On Saturday night, the UFC makes its seventh stop at the United Center in Chicago for what has become an almost annual summer event. As usual, the promotion is bringing a stacked card, and this one is headlined with two title fights.
The main event features a clash for the vacant bantamweight title. Flyweight champ Henry Cejudo attempts to become a double champ when he faces former World Series of Fighting bantamweight kingpin Marlon Moraes. Cejudo is on a four-fight winning streak. The Olympian is coming off his first flyweight title defense over T.J. Dillashaw, who had to vacate his bantamweight belt after testing positive for the illicit use of EPO. With the top 135-pound spot opening up, the top contender Moraes is ready to capture a new piece of hardware to add to his collection. The Brazilian is also on a four-fight winning streak, having finished his last three opponents. Moraes poses a serious challenge for the Olympic gold medalist.
The co-headliner showcases flyweight titleholder Valentina Shevchenko, who puts her belt on the line against the surging Jessica Eye. Eye took a very dismal four-fight skid at bantamweight and turned it into a three-fight winning streak at flyweight. This moved her right into position for a crack at the belt. However, Shevchenko is a world-class striker, who is good just about everywhere the fight could go. She is coming off back-to-back wins at flyweight after a couple failed bids for the 135-pound title against Amanda Nunes. This will be her first title defense since she bested familiar foe Joanna Jędrzejczyk.
The main card rounds out with a highly anticipated lightweight fight between top-five contenders Tony Ferguson and Donald Cerrone, a top-10 bantamweight battle between Jimmie Rivera and Petr Yan, and a battle of big men Tai Tuivasa and Blagoy Ivanov.
UFC 238 kicks off on UFC Fight Pass for the early preliminary bouts at 6:15 p.m. ET before switching over to ESPN at 8 p.m. ET for the reminder of the prelims. At 10 p.m. ET, the main card starts on pay-per-view through ESPN+. Combat Press writers Matt Petela and Dan Kuhl preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Henry Cejudo surprised the world with his relatively easy victory over T.J. Dillashaw earlier this year. Now, with Dillashaw out as the bantamweight champion, Cejudo has a chance to snag the title if he can get past Marlon Moraes. Will Cejudo become a two-division champion on Saturday night?
Petela: No. Unlike when he took on Dillashaw, this time Cejudo will face a man who isn’t draining himself drastically to make weight. Moraes will easily dispose of Cejudo, and the UFC will realize that it made a mistake neglecting the rest of the top contenders at bantamweight.
When he won the flyweight title over Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, Cejudo squeaked out a decision largely by out-wrestling the former pound-for-pound king, but he was unable to inflict any real damage on the ground over 25 minutes. Cejudo is an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling, an achievement he won’t let fans or the media forget. He brings it up whenever he sees the chance to force it into an appearance or an interview. It’d be foolish to neglect his wrestling abilities, but he will struggle to take down Moraes when moving up a weight class.
The flyweight champ has improved his striking by leaps and bounds, but he won’t be able to match the dynamic Brazilian on the feet. Cejudo loves the bright lights, but whether it’s a mistimed takedown attempt met by a Moraes knee, à la the Aljamain Sterling fight, or a lightning-quick head kick from seemingly out of nowhere, as Moraes delivered against Jimmie Rivera, the brightest lights Cejudo will see on Saturday will be the ones illuminating the United Center as he lies on his back after being floored by the Mark Henry disciple.
Hopefully, this will be an eye-opening experience for both Cejudo and the UFC executives, thereby allowing the flyweight champ to return to the 125-pound weight class and defend his title against the winner of the upcoming rematch between Joseph Benavidez and Jussier “Formiga” da Silva that’s slated for later this month.
Kuhl: The one thing I will give Cejudo in this one, outside of the aforementioned accolades, is that he’s had problems making 125 in the past. Bantamweight is likely a more natural division for him. However, he barely won a controversial decision over Mighty Mouse, and if you throw away the win over an emaciated Dillashaw, he’s only finished one opponent in the last six years. This is largely due to his grinding, wrestling style, but Moraes is no slouch anywhere, including on the mat.
The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt has his roots in Muay Thai, where he holds a black pra jiad. He is a finisher of all types of opponents. Too many people discount the records of fighters coming into the UFC with titles from other promotions, though. While the former WSOF champ may have lost a razor-thin decision to Raphael Assunção in his UFC debut, he has since won four in a row, including a first-round submission of Assunção in his last fight.
Cejudo is a a great fighter, but I’m about done with the whole “champ-champ” idea. It’s getting old and played out, and, frankly, it is clogging up divisions. This fight belongs to Moraes, who will usher in a new era for the bantamweight division.
Jessica Eye has won three straight fights since moving to the flyweight division. Now, she gets a crack at 125-pound champion Valentina Shevchenko. What does Eye need to do to win this fight?
Kuhl: She is going to need to do a lot to beat Shevchenko. Eye may be on a three-fight winning streak since dropping to 125, but she’s not exactly finishing people. Her last win over Katlyn Chookagian was an impressive way to cap off 2018, but Shevchenko is going to need to be stopped to give up that belt.
Eye is only 32 years old, and she recently made the move to Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. Her best years could be yet to come, but Shevchenko was a champion striker before entering the MMA cage. Amanda Nunes, the woman who was able to knock out Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino in the first round, was not able to finish the Kyrgyzstani champ.
Eye is going to be outmatched just about everywhere the fight goes, so she will need to keep her striking defense sharp. She will also need to try to get the fight to the mat to have any chance of victory. If it goes the distance, Shevchenko will likely outpoint Eye on the feet. There’s no real size advantage for either fighter, so there’s really no good key to victory for Eye. Shevchenko is the champ, and it will stay that way, likely after five rounds of action.
Petela: I, too, see this fight going the distance. However, Eye will have her hand raised as the new flyweight champion.
There is no glaring hole in Shevchenko’s skill set, so the game plan for Eye has to be to dictate the pace and avoid being in kicking range. Her best chance to win striking exchanges with Shevchenko is when they are in boxing range. It’s no easy task, but one that Eye will be able to utilize to frustrate Shevchenko early and draw the champion into throwing kicks at inopportune times that opens her up to takedowns.
A patient top game without devastating ground-and-pound might draw jeers from the crowd, but those boos will be well worth it for Eye when she wraps the gold belt around her waist. The move to Las Vegas has given her the confidence in her skills, training and abilities to get the job done. She will shock the MMA world by not only proving herself to be in the same class as Shevchenko, but by outsmarting the current champ en route to a clear-cut decision victory.
Grigory Popov — do we need to know this name?
Petela: As a contender? No. As someone to watch in exciting fights with jaw-dropping finishes? Absolutely.
Despite his background as a Muay Thai practitioner, Popov, 35, has two MMA submission wins via gogoplata. He trains out of the legendary Tiger Muay Thai camp and won his last fight by TKO due to low kicks. Discounting his abilities would not be wise, but the holes in his takedown defense will be an Achilles’ heel as he struggles to climb into contention in the UFC’s bantamweight division.
Popov won’t pull off submissions from his back against the crème de la crème of the UFC’s 135ers, but he could definitely do so against unranked bantamweights on the prelims. He might even secure a few performance bonuses in his tenure with the promotion, whether it be by sneaky submission or emphatic knockout.
Kuhl: I have no idea what to expect from Popov. His record looks good on paper, but he has only fought regional opponents. Perhaps that record is a bit padded with mostly inexperienced opponents. It’s hard to say whether or not people should know his name at this point, but Eddie Wineland is a good introduction into UFC action for any prospect.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 238?
Kuhl: Donald Cerrone, without a doubt.
Throughout his best years, he was always on the wrong end of “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” He couldn’t win lightweight title bids in the WEC against Jamie Varner and Benson Henderson. He suffered a TKO loss to Rafael dos Anjos for the UFC lightweight title, and the latter half of his UFC welterweight run was lackluster at best. Granted, he’s cashed in more bonus checks than just about anyone out there, but he doesn’t go play punch-face just for the money. He still wants that title.
All of a sudden, Cerone is back at lightweight with back-to-back wins, and the victory over Al Iaquinta just four weeks ago allowed him to leapfrog a few guys and go straight to the top contender, Tony Ferguson. If Cerrone wins, he will be in line for another title shot. If he loses, he likely won’t fall too far back in the rankings, making him a winner all around.
Petela: Jessica Eye.
I’m predicting her to win the flyweight title and upset the incumbent Valentina Shevchenko in a fight where most people expect her to get wiped out. Her road to a title shot has been rocky and included a four-fight skid at bantamweight that, as fate would have it, started in a unanimous-decision loss to Miesha Tate at the same United Center where she now meets Shevchenko. Talk about coming full circle.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 238?
Petela: Tony Ferguson.
In the history of the UFC, it is hard to find someone who is more deserving of a title opportunity than “El Cucuy.” That shot has eluded him due to a combination of personal issues, bad luck, and injuries. Now, he finds himself taking on a reinvigorated Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. Cerrone has arguably never looked better over his last three fights, with wins over Mike Perry, Alexander Hernandez and, most recently, Al Iaquinta, the man who eventually took Ferguson’s place at UFC 223 and challenged Khabib Nurmagomedov for the belt.
Both men are elite in seemingly every aspect of MMA, but they have vastly different styles. Cerrone is much more conventional in his striking with a slick submission game off his back and underrated wrestling. Ferguson’s striking is wildly unconventional, as is his propensity to use ankle picks to get the fight to the mat. Ferguson is otherworldly durable and quite accurately calls his elbows his “blades” that he uses to slice opponents open whenever and however he can.
This has “Fight of the Year” written all over it. The only downside is that this is a three-round fight. I see Cerrone ending the 11-fight winning streak of Ferguson and putting the title shot once again out of his reach.
Kuhl: I rarely do this on this question, but I have to piggyback off my colleague. This is a fight with no upside for Ferguson. Sure, it will get him one win closer to the title shot that he can’t seem to make happen, but Nurmagomedov still has to fight Dustin Poirier in a unification bout, and there’s always the spectre of a rematch between Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor. If Ferguson wins, then he will likely sit on the bench for a while. If he loses? Well, that’s another problem.
I realize Ferguson needs to get back in the cage, but Cerrone is coming in loose and with nothing to lose. That’s a dangerous situation for Ferguson.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Kuhl: Ricardo Lamas and Calvin Kattar. This is shaping up to be a nice treat for the fans. Both guys got back in the win column with impressive performances in late 2018, and they are exciting fighters who bring the heat. This one could easily be “Fight of the Night.”
Petela: Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Alexa Grasso. This fight is flying way too far under the radar. It is a must-win for Kowalkiewicz if she wants to avoid falling into the gatekeeper role at strawweight. The Polish star is coming off back-to-back losses to current champion Jessica Andrade and Michelle Waterson.
Grasso has been sidelined with injuries for over a year since we last saw her in the Octagon, when she suffered a loss to rising contender Tatiana Suarez. Grasso was one of the strawweight division’s most highly touted prospects, but losses in two of her last three fights and a botched weight cut in her lone win during that stretch have caused her stock to fall steeply.
This is a fight between two ladies who have their back against the wall, and it should be a good one.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Rest. This fight card is one you’ll want to watch at full strength. From top to bottom, it is filled with bouts that will leave with you with sore vocal cords from screaming and, if you’re not careful, a pulled hamstring from jumping out of your seat. Save the booze for another weekend, as you’ll want to be clear-headed for these showdowns. Maybe more importantly, be sure you research a way to successfully get songs out of your head, because with Tai Tuivasa on the card it’s a near certainty that you’ll be humming an embarrassingly catchy old pop tune if you aren’t careful. I had never heard of the Australian group Moving Pictures until his last fight, but now I have “What About Me?” memorized and find myself singing it randomly.
Kuhl: Pizza. No, not because the event is in Chicago, and whether it’s thick or thin crust is irrelevant. Something fast and easy is going to be key, because some of these fights could go very quickly. Outside of the championship contests, most of this card has a high potential for early finishes. Pizza is nimble, pizza is easy, and you won’t be cleaning dishes while someone gets their clock cleaned.
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
BW Championship: Henry Cejudo vs. Marlon Moraes
Women’s FlyW Championship: Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Eye
LW: Tony Ferguson vs. Donald Cerrone
BW: Jimmie Rivera vs. Petr Yan
HW: Tai Tuivasa vs. Blagoy Ivanov
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Tatiana Suarez vs. Nina Ansaroff
BW: Pedro Munhoz vs. Aljamain Sterling
Women’s StrawW: Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Alexa Grasso
FW: Ricardo Lamas vs. Calvin Kattar
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6 :15 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Xiaonan Yan vs. Angela Hill
MW: Bevon Lewis vs. Darren Stewart
Women’s FlyW: Katlyn Chookagian vs. Joanne Calderwood
BW: Eddie Wineland vs. Grigory Popov
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