Jan Błachowicz (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 22 Preview and Predictions

All good things must come to an end. This weekend will be the final event in a nearly three-month span of consecutive weeks with UFC shows before the company takes a two-week break. The UFC has put together a high-quality fight card that both Brazilian fans in the arena and MMA fans watching across the world should enjoy as the final UFC card before Thanksgiving.

The main event has title implications in the newly rejuvenated light-heavyweight division. Formerly the flagship weight class, this division has suffered from a lack of depth over recent years. However, the emergence of new stars and former middleweight standouts has breathed new life into the top of the division. At UFC on ESPN+ 22, we will see longtime middleweight Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza make his first appearance at 205 pounds in the UFC when he takes on Polish veteran Jan Błachowicz. Souza was in a difficult spot at middleweight, where he lost his most recent outing against Jack Hermansson. The 39-year-old has a tough task ahead of him in Błachowicz, who relished the opportunity to play spoiler in Luke Rockhold’s attempt to move up to light heavyweight and will be out to earn himself a title shot by closing the door on Jacare’s attempt to skip the queue at 205.

Brazilian legend and former light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua dusts off the gloves after an almost 12-month absence from competition. He faces submission specialist Paul “Bearjew” Craig after his initially scheduled opponent, “Smilin’” Sam Alvey, was forced out of the contest with a broken hand. Shogun has fought sparingly over the last four years, but he is 4-1 over that span. The Brazilian is hoping to make one last push to reclaim the UFC championship that he won in 2010 with a knockout of Lyoto Machida. Craig is an eight-fight UFC veteran whose results have been largely varied. He holds a .500 winning percentage in the promotion, and a victory over Rua would mark the biggest name on his resume. Craig would likely replace Rua in the rankings if the Scottish fighter gets his hand raised on Saturday.


Charles “do Bronx” Oliveira will be in search of his record-extending 14th UFC submission victory in his clash with Jared “Flash” Gordon. Oliveira is riding a five-fight winning streak since his TKO loss to Paul Felder. Gordon looks to in some ways replicate what his teammate and close friend Felder was able to do against Oliveira when the Philadelphia native picked up the TKO win almost two years ago. Gordon bounced back nicely after losing back-to-back fights for the first time in his career when he was able to secure a unanimous decision over Dan Moret in Minneapolis at UFC on ESPN 3. Styles truly do make fights, and this promises to be an exciting showdown between the world-class jiu-jitsu player Oliveira and the heavy-handed boxer/wrestler Gordon.

The ESPN+ streaming service will be the broadcast home for Saturday’s fight card, which takes place in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the Ginasio do Ibirapuera. Preliminary bouts kick off at 5 p.m. ET and will be followed immediately thereafter at 8 p.m. ET by the main card. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza makes his move up to light heavyweight in a fight against Jan Błachowicz. Will Jacare find success in his new division? Does he beat Błachowicz, and if so, does it earn him a title shot?

Huntemann: Can Souza beat Błachowicz? Sure. Is the win enough to grant Souza a title shot at light heavyweight? Maybe not.

Souza is in a kind of purgatory in his career right now. When he knocked out Derek Brunson in the first round of their fight last year, Jacare looked like a lock to get a middleweight title shot. Then he lost a close split decision to Kelvin Gastelum in his own backyard. He came back and finished Chris Weidman, but then lost a somewhat uninspired decision to Jack Hermansson. The move up to light heavyweight makes sense for Souza, given his age and the fact that current UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya has multiple suitors already. However, I’m not sure a win in his first fight at his new weight class — even against a top contender like Błachowicz — should allow Jacare to jump the queue.

However, if Błachowicz can add another name fighter like Souza to his resume, then he should be considered as the next title contender. Błachowicz’s only loss in his previous six fights was to former title challenger Thiago Santos. He likely ended Luke Rockhold’s career with a knockout earlier this year, which should count for something. Souza’s move up to 205 isn’t the desperate last gasp of a veteran whose better days are behind him, either. If Blachowicz adds the Brazilian’s name to a list of victims that already includes Rockhold, Jimi Manuwa and Jared Cannonier, then that should be enough to cause the UFC to reward him with a title shot.

Petela: I’m far from the only person who has been vocal about the benefits when fighters move up in weight and stop draining themselves to shed pounds. The move from middleweight to light heavyweight has not shown the best results recently, though. Former champs Rockhold and Weidman both suffered knockout losses in their divisional debuts. Meanwhile, Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos have found success at their new weight. Those two fighters were never truly elite middleweights, but they have shown that light heavyweight is a much better fit for them.

Jacare is much closer to Rockhold and Weidman in terms of his status among the top of the middleweight division. His bread and butter is his grappling, contrary to what his two recent knockout victories might suggest. However, Souza won’t be able to use his grappling as successfully at light heavyweight against bigger men. In a modern-day MMA fight, size and power are more of a factor than they were when smaller men could use jiu-jitsu to defeat their larger counterparts.

Błachowicz, with a victory, should be in line for a title shot. The lone setback over his last six fights was a loss to a former title challenger (Santos), and if he can add this win, then his resume will be ultimately more impressive than those of Corey Anderson and Dominick Reyes, the other men in the mix.

Mauricio “Shogun” Rua has struggled to stay active over the last few years, but he has won four of his last five fights. Is there any chance that he stumbles against Paul Craig, who is 4-4 over his UFC tenure?

Petela: There’s definitely a chance.

Craig will do whatever he can to get every fight to the mat, often to the point where he ends up with floor burns all over his body from failed takedowns and guard pulls. He makes no secret of his plan, and regardless of how many times he fails, he only has to be successful once to end the fight. His third-round finishes over Kennedy Nzechukwu and Magomed Ankalaev are two perfect examples where he was losing fights before he slapped on a late submission to pull out the win. Against Ankalaev, Craig literally won the fight in the last second of the last round.

Shogun is far from easy to submit, though. Over his legendary career, the Brazilian has only lost via submission three times. The last person to submit him was Chael Sonnen in 2013. His lack of activity could be the difference-maker in this fight. Regardless of how regularly he has been training, he might very well be more susceptible to a submission as he enters the cage for the first time in just under a year.

Huntemann: Whenever I hear Shogun’s name, I can’t help but think about that televised execution — er, bout — he had with Anthony Smith last year. That was about as violent a finish as I can remember seeing in a fight, and I really thought Rua should have called it a career right there and then. To his credit, he did rebound with a third-round finish in his next appearance. So, despite the punishment Rua has taken lately, maybe his best days aren’t totally behind him. However, they’re not exactly ahead of him, either.

Luckily, Rua has a favorable match-up here against Craig. While he is an exciting fighter who has yet to go to the judges in his 16-fight pro career, Craig has been finished four times in his last seven fights. Rua is still capable of getting the finish, as his last fight showed. The old lion still has one left in him, and he will finish Craig to make his home country proud.

Antônio Arroyo, André Muniz and Tracy Cortez — do we need to know these names?

Huntemann: Well, if you follow a certain section of the MMA Twittersphere, then yes, you should definitely know about Cortez. However, it really has nothing to do with what she’s done in the cage (spoiler alert: Cortez is a very attractive woman).

Cortez is undefeated since losing her very first pro MMA bout in 2017. She is a veteran of organizations like Invicta FC and Combate Americas. She won her way into the UFC on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series and has a decent first test on the big stage in 16-fight veteran Vanessa Melo.

Arroyo also won his way into the UFC via the Contender Series, where he notched two victories. He appears to be a well-known veteran of the Brazilian MMA scene. Ditto for Muniz, who also won twice on the Contender Series and already has 22 pro bouts under his belt. Muniz has only lost twice in 13 fights since 2013, so when it’s all said and done, he might be the one who requires the most attention from fight fans.

Petela: There’s something about fighters dropping their professional debut and then going on to be wildly successful. Cortez could join the likes of Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, Weili Zhang and Forrest Griffin, all of whom became UFC champions after starting their professional careers with a defeat. I know that I am getting way ahead of myself in saying this about Cortez, who has a long way to go before she is a contender. However, the 25-year-old is at a high enough level where it’s not impossible to imagine that she has the time to develop into a real threat at flyweight.

This is the perfect card for Arroyo and Muniz to make their first Octagon appearances. The two men are squaring off against each other in their debuts, which is a bummer because both men could become mainstays in the middleweight division, if not ever true contenders. Hopefully their fight will be closely contested and a crowd-pleaser so that neither man loses much of the momentum they have built on the heels of their performances on the Contender Series.

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

Petela: Sergio Moraes and James Krause.

These guys are on opposite trajectories right now. Moraes is on a two-fight skid, whereas Krause has won five straight. They also have the same last opponent, but with wildly different results. Warlley Alves knocked out Moraes in the first round of their May 2019 contest. Krause knocked out Alves in the third round when the pair met in August 2018. The old adage that MMA math doesn’t work certainly rings true, so there’s no guarantee that Krause will come away with the win. Regardless, these two veterans will put on an entertaining fight to close out the prelims.

Huntemann: Francisco Trinaldo and Bobby Green.

Whenever you see Trinaldo’s name on the fight card, pay attention. There is just something about him that makes him an attractive watch. The 30-fight veteran has shared the cage with some of the most well-known names at lightweight recently.

Green has 34 pro fights to his credit and desperately needs a win after his recent 1-4 skid. He has a pretty damn tough match-up against Trinaldo, but I reckon that two guys with a combined 64 pro fights can put on a fight worthy of our attention and praise.

Pair this card with…

Huntemann: A good thing about UFC cards that take place in Brazil — whether it’s a pay-per-view or a regular “Fight Night” card — is that they usually contain a few entertaining bouts. On paper, this card also looks to fit that bill. Thanksgiving is right around the corner, so any holiday lover worth his/her salt should be training for the culinary games to come. Treat your stomach well while watching this card. Perhaps enjoy a nice salad and some sparkling water. Don’t overdo it.

Petela: This is the final fight card after a 12-week period of consecutive UFC weekends. Join me in taking a break from the booze for this card so you can really soak in the fights with a clear head. Grab a six pack of Zevia, convince yourself that you’re being healthy, and enjoy the fights.

Fight Picks

Fight Huntemann’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LHW: Jan Błachowicz vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza Blachowicz Blachowicz
LHW: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs. Paul Craig Rua Craig
LW: Charles Oliveira vs. Jared Gordon Oliveira Oliveira
MW: Antônio Arroyo vs. André Muniz Muniz Arroyo
MW: Markus Perez vs. Wellington Turman Perez Perez
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
WW: Sergio Moraes vs. James Krause Krause Krause
FW: Ricardo Ramos vs. Eduardo Garagorri Garagorri Ramos
LW: Francisco Trinaldo vs. Bobby Green Green Trinaldo
WW: Warlley Alves vs. Randy Brown Brown Alves
BW: Renan Barão vs. Douglas Andrade Andrade Andrade
Women’s FlyW: Ariane Lipski vs. Veronica Macedo Lipski Lipski
Women’s BW: Tracy Cortez vs. Vanessa Melo Cortez Cortez