Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 8 Preview and Predictions

One man can make all the difference. The UFC and ESPN sure seem to think so, and so here we are, with UFC on ESPN 3 turning into UFC on ESPN+ 8 as a result of Yoel Romero’s withdrawal. Instead of a showdown between the Cuban wrestler and Brazil’s Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, fans now have to start up their streaming device to see if Sweden’s Jack Hermansson can seize this opportunity to break into the middleweight title mix.

The 30-year-old Hermansson has quietly compiled a 6-2 mark through eight Octagon appearances. The Swede’s only UFC losses came against Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira and Thiago Santos, and he holds recent victories over Thales Leites, Gerald Meerschaert and David Branch. This is “The Joker’s” chance to prove himself, but he has to get through one of the best 185-pounders in the world in order to do so.

Jacare has been a constant presence near the top of the middleweight division. His stay in the UFC includes victories over Yushin Okami, Gegard Mousasi, Vitor Belfort, Tim Boetsch, Derek Brunson and Chris Weidman, but he has also faltered against the aforementioned Romero, Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum. However, even his fights against Romero and Gastelum were close enough to produce split verdicts.


The supporting cast for this event, which takes place at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., features controversial former NFL player Greg Hardy, a clash between welterweights Mike Perry and Alex Oliveira, and an intriguing bantamweight fight that pits John Lineker against Cory Sandhagen.

The card formerly known as UFC on ESPN 3 kicks off with the early prelims at 5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+. The remaining preliminary bouts do indeed air live on ESPN, beginning at 7 p.m. ET, but then it’s back to ESPN+ for the main card at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Matt Petela and Bryan Henderson preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Middleweight headliner Jack Hermansson has won five of his last six and three straight. Now, the Swede clashes with perennial contender Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. Will Hermansson get past his Brazilian counterpart?

Petela: Hermansson looked phenomenal in his last outing on March 30 against David Branch. It took him just under a minute to submit the Renzo Gracie black belt. Now, he goes up against an even more decorated BJJ competitor in Souza.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying it is highly unlikely that “The Joker” will get his third straight guillotine submission. Souza, 39, is nearing the end of his career and has stated publicly that he will retire if he doesn’t get a title shot with a win in this fight. Combine that with the quick turnaround for Hermansson, and the pressure to win lies almost entirely on Jacare.

In his latest outing, Souza showed few signs that time is catching up with him when he dispatched former champion Chris Weidman in a showdown of elite grapplers that turned into a fairly high-level kickboxing contest. However, as we have seen countless times, fighters can get old practically overnight. This will be the case in South Florida for Souza, who will lose a clear decision to Hermansson in what will go down as a passing of the torch of sorts, marking the end of Jacare’s time as an elite contender and the introduction of Hermansson as a threat to anyone at the top of the middleweight division.

Henderson: Slow down there, buddy. Hermansson has had a strong run, but it’s a tad premature to anoint him as a top contender who will roll past Jacare.

Hermansson did impress with his win over Branch, but Branch and success seem to be adverse to each other inside the Octagon. The former World Series of Fighting two-division king has looked nothing like a champion in any of his UFC stints. The Swede’s next biggest victories came against Thales Leites and Gerald Meerschaert, both of whom reside even further outside of the title mix. “The Joker” has put together a long list of stoppage wins, but he’s taking a gigantic leap up in competition for this fight. Furthermore, he’s suffered losses to Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira and Thiago Santos, neither of whom set themselves apart while in the 185-pound division.

Jacare might be nearing retirement, but he’s hardly taking the Chuck Liddell or B.J. Penn route out of the UFC spotlight. He looked great against Weidman in a stand-up affair, and he’s also recorded recent wins over Tim Boetsch and Derek Brunson. His only losses have come against championship-grade fighters like Robert Whittaker, Kelvin Gastelum and Yoel Romero.

Age hasn’t caught up to Jacare to that significant of a degree. In fact, one might even argue that he’s improved with age. The Brazilian used to be a grappler with limited striking skills. Now, he can beat opponents regardless of where the fight takes place. Hermansson’s losses to Ferreira and Santos are solid indicators of what Souza can do to the Swede in this fight. The end could come via knockout or submission, but either way the victory goes to Jacare.

After an ugly, controversial end to his fight with Allen Crowder, former NFL player Greg Hardy returns to the Octagon against Dmitrii Smoliakov. Will this bout end cleanly? Will Hardy get embarrassed yet again?

Henderson: The UFC has shunned plenty of fighters who have domestic-violence allegations in their history. However, money trumps all, and so UFC head Dana White sees no problem with the inclusion of the former NFL linebacker Hardy on the promotion’s roster. The choice bit White in the ass in Hardy’s first appearance, when Crowder heckled Hardy to the point where Hardy sought vengeance with a blatantly illegal knee.

It’s three months later, and Hardy’s set to return to action. It’s probably no coincidence that the UFC paired him with a Russian fighter, which might create a language barrier that keeps any trash talk to a minimum. It’s also probably no coincidence that this foe has an even weaker resume than Crowder, who at least held low-level wins with Bellator and Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. Smoliakov has UFC experience, but he lost his Octagon outings against Luis Henrique and Cyril Asker. His most notable wins came against a 5-2 opponent and a 16-fight veteran with a .500 mark.

Smoliakov has struggled at the highest levels, but that doesn’t mean he has no shot here. Hardy is still very green and prone to both mistakes and fatigue. If Smoliakov’s camp has reviewed the Crowder fight, they could have a viable strategy to secure the win. It could be a longshot, though.

Hardy has been a beast in his MMA career. He torched his amateur opponents and scored even quicker victories as a pro. He’s going to be the bigger of these two big men, and he’ll enjoy roughly six inches in reach over his shorter adversary. I can’t fault fans for cheering against Hardy — I’m right there with them — but chances are good that he steamrolls Smoliakov and continues to put dollar signs in the eyes of White and company.

Petela: There is no fighter for whom I have more contempt than Hardy. However, objectively, this is a fight designed to make him look good and easily get his first win inside the Octagon. Hardy is an elite athlete and therefore has been able to improve by leaps and bounds in the short time he has been training in MMA.

The most likely path to victory for Smoliakov is to outlast Hardy and make the former NFLer see a third round for the first time in his career. The longer the fight goes, the greater the chance is that Hardy will make a mistake and leave himself vulnerable. Smoliakov has five submission wins by four different methods, including two by kimura, a brabo/d’arce choke, a guillotine choke and a triangle choke. All of these chokes can be set up with an opponent in the guard. So, if Hardy drops Smoliakov and gets overzealous while trying to finish the fight, or uses brute strength for a takedown, then he could quickly find himself at risk of a submission. To steal a line from Prince, this would have fans around the world partying like it’s 1999. However unlikely, that is certainly what I will be hoping for as I watch this fight.

Thomas Gifford, Takashi Sato, Virna Jandiroba and Mike Davis — do we need to know these names?

Petela: It is not often we see a fighter with seven professional losses making their UFC debut, but that is just what we have in Gifford. He takes on undefeated Roosevelt Roberts, who most recently submitted Darrell Horcher at The Ultimate Fighter 28 Finale in November. Both guys are talented and young — the Arkansas native Gifford is 26, and Roberts is only 25 — with a fairly high ceiling, but these two lightweights happen to compete in the most talent-stacked division that MMA has ever seen. So, while I plan on keeping track of Gifford’s career moving forward and think he will deliver entertaining and impressive performances for years to come, he won’t be a guy who makes himself a household name as a contender for the UFC lightweight championship.

Sato has a winnable fight in his first UFC contest against Ben Saunders at welterweight. Saunders is 1-4 in his last five fights. The 36-year-old “Killa B” is not the fighter he once was, and Sato should deliver an impressive performance for fans. Nine of Sato’s professional wins have come by way of knockout or TKO. The Japanese prospect should be able to use a finish over Saunders as a stepping stone toward a long, successful career inside the UFC.

Henderson: Jandiroba makes up half of my pick for the evening’s sleeper match-up, so you’ll see what I think of her in a moment.

My colleague has far higher hopes for Gifford than I do. A first glance suggests that he’s here to provide Roberts with another win on an unblemished record, but Gifford did suffer many of his losses very early in his career. The 26-year-old has won seven of his last eight fights and could be a solid test for his undefeated counterpart. Gifford probably sticks around for at least a few fights in the UFC, but he’s more gatekeeper than contender material.

Sato, too, appears to be little more than an also-ran for the promotion. His losses to middling talent like Kenta Takagi and Glaico França while with Pancrase do raise some red flags, and he’s likely to struggle once he’s matched up against welterweights further up the food chain. My fellow panelist is right in suggesting that the Japanese fighter has a winnable debut, though. Saunders has flashed potential, but he’s far too inconsistent. Sato is giving up four inches in height and will need to avoid Saunders’ knees, but a debut victory isn’t out of the question for the former Pancrase mainstay.

Davis doesn’t have it easy, either. The 26-year-old joins the roster for a fight with Gilbert Burns, a world-class grappler who should run circles around Davis. It’s likely that the Island Fights veteran lands back on the regional circuit before you know it.

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

Henderson: How is the women’s strawweight contest between Carla Esparza and Virna Jandiroba buried so far down this card? Yes, Esparza was slated to meet Livia Renata Souza, but this might be an even better affair.

Esparza has a long history near the top of the division. She was an Invicta champion, and she also became the first woman to capture UFC gold in the division. Granted, Esparza is just 3-4 since grabbing the belt, but she’s still a great litmus test for up-and-comers in the division. Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Randa Markos, Claudia Gadelha and Tatiana Suarez all handed “The Cookie Monster” losses, but Markos is the only one who doesn’t sit near the top of the strawweight rankings — and even she still resides in the top 15 of the UFC’s poll.

Jandiroba is an intriguing newcomer who remains undefeated after 14 pro bouts, including Invicta outings against Amy Montenegro, Mizuki Inoue and Janaisa Morandin. In addition, the Brazilian has topped such notables as Ericka Almeida, Lisa Ellis and Aline Sattelmayer. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt has had some close fights, but she’s also a danger to anyone if the fight hits the mat.

Esparza is a solid wrestler, but she’s not much of a finisher. Her recent trend of losses suggests that this could be a huge opportunity for Jandiroba to announce her arrival in the UFC.

Petela: Andrei Arlovski and Augusto Sakai.

The UFC’s decision to have the former UFC heavyweight champion on the prelims and Greg Hardy in the co-main event is akin to having Prince open a concert headlined by Bruce Willis. Who wants to hear “Purple Rain” and “Little Red Corvette” at the beginning of the night and then have a myriad of mediocre songs from “The Return of Bruno” be the lasting impression of the night? I certainly don’t.

Arlovski is nowhere near the height of his game. If it weren’t for the Walt Harris fight getting overturned to a no-contest, “The Pitbull” would be riding a three-fight skid. Sakai won his first official UFC fight via TKO over Chase Sherman, but he, like many other fighters on the cusp of success, still maintains a job outside of the cage, working at an aquarium between contests.

If Sakai emerges victorious over Arlovski, then it could be the last time we see Arlovski in the UFC. If that’s the case, then I’d like to give him the proper farewell in a high-profile contest, not buried on the preliminary card.

Pair this card with…

Petela: Well, I will follow the UFC’s lead of downgrading this card from ESPN to ESPN+ by switching my initial thought of pairing this card with a fine wine when it was supposed to be a rematch between Yoel Romero and Jacare and instead go with a box of Franzia’s White Zinfandel. It might not be as enjoyable going down, but it will still get the job done, just like this card will still provide some clarity at the top of middleweight division, albeit not the way the UFC had initially planned.

Henderson: The realization that chaos reigns supreme in the ESPN era. Last weekend, the UFC on ESPN+ 7 card was slated to air in its entirety on the streaming platform. The UFC website even listed it as such all the way up to event time. Well, the prelims aired on ESPN2 instead. Now, a card that was supposed to be UFC on ESPN 3 has been demoted to the streaming platform — a portion of the prelims will still air on ESPN — and transforms into UFC on ESPN+ 8, needlessly confusing things. It’s quite clear that ESPN is going to play it fast and loose with all but the pay-per-view shows from the UFC. So, if you don’t have access to all of ESPN’s outlets, then don’t set your heart on seeing any of these fights. What ESPN gives, it just as soon might take away.

Fight Picks

Fight Petela’s Pick Henderson’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET)
MW: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza vs. Jack Hermansson Hermansson Souza
HW: Greg Hardy vs. Dmitrii Smoliakov Hardy Hardy
WW: Alex Oliveira vs. Mike Perry Oliveira Oliveira
LHW: Glover Teixeira vs. Ion Cutelaba Teixeira Teixeira
BW: John Lineker vs. Cory Sandhagen Sandhagen Lineker
LW: Roosevelt Roberts vs. Thomas Gifford Roberts Roberts
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET)
WW: Ben Saunders vs. Takashi Sato Sato Sato
HW: Andrei Arlovski vs. Augusto Sakai Sakai Sakai
Women’s StrawW: Carla Esparza vs. Virna Jandiroba Esparza Jandiroba
LW: Gilbert Burns vs. Mike Davis Burns Burns
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Jim Miller vs. Jason Gonzalez Gonzalez Miller
Women’s StrawW: Angela Hill vs. Jodie Esquibel Esquibel Esquibel
WW: Court McGee vs. Dhiego Lima Lima Lima