Just over 13 months ago, the UFC put on a superfight in the truest sense of the word. It was a clash between two champions with resumes as impressive as their Octagon performances. Stipe Miocic was the only man to successfully defend the heavyweight title three times. He took on Daniel Cormier, the light heavyweight champion whose only blemishes came against Jon Jones, arguably the greatest fighter to ever put on a pair of four-ounce gloves. In just over four minutes, Cormier knocked out Miocic with a right hand as the two men separated from the clinch. After a will-they-or-won’t-they back and forth that is rivaled only by Maddie and David from Moonlighting and Ross and Rachel from Friends, the potential showdown between Cormier and Brock Lesnar fell through, opening the door for a rematch between Cormier and Miocic. That rematch takes the marquee for Saturday’s UFC 241.
In the co-main event, a mostly under-the-radar personal feud comes to a head when Nate Diaz returns to action to take on Anthony Pettis in a welterweight affair. The feud began in 2014 on The Ultimate Fighter, where Pettis was coaching opposite of longtime Diaz stablemate Gilbert Melendez. A year later, the two had a backstage confrontation after Melendez came up short via split decision against Eddie Alvarez. The highly anticipated showdown marks Diaz’s first appearance inside the cage since a loss in his rematch with Conor McGregor at UFC 202 in one of the greatest fights in UFC history. Pettis, a former lightweight like Diaz, will try to replicate his devastating knockout of Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. The winner could catapult himself into the title picture that has been sorting itself out recently while champion Kamaru Usman is on the shelf recovering from surgery.
The main card is like the UFC’s version of Night of Too Many Stars. In addition to the aforementioned bouts, the lineup features a middleweight contest between Yoel Romero and Paulo Costa. Romero is coming off a loss in his rematch with Robert Whittaker. Costa is looking to add to his unbeaten record after knocking out Uriah Hall on the same night that Cormier dethroned Miocic.
UFC 241 takes place at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., with the early prelims getting underway at 6:30 p.m. ET on UFC Fight Pass, followed immediately by the televised prelims on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET. The main card kicks off at 10 p.m. ET on pay-per-view through ESPN+. Combat Press writers Jeff Wall and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Will Stipe Miocic avenge his prior loss to Daniel Cormier and recapture the heavyweight title?
Wall: Such a tough fight to call. Unfortunately for Miocic, he’s going to leave the cage on a two-fight skid. The former champion has dominated with great wrestling, speed, solid boxing and pace, but DC owns an advantage in at least two of those categories.
The power was back in Cormier’s fists in their first fight. Miocic is not the biggest puncher as far as heavyweights go. So if this fight stays standing, DC may be able to eat a shot to land three. However, this fight is going to be fought in the clinch or on the mat. Cormier won’t let those long-range exchanges last before locking up a collar tie or taking Miocic to the mat. It will be very interesting to see if he can get it there.
Petela: At the highest level of MMA, there is no such thing as a lucky punch. That’s certainly not what happened in the first match-up between these two future Hall of Famers. Cormier and his team at American Kickboxing Academy saw a tendency in Miocic and exploited it en route to a historic knockout.
That was over a year ago. Miocic has undoubtedly spent countless hours making sure he doesn’t leave himself vulnerable to the same trap. Up until that moment late in the first round, he was largely controlling the action and even managed to briefly take down the Olympic wrestler.
DC has an unbelievable ability to maintain a high-volume attack over the duration of a fight. While it could very likely be an advantage, I’m not ready to discount Miocic’s ability to match Cormier’s output over 25 minutes. I can’t remember the last time I saw Miocic visibly gas out during a fight, and say what you will about the grappling ability of Francis Ngannou, but Miocic’s ability to control that large of a human for an entire championship fight took stamina not often seen in the heavyweight division. This showdown should be one for the ages, a true clash between titans that won’t disappoint.
Given the extra time to prepare and how important it is for Miocic to get the title that belonged to him for longer than it belonged to any other heavyweight in UFC history, the former champ will come out on top with a decision victory.
Nate Diaz has been out of action for three years. Now, he returns to fight Anthony Pettis, who has quickly established himself at his new home of welterweight. Will Diaz be successful in his return?
Petela: Diaz takes every fight personally. It’s just who he is, how he lives, and partially why he has been able to build a successful career in the cage while he and his brother, Nick, have developed a cult-like following. He thrives when he is able to get under the skin of his opponent, whether it’s in his pre-fight trash talk or mid-fight mockery with his patented “Stockton Slap.”
Despite the long layoff, the mind games will be on Diaz’s side in this contest. Unlike Diaz, Pettis typically treats his fight and opponent as a respectful, intense contest between two martial artists. This has been clear in his last two appearances, a loss to Tony Ferguson and a highlight-reel knockout win over Stephen Thompson. In both cases, Pettis was clear that he looked forward to the fight because he wanted to test his skills against the best in the world. This is not the whole story this time around. While admitting that Diaz is an elite fighter, “Showtime” has made it abundantly clear that he looks forward to beating up his opponent.
In a contest between two competitors who are somehow incredibly similar and simultaneously wildly different in their fighting style, the x-factors could likely be the three-year absence from action for Diaz and how well Pettis is able to control his emotions. I’m going to take a page out of Dominick Cruz’s book and say that ring rust doesn’t exist. Diaz outpaces and outlasts Pettis en route to victory in one of the year’s most highly anticipated showdowns.
Wall: Diaz is immune to ring rust. He may get hit hard early in this one, but he’s not a very fast starter. As Diaz talks some smack and starts growing into the fight, though, he can break Pettis.
Before adding “Wonder Boy” to his highlight reel, Pettis was getting chewed up, unable to cover the distance. If he didn’t land that punch, then who knows how the fight would have gone? He gave Dustin Poirrier some trouble early in their fight, then the tide turned. He knocked down Tony Ferguson, too, but the fight was later stopped in between rounds.
There are more questions surrounding Pettis than there are around Diaz in this fight. Pettis is very motivated, though. We’ll see where it takes him.
Paulo Costa is now undefeated through four UFC outings and 12 career fights. Will Yoel Romero be the first man to hand the Brazilian middleweight a pro loss?
Wall: The “Soldier of God” will not be denied. Romero amazes every single time he competes, because of how insanely athletic he still is. It’s what makes him so lethal.
People look at Costa and think “power hitter,” but he’s more of a cardio machine. He’ll put a pace on his opponent, while still throwing with as much heat as he can. In this fight, however, Romero has more fight-altering power.
This will be Costa’s first fight in over a year. His last outing came against Urijah Hall, who was the highest level of competition he had faced in his career. Costa was tested — it was the longest fight in his pro career — and got pieced up a little. The Brazilian even got dropped before ultimately coming back to finish Hall.
Now, Costa is taking a massive step up in competition, but with less momentum on his side and against arguably one of the most dangerous fighters we’ve ever seen. Romero will be dead tired and still send an opponent’s head into the stands with a flying knee.
It’s fights like these that make me think the UFC loves knocking off promising fighters.
Petela: Costa will get the job done in emphatic fashion.
No doubt Romero is an astonishing physical specimen, especially at his age, but he has missed weight for his last two fights. Granted, he only missed championship weight by two-tenths of a pound in his rematch with Robert Whittaker, but there is no doubt the Olympic silver medalist was at least slightly compromised going into the bout. In his decisive knockout win over Luke Rockhold, Romero looked great, but he weighed in at over 187 pounds. And even as great as Romero’s win over Rockhold seemed in the moment, Rockhold’s durability is questionable at best. Even with the move up to light heavyweight, the former middleweight champion showed an inability to take a big punch.
The weight cut doesn’t get easier with age. Romero’s on the wrong side of 40. This, combined with a potentially devastating weight cut, outweighs (pun intended) Romero’s Superman-like explosiveness and power.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 241?
Petela: Nate Diaz. He will re-introduce himself to the MMA world in a big way on a mega-card and establish himself as one of the biggest stars the sport has to offer. He also gets the chance to settle a long-lasting feud and make a big chunk of change, and all without having to drain his body down to 155 pounds or go into a welterweight fight against a much larger opponent.
Wall: There can be no bigger winner at this event than Diaz. Going into this card, he’s the biggest story. He’s the one everyone is looking forward to seeing. All he has to do is go in there and perform. Then, he can get another big paycheck with a certain trilogy.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 241?
Wall: Anyone who wanted to fight Conor McGregor next for a big pay day. With Diaz back and likely to get a win, there’s next to no chance the trilogy isn’t next. Barring injury, of course.
Petela: Daniel Cormier. With a loss in the rematch with Stipe Miocic, I’m not sure where he goes from here. The trilogy with Jon Jones will lose some of its luster, even at heavyweight. Cormier is 40 years old, so it might just be time for him to hang up the gloves after pushing back his original plan to retire before his 40th birthday.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Manny Bermudez and Casey Kenney.
I’m excited to see what kind of run Kenney can put together inside the UFC. His short-notice debut against Ray Borg was closely contested and very entertaining. The former Legacy Fighting Alliance standout could be a fast-rising star in the bantamweight division. He has no easy task ahead of him in the undefeated Bermudez, who has submitted all three of his UFC opponents en route to a 14-0 professional record.
Both men are on the right side of 30, and fighters aren’t exactly knocking down matchmaker Sean Shelby’s door to try to fight these underrated prospects.
Wall: Corey Sandhagen and Raphael Assunção.
This is a strikers delight. It’s a big test for Sandhagen, who is coming off his win over John Lineker. Meanwhile, Assunção has a chance to bounce back from his submission loss to Marlon Moraes.
Assunção’s counter-striking defense is a very tricky puzzle for even the highest level of the division. Sandhagen brings a high-pace, stick-and-move style. There’s a good chance it’s not a barn-burning brawl, but it will be one of the closest match-ups on the card.
Pair this card with…
Wall: Whatever Yoel Romero and Daniel Cormier are having, because what they have been able to do despite their age is incredible. Both have had Olympic careers in wrestling at the highest level, and they’re not too shabby in their MMA runs either. Romero somehow still can make the argument he’s the best athlete in the UFC. Cormier is going strong after some tough fights, and with a knee that’s missing an ACL.
Petela: Reading or watching your favorite retelling of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” The UFC has been playing the part of Goldilocks for quite some time, scheduling certain rematches too soon — T.J. Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt — and some too late — Andrei Arlovski and Ben Rothwell. With just over a year since the first match-up between DC and Stipe Miocic, the organization finally got one just right.
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
HW Championship: Daniel Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic
WW: Nate Diaz vs. Anthony Pettis
MW: Yoel Romero vs. Paulo Costa
FW: Sodiq Yusuff vs. Gabriel Benitez
MW: Derek Brunson vs. Ian Heinisch
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Devonte Smith vs. Khama Worthy
BW: Raphael Assunção vs. Cory Sandhagen
LW: Drakkar Klose vs. Christos Giagos
BW: Manny Bermudez vs. Casey Kenney
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Hannah Cifers vs. Jodie Esquibel
BW: Brandon Davis vs. Kyung Ho Kang
Women’s FlyW: Sabina Mazo vs. Shana Dobson
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