Calvin Kattar (Joe Harrington/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 21 Preview and Predictions

This Saturday marks the 11th consecutive weekend with a UFC event. After a monumental UFC 244 pay-per-view at Madison Square Garden, many fans might be overlooking the promotion’s return to Moscow for UFC on ESPN+ 21.

The headlining match-up was originally supposed to be a heavyweight clash between Junior dos Santos and Alexander Volkov, but a bacterial infection in the Brazilian heavyweight’s leg left Volkov in need of a new dance partner. That new partner comes in the form of hard-hitting, spousal-abusing, former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy.

The lineup has been reshuffled so that the heavyweight contest will serve as the co-headliner. Meanwhile, the main event is now a clash between surging featherweights Zabit Magomedsharipov and Calvin Kattar. This fight was originally scheduled to take place in Kattar’s backyard of Boston, but a Magomedsharipov injury delayed the fight three weeks and caused it to become a home game for the Russian fighter.


Magomedsharipov is riding a 13-fight winning streak that includes five bouts inside the UFC. He has garnered two “Performance of the Night” bonuses for submission victories and a “Fight of the Night” in his win over Kyle Bochniak. Kattar, like Bochniak, is a North Shore Massachusetts native who’s not afraid to get into a back-alley scrap every time he steps foot in the Octagon. Kattar started his run inside the UFC with two consecutive victories before a setback against fellow contender Renato Moicano. Since the Moicano loss, Kattar has successfully rebounded and picked up consecutive first-round TKO victories over Chris Fishgold and Ricardo Lamas. It is worth noting that this fight, despite its headlining status, will be a three-round contest.

The main card also features a number of Russian prospects early in their respective UFC careers, including the undefeated Shamil Gamazatov, who makes his promotional debut after a successful two-fight stint in the Professional Fighters League.

The CSKA arena in Moscow hosts the festivities, with the prelims getting underway at 11 a.m. ET, followed immediately by the main card at 2 p.m. ET. The entire event can be viewed on the ESPN+ streaming platform. Combat Press writers Bryan Henderson and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Featherweights Zabit Magomedsharipov and Calvin Kattar meet in the evening’s headliner. What is the key to victory for each fighter, and who will ultimately emerge with the win?

Henderson: Magomedsharipov needs to disrupt Kattar’s boxing game. The Massachusetts resident has found plenty of success in the Octagon as a result of his stand-up skills. His three most recent victories have all come via strikes. His one loss in that stretch came to Renato Moicano, who was able to frustrate Kattar by throwing leg kicks and open up the rising star to power shots. Kattar is considered one of the division’s best boxers. Take that part of his game away, and he becomes far more manageable.

Kattar, meanwhile, needs to keep the fight standing and find a way to implement his offense. Yes, this might seem to run contrary to Magomedsharipov’s own key to victory, but Kattar’s bread and butter is boxing. He hasn’t let his two most recent opponents play the same game of attrition and take his legs out, and he can’t let the Russian do so either. The ground is not the answer, though, as Magomedsharipov’s grappling game is slick. If the fight hits the mat, Kattar will be in serious danger of a submission loss. Instead, he has to stick behind his jab while also making Magomedsharipov pay for any leg kicks he throws.

Kattar’s going to struggle with the Russian’s overall game. Magomedsharipov is a creative striker who will switch stances and use unorthodox techniques. He’s capable of scoring takedowns, too, and can tie Kattar in knots on the canvas. Kattar’s standard boxing style might not be enough to get the job done against such a dynamic fighter.

Petela: There’s not much to disagree with there. The winner of this fight will be the fighter who dictates the action and better implements their plan. If Kattar can keep the fight standing and in boxing range, he will have the advantage and will be able to limit the variety of attacks that Magomedsharipov is able to use against him. If the Russian keeps the striking at kickboxing distance, his stance-switching and fleet-of-foot movement will give Kattar fits for the duration of the fight.

Kattar also has to be able to avoid too many clinch situations with the tricky Magomedsharipov. He has shown the ability to execute inside and outside trips from tight range that his opponents find nearly impossible to defend. If the fight spends any length of time on the canvas, Kattar will likely look like a fish out of water.

Given the numerous areas where Magomedsharipov should have the advantage, he’ll take the win in this fight with his more robust and well-rounded skill set. It should be a crowd-pleaser, no matter the outcome.

Does Greg Hardy really deserve this co-headlining slot opposite fellow heavyweight Alexander Volkov? Will this bout go off without in-cage controversy? Does Hardy have much hope of a victory?

Petela: He most certainly does not deserve this fight. Hardy has fought a litany of “who’s that?” opponents in the UFC, and he hasn’t even made the most of the cupcake schedule the matchmakers have given him. Between the illegal knee on Allen Crowder and the now famous “inhaler gate,” Hardy has not earned anything close to a co-main event slot.

Personally, I hope there is no controversy surrounding the in-cage action in Moscow between these two heavyweights. I’m probably not alone in hoping Hardy, given his background of spousal abuse, becomes the 21st knockout victim for Volkov and that such a finish ends the Hardy hype train.

Unfortunately, Hardy does have a chance to pull out a victory here, despite being the underdog. His athleticism has sped up his MMA learning curve, and anything can happen in MMA, especially at the heavyweight level. It wouldn’t be a total shock to see Hardy land a big punch on Volkov that sends him down to the canvas and out cold.

Henderson: I’m still baffled as to why the UFC loves Hardy so much. If any other inexperienced fighter had followed up an illegal-knee disqualification with an encore involving the improper use of an inhaler in between rounds, UFC head Dana White would have personally escorted them out of the building. In Hardy’s case, though, the reward isn’t a pink slip, but rather a co-headlining spot. Seriously?

In addition to all the controversy, Hardy hasn’t exactly thrilled us for much of his UFC stint. The fight with Crowder was fun, but that was largely due to Crowder’s scrappy performance that almost derailed the former NFLer in his Octagon debut. Hardy did deliver two first-round finishes in his subsequent performances, but then came the stinker — and that’s not even counting the inhaler issue — against Ben Sosoli. Hardy won the fight, but his performance left a lot to be desired.

Is he capable of beating Volkov? Sure. Any heavyweight just needs one big punch to finish an opponent. In terms of skills, though, we’re talking a whole different story. Volkov is a seasoned veteran of the sport. He has 37 fights under his belt, and he knows how to use his length to solid effect. Hardy often looks like a bull in a china shop, attempting to charge forward and connect on strikes. Even Crowder was able to counter Hardy’s unrefined style and make things interesting. Volkov is far and away a more accomplished and skilled fighter than Crowder. If Hardy tries to stand with the Russian, then he will indeed have to hope to land that one lucky shot. If Hardy can’t find the knockout blow, Volkov is likely to run away with this one.

When it comes to controversy, nothing surprises me anymore with Hardy. Blatant use of an inhaler? You’d think nobody would be that stupid. The former Carolina Panther’s disqualification also came as the result of a boneheaded move borne out of frustration. If Volkov puts Hardy in a similar spot, we might once again end up talking about a no-contest or disqualification result when the dust settles around these big men.

Shamil Gamzatov, Roman Kopylov and Abubakar Nurmagomedov — do we need to know these names?

Henderson: This is a very interesting freshman group, for sure.

The 29-year-old Gamzatov was a PFL playoff qualifier in 2018, but he was forced out of the postseason with an injury. The undefeated Russian middleweight has already compiled a resume that includes victories over Teddy Holder, Rodney Wallace, Eddie Gordon and Rex Harris. His first UFC test comes against Klidson Abreu, who has had mixed results since joining the organization. Chances are high that Gamzatov wins his Octagon debut.

Kopylov is another undefeated upstart who will enjoy the benefit of competing on home soil for his UFC debut. The middleweight has beaten some regional staples, including Kobe Ortiz and Yasubey Enomoto, but Karl Roberson could be a tough first fight for him with the promotion. Roberson’s only career losses have come to Glover Teixeira and Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira. Kopylov, who was originally set to make his UFC debut in April against Krzysztof Jotko, might have bitten off more than he can chew, but this should be a fun fight all the same.

The final newcomer in this group is a member of the Nurmagomedov clan, so high expectations will follow him wherever he goes. Abubakar is a cousin to the UFC’s lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov. The 29-year-old is another former PFL playoff participant, but he had very mixed results during the league’s 2018 season. He suffered a loss to Pavel Kusch, decisioned Jonatan Westin, and fell from the playoffs after fighting to a draw with Bojan Velickovic. The World Series of Fighting veteran is a solid competitor, but he’ll benefit mostly from his booking against German fighter David Zawada, who is already on a two-fight skid.

Petela: It’s no surprise that the UFC has loaded the card with talent from Russia. The two undefeated newcomers are both fighters to watch. While Roberson is a tough test, Kopylov will come away with a victory. I expect Gamzatov to leave the Octagon a winner in his first outing as well.

Nurmagomedov is the fighter with the lowest ceiling out of the three men making their debut. He’ll step into the cage less than a week shy of his 30th birthday, and his time in the PFL showed that he has a tendency to struggle against elite talent. Zawada is certainly a fighter against whom he can pick up a win, but the long-term prognosis for Nurmagomedov is less hopeful than it is for Gamzatov and Kopylov.

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

Petela: After the high-profile UFC 244, it seems as if this entire card is flying under the radar. However, one fight in particular that should receive more attention is the match-up between newcomer Roman Kopylov and five-fight UFC veteran Karl Roberson.

Kopylov was supposed to make his UFC debut in the late spring, but an injury forced him off the card. The showdown with Roberson will be a good litmus test to see where Kopylov will fit in the grand scheme of things inside the Octagon.

Henderson: Magomed Ankalaev and Dalcha Lungiambula.

These two light heavyweights aren’t anywhere near contender level yet, but they make for a compelling prelim pairing. Ankalaev had a dud against Paul Craig, but he’s otherwise perfect in his pro career. The 27-year-old Russian has quite a few stoppages on his record, and he seems to be settling in comfortably with the UFC. Lungiambula also has a strong finishing rate, including a third-round stoppage over Dequan Townsend in his one and only prior UFC outing.

A big finish could lead to a star turn for one of these two light heavyweights.

Pair this card with…

Henderson: A non-MMA activity on Saturday night. Us fight fans rarely get a free Saturday evening. That’s not the case this time around. The main card kicks off at 2 p.m. ET, and its six-fight lineup should be complete by roughly 5 p.m. at the latest. So, spend a night out with friends, go on a date, something. These opportunities don’t come along that often.

Petela: Stoli Hot, the spicy jalapeno variety of Stolichnaya vodka. Since the fights take place in Moscow, the home city of Stoli, it naturally goes hand in hand. Add to that the sizzle that Zabit Magomedsharipov brings to the Octagon, and you have the perfect match. Clear your schedule for the evening, because just like Lay’s potato chips, I betcha can’t have just one.

Fight Picks

Fight Henderson’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 2 p.m. ET)
FW: Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Calvin Kattar Magomedsharipov Magomedsharipov
HW: Alexander Volkov vs. Greg Hardy Volkov Volkov
WW: Zelim Imadaev vs. Danny Roberts Roberts Roberts
LHW: Ed Herman vs. Khadis Ibragimov Herman Herman
WW: Rocco Martin vs. Ramazan Emeev Martin Martin
MW: Shamil Gamzatov vs. Klidson Abreu Gamzatov Gamzatov
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 11 a.m. ET)
LHW: Magomed Ankalaev vs. Dalcha Lungiambula Ankalaev Ankalaev
WW: Rustam Khabilov vs. Sergey Khandozhko Khabilov Khabilov
MW: Roman Kopylov vs. Karl Roberson Roberson Kopylov
WW: Abubakar Nurmagomedov vs. David Zawada Nurmagomedov Nurmagomedov
LW: Alexander Yakovlev vs. Roosevelt Roberts Yakovlev Roberts
Women’s BW: Jessica-Rose “Jessy Jess” Clark vs. Pannie Kianzad Clark Kianzad
BW: Grigorii Popov vs. Davey Grant Grant Popov