Jessica Andrade (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 15 Preview and Predictions

For the second time in three weeks — and the third time since the new ESPN deal went into effect — a championship fight sits atop the marquee of a non-pay-per-view event. This weekend, at UFC on ESPN+ 15 in China, strawweight champion Jessica Andrade looks to defend her title for the first time when she goes up against rising star Weili Zhang.

Andrade captured the title at UFC 237, where she knocked out Rose Namajunas with a brutal slam that showed fans why she has earned the nickname “Bate Estaca,” which translates to “Pile Driver.” A six-year UFC veteran, Andrade has amassed a 6-1 record at strawweight en route to capturing the belt. This came after she moved down from bantamweight, where she was clearly undersized.

Zhang made her first UFC appearance just over a year ago at UFC 227, where she scored a unanimous decision over Danielle Taylor. The Chinese star has continued to impress both the fans and the UFC matchmaking in her subsequent appearances, in which she has earned a submission victory over Jessica Aguilar and a dominant unanimous decision over Tecia Torres. Zhang, now No. 6 in the rankings, was not the clear-cut next fighter in line to challenge for the belt, but the strength of her performances, combined with Tatiana Suarez’s injured neck and the location of this event, allowed for the stars to align.


Andrade was a hometown challenger when she took on Namajunas, but now she finds herself on the opposite side of the equation. The Brazilian fills the role of defending champion coming into “enemy territory” to take on a streaking contender. It will be no easy feat for Andrade to leave Shenzhen with the belt still wrapped around her waist.

The co-headliner features a pair of streaking welterweights looking to bolster their case for why they should be considered among the division’s elite. Elizeu Zaleski squares off with Jingliang Li in a rescheduled match-up that was originally supposed to be part of UFC Fight Night 141 in Beijing. Zaleski was forced to withdraw from the bout with a knee injury. The two men have a combined 13-1 record since the beginning of 2016. Zaleski lost his UFC debut via split decision to Nicholas Darby, but he’s been perfect ever since and has cracked into the top 15 at welterweight. Li most recently stopped David Zawada, the man who replaced Zaleski, via body kick with less than a minute left in the contest. The capoeira background of Zaleski matching up against the sanda and Chinese kickboxing pedigree of Li could very well result in both men leaving with an extra $50,000 in bonus money.

The main card opens with a pair of welterweights looking to get back in the win column after falling short in their last outings. Kenan Song will make his sophomore appearance in the UFC, after dropping a unanimous decision to Alex Morono in Beijing last year. He squares off with Derrick Krantz, who had his three-fight winning streak snapped in May when he stepped in for an injured Neil Magny to take on Vicente Luque.

The event takes place from the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China. This fight card will open up with the preliminary bouts kicking off on ESPN at 3 a.m. ET on Saturday, Aug. 31. The main card follows on ESPN+ at 6 a.m. ET. Combat Press writers Bryan Henderson and Matt Petela break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

With UFC victories over Danielle Taylor, Jessica Aguilar and Tecia Torres, China’s Weili Zhang has proven to be the real deal. Will the strawweight title challenger add champion Jessica Andrade to her list of victims?

Henderson: Zhang has never been shy about challenging herself. This has set her apart from a number of other fighters in the Asian MMA circuit that have peppered in victories over questionable competition. While some prospects are happy to register a win regardless of the opponent, Zhang began her career with a tough outing against Bo Meng, a fellow rookie who defeated her and has gone on to compile a 13-5 mark at the professional level. Zhang, meanwhile, has been perfect ever since while taking on such notables as Emi Fujino, Karla Benitez, Simone Duarte, Aline Sattelmayer and Marilia Santos prior to her impressive UFC run.

So, Zhang is certainly a credible title challenger. However, a willingness to tangle with Andrade is far different than the ability to actually beat the current champ. Andrade is no joke. Her UFC tenure began with a stay in the bantamweight division, where she overcame any size disadvantages to beat Rosi Sexton to a pulp, edge out Raquel Pennington on the scorecards, submit Larissa Pacheco, and decision Sarah Moras. However, losses to Marion Reneau and Pennington caused the Brazilian to drop two full weight classes to 115 pounds.

As a strawweight, Andrade continued her assault with victories over Jessica Penne, Joanne Calderwood and Angela Hill en route to a failed title bid against Joanna Jędrzejczyk. She was not discouraged, though. Andrade made a case for a second shot at the gold with a string of wins over Claudia Gadelha, the aforementioned Torres and Karolina Kowalkiewicz. The Brazilian then dethroned Rose Namajunas to become the reigning strawweight queen of the UFC.

While Zhang has performed admirably against legitimate competition, there’s still a huge disparity between the 30-year-old’s resume and the resume of the 27-year-old champion. Andrade has torn through the upper tiers of the UFC’s 115-pound division. Her only loss came to Jędrzejczyk. The Brazilian is powerful and strong, and she’s going to flash that power if Zhang tries to stand with her. On the ground, Andrade may not be a black belt, but she’s perfectly capable of handling herself — she has just as many submissions as she has knockouts. The champ’s in for a tough defense, but she should bring an end to Zhang’s winning streak inside the Octagon.

Petela: There is no doubt that Andrade has a more impressive resume than Zhang. It’s a surprise that the oddsmakers don’t have her as a bigger favorite — she’s currently a -175 to Zhang’s +130. That being said, I believe the strawweight title changes hands for the second consecutive fight in what could be the beginning of a revolving door at 115 pounds.

Since the division’s inception, when Carla Esparza became the inaugural champion at the culmination of the 20th installment of The Ultimate Fighter, the depth of the weight class has increased exponentially. The aforementioned long-reigning champion Jędrzejczyk was seemingly unstoppable with a skill set that stood head and shoulders above the rest of the division. As we have seen before, most notably with former bantamweight titleholder Ronda Rousey, eventually the contenders start to improve at a faster rate than the champion. Jędrzejczyk, like Rousey before her, found out the hard way that she was no longer alone atop the mountain when she fell to Namajunas. The improvements made by existing contenders and an influx of new talent result in a recipe for a series of much shorter title reigns.

Andrade certainly showed a high fight IQ and the ability to make the necessary adjustments when she captured the belt from Namajunas when it seemed like Namajunas was a step ahead after a convincing first round. The Brazilian identified the kimura defense “Thug Rose” used to defend against a slam and adjusted her entrance into a takedown that allowed her to execute the knockout slam. Not to take away from Andrade’s win, but the refusal to let go of the kimura grip is what caused Namajunas to land on her head in the fashion she did.

Zhang will come out victorious in Shenzhen largely due to the “eye test.” Since joining the UFC, she has shown not only incredible technical skills and above-average power for the division, but also a very high fight IQ of her own. She can identify mid-fight what slight adjustments to make in order to highlight her strengths within the framework of what she and her team determine to be the best path to victory through training camp. She did this against Taylor when she identified a strength advantage in the clinch to take the fight to the mat. Her ability to defend Aguilar’s takedowns gave her the confidence to attempt and land a takedown of her own against the decorated jiu-jitsu brown belt under the legendary Ricardo Liborio. It was the first loss by submission for Aguilar since her professional debut in 2006. Most impressively, Zhang, after being briefly knocked off balance by a kick from Torres, recognized that her opponent would likely attempt to recreate that success. Zhang ultimately caught a kick from the “Tiny Tornado” and used an inside trip to put Torres on her back, where Zhang maintained a heavy top pressure to thwart a sweep while staying busy with short strikes from half guard.

When all is said and done, Zhang will identify patterns and progressions in Andrade’s offense as she makes her way to victory in an entertaining and close contest.

Welterweight co-headliners Elizeu Zaleski and Jingliang Li have quietly put together strong runs recently. Zaleski is on a seven-fight winning streak, and Li has gone 6-1 over his last seven appearances. Who wins this fight, and will they enter the title discussion with this victory?

Petela: I am guilty of underestimating Zaleski nearly every step of the way as he has put together his winning streak. If he defeats Li, then I will once again have to eat crow. This is because I think the streak gets halted.

Outside of the loss to Jake Matthews in which he kind of panicked and resorted to blatant eye-gouging, Li has looked more and more impressive each time he steps inside the cage. During his 6-1 stretch, he has come away with four performance bonuses, including two for “Fight of the Night” and two for “Knockout/Performance of the Night.”

The more I watch both men’s recent fights, the more I feel this will be an incredibly even showdown. Both men are in their athletic prime — Zaleski is 32, and Li is 31. This could very likely be a contest that sees both men’s stock rise. Li has looked most impressive in his two UFC fights in China, and the comfort of not flying halfway around the world will be the difference. He gets to fight in his home country without being too close to his hometown — it’s 48 hours by car from his home province of Xinjiang to Shenzhen. This alleviates the pressure of countless people looking for tickets and whatnot, but he will still have the crowd on his side as additional motivation.

The title is still going to be a long way away, though, no matter how impressive Li looks this weekend. He will move into the rankings, but the welterweight division has so many high-caliber fighters, dynamic personalities and potential storylines. Colby Covington is in line for the next title shot and Jorge Masvidal is not far behind him since somehow there hasn’t been any movement on a fight between Masvidal and Nate Diaz, despite both fighters being on board. There is also Santiago Ponzinibbio, who is ranked eighth and on his own seven-fight winning streak. Vicente Luque has momentum after his consecutive wins in wars against Bryan Barberena and Mike Perry. Toss in former champion Tyron Woodley, and there are too many fighters with shorter roadmaps to the title. It will take at least two more wins before Li will be mentioned as a title contender.

Henderson: Agreed. Any title aspirations for these men will have to wait. The 170-pound division is possibly the most crowded field right now, and even Nate Diaz will leapfrog these men, purely based on name recognition. While a victory here will be great, these guys need to fight up the ladder, not sideways. Zaleski and Li are in a similar position in the big picture, but neither man has topped an opponent in their recent respective runs whose name would ring a bell with the casual fan.

Let’s set aside those lofty title dreams for a minute, though. The UFC is giving Li some love on his home soil, and this fight provides a proving ground for both men. Li has improved over the years, but his losses to the likes of Matthews, Keita Nakamura and Nordine Taleb are of great concern. The fact that he’s fighting at home should help, but he suffered two of those losses while at least fighting near his own time zone.

Since joining the UFC roster, Zaleski has demonstrated more consistency than his counterpart. He turned in a clunker against Nicolas Dalby in his Octagon debut, but every subsequent appearance has ended with the Brazilian’s hand held high. He succeeded where Li failed against Nakamura, and he’s also had a far stronger strength of schedule with contests against Lyman Good, Max Griffin, Sean Strickland and Curtis Millender.

Let’s just say the Chinese fans might be disappointed after this one.

Da Un Jung, Khadis Ibragimov, Mizuki Inoue, Zhenhong Lu, Karol Rosa, Lara Procópio, Jun Yong Park, Batgerel Danaa and Heili Alateng — do we need to know these names?

Henderson: Welcome to the Asian edition of the Contender Series. What? This is an actual UFC event? Oh crap.

All joking aside, this card is jam-packed with UFC newcomers. Nine of 24 fighters in the lineup are set for their promotional debuts. That’s creeping up on a full 50 percent of the card. There are some breakout candidates in the mix, too.

Inoue is going to be the most familiar name to fight fans. MIZUKI, as she prefers to be known, has been fighting professionally since 2010, but she’s just 25 years old. You do the math. The Invicta FC regular was left out of the first wave of UFC strawweights in part because her parents wouldn’t let her be away from home for the several weeks necessary to film The Ultimate Fighter, but she’s always been listed among the division’s best. She’s shared the cage with Ayaka Hamasaki, Alex Chambers, Bec Rawlings, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, Alexa Grasso and Virna Jandiroba, but she’s almost always come up short when it counted the most. While Inoue might never rise to championship status, she should become a fixture with the promotion.

Ibragimov and Jung enter the UFC after championship runs in M-1 and Heat, respectively. The light heavyweight division is rather top-heavy, so a good showing from one of these men could spark at least a small run and an extended stay with the promotion. Rosa and Procópio have a similar opportunity within the shallow women’s bantamweight division.

Many of the remaining names on this list are wait-and-see talents in my view, but perhaps my colleague can shed some light on them.

Petela: The UFC has been making a very public push in Asia, not only by holding events in China for three years in a row, but also through the opening of a massive new Performance Institute in Shanghai that will be three times the size of the current PI in Las Vegas. So, in the spirit of cultivating top talent in the company’s most important growth market, it makes sense that this card would include several Asian prospects.

What I don’t understand is why they would shove the match-up between Rosa and Procópio onto this card. The two Brazilian bantamweight ladies are ranked among the top 15 of all Brazilian regional female fighters. They are both under the age of 25, so ordinarily they would be names to watch closely. Procópio, 23, is undefeated, but she will step inside a cage for the first time in just over a year when she squares off against Rosa, 24, who touts an 11-3 record. Rosa had her first professional fight in 2012 when she was just 17 years old. The UFC will be back in Brazil in November, and that would be a much more appropriate event on which to showcase these women. Instead, the company makes them travel across the world for a preliminary fight on a card that is clearly designed to highlight Asian talent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both women eventually break through somewhat within the bantamweight division, but they are being rushed into a situation where the deck is stacked against them from a performance and profile perspective.

Outside of the pair of Brazilian women, the newcomer least likely to establish himself within the UFC is Lu. He is stepping up on less than a weeks’ notice to take on Movsar Evloev, a man who defeated him by unanimous decision in M-1 four years ago. Lu will gain a massive amount of respect for taking this particular fight under these circumstances, and this might earn him a second fight in the UFC. However, his talent isn’t at the UFC level. City Kickboxing product Shane Young is the only other fighter with UFC experience that Lu has fought. In their 2016 meeting, it took just three minutes and 29 seconds for Young to score the TKO. The most notable win on Lu’s resume is a 2017 finish of Charles “Felony” Bennett (aka “Krazy Horse”), who got stopped in the first round last weekend on the Midwest circuit and has lost 10 consecutive fights. By the time the two fought, Krazy Horse was nowhere near the same fighter who knocked out K.J. Noons in EliteXC in 2007.

The fight between Danaa and Alateng is really just a regional match-up between one man (Danaa) who averages just under one fight per year and another (Alateng) whose record on the Asian regional circuit is 12-7-1. This contest exists in large part to appeal to the live audience, with neither man expected to become a fixture in the UFC.

Park just might end up being the breakout star of this freshman class. He comes into the fight with a 10-3 record and has won his last seven fights. In 2017, he submitted Professional Fighters League standout Ray Cooper III by anaconda choke in the first round. His upcoming opponent is Anthony “Fluffy” Hernandez, who earned his way into the UFC through the Contender Series. Hernandez entered the UFC undefeated at 7-0, but he was unsuccessful in his debut against Markus Perez. Hernandez is undoubtedly talented and has an impressive win over former Legacy Fighting Alliance middleweight champion Brendan Allen, who is set to make his UFC debut in Boston in October after he too earned a contract on the Contender Series. If Park can replicate his performance over Cooper, then it could go a long way in getting the South Korean native some VIP treatment at that new Performance Institute. The likelihood of the stars aligning for that to happen is not high, but if Park comes away with a win by any method, it could be the beginning of an eventual climb toward becoming a key figure in the UFC’s growth efforts in Asia.

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

Petela: With the limited buzz around this card, it’s tough to pick just one sleeper fight. However, the bout featuring Mark De La Rosa and Kai Kara-France is one that sticks out in particular.

De La Rosa is coming off a loss to Alex Perez at bantamweight in March. Perez was able to use his size and strength to nullify the jiu-jitsu game of De La Rosa. Back down at flyweight, size shouldn’t be such a factor. If the fight gets to the mat, De La Rosa will have a clear advantage.

Kara-France is riding a seven-fight winning streak that includes both of his UFC appearances after an unsuccessful run on season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter. He also has nine knockout victories. Kara-France is a heavy-handed flyweight who will come into the contest as the superior striker.

This is a match-up of young fighters who are continuing to round out their skill sets, but at this point it is almost a classic striker-vs.-grappler affair, where the winner will almost certainly be the one who is able to keep the fight in their comfort zone.

Henderson: Karol Rosa and Lara Procópio.

These two UFC newcomers join a shallow women’s bantamweight pool. They also have legitimate resumes to support both a sustained run inside the Octagon and a helluva first fight with the promotion.

Rosa has a stretch of decisions earlier in her career, but she’s been a do-or-die fighter through her last seven outings. She has suffered losses to Larissa Pacheco and Melissa Gatto, but she also has bragging rights for past victories over Mariana Morais and current UFC strawweight champion Jessica Andrade.

The 23-year-old Procópio brings an undefeated mark to her Octagon debut. She, too, has topped the likes of the aforementioned Morais and Sidy Rocha, another fighter that has also fallen to Rosa. In addition, the Nova União standout has stopped half of her pro opponents before the final bell.

Rosa’s history suggests she has the better chance at victory here, but she’s in for a tough fight.

Pair this card with…

Henderson: The event replay. Even the craziest of MMA fans is going to have a hard time watching this event live, especially if they’re in the western half of the United States. The prelims kick off at 3 a.m. ET, and the main card starts at 6 a.m. ET. It’s a stretch for even the East Coast to drag themselves out of bed for the top four fights, but that’s 4 a.m. for those people operating on Mountain Time and 3 a.m. for the West Coast. Many in these areas will opt for either the highlights or an event replay.

Petela: Peace of mind. As difficult as it is going to be to ensure that you catch this event live, there is a silver lining. The UFC 242 main card is a 2 p.m. ET matinee showing, which is atypical for a pay-per-view event. If you try to wake up for this weekend’s card and fall victim to the snooze button, rest assured that making sure you are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the lightweight unification bout will be a piece of cake comparatively. Also, make sure you have leftover pizza or takeout — if you’re anything like me, you will wake up starving and won’t be in the mood to make breakfast.

Fight Picks

Fight Henderson’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 6 a.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW Championship: Jessica Andrade vs. Weili Zhang Andrade Zhang
WW: Elizeu Zaleski vs. Jingliang Li Zaleski Li
LHW: Da Un Jung vs. Khadis Ibragimov Ibragimov Jung
WW: Kenan Song vs. Derrick Krantz Song Krantz
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 3 a.m. ET)
FW: Zhenhong Lu vs. Movsar Evloev Evloev Evloev
LW: Damir Ismagulov vs. Thiago Moises Ismagulov Moises
FlyW: Mark De La Rosa vs. Kai Kara-France De La Rosa Kara-France
Women’s BW: Karol Rosa vs. Lara Procópio Rosa Rosa
BW: Andre Soukhamthath vs. Su Mudaerji Mudaerji Mudaerji
MW: Anthony Hernandez vs. Jun Yong Park Park Park
Women’s FlyW: Yanan Wu vs. Mizuki Inoue Inoue Inoue
BW: Batgerel Danaa vs. Heili Alateng Alateng Danaa