Donald Cerrone (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 16 Preview and Predictions

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje have combined for 11 post-fight bonuses over their last nine fights. That’s not a typo. They have more bonuses than fights over that span. Now, at UFC on ESPN+ 16, these two entertaining lightweights will attempt to live up to the hype. This showdown is as important to the top of the division as any non-title fight in recent history. Its importance can only be topped by its potential for unforgettable action.

After suffering his first two professional losses in back-to-back outings against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, Justin Gaethje has bounced back with a pair of first-round knockouts over James Vick and Edson Barboza. Cerrone was on a three-fight winning streak and looking better than ever after returning to the 155-pound weight class until dropping a “Fight of the Night” affair to Tony Ferguson at UFC 238. Cerrone will try to replicate the success he had the last time he fought in Canada when he soundly defeated Al Iaquinta en route to a unanimous decision in Ottawa.

The co-headliner pits No. 9 light heavyweight Glover Teixeira against No. 13-ranked Nikita Krylov. Teixeira looks to move to 3-0 in 2019 after submitting both Karl Roberson and Ion Cutelaba earlier this year. Krylov has gone 1-1 since returning to the UFC. In his most recent fight, he picked up a rear-naked choke submission over Ovince Saint Preux. In his previous fight, Krylov was submitted via arm-triangle choke by Jan Blachowicz. Krylov, 27, is 12 years younger than his counterpart, who is less than two months away from seeing his 40th birthday. Not a single one of Krylov’s 32 professional fights has made it to the judges’ scorecards. This fight likely won’t be the first to do so either, given that Teixeira has finished or been finished in over 75 percent of his 36 bouts.


The main card also hosts the return of Todd Duffee. This fight marks the third UFC stint for Duffee, who has been out of action for over four years since a devastating shoulder injury. Many fans will only remember Duffee from his knockout loss to Mike Russow. Duffee takes on Jeff Hughes, who is looking to return to the win column after dropping a split decision to Maurice Greene in his UFC debut. Duffee, like Krylov, has never had a fight go the full 15 minutes. Each of the returning heavyweight’s fights ended by some form of knockout en route to a 9-3 professional record.

UFC on ESPN+ 16 takes place in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, at the Rogers Arena, home of the Vancouver Canucks. The entire fight card can be viewed on the ESPN+ streaming platform, with the prelims beginning at 5 p.m. ET and the main card at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Donald Cerrone and Justin Gaethje — will this fight live up to the hype?

Huntemann: Absolutely. However, it’s also an absolute shame that this fight is relegated to a streaming Fight Night card, even if streaming is the way of the future (or present, depending on your point of view). This bout deserves to at least co-headline a pay-per-view. Can you imagine if the headlining fights at UFC 244 in Madison Square Garden were this fight and then Jorge Masvidal against Nate Diaz? It would pop a huge buyrate, even if neither contest is for an official belt.

I don’t really need to go into detail about the respective skill sets of Cerrone and Gaethje. We have all seen enough of their highlight reels to know what these guys bring to the table. They come to fight, and they have no qualms about eating shots in order to deliver them. They are always looking to finish, too. Playing it safe is in neither guy’s vocabulary. Cerrone and Gaethje know that in addition to being fighters, they are also entertainers. This fight will definitely entertain, and we will reap the benefits.

Petela: It’s not going to be boring, that’s for sure.

Post-fight bonuses will be given out at the conclusion of this bout, but I have a feeling that it will be in the form of a “Performance of the Night” for Gaethje in a first- or second-round knockout. Cowboy took more than a fair amount of damage in his last fight against Tony Ferguson, which was only three months ago. For anyone other than Cerrone, it would be a quick turnaround, but it’s what we have come to expect from the owner and operator of the BMF ranch. However, Cerrone, 36, hasn’t had enough time to recover for his head and body to be durable enough to withstand a five-round war with Gaethje.

A victory in Vancouver will not only add a marquee name to the resume for Gaethje, but it will also set him up for a big payday in his next fight. This will come in handy for Gaethje, who has admitted that his fighting style leaves him with only about five fights remaining in his career.

The winner of this fight will find themselves in an interesting position. They will be the clear second contender in line for a title shot, behind only the aforementioned Ferguson. With the match-up between Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov snake bitten, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the UFC had this weekend’s victor waiting in the wings for when something inevitably goes wrong. This weekend’s triumphant fighter will also be frequently mentioned as a potential opponent for the return of Conor McGregor, though either man would be too risky for the Irish superstar to take on since he is in desperate need of a win that has eluded him since 2016.

Glover Teixeira has had a strong 2019 campaign thus far, recording wins over Karl Roberson and Ion Cutelaba. Can he keep things rolling when he collides with Nikita Krylov?

Petela: Krylov has lost six fights, including five by submission, in his career. This includes his most recent loss to Jan Blachowicz in his UFC return.

In both of his wins this year, Teixeira has faced some serious adversity. He got his bell rung by both Roberson and Cutelaba before finishing each man via submission. This fight will go much the same way, with Krylov outstriking Teixeira early before succumbing to one of Teixeira’s chokes.

I’d like to see this be the final fight for the Brazilian. Teixeira is 39 and on the brink of turning 40. He sits at No. 9 in the UFC’s light-heavyweight rankings, but there’s not an obvious path to the title for him. He has already lost to champion Jon Jones, as well as to the two men — Corey Anderson and Alexander Gustafsson — ranked above him. Teixeira owns and runs his own gym in Connecticut, so he assumedly doesn’t need to keep fighting to make a decent living. The longer he keeps fighting, the less likely he will be to rebound from early adversity. The end could get really ugly since he is prone to taking heavy shots while standing at boxing and kickboxing range with elite opponents. Teixiera should end his career on a high note with three straight victories.

Huntemann: Actually, it’s interesting to think that the winner of this fight could be on the short list of title contenders in the light heavyweight division. This is extraordinary. As alluded to earlier, Teixeira already challenged Jones for the belt once before, in 2011. But who else is there right now? Blachowicz? Anderson? Does anyone think either guy presents a legitimate challenge to Jones, even if Jones’ last performance wasn’t exactly his most inspired?

Teixeira’s losses in the UFC came at the hands of Jones, Phil Davis, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and the aforementioned Gustafsson. The Brazilian owns victories over Ryan Bader and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. He already has ample experience stepping into the Octagon with some of the best in the world. He looked like a brand-new fighter in his last two fights.

Teixeira’s two recent wins came via submission, and all of Krylov’s victories in the UFC have come via finish. This fight could definitely steal the show, which is high praise considering who’s fighting in the main event. Teixeira’s veteran savvy and experience in big fights is the difference here. Krylov hasn’t faced the caliber of fighters that Teixeira has seen, and that gives the Brazilian an edge.

Todd Duffee is back. Should we care?

Huntemann: Not really. No disrespect to Duffee, but he wasn’t exactly a title contender during his first UFC stint. He was more or less “just a guy.” However, two out of his three career losses came to Frank Mir and Alistair Overeem, two of the best heavyweights in MMA history. So, Duffee wasn’t exactly a slouch either. The UFC’s heavyweight division is always in need of some new blood. If Duffee takes full advantage of his second chance in the UFC and strings some wins together, he could find himself in title contention.

Petela: It’s great to see Duffee back in action after being out for over four years with Parsonage-Turner syndrome. As someone with a litany of shoulder injuries and nerve damage, I can somewhat relate to how debilitating that must have been for him. However, I’m not sold on his ability to consistently compete with the top heavyweights. It may end up being an ultimately unsuccessful run, but Duffee’s return is a feel-good story nonetheless, which is a refreshing change from the recent negative stories surrounding the MMA community.

Miles Johns and Hunter Azure — do we need to know these names?

Petela: Johns is absolutely a name to know, assuming you don’t already recognize it. He’s 9-0 and coming off a win on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. The 25-year-old trains out of Fortis MMA under Sayif Saud, who has emerged as one of the best coaches in MMA at one of MMA’s best camps. Johns is a four-fight Legacy Fighting Alliance veteran as well, and his success in that organization shows that he is capable of doing well at the highest level as his career progresses.

The same conclusion can be reached about Azure. Undefeated at 7-0, he trains at another elite gym, the MMA Lab. Azure is also coming off a Contender Series win after a successful run in the LFA.

Watch out bantamweights, these two guys will be knocking on the door to contendership sooner than later.

Huntemann: My esteemed colleague pretty much said all that needs to be said. Both Johns and Azure are the very definition of prospects and appear to have great potential as young fighters on the rise. They will both have great opportunities to prove themselves on the big stage during this card, and I expect both men to take advantage of these opportunities.

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

Huntemann: Miles Johns and Cole Smith. This prelim between two undefeated bantamweights is worth keeping an eye on. It’s rare that two undefeated prospects face each other so early in their careers, but this contest might be one we look back on in a year or two when one guy — or both — lands in title contention. Maybe by then UFC bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo will actually show interest in defending his belt instead of being a creeper and picking imaginary fights with the UFC’s female fighters.

Petela: Louis Smolka and Ryan MacDonald. Smolka, who cleaned up his lifestyle and stopped drinking after being released from the UFC in 2018, was on a four-fight winning streak before he was submitted by Matt Schnell in March. He had won his first fight back with the promotion over Su Mudaerji. This fight against MacDonald will serve as a referendum on whether or not Smolka belongs in the UFC. I think he gets past MacDonald and goes on to give fans a series of high-level, entertaining fights in the coming years.

Pair this card with…

Petela: Molson Golden. Grab a Canadian beer for the Vancouver card. It makes sense to go with the Golden, because Justin Gaethje, with a win over Donald Cerrone, won’t be too far off from a fight for the belt against Khabib Nurmagomedov. Tony Ferguson clearly deserves to be next, but would the fifth time really be the charm? Just thinking about that cursed match-up is enough to cause me to drink.

Huntemann: A nice single-malt scotch or aged bourbon. After watching Cerrone and Gaethje likely deliver a “Fight of the Year” candidate, you will need a strong dose of one or the other… or both.

Fight Picks

Fight Huntemann’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Donald Cerrone vs. Justin Gaethje Cerrone Gaethje
LHW: Glover Teixeira vs. Nikita Krylov Teixeira Teixeira
HW: Todd Duffee vs. Jeff Hughes Duffee Hughes
WW: Michel Pereira vs. Tristan Connelly Pereira Pereira
MW: Antonio Carlos Junior vs. Uriah Hall Carlos Junior Carlos Junior
LHW: Misha Cirkunov vs. Jimmy Crute Cirkunov Crute
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
HW: Augusto Sakai vs. Marcin Tybura Tybura Tybura
BW: Cole Smith vs. Miles Johns Johns Johns
MW: Marvin Vettori vs. Andrew Sanchez Sanchez Vettori
BW: Brad Katona vs. Hunter Azure Azure Azure
FW: Chas Skelly vs. Jordan Griffin Skelly Skelly
BW: Louis Smolka vs. Ryan MacDonald Smolka Smolka
LW: Kyle Prepolec vs. Austin Hubbard Hubbard Prepoiec