Valentina Shevchenko (Rob Tatum/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 14 Preview and Predictions

As the UFC continues to make its claim as a worldwide organization, the Octagon travels to Uruguay and the Antel Arena in Montevideo for the first time on Saturday. The headliner of UFC on ESPN+ 14 is a women’s flyweight championship match-up between Valentina Shevchenko and the first woman to ever step foot in a UFC cage, Liz Carmouche.

In the co-main event, fans are in for nothing short of a slobberknocker. Vicente Luque takes on Mr. Face Tattoo himself, MIke “Platinum” Perry. Both men’s most recent performances have surely stuck in the heads of fans. Luque barely outlasted Bryan Barberena in a “Fight of the Millennium” contender, and Perry went mano a mano with human bonus machine Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira.

If you’re looking for a meaningful “featured bout,” as UFC commentator Jon Anik likes to call it, this is the card for you. The light heavyweight division is as confusing as a laundromat located next to a catholic college, and two of the division’s premier knuckle slingers are on display when Ilir Latifi takes on former title challenger Volkan “No Time” Oezdemir.


The action kicks off at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN+ for the preliminary card. The main card follows on the streaming service at 8 p.m. ET. Take a gander at what Combat Press writers Bryan Henderson and Matt Petela have to say about the fights in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

The last time we saw UFC women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko in action, she scored a scary knockout of Jessica Eye. Can we expect a similar outcome when she meets Liz Carmouche?

Henderson: While this will be the pair’s first meeting under the UFC banner, they have met before in a professional MMA setting, and it was actually Carmouche who emerged with a TKO victory. So, this might be a more difficult defense for the 31-year-old titleholder.

Carmouche was entering her fifth pro fight when she clashed with Shevchenko in 2010, and Shevchenko was the more experienced of the two ladies at the time. Both women had largely fed on rookie opponents to that point, although Carmouche did fight Colleen Schneider, who was just 0-1 at the time. Of course, a lot has happened since then. Carmouche spent time with Strikeforce, Invicta and the UFC while having a number of setbacks, all against top-tier talent. Shevchenko took a detour into kickboxing with Kunlun Fight before returning to MMA with one victory for the Legacy Fighting Championship promotion prior to her current UFC run.

Shevchenko has only been defeated twice since her loss to Carmouche. Both of those defeats, including one in a championship affair, came against Amanda Nunes, who is now firmly entrenched as the top pound-for-pound female fighter in the world. Of course, those losses also came at bantamweight. Shevchenko has found more success since moving to flyweight, where she defeated former UFC strawweight champ Joanna Jędrzejczyk for the belt and then convincingly finished the aforementioned Eye for a successful defense of the strap.

Shevchenko’s UFC tenure demonstrates her vast improvements. She actually pushed Nunes to a split decision in the title tilt after dropping a unanimous verdict in their original encounter. She has easily handled the likes of Holly Holm, Julianna Peña, Priscila Cachoeira, Eye and Jędrzejczyk. Carmouche, meanwhile, can look flat sometimes, as she did in two losses to Alexis Davis. Progress does seem to favor Shevchenko in this one, but Carmouche won’t be an easy fight.

Petela: Shevchenko just seems to have grown in leaps and bounds over the last few years. This is not to say Carmouche has been stagnant, but Shevchenko has reached a level matched only by the bantamweight and featherweight champion Nunes.

Carmouche has proven to be durable over her past several fights. She has not been finished since the inaugural women’s bout against Ronda Rousey when she nearly shocked the MMA world.

This fight will go longer than the second-round knockout of Eye, but eventually Shevchenko will wear down Carmouche with her crisp striking and hand the challenger her first-ever loss by KO/TKO. It’ll come in the fourth round.

After coming up short in a title challenge against Daniel Cormier, light heavyweight fighter Volkan Oezdemir has suffered two more defeats. His upcoming foe, Ilir Latifi, is also on the hunt for a rebound win after getting decisioned by Corey Anderson in late 2018. Which man gets back in the win column?

Petela: This is a tough fight to call. Both men need a win to stay relevant among the upper echelon at light heavyweight.

Oezdemir’s last fight was a controversial split-decision loss to Dominick Reyes. Regardless of how many people think “No Time” deserved the victory, it still goes down in the record books as his third straight defeat. Latifi looked decent in his last outing against Anderson, but his cardiovascular endurance started to fail him toward the tail end of the fight. Anderson was able to keep up a pace that ultimately earned him a clear unanimous decision.

This fight will likely be a contest of who can absorb heavy blows while delivering his own thunderous punches. Latifi has the more versatile skill set, featuring a high-level wrestling background that includes time as a member of the Swedish national wrestling team. Despite this grappling background, he seems to prefer to use the sledgehammers he calls hands to test his opponent’s chin. There aren’t many men on the planet who can take more than a couple clean punches from Latifi without getting knocked out.

Oezdemir comes from an almost exclusively striking background. He competed in amateur kickboxing fights before focusing solely on MMA. He has the power to end fights with one punch, just like Latifi, and he has done so against the likes of fellow UFCers Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa.

This fight won’t go to the judges’ scorecards. It’s only a matter of who lands the fight-ending blow first. Due to his height and reach, I am leaning toward Oezdemir as the victorious one.

Henderson: Welcome to the light heavyweight class on disappointment. If such a class actually did exist, Oezdemir and Latifi could share duties as the professor. These guys have floated around the top 10 for what seems like forever, but they just can’t seem to find their groove. Hell, they couldn’t even manage the co-headlining slot here, despite their status within the light-heavyweight rankings.

Oezdemir was riding a wave with his wins over Manuwa and Cirkunov, but then he ran into Cormier, who crushed any dreams the Swiss fighter may have had for a title reign. His hopes were further dashed when he came crashing back to Earth as a victim of Anthony Smith’s sudden momentum and that questionable verdict against Reyes.

Latifi entered the UFC as little more than an intended whipping boy for Gegard Mousasi, but he actually put up a valiant effort in that outing and has proceeded to put on a healthy run. However, he has stumbled every time he seems to be on the verge of becoming a bonafide title contender. He followed two strong wins with a loss to Jan Blachowicz, suffered a setback to Ryan Bader to snap a three-fight winning streak, and followed up his victory over Ovince Saint Preux with the loss to Anderson.

With the exception of Blachowicz, Latifi has fared well against strikers, including Mousasi, Gian Villante and Tyson Pedro. Oezdemir’s two most recent setbacks also came against strikers, but he initially struggled far more with wrestlers. The 29-year-old even washed out of Bellator as the result of a submission defeat courtesy of Kelly Anundson. Given their resumes, it’s Latifi who should emerge with a hard-fought win.

Luiz Eduardo Garagorri, Rodolfo Vieira, Ciryl Gané, Raphael Pessoa and Rodrigo Vargas — do we need to know these names?

Henderson: There are some interesting names in this freshman class.

Vieira, of course, is the high-profile fighter among this group. The 29-year-old Brazilian is already a very decorated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner with numerous gold medals at the World Championships, plus one gold in ADCC competition. His grappling skills will make him a huge threat to opponent Oskar Piechota, whose last UFC outing ended in a submission loss to Gerald Meerschaert. Vieira, who is undefeated through five regional MMA appearances, could quickly settle in as a new Demian Maia for the middleweight division.

Garagorri, who was born in Brazil, represents a hometown favorite for Uruguay, the nation in which he now resides. The 30-year-old boasts an undefeated mark through 12 fights, but his competition has been weak in this stretch. He’ll need to impress against Humberto Bandenay, or else he could be one and done. Regardless of the outcome of this fight, his resume doesn’t quite suggest the makings for long-term success inside the Octagon.

Heavyweights Gané and Pessoa meet in a battle of rookies, but Gané shows more promise. UFC President Dana White is sure to like Pessoa’s go-for-broke style and knockout power, which has accounted for a number of big finishes. However, that style will be ineffective against the Muay Thai skill set that Gané, an accomplished striker, brings to the cage. Pessoa has a puncher’s chance, but Gané has the technical edge.

Vargas, meanwhile, is a long shot. He made a huge statement under the Combate Americas banner with an 18-second head-kick knockout of veteran Mike De La Torre, but he also suffered a split-decision loss to the unheralded Marco Antonio Elpidio just two fights prior. Vargas is set to meet Alex da Silva, a 20-2 fighter who also has faced struggles as he’s met tougher competition. It’s really a coin toss, but one of these guys could score a big finish. It will likely be the highlight of their UFC tenure, though.

Petela: To be totally honest, I think the UFC is getting too big for its britches. This might not be the best platform to say this, but I’m growing weary of how many newcomers the UFC brings along while almost neglecting the in-house talent that barely gets the opportunity to fight twice a year. While the talent pool in MMA is increasing exponentially, it’s time the UFC forgets about who might be the hot, young star and just promotes its existing roster better. By soaking up all the talent out of other organizations like the Legacy Fighting Alliance and Combate Americas, it minimizes fans’ exposure to the best and the brightest. So, keep a close eye on all the talent the UFC signs, because they’re doing it for a reason.

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

Petela: Tecia Torres and Marina Rodriguez.

This strawweight clash is important for both women, but for very different reasons. Torres has been ranked in the top 10 at strawweight for quite some time, but the veteran is now on a three-fight skid with losses to current champion Jessica Andrade, former champ Joanna Jędrzejczyk, and upcoming title challenger Weili Zhang. Those aren’t losses to be ashamed of by any stretch of the imagination, but her UFC tenure could be in serious jeopardy should she drop a fourth straight contest, especially with the UFC adding young, talented prospects at 115 pounds.

This will be the biggest test to date for the undefeated Rodriguez. Since earning a UFC contract on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series Brazil, she has gone 1-0-1 in the UFC. She fought to a majority draw against Randa Markos and defeated Jessica Aguilar by unanimous decision. If she can emerge victorious over the talented veteran Torres, then Rodriguez should set herself up on the short list of title contenders as the UFC heads into 2020.

Henderson: That’s a great pick. Torres is a scrappy fighter, but she has been way too inconsistent in stretches of her UFC career. It would be odd to see her go, because she’s still a member of the UFC’s top 15, but the company is not known for holding onto fighters in lengthy losing streaks unless they consistently deliver “Fight of the Night” efforts. Torres is more of a decision machine nowadays.

But I digress. Let’s talk about welterweights Gilbert Burns and Alexey Kunchenko. These guys are buried way down the preliminary card, but they should be more prominently featured in this lineup.

Kunchenko has been almost criminally overlooked by the UFC so far. The Russian came to the promotion with much more than an inflated 18-0 mark. He was the M-1 Challenge welterweight champion for nearly two years and made four successful defenses of his belt. He claimed the crown with a finish of Murad Abdulaev and notched notable defenses against Abdulaev, Sergey Romanov and Alexander Butenko. Upon arrival in the Octagon, the 35-year-old decisioned established veteran Thiago Alves and then Yushin Okami. His first UFC contest came on the main card, but now he’s mysteriously making his second prelim appearance.

Burns has multiple Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world championships in his trophy case. “Durinho” entered the UFC with an undefeated mark of his own and topped three Octagon opponents, including Alex Oliveira, before suffering a loss to Rashid Magomedov. After weathering a 3-2 rough patch, the 33-year-old has found victory in his two most recent fights. He’s certainly a threat on the mat, but he also packs a surprising amount of power.

Burns stands to be a great test for Kunchenko, but the Russian seems like the real deal two fights into his UFC career. Alves and Okami are past their prime, but they still serve as excellent gatekeepers that couldn’t stop the former M-1 star. If Kunchenko could get through them, he’s a good bet to top Burns as well.

Pair this card with…

Henderson: A glance at the UFC rankings. Besides the obvious fallout from the championship headliner, this card could bring significant movement in the polls. Co-headliner Mike Perry is out to unseat No. 15 welterweight Vicente Luque, Volkan Oezdemir and Ilir Latifi reside in the lower half of the top 10 at light heavyweight, and Tecia Torres is in an uncomfortable position with a fight against unranked foe Marina Rodriguez. It’s easy to overlook the importance of this card, but it could actually serve to shake up several divisions.

Petela: Woodford Reserve. It’s shockingly smooth, like the punches and kicks we will see from Valentina Shevchenko. There’s another reason for why this will be my pairing: I’m dog-sitting for friends this week, and they were nice enough to leave a nearly full bottle that they were also wise enough not to expect to remain that way by their return.

Fight Picks

Fight Henderson’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW Championship: Valentina Shevchenko vs. Liz Carmouche Shevchenko Shevchenko
WW: Vicente Luque vs. Mike Perry Luque Luque
FW: Humberto Bandenay vs. Luiz Eduardo Garagorri Bandenay Bandenay
LHW: Volkan Oezdemir vs. Ilir Latifi Latifi Oezdemir
MW: Oskar Piechota vs. Rodolfo Vieira Vieira Vieira
FW: Enrique Barzola vs. Bobby Moffett Moffett Moffett
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
HW: Ciryl Gané vs. Raphael Pessoa Gané Gané
Women’s StrawW: Tecia Torres vs. Marina Rodriguez Torres Torres
FlyW: Raulian Paiva vs. Rogerio Bonterin Bonterin Paiva
LW: Alex da Silva vs. Rodrigo Vargas Vargas da Silva
WW: Gilbert Burns vs. Alexey Kunchenko Kunchenko Burns
Women’s FlyW: Polyana Viana vs. Veronica Macedo Viana Viana
BW: Geraldo de Freitas vs. Chris Gutierrez Gutierrez Gutierrez