Rafael Dos Anjos (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 4 Preview and Predictions

On Saturday night, the UFC makes its second stop at the AT&T Center in San Antonio for UFC on ESPN 4, which features a stacked card headlined by a welterweight showdown between Rafael dos Anjos and Leon Edwards.

The former lightweight champ dos Anjos is coming off a win over Kevin Lee in May after suffering losses to Colby Covington in an interim welterweight title bid and current champ Kamaru Usman. Since his move up to 170 pounds, he has also registered wins over Tarec Saffiedine, Neil Magny and Robbie Lawler. The Brazilian is still ranked fourth in the division, and a win over rising star Edwards could get him within one fight of another title bid.

The Jamaican-born Englishman Edwards has been surging his way up the welterweight rankings after stringing together seven wins in a row. His last outing was a split decision over Gunnar Nelson in March. The victory brought his UFC record to 9-2, dating back to November 2014. Edwards is currently tied for 11th in the division alongside veteran Demian Maia. He will try to crack into the top 10 with a win over dos Anjos.


The co-main event showcases 42-year-old longtime MMA veteran Aleksei Oleinik and the 36-year-old Walt Harris. Oleinik will enter the cage for his 71st pro fight. The heavyweight scored back-to-back submissions of Junior Albini and Mark Hunt, before dropping his last fight to Alistair Overeem. Harris enters the Octagon for the 11th time after a TKO of Sergey Spivak in May. With Oleinik sitting at ninth and Harris at 14th in the division, both men seek to maintain relevance on Saturday night.

The main card rounds out with controversial former NFL player Greg Hardy taking on Juan Adams, a lightweight feature fight between James Vick and Dan Hooker, Alexander Hernandez in an additional lightweight scrap against veteran Francisco Trinaldo, and an old-school heavyweight battle between Andrei Arlovski and Ben Rothwell.

The event airs exclusively on ESPN. The action kicks off with a seven-fight preliminary card at 6 p.m. ET before moving to the main card at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Matt Petela and Dan Kuhl preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos has become a very high-level gatekeeper, beating all but the very best at both lightweight and welterweight. Will the Brazilian slam the gates shut on Leon Edwards, who went the distance in a losing effort in 2015 against current champ Kamaru Usman and has been perfect through seven subsequent fights?

Petela: Of his seven consecutive wins, the two marquee names on Edwards’ resume are Donald Cerrone and Gunnar Nelson, which also account for his two most recent wins. Both victories came by decision and were closely contested fights, with the Nelson win ending in a split verdict. Not to take away from the quality of those performances, but “Cowboy” admitted that he was sick enough the morning of the fight that he almost called UFC President Dana White to cancel his bout with Edwards, and Nelson has gone just 3-3 in his last six fights.

So, a healthy dos Anjos will be the stiffest test since Usman for “Rocky.” RDA looked great in his win over Kevin Lee. Not only has he solely lost to champions at welterweight, but he has only lost to fighters with a high-level wrestling pedigree. Edwards is a well-rounded fighter, but nobody is going to confuse him with an NCAA Division I wrestler.

Throughout his UFC tenure, Edwards has only fought in the United States once — in his loss to Usman. Since then, he has fought six times in Europe and once in Asia. Four of those six European wins came in his home country of England. The other two were in the Netherlands. In this fight, he will not have a hometown crowd supporting him. Add in the time difference and cultural differences between San Antonio and London, and it could presumably factor into how this fight plays out.

Dos Anjos will get the win and stifle the charge of Edwards, keeping a title shot out of reach for “Rocky.”

Kuhl: Dos Anjos, who is ranked fourth in the division, should hardly be considered a “gatekeeper.” In fact, the former lightweight champ is as much a force to be reckoned with at 170 pounds as he was at 155. He’s in a weird position in the top five, though, because the division is so muddy and a win over Edwards certainly won’t guarantee him any sort of title shot. However, Edwards is due to lose, and if not to RDA, then to who?

Dos Anjos is tough as freakin’ nails. The Brazilian is a super well-rounded fighter — even more so than Edwards. He’ll take this one to the mat. He is giving up too big of a height and reach advantage to Edwards on the feet, whereas he is the far superior grappler.

RDA by sub in the second round.

Over/under: Aleksei Oleinik finishes Walt Harris in four minutes.

Kuhl: Over.

Oleinik is getting up there in age, and his last four fights have left a lot to be desired. He was stopped by Curtis Blaydes 20 months ago and again by Alistair Overeem in April. In between those fights, he subbed an aging Mark Hunt, who was basically on his exit tour from the UFC, and Junior Albini for Albini’s second loss on a four-fight skid that has the Brazilian all but washed out of the UFC. Harris, therefore, will arguably be one of the three toughest opponents out of his last five.

Harris is coming off back-to-back wins. In his last fight, he was able to hand promotional newcomer Sergey Spivak his first professional loss. Harris is a tough striker who will lay some heavy leather before Oleinik gets the fight to the ground.

The Russian fighter has a huge advantage in the experience department, though. With 45 submission wins, Oleinik is one of the most successful grapplers in the history of MMA. In this classic striker-versus-grappler bout, he has the clear advantage, but Harris will always have that puncher’s chance. Don’t be surprised if Harris scores the knockout to shock the crowd.

My official prediction, though? This bout will make it into the second round before Oleinik scores the submission win.

Petela: Under.

I live by the motto “life’s too short to bet the under,” but in this case I’ll have to do just that. It took Fabricio Werdum just over a minute to submit Harris. Granted, Harris was slated to face Mark Godbeer until an 11th-hour injury to Derrick Lewis caused a lineup shuffle, but this fight will still play out in similar fashion.

Oleinik is not the same elite MMA fighter that Werdum is, but his grappling skills are elite nonetheless. Harris could definitely land a heavy kick or punch that turns out the lights for Oleinik, but the more likely scenario is that he throws a punch with fight-ending intentions early in the bout that leaves him off balance and gives Oleinik the narrow window he needs to get the fight to the mat. From there, the Russian will be able to quickly force Harris to tap.

I don’t think I’m going out too far on a limb to think it might just come by way of an ezekiel choke, too. It would mark the third time in Oleinik’s UFC career and third time in UFC history that a fight ends in this fashion.

Gabriel Silva and Domingo Pilarte — do we need to know these names?

Petela: I couldn’t have been more wrong in my predictions that last week’s newcomers in Sacramento wouldn’t shine in their moment under the bright lights, so this may be an overcorrection. However, I’m riding high on both Silva and Pilarte.

Silva is 8-0 as a professional and trains at Team Nogueira, so he certainly looks good on paper. The eye test is where he really shines, though, especially in his last fight at Legacy Fighting Alliance 63 in March. At the event, he knocked out Aaron Menard in just 83 seconds. I remember how impressed I was watching that fight, but admittedly couldn’t place his name until rewatching it earlier. Not only does he seemingly have the ability to make waves in the UFC, but he has a very winnable debut against Ray Borg, who has struggled recently.

Borg missed weight in his last fight, accounting for his third career miss on the scales — and this time it was at bantamweight, not flyweight. He lost via split decision to Casey Kenney. Borg seemed to control the majority of the fight, but it’s a bit of a fall from grace to go from losing a flyweight title shot to perhaps the greatest flyweight of all time to then losing a prelim outing against a UFC newcomer. I do sympathize for the personal struggles Borg and his family have been going through, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his best days are behind him and Silva is able to emerge victorious in San Antonio.

Pilarte is another LFA alum. His last outing was a submission over Vince Morales (who got robbed last week, by the way) on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. He’s 8-1 overall and hasn’t lost since 2014. Pilarte is also fighting in his home state, where he’ll take on Felipe Dias Colares, who is 0-1 in the UFC.

Both of these newcomers should make the bantamweight division even more interesting in the coming months and years.

Kuhl: Silva is also that little brother of UFC vet Erick Silva, and he is definitely a hot prospect. Erick had to put in a lot more miles prior to his UFC debut, but Gabriel is coming in fast. He is still really young at only 24 years old. The Borg match-up in his debut is certainly trial by fire, but it would be a big upset if Silva wins and should get him a ranked opponent.

Pilarte, 29, has not faced a lot of really experienced opponents, and his most experienced foe actually had a losing record. He is facing a guy whose only defeat was in his Octagon debut, so the jury is still out on whether or not he will be one to keep an eye on.

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

Kuhl: Raquel Pennington and Irene Aldana.

“Rocky” is coming off back-to-back losses, with the first being a brutal beating at the hands of Amanda Nunes in their bantamweight title bout in May 2018. Pennington’s other setback was a distance battle against Germain de Randamie in November. She went from the top of the heap to the middle, but she is still hanging on to her No. 5 spot in the division. Pennington could even be just a couple wins from another title shot.

Aldana has climbed up to the ninth spot in the division following three wins in a row, including her third-round submission of Bethe Correia just two months ago. A win over Pennington could catapult her into the top five.

Both of these ladies are in a position to make or break their futures in the bantamweight division, and that usually makes for an exciting fight.

Petela: That’s a great call. In addition to that fight, I’m looking forward to Andrei Arlovski’s rematch with fellow heavyweight Ben Rothwell. It might not even be correct to call this a rematch since neither man is the same fighter that they were when the two heavyweights met in 2008.

In his last four fights, Arlovski is winless. However, all of those fights have gone to a decision, and he seems to have somewhat resolved the inability to take a punch that looked like it was going to end his career a few years ago when he got knocked out by Stipe Miocic, Alistair Overeem and Francis Ngannou.

Rothwell didn’t look bad in his return to action after serving a two-year USADA suspension. He did lose, but it was a controversial split decision against Blagoy Ivanov.

This fight will be an interesting match-up to see what these two veterans have left in the tank.

Pair this card with…

Petela: With the recent passing of Pernell Whitaker, I recommend everyone takes some time this week to watch some of his fights or, at the very least, his highlights. “Sweet Pea” was one of the best lightweight boxers of all time and had some of the best defensive boxing I’ve ever seen, with only Floyd Mayweather Jr. being in the same league.

Kuhl: An international buffet. We have fighters from Mexico, Jamaica, Korea and Texas on this card. That, to me, sounds like a who’s who of some of the best food in the world, so I’m thinking a taco bar stocked with jerk chicken, bulgogi beef, lengua, some good old-fashioned beef brisket and all the fixins.

Fight Picks

Fight Petela’s Pick Kuhl’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET)
WW: Rafael dos Anjos vs. Leon Edwards dos Anjos dos Anjos
HW: Aleksei Oleinik vs. Walt Harris Oleinik Oleinik
HW: Greg Hardy vs. Juan Adams Adams Adams
LW: James Vick vs. Daniel Hooker Hooker Hooker
LW: Francisco Trinaldo vs. Alexander Hernandez Trinaldo Hernandez
HW: Andrei Arlovski vs. Ben Rothwell Rothwell Rothwell
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET)
FW: Alex Caceres vs. Steven Peterson Caceres Caceres
Women’s BW: Raquel Pennington vs. Irene Aldana Pennington Pennington
LHW: Sam Alvey vs. Klidson Abreu Abreu Alvey
Women’s FlyW: Roxanne Modafferi vs. Jennifer Maia Maia Modafferi
BW: Ray Borg vs. Gabriel Silva Silva Borg
BW: Mario Bautista vs. Jin Soo Son Bautista Son
BW: Domingo Pilarte vs. Felipe Colares Pilarte Pilarte