Jack Hermansson (Keith MIlls/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 18 Preview and Predictions

Copenhagen, Denmark, plays host to the UFC for the first time this Saturday. The final man to make his walk to the Octagon will be Scandanavian middleweight Jack Hermansson. The fifth-ranked Hermansson will try to make it five consecutive wins when he takes on No. 9 middleweight Jared Cannonier in the evening’s main event.

Both men are coming off the most impressive wins of their respective careers. Hermansson soundly defeated perennial contender Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza at UFC on ESPN+ 8 in April. Cannonier scored a TKO over former champion and all-time great Anderson Silva just a couple weeks later at UFC 237. If Hermannson is able to walk away with a win, then he will have a legitimate case for why he deserves to face the winner of the upcoming title-unification bout between Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya. Cannonier will likely need another victory before he joins the title conversation, but a win over “The Joker” will solidify his status as an elite middleweight and silence the doubters who wrote off his win over Silva as a fluke against a fighter well past his prime. Needless to say, there is a lot on the line in Copenhagen with all eyes on these two surging middleweights.

In the co-headliner, 2016 Olympic silver medalist wrestler Mark Madsen makes his UFC debut in front of his home country after amassing an 8-0 record on the European circuit. His first visit to the Octagon will mark a major step up in competition for the Danish fighter, and plenty of attention will be on him in this high-profile placement on the fight card. Madsen has shown knockout power on his feet and has a pair of submissions on his record as well, rounding out his grappling toolset with an arsenal of chokes. The man standing across from him is 25-year-old Italian lightweight Danilo Belluardo. This will be the second fight under the UFC banner for Belluardo, who was riding a six-fight winning streak until Joel Alvarez spoiled his Octagon debut with a TKO in the second frame. Belluardo will look to give Madsen the same type of welcome to the UFC that the Italian fighter received from Alvarez.


The Nordic theme continues further down the main card, where Icelandic Gunnar Nelson squares off against Brazil’s Gilbert “Durinho” Burns. The two Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts are truly among the best grapplers that MMA has to offer. They both competed successfully in the Mundials before transitioning to MMA full-time. Nelson was originally supposed to face the heavy-handed Thiago Alves, but an infection forced Alves out of the bout and Burns didn’t hesitate to take his place. SBG Ireland’s Nelson would like to avoid losing consecutive fights for the first time in his 12-year professional career, while Burns tries to make this his fourth consecutive win in less than 12 months.

The main card also features an interesting pair of fights in the light heavyweight division, with all four men on the outside of the rankings and in need of a win to assert their relevance. Khalil Rountree is coming off the best performance of his career when he dominated Eryk Anders. Rountree takes on Ion Cutelaba. The other match-up features former title contender Ovince Saint Preux, who looks to avoid a three-fight skid and end Polish opponent Michał Oleksiejczuk’s 12-fight unbeaten streak. Oleksiejczuk will make his third appearance of 2019 after returning from a year-long suspension for a failed in-competition drug test for Clomiphene. The two men who come away victorious in Denmark will have the inside track as they look to climb into the top 15.

Royal Arena in Copenhagen opened its doors in 2017 with legendary metal band Metallica headlining the arena’s first show. The venue has also held such notable events as the 2018 IIHF World Ice Hockey Championship and the 2019 World Men’s Handball Championship, but UFC on ESPN+ 18 will be the first UFC event held at Royal Arena. The preliminary bouts get underway at 11 a.m. ET, followed by the six-fight main card at 2 p.m. ET. The event can be viewed in its entirety on the ESPN+ streaming platform. Combat Press writers Jeff Wall and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Jared Cannonier is undefeated since moving down to middleweight. Jack Hermansson is on a four-fight winning streak that includes an upset of Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. Which man will move another notch up the middleweight ladder on Saturday?

Wall: I had my doubts about Hermansson even after he beat David Branch, but that win over “Jacare” convinced me that he is legit. Hermansson has the kind of aggression that tends to lend itself to modern-day MMA. The game is so open at the moment that it is hard to be a defensive maestro like we see in boxing.

Cannonier is the polar opposite. He is very reactive, relying on his athleticism and power to deal fight-ending damage. He may be undefeated at middleweight, but he’s only met Anderson Silva, who is 1-4 in his last five fights, and the aforementioned Branch, who is 2-3 in his last five.

Hermansson will stake his claim as a bona fide title contender with his fifth straight win in this one. The East Coast fans will get to enjoy their Saturday night because of how fast he’ll get it done.

Petela: Ironically, despite Hermansson’s nickname of “The Joker,” it’s Cannonier who is the wildcard coming into this showdown. It’s hard to quantify Cannonier’s back-to-back wins at middleweight, even though they came against the two biggest names on his resume. Branch showed flashes of elite talent, but he had more losses than wins in his two stints with the UFC. There is no doubt that Silva is past his prime, but he had a more than respectable performance while dropping a decision to interim champion Israel Adesanya just prior to the fight with Cannonier. This will be the truest test to see whether Cannonier is a contender or pretender in his new home at middleweight.

That being said, I agree with my esteemed colleague that Hermansson will get his hand raised, much to the delight of the Danish crowd. Hermansson has steadily improved as a mixed martial artist throughout his three years fighting in the UFC. He has had two setbacks since joining the promotion. He lost by submission to Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira and via TKO to light heavyweight title challenger Thiago Santos. He has rattled off four consecutive wins while facing a higher-caliber opponent each time. The Dane put the entire division on notice when he won a five-round unanimous decision over Jacare. “The Joker” will be watching the UFC 243 main event closely, as he could be the next in line for a title shot and has the type of well-rounded fighting style that could be trouble for either Robert Whittaker or Israel Adesanya.

Is Gunnar Nelson just another stepping stone for Gilbert Burns?

Petela: More of a launching pad than a stepping stone. This will be Burns’ second fight back at welterweight after competing at lightweight for his past 10 fights. A win over Nelson would be the signature victory on Burns’ resume, and doing so on short notice will catapult him toward the rankings in the talent-rich 170-pound weight class.

This is the perfect opportunity for “Durinho,” who is taking the fight on three weeks’ notice as a replacement for the injured Thiago Alves. Burns will enter the Octagon for the second time in seven weeks after defeating Alexey Kunchenko at UFC on ESPN+ 14 in Uruguay. Not only was Kunchenko undefeated heading into the fight, but Burns took that fight on just two weeks’ notice in place of Laureano Staropoli.

Nelson, 31, is the quintessential gatekeeper at welterweight. A once highly touted prospect, he burst onto the UFC scene with four consecutive wins to bring his professional record to 13-0-1. Since then, he has gone 4-4 while dropping contests against Demain Maia, Santiago Ponzinibbio and Leon Edwards, who are all ranked in the top 10, as well as the now retired Rick Story. The Iceland native has been ranked as high as eighth in the welterweight division and has won the fights he is supposed to win, but he has never been able to string enough victories together to stake a claim as an elite contender. The knockout loss to Ponzinibbio is the only time he has ever been stopped. There is still plenty of tread left on his tires, but it would be surprising if he is able to turn the corner and become a legitimate challenger for the belt before his best days are behind him.

Unlike the knockout artist Kunchenko, Nelson largely relies on his grappling and submission skills, which plays right into Burns’ hands. Nelson is a Renzo Gracie black belt and the 2009 Pan American No-Gi gold medalist. His skills are not to be overlooked, but Burns is an even more highly credentialed grappler who won the black-belt gold medal at the 2011 Mundials. The stars are aligning for Burns to become a fast-rising star at welterweight and make his way into title contention over the next year or two.

Wall: Nelson has largely relied on his aggressive grappling style and shockingly deadly one-two combo. That’s about it. He succeeded for a long time in the lower ranks of the welterweight division, but any time he has faced anyone with a depth of skill, he has found himself in deep waters.

Burns is teetering on that line. However, I can see him getting a win here in a very scrappy, hard-fought battle. Burns is no joke on the ground, and he may be good enough on the feet to force Nelson into bad possessions.

Makhmud Muradov, Mark Madsen, Jack Shore and Giga Chikadze — do we need to know these names?

Wall: Muradov is on an 11-fight winning streak and is going to be a scary fighter for the UFC’s middleweight division. It is tough to tell if the 29-year-old can be a legitimate contender or not. He’s figured things out in his game that’s led to his recent run, which is a great sign. He goes up against Alessio Di Chirico, who has stalled a lot since getting into the UFC. It is put-up-or-shut-up time for Di Chirico.

Madsen, an Olympic silver medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, is undefeated through eight pro fights. The 35-year-old doesn’t have a lot of time to get far in the featherweight division. He is strong and powerful, though. I do trust his Greco-Roman background — a lot of fighters have done very well with that skill set — and believe it helps compensate for his relative inexperience in MMA. He will be a fun addition to the featherweight division.

Shore could give Welsh MMA fans some hope. He’s been competing in martial arts his whole life, and it shows. He is as composed as any prospect you will see. His strikes are pinpoint accurate, he’s a finisher on the mat, and he’s a big bantamweight at 5-foot-9. Shore has not lost a fight, including in his amateur days. The 24-year-old is now 11-0 as a pro, with a Cage Warriors belt around his waist. Shore is more than ready for the big show.

Chikadze, a GLORY kickboxer, holds a 38-6 record in kickboxing and a 7-2 mark in MMA. He’s on a two-fight winning streak, but his MMA opponents are a combined 17-61 before stepping in the cage against him. Need I say more? Chikadze is filling a spot on the card, and unless he does something spectacular, the UFC won’t keep him around.

Petela: Outside of Chikadze, this group of debuting fighters will all make an impact in the UFC. We do have to give Chikadze credit for taking the fight against Brandon Davis and making a giant leap in the level of competition on 10 days’ notice, though.

Madsen bought a one-way ticket to Las Vegas to meet with UFC executives to discuss joining the organization. He wasn’t leaving until they gave him a contract, and now he is making his promotional debut in the co-main event in his home country. The mentality to try that and the skills to pull it off are enough to have me sold on Madsen. Add in his silver medal from the 2016 Olympics and an 8-0 record in MMA under the tutelage of Martin Kampmann, and I see Madsen making a name for himself as a legitimate elite-level UFC fighter.

Shore is one of the most exciting young fighters I have seen in recent history. It won’t be long before veteran bantamweights are screening their calls as they try to avoid a fight with the Welshman.

As my colleague pointed out, Muradov has a very winnable fight in his debut against Di Chirico. The top-ranked middleweight in Eastern Europe, Muradov is joining the UFC in his athletic prime. He is signed with Mayweather Promotions. Love him or hate him, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and his team obviously saw something special in Muradov, who will be the first fighter from Uzbekistan in UFC history. This is a fighter who will do his talking inside the Octagon and grow quickly in popularity because of the inherent intrigue surrounding him. There’s no manufactured drama with Muradov, just plenty of high-level, entertaining UFC fights in his future.

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

Petela: Marc Diakiese and Lando Vannata.

Diakiese snapped a three-fight skid in March when he defeated Joseph Duffy. He’s out to bring his UFC record to 5-3 with a win in Copenhagen. Vannata has a losing record inside the UFC, where he’s gone 2-3-2. Fighting in the most talented division in all of MMA, both of these lightweights need a win to remain relevant. When you combine that urgency with the flashy-yet-powerful striking abilities that both men possess, you have the makings for a potential “Fight of the Night.”

Wall: Normally, I expect the worst out of any fights north of 185 pounds. Most fighters lack the technical depth and athleticism that makes the sport so exciting. However, Ion Cutelaba and Khalil Rountree could combine for a barn-burner.

Rountree looked so good in his fight against Eryk Anders. We could see a big run from him. Cutelaba is a dog who’s always in exciting fights, and even though he has a lot of miles on him for a 25-year-old, I expect to see more surprises out of him. All of that makes this one a must-see affair.

Pair this card with…

Wall: Rogaine, because this card is about as thick as my head of hair (I have no hair). I get it. The UFC has a big roster, and it has to go to countries and continents to make sure the brand is present and make sure fans know they haven’t forgotten about them. However, this is one of those cards that can fatigue even the most hardcore fans.

Petela: I might be the only one, but I am excited for this fight card. So, in the spirit of me potentially being crazy and also out of respect for the band that opened the doors of Royal Arena, put Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” on in between each fight rather than watching whatever commercial will undoubtedly play each and every time there’s a break in the action.

Fight Picks

Fight Wall’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 2 p.m. ET)
MW: Jack Hermansson vs. Jared Cannonier Hermansson Hermansson
LW: Mark Madsen vs. Danilo Belluardo Bellurado Madsen
WW: Gunnar Nelson vs. Gilbert Burns Burns Burns
LHW: Ion Cutelaba vs. Khalil Rountree Rountree Rountree
LHW: Ovince Saint Preux vs. Michał Oleksiejczuk Oleksiejczuk Oleksiejczuk
WW: Alex Oliveira vs. Nicolas Dalby Oliveira Dalby
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 11 a.m. ET)
MW: Alen Amedovski vs. John Phillips Amedovski Amedovski
MW: Alessio Di Chirico vs. Makhmud Muradov Murdaov Muradov
WW: Siyar Bahadurzada vs. Ismail Naurdiev Naurdiev Naurdiev
FW: Giga Chikadze vs. Brandon Davis Davis Davis
Women’s BW: Macy Chiasson vs. Lina Länsberg Länsberg Chiasson
LW: Marc Diakiese vs. Lando Vannata Vanata Diakiese
BW: Nohelin Hernandez vs. Jack Shore Shore Shore