Donald Cerrone (Rob Tatum/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 9 Preview and Predictions

O Canada!

The UFC heads north to the Canadian capital city of Ottawa for a showdown between Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Al Iaquinta in a match-up that has championship implications as the promotion looks to sort out the embarrassment of riches at the top of the lightweight division.

This will be Long Island resident Iaquinta’s third fight in just over a year. He had fought sporadically in recent years due to issues with the promotion and a thriving real-estate business. Diametrically opposed stands Cowboy, who is not only one of the most active fighters in UFC history, but also the winningest, coming out on top of 22 UFC bouts. Fans have been treated to a string of thrilling main events recently, and this should be no exception. Both men earned post-fight bonuses in their last outings — Iaquinta in his first “Performance of the Night” with a victory over Kevin Lee, and Cerrone with both “Performance of the Night” and “Fight of the Night” honors in his January victory over Alexander Hernandez.


The stakes are high on both sides as the two veterans look to make their way back to a shot at UFC gold that has thus far eluded them throughout their respective careers. Cerrone has been rejuvenated since becoming a father. He has finished both of his opponents since the birth of his son, and a victory over Iaquinta should put him one fight away from a second title shot.

Iaquinta went the distance with champion Khabib Nurmagomedov a year ago after taking the title fight on a day’s notice after Tony Ferguson and Max Holloway were unable to make the walk to the cage. He looks to parlay a win over Cerrone into another crack at the Dagestani champion, and he thinks with a full-training camp the results would be much different. This headliner should not only be fan-friendly, but it should feature a display of some of the best striking and grappling the UFC has to offer.

A pair of middleweights are on display in the co-headlining slot, where Derek Brunson takes on Elias Theodorou. Brunson is out to end a two-fight skid at the hands of Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and interim champion Israel Adesanya. The crowd will be on the side of his opponent, the Canadian native Theodorou, who has improved his UFC record to 8-2 by compiling three consecutive wins leading up to this contest. Unlike Brunson, whose last four contests haven’t gotten out of the first round, “The Spartan” is more than familiar with the judges’ scorecards. He has not finished an opponent or been finished since 2015.

Elsewhere on the main card, veteran Cub Swanson looks to end the first three-fight skid of his career when he takes on the Bronx-born Shane Burgos, who has amassed a 4-1 mark within the UFC while suffering his lone setback at the hands of Calvin Kattar.

Bantamweights are also on display in Ottawa, with Serra-Longo product Merab Dvalishvili taking on Brad Katona. Dvalishvili looks to even his UFC record after suffering two controversial losses inside the Octagon and only securing one win with the promotion.

The fights takes place at the Canadian Tire Centre and air exclusively on the ESPN family of networks. The prelims kick off at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN. The main card follows at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN+. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

In his return to the lightweight division, Donald Cerrone steamrolled Alexander Hernandez. Will Cowboy get past Al Iaquinta and re-establish himself as a lightweight contender?

Kuhl: Well, Hernandez is one thing. Iaquinta is a completely different animal. Hernandez is still fairly young into his UFC and overall MMA career. That’s not to take anything away from him, but he was making his pro debut when Cerrone was coming off back-to-back wins over Jeremy Stephens and Melvin Guillard. Iaquinta is in a much different place.

“Ragin’ Al” has had two losses since his official UFC debut at The Ultimate Fighter 15 Finale in 2012. He lost a submission in May 2014, and his only other loss came to current lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov in their title match a year ago. Other than those “hiccups” and his loss to Michael Chiesa at the TUF 15 Finale, his body of work is quite impressive. The Long Island native has mowed a huge swath across the lightweight division over the last five years with serious knockout power and a deep gas tank.

All that while, Cerrone has struggled to find a true home. He has one of the most storied careers in the history of MMA, from his pro debut at Colorado’s Ring of Fire promotion in 2007, to his controversial loss to Jamie Varner for the WEC lightweight belt at WEC 30 in his 11th pro fight. That alone could make for an entire fighting career, but Cerrone was just getting started. However, Cowboy’s tenacious attitude and willingness to truly fight anyone at any time was never enough to get a strap around his waist, so he fell into this weird position of “always the bridesmaid, but never the bride” in terms of his UFC lightweight career. He did good until it mattered, which was always his problem.

Cerrone is now 36, and he has maybe one last good run in him. He’s taking his second fight after returning to 155 pounds against a guy who is openly pissed and has only one loss in recent history — to the still-undefeated champ. This one is set up to be a barnburner.

Cerrone brings his high-level kickboxing and sick submission game. Iaquinta brings heavy hands and great takedown defense. On paper, this one could go either way. The real question lies in which Cerrone shows up. His consistency has always been suspect, making this the only asterisk in this affair.

I’m taking the New Yorker in this one. However, if Cerrone pulls off the win, then, yes, I believe he could get back in the title hunt, but, no, I do not expect to see him with the belt around his waist. With the current length of the lightweight line, Cerrone does not have a clear path to get there, which means he could be 40 by the time another title shot rolls around.

Petela: Iaquinta will get the job done against Cerrone. However, if I was a betting man (wink, wink), this isn’t a fight I’d be willing to bet the house on either way.

Cowboy has looked as good as ever in his fights against Mike Perry and the aforementioned Hernandez, but neither of those guys are on the level of Iaquinta. I don’t expect this one to be contested on the mat much, as Iaquinta is well aware of the threat Cerrone poses off of his back. On the feet, Iaquinta should have the edge in the hands due to his work training at Serra-Longo. The game plan should be to stay out of Cerrone’s kicking range.

This fight shouldn’t be too lopsided, but the Long Islander will have his hand raised after five tough rounds.

Elias Theodorou has an 8-2 mark inside the UFC, but he has been largely overlooked as a middleweight contender. Will he change this with a win over Derek Brunson?

Petela: While I do think Theodorou gets past Brunson, I don’t think it will be the signature win he needs to get his name mentioned among the elite in his division.

It’s not that Theodorou isn’t talented, though. He lands 4.17 strikes per minute, just slightly less than interim champion Israel Adesanya. He also thwarts the majority (60 percent) of his opponent’s takedown attempts, allowing him to remain upright and keep the fight in his comfort zone.

Theodorou’s inability to gain recognition as a contender in the middleweight division goes beyond statistics. His level of competition leaves much to be desired — none of his victories have come against fighters who currently have a number next to their name. “The Spartan” largely outpoints his way to victory, staying at distance and inflicting more frustration than damage. Only two of his eight wins have come by knockout or TKO, and he hasn’t registered a finish since March 14, 2015. His highlight reel, or lack thereof, makes him easily forgettable as matchmakers set up fights between the best of the best.

Brunson is almost the complete opposite. He rarely sees the judges’ scorecards. Outside of his snoozefest against Anderson Silva, all of Brunson’s last 10 fights have ended via some form of knockout.

This fight is a case of pitting a bull against a matador. The matador, Theodorou, will be able to avoid the bull, Brunson, and limit the number of prolific striking exchanges en route to another decision victory. It might be a victory, but for the Canadian to firmly move himself into true contender status, he is going to need to demonstrate that he can overwhelm and outclass a high-caliber opponent, not simply outpoint them.

Kuhl: I have to disagree. Theodorou will not beat Brunson. I actually expect to see him get blasted before this one makes it to the end of the second round.

Brunson is a wrecking machine who also happens to be an NCAA Division II All-American wrestler. Outside of the complete garbage decision loss to Silva, his three setbacks in the last few years were all to former, current or future champions. He’s been knocking out guys that Theodorou could only decision.

Long story short, Brunson crushes the Canadian in this one, and it likely won’t be pretty. Theodorou is not going to take down Brunson, and if he tries to get into a striking exchange, it will take only one clip to the chin to put him to sleep. Sure, Theodorou will have the hometown advantage, but that’s not going to be enough against Brunson.

Sergey Spivak, Marc-André Barriault and Cole Smith — do we need to know these names?

Kuhl: The Ukrainian Spivak is the one to watch here. A former UFC veteran once told me in an interview that you never know when it comes to these guys from Russia, the Ukraine, et cetera. Spivak is listed at 9-0, but he might have double that in actual fights. That being said, he is only 24 years old, so maybe he does only have nine pro fights. To see him as a slight underdog to Walt Harris is suspicious and seems like a trap bet.

Granted, Harris has a ton of experience. He has some notable wins, but I look back to his fight with Nikita Krylov in 2014. Harris came in as a -420 favorite, only to get knocked out in 25 seconds at the hands of a 21-year-old Ukrainian. It would be history repeating itself if Spivak could pull that off five years later. Either way, I expect to see big things from Spivak as he enters the UFC.

Smith is a Battlefield Fight League champion, but I, admittedly, hadn’t really heard of that promotion until now. What I do know is that his opponent, Mitch Gagnon, has more than double the experience of almost every other opponent Smith has faced. Gagnon is also a UFC vet. This is going to be a tough test for Smith.

Barriault seems like he has the best chances on paper, but he is primarily a striker. His opponent, Andrew Sanchez, has a tough wrestling background that could neutralize the attack.

Petela: I think Smith will look impressive in his debut against Gagnon, who hasn’t fought since losing to Matthew Lopez in 2016. All of Smith’s pro fights have taken place since Gagnon’s 2014 loss to Renan Barão, and four have taken place since Gagnon’s loss to Lopez. Smith is a young up-and-comer who should be able to make a name for himself in his home country against a sporadically active veteran fighter.

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

Petela: Aiemann Zahabi and Vince Morales.

The younger brother of legendary trainer Firas Zahabi, Aiemann is back in action for the first time since getting hit with an elbow from Ricardo Ramos that left him flat on his back and staring at the lights with his jaw visibly broken. It is tough enough for fighters to rebound after their first loss, nevermind that type of vicious knockout. It can have mental repercussions that last far longer than any physical damage.

Ronda Rousey is a prime example of someone whose whole demeanor changed after she lost. She, too, was forced to take time off with a broken jaw, but even when fully healed she had lost the aura of invincibility she once had. Rousey was never able to get her swagger back, dropping her comeback fight to Amanda Nunes in just 48 seconds and retiring to join the WWE shortly thereafter. Zahabi has a winnable fight against Morales, but only if he is able to put his previous loss out of mind and not let it affect the way he fights moving forward.

Kuhl: The first fight of the evening, between Mitch Gagnon and Cole Smith, could be a true sleeper. Smith is a titleholder from a smaller, regional promotion, and he is stepping into deep waters against the UFC vet Gagnon. I have no idea what to expect, and, to me, that hits all of the characteristics of a sleeper.

Pair this card with…

Kuhl: This may sound odd for a Canadian card, but I’m going with sweet-and-sour pork. With names like Cerrone, Iaquinta and Brunson in the lineup, I expect some sweet action. However, when we also see Theodorou and Sanchez, there may be a sour taste left if the action goes on hold. Either way, it’s a fat card, and the fights, for the most part, should be quite yummy.

Petela: Molson Golden. Nothing goes better with a Canadian card with title implications at the top. Plus, if you’re like me, then you’ll need a few cold ones to calm the nerves heading into the main event and to get the focus off of knowing someone has to lose so you can sit back and just enjoy MMA at its finest.

Fight Picks

Fight Kuhl’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Al Iaquinta vs. Donald Cerrone Iaquinta Iaquinta
MW: Derek Brunson vs. Elias Theodorou Brunson Theodorou
FW: Cub Swanson vs. Shane Burgos Swanson Burgos
BW: Brad Katona vs. Merab Dvalishvili Katona Dvalishvili
HW: Walt Harris vs. Sergey Spivak Spivak Harris
MW: Marc-André Barriault vs. Andrew Sanchez Barriault Barriault
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET)
Women’s BW: Macy Chiasson vs. Sarah Moras Chiasson Moras
BW: Vince Morales vs. Aiemann Zahabi Zahabi Zahabi
FW: Kyle Nelson vs. Matt Sayles Nelson Nelson
HW: Arjan Singh Bhullar vs. Juan Adams Adams Bhullar
BW: Mitch Gagnon vs. Cole Smith Gagnon Smith