St. Petersburg, Russia, plays host to UFC on ESPN+ 7 this weekend with a fight card featuring some of the best prospects from the Eastern Hemisphere and a main event between two heavyweight veterans who both have over 60 professional MMA fights.
This marks the second trip to Russia for the UFC and the second time the company has called upon Aleksei Oleinik to headline an event, this time on short notice as a replacement for the injured Alexander Volkov. The Ukrainian-born Oleinik is a Russian citizen and looks to follow up his submission win over Mark Hunt by taking out another former K-1 World Grand Prix champion in Alistair Overeem. If Oleinik comes away with a victory, it would mark his third straight win and fifth victory in his last six fights. All four of his recent wins have come by way of submission, including the only two Ezekiel chokes in UFC history.
Overeem rebounded from two consecutive stoppage losses when he finished Sergey Pavlovich by TKO in the final minute of the first round of their November outing in China. Overeem is a former Dream heavyweight champion and former UFC heavyweight title challenger who will be just shy of his 39th birthday when he enters the cage across from Oleinik. If Overeem is going to add a UFC championship to his resume before hanging up the gloves, he needs to come out of St. Petersburg with an impressive victory against the tricky and talented grappler.
Dagestan native Islam Makhachev is matched up against fellow Russian Arman Tsarukyan in the lightweight co-main event. Tsarukyan is making his UFC debut, bringing with him a 12-fight winning streak and a 13-1 overall professional record. Makhachev has rattled off four consecutive wins since suffering his lone professional loss to Kevin Lee. As crowded and rich with talent as the 155-pound division is in the UFC, both of these fighters have the potential to quickly go from prospect to contender.
The lone female fight on the card is a showdown in the flyweight division, where 37-fight veteran Roxanne Modafferi goes up against Antonina Shevchenko, who will be making the walk for her eighth professional MMA contest. Shevchenko is the older sister of current flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko and is a multiple-time world champion Muay Thai fighter, amassing a professional record of 39-1 before returning to MMA in 2017 after 12 years away from the sport. Unbeaten through seven fights, Shevchenko will be up against the most formidable opponent of her career. The outcome of this match-up with Modafferi will likely serve as a litmus test as to whether Shevchenko can join her younger sister as a truly elite, world-class mixed martial artist.
Taking place overseas, this card is a matinee of sorts, with the preliminary bouts getting started on ESPN+ and ESPN2 at 10:15 a.m. ET and the six-fight main card following on ESPN+ at 1 p.m. ET. Yubileyny Sports Palace, the home to the Zenit Saint Petersburg basketball team, hosts the action from the heart of St. Petersburg. Combat Press writers Matt Quiggins and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
The headlining bout between heavyweights Alistair Overeem and Aleksei Oleinik is the epitome of a striker-vs.-grappler showdown. Can Oleinik get this fight to the mat and lock in a submission before Overeem uses his kickboxing skills to score the knockout?
Quiggins: This is a really tough one. On one hand, Oleinik has only been stopped in seven bouts, which is impressive, especially given that this will be his 70th professional fight. However, Overeem seems to defy odds each time he’s in the Octagon.
Oleinik had arguably his biggest win in his last outing against Mark Hunt, but Overeem is a huge step up in competition. Overeem got himself back in the win column late last year against Sergey Pavlovich after suffering back-to-back losses to Curtis Blaydes and Francis Ngannou (who could forget that?).
Overeem has moments of greatness, but I feel he will overlook Oleinik’s grappling ability and rely too heavily on his striking. Oleinik is aging like fine wine and will end up being only the second man to submit Overeem, following in the footsteps of Fabricio Werdum, who tapped Overeem in May 2006.
Petela: The only loss in Oleinik’s last five fights was a bludgeoning at the hands of the aforementioned Blaydes that ended in a strange doctor’s stoppage after Blaydes grazed the Russian with a kick to the ear while he was a downed opponent. The TKO victory for Blaydes was the right call, given that the strike caused absolutely no damage. It was the beating prior that made Oleinik unable to continue the fight.
Blaydes also stopped Overeem with brutal ground-and-pound that bloodied “The Reem” almost instantly. What’s most intriguing is that since that loss, Overeem and Blaydes have begun to train together at Team Elevation. Overeem isn’t nearly the wrestler that Blaydes is, but a training partner who executed a nearly flawless game plan against his upcoming opponent could do wonders for Overeem, both physically and mentally. While his kickboxing background and striking abilities are justifiably praised, it gets overlooked that 17 of his 44 MMA wins have come by submission. Now, I’m not suggesting that Overeem would have a realistic chance against Oleinik in a grappling match, but I have a feeling he will be able to batter Oleinik on the feet to the point that it causes a desperation takedown attempt or guard pull from Oleinik that in turn leads to a submission victory for Overeem.
It sounds crazy, I know, but Oleinik wasn’t originally scheduled to fight until May 4 against Walt Harris and took this fight after Alexander Volkov was injured. As a result, his cardio might not be where it needs to be after he had to condense his fight camp by two weeks.
This card is littered with top Russian prospects. Beyond the newcomers, who we will get to in a minute, the lineup features Islam Makhachev, Sergey Pavlovich, Sultan Aliev, Shamil Abdurakhimov, Gadzhimurad Antigulov and Magomed Mustafaev. Will any of these fighters turn in a true statement victory in St. Petersburg?
Petela: Makhachev is an American Kickboxing Academy teammate and close friend of current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. He is also a 2016 World Combat Sambo gold medalist, not to mention a 16-1 professional MMA fighter. His only loss came in 2015 to Adriano Martins. He has only fought four times since then for multiple reasons, including religious observances and a failed test for meldonium (the USADA lifted his suspension after a hearing). Nevertheless, Makhachev is the heir apparent to Nurmagomedov, at least according to their AKA teammate Josh Thomson, who said on his “Punk’s Opinion” podcast that Nurmagomedov will likely fight twice more at 155 pounds before either retiring or moving up to 170. This would open the door for Makhachev to make his run at the lightweight title.
Makhachev takes on Arman Tsarukyan in the co-main event. Despite how highly I think of the newcomer Tsarukyan (as I will discuss a little later), I see Makhachev putting on an impressive show in his home country and setting himself up to take on an opponent with a number next to their name in his next outing.
Then there’s Mustafaev, who has been on the shelf since injuring his arm in a submission loss to Kevin Lee in 2016. Prior to the loss, Mustafaev had put together 13 consecutive wins that included his first two fights inside the UFC. His opponent, Rafael Fiziev, is an undefeated prospect who has finished all six of his professional fights. This won’t be an easy return bout for Mustafaev, but the 30-year-old should be able to show that he is yet another Dagestani force to be reckoned with inside the UFC’s talent-stacked lightweight division.
Quiggins: While I agree with everything my colleague addressed, I’m going to put some focus on Antigulov. He has shown the ability to overcome adversity throughout his career. Antigulov started off 6-1 before dropping three fights in a row. Despite a skid that would have disheartened many fighters, Antigulov remained focused and went on a 14-fight tear, including his first two bouts in the UFC. He was overpowered by Ion Cutelaba in his last bout and will likely be using that loss as fuel to get back into the win column. Add in the fact that 15 of his 20 wins have come by submission, and an exciting match is forthcoming.
Arman Tsarukyan, Ivan Shtyrkov, Movsar Evloev, Seung Woo Choi, Alex da Silva, Rafael Fiziev and Alen Amedovski — do we need to know these names?
Quiggins Shtyrkov isnostrangertotheCombatPressfamily. In January 2018, our own Riley Kontek included Shtyrkov in his list of five light heavyweight prospects the UFC should sign in 2018. While it took until March 2019 before that actually happened, I doubt fans will be disappointed. This man is very fitting of his “Ural Hulk” moniker and holds wins over the likes of UFC vets Thiago Silva, Fabio Maldonado, Phil De Fries, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, Ricco Rodriguez, Rodney Wallace and Jeff Monson.
Shtyrkov’s opponent, Devin Clark, made a lone appearance in the UFC middleweight division in July 2016 when he was dispatched by former UFC middleweight and light heavyweight fighter Alex “The Spartan” Nicholson. Since then, Clark has moved back up to light heavyweight and won three of his last five bouts. This is a tough test for Clark. Shtyrkov weighed in at 215 pounds when he took on Maldonado. The Russian is a much larger fighter than Clark. What’s scary is that Shtyrkov is only 30 years old and yet is seemingly just entering his prime. This man may soon become the face of the UFC light heavyweight division.
Petela: Fighting in your home country for your UFC debut is enough pressure to deal with, let alone in the co-main event slot. The last time a newcomer fought in the co-headliner, it was in the form of human-garbage Greg Hardy getting disqualified in perhaps one of the most fitting endings to a fight in recent history.
I don’t want to compare Tsarukyan to Hardy whatsoever, but I do see him coming out on the losing end when he takes on Islam Makhachev. That won’t be the last we see of Tsarukyan, though. He is only 22 years old and already has 14 professional fights with only one loss. Ten of his 13 victories have been stoppages, evenly split with five wins by some form of knockout and five victories via submission. He has a nearly impossible task ahead of him on Saturday, but even in defeat he will make a good impression on folks seeing him compete for the first time. Tsarukyan will be climbing the long ladder to the top of the lightweight division before long.
Fiziev is another debuting fighter who could make a splash inside the UFC regardless of the outcome of his first appearance inside the Octagon. He welcomes back the previously discussed Magomed Mustafaev. I expect Dagestan’s Mustafaev to come out on top and give Fiziev his first professional loss, but it should be a closely contested fight that causes a rise in the stock of both men. The Kyrgyzstan native Fiziev, 26, will bounce back strongly should he in fact lose his debut. He’ll move firmly from prospect to contender before he enters his thirties.
The UFC has done a great job scouting talent in Eastern Europe to showcase as the promotion builds its foothold in Russia and beyond. This is an exciting incoming class, particularly the aforementioned Shtyrkov, Tsarukyan and Fiziev.
Antonina Shevchenko and Roxanne Modafferi square off in a clash of flyweight ladies. Shevchenko remains undefeated after one appearance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series and a UFC debut at The Ultimate Fighter 28 Finale, but Modafferi marks a significant step up in competition for the 34-year-old. Can Modafferi, who has won just one of her last three official outings, derail Shevchenko?
Petela: Modafferi is a woman who I truly wish was a household name for even the most casual of combat-sports fans. It’s nearly impossible to find something bad to say about her as a martial artist, and her nickname — “The Happy Warrior” — is as fitting as nicknames get. She has been fighting professionally for nearly 16 years, dating back to a 2003 debut just over a month after she turned 21. She’s made her way across the world and back while racking up 37 pro bouts across multiple weight classes.
Modafferi will certainly be the most accomplished opponent for the older Shevchenko sister, but Antonina will get the biggest win of her career in St. Petersburg. She’ll grind out a decision by using her crisper striking to outpoint Modafferi. It will likely take a few minutes for Shevchenko to get a read on the impressively awkward style that Modafferi brings to the table with the unique way she combines her taekwondo, judo, jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai skills and abilities.
Modafferi has had a fantastic career that has mostly remained under the radar. In the still-developing flyweight decision, she could be a gatekeeper for a little while longer. However, this fight will mark the end of her time as a legitimate title contender.
QuigginsKAAAAAAMEEEEEEHAAAAMEEEHHHHAAAA! It had to be done.
My colleague is absolutely right. Modafferi has more fights in her career than probably any other female mixed martial artist and is arguably one of the nicest human beings on planet Earth. She needs this win. Her title bout with Nicco Montaño didn’t go her way, but she got back into the win column in emphatic fashion when she took out Barb Honchak. She lost another decision to Sijara Eubanks, who missed weight for the bout.
I am going to play the devil’s advocate here. Shevchenko is coming off a big win in her UFC debut, but the experience factor will be her undoing. Look for a surprise submission win, perhaps a triangle, for Modafferi.
Pair this card with…
Quiggins: While I’ve never personally had it, might as well pair this with a Baltika 3 Classic. Maybe add in some beef stroganoff. It keeps with the Russian theme and sounds like the perfect mid-day pairing, given that the main card starts at 1 p.m. ET.
Petela: I promise this isn’t a paid advertisement, but this card will go perfectly with Downeast Cider’s seasonal grapefruit cider. I have mentioned them before, but the parallel between the growth of the UFC into Russia and Downeast now being sold in the Baltimore/D.C. market, which happens to be where I hang my hat, is a perfect pairing for this card. I know these fights take place on April 20 (4/20), but I will stick to the cider and let my Combat Press brethren elsewhere handle the greener pastures, so to speak.
Main Card (ESPN+, 1 p.m. ET)
HW: Alistair Overeem vs. Aleksei Oleinik
LW: Islam Makhachev vs. Arman Tsarukyan
HW: Sergey Pavlovich vs. Marcelo Golm
LHW: Devin Clark vs. Ivan Shtyrkov
Women’s FlyW: Antonina Shevchenko vs. Roxanne Modafferi
MW: Krzysztof Jotko vs. Alen Amedovski
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 10:15 a.m. ET)
FW: Movsar Evloev vs. Seung Woo Choi
WW: Sultan Aliev vs. Keita Nakamura
LW: Alexander Yakovlev vs. Alex da Silva
HW: Marcin Tybura vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov
LHW: Gadzhimurad Antigulov vs. Michał Oleksiejczuk
LW: Magomed Mustafaev vs. Rafael Fiziev
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