lately. His UFC campaign took a while to get off the ground — he fell to Daron Cruickshank on The Ultimate Fighter 15 and went 1-3 with one no-contest to kick off his current stay with the company — but Dober is now 5-1 over his last six fights. His one loss came to Olivier Aubin-Mercier. Meanwhile, he has defeated the likes of Scott Holtzman, Jason Gonzalez, Josh Burkman, Frank Camacho and Jon Tuck. That’s hardly a murderer’s row, granted, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Dober brings a lot of confidence to his next step up the ladder, which comes in the form of a showdown with Beneil Dariush. The Iranian-born fighter looked like he was on his way to big things when he kicked off his UFC run with eight victories over 10 fights, but he has stalled out recently. Dariush has gone 1-2-1 over his last four fights, with losses to Edson Barboza and Alexander Hernandez and a draw against Evan Dunham. Dariush is a betting favorite in this contest, but Dober could give him a tougher fight than expected.
Petela: Many fans wrote off Louis Smolka when he was released from the UFC early in 2018, but he has gone on to show an improvement in his technical skills while also cleaning up his act outside of the cage. Smolka has quit drinking alcohol, a problem that he thinks had a large adverse effect on his ability to perform to the best of his abilities. He is on a four-fight winning streak and submitted Su Mudaerji in his promotional return in Beijing in November. With a dominant performance over Matt Schnell, Smolka will have bolstered his case as a new fighter this time around with the UFC and will have fans’ attention after being given a second chance to compete at the highest level.
Pair this card with…
Petela: I’m torn on whether this fight card will be full of exciting fights and finishes or if there will be a number of methodical decisions that lack any jaw-dropping moments. For that reason, I’m going to pair this card with something I know won’t let me down: my old friend Jack Daniels. The card may be full of uncertainties, but I know exactly what to expect when I sit down with a bottle of Jack.
Henderson: That ESPN+ subscription you’ve been reluctant to get. If you’re one of the holdouts, for whatever reason — unsure about the quality of the service; not willing to pay for “subpar” fights — then now is the time to finally give in to the urge. As someone who battled regularly with the bugs in the UFC Fight Pass app, I’m thankful for the ease of use that the ESPN app has delivered. Furthermore, this service is home to more fight cards than you’ll see on cable or pay-per-view. Finally, the cranium-rattling abilities of fighters like Derrick Lewis, Junior dos Santos, Elizeu Zaleski and Curtis Millender should provide more than enough of an excuse for you to part with your hard-earned cash.
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
HW: Derrick Lewis vs. Junior dos Santos
WW: Elizeu Zaleski vs. Curtis Millender
WW: Niko Price vs. Tim Means
HW: Ben Rothwell vs. Blagoy Ivanov
LW: Beneil Dariush vs. Drew Dober
MW: Omari Akhmedov vs. Tim Boetsch
FW: Grant Dawson vs. Julian Erosa
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
WW: Tony Martin vs. Sergio Moraes
Women’s BW: Yana Kunitskaya vs. Marion Reneau
HW: Maurice Greene vs. Jeff Hughes
BW: Louis Smolka vs. Matt Schnell
WW: Alex Morono vs. Zak Ottow
LW: Alex White vs. Dan Moret
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