Jeremy Stephens (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 17 Preview and Predictions

The UFC is in Mexico City of UFC on ESPN+ 17. Many of the promotion’s former bright stars are on the card. This includes headliners Yair Rodriguez and Jeremy Stephens.

Rodriguez could get back in the contender’s circle with a win over Stephens, who is now on a two-fight skid. Rodriguez seemed destined for a similar situation heading into the final seconds of his most recent fight, but he was able to land an elbow for the fifth-round knockout of “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung. This puts the Mexican’s star’s UFC mark at 7-1.

In the co-main event, Alexa Grasso has the opportunity to prove that her grappling deficiencies are behind her when she takes on the UFC’s inaugural strawweight champ Carla Esparza. The 26-year-old Grasso has alternated wins and losses through her last four appearances. Esparza, whose short-lived title reign ended with a loss to Joanna Jędrzejczyk, is now a modest 4-3 since that defeat.


In a resurgent flyweight division, Brandon Moreno can get his career back on track. The undefeated Askar Askarov, who has done nothing but finish fights, stands in his way. The main card also plays host to bantamweight ladies Irene Aldana and Vanessa Melo, as well as featherweights Martin Bravo and Steven Peterson.

The action kicks off with the preliminary card at 5 p.m ET on ESPN+. The main card follows at 8 p.m. ET on the streaming service. Combat Press writers Matt Petela and Jeff Wall preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Yair Rodriguez stunned Chan Sung Jung at the last second after losing much of the fight. Now, the rising Mexican star, who is still ranked one spot below “The Korean Zombie” in the UFC’s official rankings, is set to take on Jeremy Stephens. Will Rodriguez have to once again rely on his power to turn the tide?

Petela: No. This is a fight where Rodriguez will be able to frustrate Stephens with his distance control and superior movement.

Stephens was a standout wrestler in high school, but he has relied heavily on his heavy hands throughout his MMA career and prefers to keep fights standing. In his most recent fight, Stephens took on rising star Zabit Magomedsharipov. The long, rangy Dagestani fighter stifled Stephens over 15 minutes. Rodriguez and Magomedsharipov have similar stature and style, and this fight will largely replicate that previous contest. Rodriguez will be able to keep Stephens on the outside at kickboxing range, rather than stand in the pocket and trade.

Stephens is 3-4 over his last seven fights. At age 33, he has largely been relegated to gatekeeper status in the featherweight division. His three wins in this stretch have come in impressive fashion. He knocked out Doo Ho Choi and Josh Emmett and fully dominated Gilbert Melendez en route to a lopsided victory. While he looked impressive in these fights, his opponents have clearly been a notch below the best of the best. His losses, on the other hand, have come against the cream of the crop, including Zabit Magomedsharipov, former champ José Aldo, Renato Moicano, and former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar.

Rodriguez will add his name to the list of contenders at featherweight with a dominant decision win over Stephens.

Wall: Agreed.

Stephens is always dangerous — that can’t be understated — but he’s a lot like Robbie Lawler. He wants to fight his way. If he’s not fighting his way, he’s not into it. He shuts down and doesn’t know how to get it into his world.

Rodriguez still needs to improve a lot. He has to work on his positioning in the cage. This has always hurt him in varying degrees. Jung hit him way too much, and he needs to avoid taking similar damage in this and any other future fights.

Alexa Grasso’s climb up the women’s strawweight ladder goes through former champion Carla Esparza. How bad of a stylistic match-up is this for Grasso?

Wall: It is just about as bad as it gets for Grasso. She’s going up against a veteran wrestler, and this looks to be a one-sided fight. The UFC matchmakers are not doing the Mexican up-and-comer any favors with this fight. She’ll have to climb the ladder from the bottom up again, and that can’t be good for her confidence.

Petela: This match-up largely favors Esparza, for sure. Her wrestling should give her the ability to control where the fight takes place. If it goes to the ground, then it will be a rough night for Grasso.

If Grasso is going to come out on top, then she will have to use her jab early and often to keep Esparza from closing the distance. The longer Grasso keeps Esparza away from her, the better her chances are of capturing the win. She will have to bring a sharp jab and crisp footwork to turn this into a bull-vs.-matador affair.

Grasso will successfully play the matador and win a tactical contest that lacks the type of action that draws in the casual MMA fan.

What will be the biggest upset of the night?

Petela: Tyson Nam over Sergio Pettis.

The younger Pettis brother is returning to flyweight after briefly moving back up to bantamweight, where he clearly looked undersized in his loss to Rob Font. Pettis’s coach, Duke Roufus, cited the difficulty in making the flyweight limit as the reason for the move up, so don’t be surprised if Pettis is slightly less than 100 percent going into this contest. Nam stepped up on less than a month’s notice to replace an injured Alex Perez. A difficult weight cut combined with a new opponent adds up to an upset.

Wall: Carla Esparza over Alexa Grasso.

I really like Esparza’s chances. She is simply a bad match-up for Grasso. As the old adage goes, styles make fights. In MMA, this is always the biggest factor. Esparza is a better striker than people give her credit. She’s a veteran who knows what has to happen in order for her to win. Grasso’s grappling is such a huge weakness that Esparza, the betting underdog, has an opportunity to score the upset.

Askar Askarov, Vanessa Melo, Ariane Carnelossi and Tyson Nam — do we need to know these names?

Wall: You better know Askarov. He’s undefeated at 10-0, all finishes. His ground-and-pound is similar to a particularly well-known Dagistani fighter. His submissions are slick, and he’s just entering his prime at age 26. Brandon Moreno will have a tough task in front of him against Askarov.

Melo will not be sticking around too long. She’s fighting at bantamweight and is too inconsistent for this level. The division is thin, and so is flyweight, but it’s hard to see how she can make the UFC keep her around.

Nam has been around forever. He has fought tons of notable names, including Ali Bagautinov, Eduardo Dantas and Marlon Moraes. However, he is also very inconsistent, which is probably why he hasn’t gotten a shot to this point. He is a good striker, but it’s questionable whether he can hang with Sergio Pettis.

Carnelossi is a banger. She just comes forward, guard up, and backs her opponents up with push kicks, pressure and hooks. This could be a tough match-up against an outfighter as quick as Angela Hill, but, win or lose, she can be someone we talk about for a long time.

Petela: Askarov is clearly the name to watch from this crop of newcomers. He absolutely has a top-notch submission game, but he is also one of the few flyweights with fight-ending power in his hands, whether it be via ground-and-pound or while standing. Askarov’s arrival in the UFC is the best news the flyweight division has had in quite some time.

Nam won’t be a major player in the UFC, but don’t be surprised to see him make some waves in his debut. He has the talent and physical ability to be a contender, but, as my colleague wisely mentioned, his inconsistency will haunt him and ultimately prevent him from making much of a mark.

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

Petela: Sijara Eubanks and Bethe Correira.

There’s just something about fights where both fighters have their backs against the wall. Eubanks is coming off a loss to Aspen Ladd. When you combine the loss with her weight-cutting issues, you have to figure Eubanks is on a short leash with the UFC brass. Meanwhile, Correira is 1-4-1 over her last six fights, and her lone win came in a split decision at bantamweight over Jessica Eye, who has since moved down to flyweight. In her last fight, the Brazilian missed weight by five pounds. This will most likely be the final UFC fight for the loser of this contest. This should bring out the best in both women.

Wall: Marco Polo Reyes and Kyle Nelson.

This is a barn-burner waiting to happen. It will be more on the technical side of things, but it will be contested on the feet, where both guys are most comfortable. I would not miss this one.

Pair this card with…

Wall: Redemption. This is a chance at vindication for both Alexa Grasso and Yair Rodriguez. Both fighters have a lot to prove after suffering setbacks that have caused a lot of people to hop right off the hype train. They’re set to fight in their own country, where their fans will cheer them on. They have the opportunity to show the world why people had such high hopes for them in the first place.

Petela: A thank-you card to the UFC matchmakers. Outside of the light-heavyweight preliminary fight between Vinicius Moreira and Paul Craig, there’s not a single fight north of the lightweight division. The altitude in Mexico City has proven to be an obstacle that larger fighters are far less equipped to deal with than those in lighter weight classes. We all remember UFC 188, where “Cardio” Cain Velasquez fell victim to the thin air almost as much as he fell victim to the world-class jiu-jitsu of Fabricio Werdum. With a fight card that’s not full of marquee names, at least the lighter fighters should be able to put on high-level performances for those fans who decide to tune in.

Fight Picks

Fight Petela’s Pick Wall’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
FW: Yair Rodriguez vs. Jeremy Stephens Rodriguez Stephens
Women’s StrawW: Carla Esparza vs. Alexa Grasso Grasso Esparza
FlyW: Askar Askarov vs. Brandon Moreno Askarov Askarov
Women’s BW: Irene Aldana vs. Vanessa Melo Aldana Aldana
FW: Martin Bravo vs. Steven Peterson Bravo Bravo
Main Card (ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
BW: Jose Alberto Quiñonez vs. Carlos Huachin Huachin Quiñonez
FW: Marco Polo Reyes vs. Kyle Nelson Reyes Nelson
Women’s StrawW: Angela Hill vs. Ariane Carnelossi Carnelossi Hill
FlyW: Sergio Pettis vs. Tyson Nam Nam Pettis
LHW: Vinicius Moreira vs. Paul Craig Moreira Craig
Women’s BW: Sijara Eubanks vs. Bethe Correia Correira Eubanks
LW: Claudio Puelles vs. Marcos Mariano Puelles Mariano