Junior dos Santos (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 3 Preview and Predictions

The Gopher State plays host to the UFC on Saturday for the first time in nearly seven years when hard-hitting heavyweights Junior Dos Santos and Francis “The Predator” Ngannou take center stage.

Originally, the event, which takes place at the Target Center in Minneapolis, was to feature a rematch of former welterweight champions Tyron Woodley and Robbie Lawler, the man from whom Woodley claimed the crown. Unfortunately, Woodley had to withdraw from the fight due to a hand injury, and the UFC chose not to find a replacement opponent for Lawler.

The new headliner between dos Santos and Ngannou was initially slated to take place at UFC 215, but it was canceled when the Brazilian failed a drug test. After the injury to Woodley, the rescheduled bout was moved up a week from its slot on the main card of UFC 239.


The co-main event is a No. 1 contender fight in the men’s flyweight division, which is seemingly on the proverbial “morphine drip” after champion Henry Cejudo became a two-division champion and another round of 125-pound fighters were released, leaving the division three men short of the amount necessary to fill up the traditional top-15 rankings. Joseph Benavidez takes on Jussier “Formiga” da Silva in a rematch from a 2013 meeting that lasted just over three minutes before Benavidez landed a knee to the body and followed up with punches that stifled the Brazilian and dropped the prospect’s record to 1-2 inside the UFC. Formiga has since gone 8-2 and worked his way back into title contention. Benavidez has been with the UFC since the flyweight division’s inception in 2012. He is the only man other than Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson to defeat Cejudo.

Elsewhere on the main card, Demain Maia takes on Rocco Martin at welterweight. The 41-year-old Brazilian submission ace looks to win back-to-back fights after going on a three-fight skid that started with his failed attempt at winning the UFC championship. Martin, on the other hand, is riding a four-fight winning streak that includes two unanimous decisions, a knockout, and a submission via anaconda choke. This will be Martin’s toughest test to date, and a win should firmly place his name in the list of contenders at 170.

The entire UFC on ESPN 3 event airs live on ESPN on June 29. Maurice Greene takes on Junior Albini in a heavyweight contest to kick off the festivities at 6 p.m. ET. After the seven-fight preliminary card wraps up, the six-fight main card gets underway on the flagship network at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Jaewon Paik and Matt Petela break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos is having a resurgence following three straight victories over legitimate top-15 foes. Will the powerful striking of Francis Ngannou bring an end to the Brazilian’s streak?

Paik: There is no question now that dos Santos is looking as good as he ever has since returning from his suspension. Let’s just talk about the names that he has gone through since coming back: Blagoy Ivanov, Tai Tuivasa and Derrick Lewis. It’s not just who he has topped, but the performances that the Brazilian has put on in each of those fights. He has looked phenomenal.

Ngannou has also been looking better than ever since his last loss, which came against the aforementioned Lewis approximately a year ago. Ngannou was able to bounce back against Curtis Blaydes and then got a win against Cain Velasquez. These two fights combined lasted just 71 seconds.

This is an extremely tough match-up, and it’s difficult to have a confident prediction. We haven’t had much of a chance to see Ngannou in deeper waters since the Stipe Miocic fight, but it may not matter all that much. We always talk about the “storm” that certain fighters, like Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Brock Lesnar, bring. If an opponent is able to survive that storm, then the likelihood of winning shifts drastically to their side. That’s a big if when it comes to Ngannou, though.

Furthermore, we have seen dos Santos in wars — primarily the trilogy against Velasquez — and we have seen him get dropped a few times, including against Alistair Overeem and Miocic. Stylistically, the former champ is at a huge disadvantage against Ngannou, because he does not have a wrestling background. It is quite crucial to be able to neutralize Ngannou’s power in some way, and wrestling is the easiest answer.

Dos Santos needs to be the one to pressure, rather than getting pressured. We have seen a tentative dos Santos in the past, the one that keeps his back against the fence and looks for counters, and it simply does not bring out the best in him. However, he can shine if he pressures Ngannou like he did Lewis. If he can take Ngannou into the later rounds, that will help too. However, Ngannou should be the favorite in this fight.

Petela: One of the most interesting facts about this fight is that it took both men a combined 90 seconds to knock out Velasquez. The trilogy between Velasquez and JDS started with a 64-second knockout in a fight that proved that the Brazilian has the power to close the show with one punch. He walloped Velasquez with an overhand right to claim the UFC heavyweight championship. Meanwhile, Ngannou needed only 26 seconds to vanquish Velasquez, as he seemingly dislocated the knee of the former champion by grazing his chin with an uppercut.

That being said, this fight will be a battle of the precision boxing and low kicks of dos Santos against the devastating, if somewhat rudimentary, power of Ngannou that seems to carry a force the power of Thor’s hammer whenever the Cameroonian lands a shot. Dos Santos will take a similar approach to this fight as he did in his title rematch against Miocic. He will control the center of the cage and dictate the pace by chopping down the legs of Ngannou while avoiding an early slugfest.

Once he has taken a few thudding kicks, even Ngannou’s power will be slightly diminished. This is where dos Santos will really take over and eventually floor “The Predator” with the same overhand right that put an end to Velasquez’s first title reign.

The co-headliner is a showdown between top flyweights Jussier “Formiga” da Silva and Joseph Benavidez. Can Formiga avenge his prior first-round loss to Benavidez? With the recent news that Henry Cejudo will miss the remainder of the year following shoulder surgery, should the UFC make this an interim title fight?

Petela: Regardless of Cejudo’s injury status, this fight should be for an interim title. The fact that the UFC made the choice to give Cejudo the bantamweight title shot rather than face either of these top contenders and then pairs Formiga and Benavidez in a rematch as a non-title affair speaks volumes about the health of the flyweight division.

Benavidez has been impressive in his last two bouts after dropping a split decision to Sergio Pettis upon returning from a year and a half injury layoff. He most recently picked up a unanimous decision over Dustin Ortiz in a rematch of a 2014 bout that he won in the same fashion. Prior to that, “Joe Jitsu” scored a TKO of Alex Perez (twice thanks to lousy officiating) in the first round of their November 2018 showdown.

Formiga brings a four-fight winning streak into this contest and looked better than ever in his March win over Deivison Figueiredo.

Both men will enter the Octagon at age 34 and may be in the middle of their final run at UFC gold before hanging up the gloves. As impressive as they have looked recently, I expect this fight to be much more competitive than the first encounter nearly six years ago. However, the same man will have his hand raised, as Benavidez further stakes his claim as the second greatest flyweight in UFC history.

Paik: While these two fighters both deserve the title shot, we have to understand that Cejudo is on to much bigger things as of this moment. Sure, it is unfair, but things have never been fair, especially when it comes down to the flyweights.

It is tough to picture Formiga taking this rematch from Benavidez. Both fighters have improved significantly since their last bout, undoubtedly, but let’s take a look at Benavidez’s record for a moment. Ever since his loss to Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson in their 2013 rematch, Benavidez has suffered only one loss.

Formiga has been impressive, and he is the top-ranked fighter in the division for a reason. Yet, it really is tough to deny Benavidez’s spot as one of the top three greatest flyweights of all time. I do not see the result changing from six years ago.

Journey Newson, Vince Murdock, Dalcha Lungiambula and Amanda Ribas — do we need to know these names?

Paik: These four fighters have promising backgrounds, to say the least.

Newson enters the Octagon with a 9-1 record and faces Ricardo Ramos, who is also a young prospect. While Newson does have a decent amount of experience, he has not fought for a major organization before. At age 30, he is no young buck either. He still has time to do great things, though. One thing he does have going is the sudden change in weight class for Ramos. Newson was never supposed to be a part of this card. His opponent was never even supposed to compete at bantamweight for this bout. However, when Sergio Pettis, Ramos’ original opponent, pulled out due to injury, Newson was called upon as the replacement and the weight class for the fight changed. Regardless, Newson is assigned a tough task for his debut. He should be able to pull through it, and there will be a bright future for him in the UFC.

Murdock, who comes into the fight with an 11-3 record, is another short-notice addition. He replaces Jordan Griffin’s original opponent, Chas Skelly. With a win here, Murdock can make a big impact in an extremely stacked division right now, especially following “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung’s impactful turn last weekend. The match-up with Griffin is perfect for Murdock. With a win, he proves that he not only belongs in the UFC, but he keeps the momentum that he has had since his last loss. Murdock has four straight wins, and another victory here could put him on his way to earning some big fights in the near future.

Lungiambula possesses freakish knockout power. He is a fresh prospect for the light heavyweight division, which needs new prospects following Alexander Gustafsson’s retirement and the dominance of Jon Jones. While Lungiambula is already 33 years of age, it shouldn’t take him long to get to the top if he continues to win fights.

Ribas is the youngest debuting fighter on this card, and it is quite interesting to note that if she did not test positive for ostarine and take three years off as a result, this debut could have come a lot sooner. Regardless, she has her hands full this weekend against Emily Whitmire, who may not have too much experience as a professional fighter yet, but is coming off a solid win against Alexandra Albu. Ribas is certainly someone to keep your eyes on, as the women’s strawweight division could see a new star in the near future.

Petela: The 25-year-old Ribas is definitely a new prospect for the strawweight division. Expect her to stick around for a while and make some noise. She should even climb into the rankings before long. Ribas has a 6-1 record as a professional, and the USADA eventually concluded that her positive drug test was the result of a contaminated substance. She should make a splash right from the start. Ribas has finished four of her six wins, and her lone loss came to fellow UFC fighter Polyana Viana. After seeing the skills and abilities she had in her early twenties and the added fire she must have after serving a far too lengthy suspension, I don’t think she will be overcome with ring rust. The Brazilian will upset Whitmire in a strong debut showing.

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

Petela: Dan Moret and Jared Gordon.

Both men are on two-fight skids. As we have seen before, the UFC doesn’t mind adopting the baseball “three strikes and you’re out” rule, so the loser could receive his pink slip. Gordon is an all-action fighter who picked up a “Fight of the Night” bonus in his loss to Joaquim Silva. Moret will be fighting in his home state of Minnesota. Put all this together and you have the recipe for fireworks.

Paik: Eryk Anders and Vinicius Moreira.

Anders is on a tough, three-fight skid right now, and Moreira lost his UFC debut, but there is so much to like about this fight. Anders’ past three fights have contained a lot of excitement, and there is a good reason why this fight is the headliner of the preliminary card. It is pretty likely that these two guys won’t be taking many steps backward in this bout.

Pair this card with…

Paik: Blue Moon. Not only is this a damn good beer, but it’s even better for watching sports. You won’t even have to be with friends, as Blue Moon will make the night a great one with a great main event.

Petela: Corona Light, and not only because it was coincidentally what I was drinking at a housewarming party last weekend hosted by a friend who just so happens to originally hail from the Twin Cities area. I expect the lighter weight classes to steal the show and overshadow the behemoths that headline the card. Go with Corona Light, with or without a lime.

Fight Picks

Fight Paik’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET)
HW: Francis Ngannou vs. Junior dos Santos Ngannou Dos Santos
FlyW: Jussier “Formiga” da Silva vs. Joseph Benavidez Benavidez Benavidez
WW: Demain Maia vs. Rocco Martin Maia Martin
LW: Vinc Pichel vs. Roosevelt Roberts Roberts Roberts
LW: Drew Dober vs. Polo Reyes Reyes Dober
LHW: Paul Craig vs. Alonzo Menifield Menifield Craig
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET)
BW: Ricardo Ramos vs. Journey Newson Newson Ramos
LHW: Vinicius Moreira vs. Eryk Anders Anders Anders
FW: Jordan Griffin vs. Vince Murdock Griffin Griffin
LW: Jared Gordon vs. Dan Moret Gordon Gordon
LHW: Justin Ledet vs. Dalcha Lungiambula Lungiambula Ledet
Women’s StrawW: Emily Whitmire vs. Amanda Ribas Ribas Ribas
HW: Maurice Greene vs. Junior Albini Greene Greene