Frankie Edgar (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 23 Preview and Predictions

This weekend was supposed to be Brian Ortega’s return to action after a year away from the Octagon following his first career loss. The Los Angeles-born fighter understandably took an extended break after absorbing 290 significant strikes from Max Holloway when the pair met for the featherweight title in December 2018. Unfortunately, “T-City” suffered a torn ACL less than three weeks before he was scheduled to face Chan Sung Jung in the main event of UFC on ESPN+ 23. Ortega was forced to withdraw from the fight, leaving “The Korean Zombie” without an opponent.

UFC matchmakers didn’t have to look far to find a replacement. The venerable Frankie Edgar was ready and willing to take Ortega’s place. Edgar was already in training camp for a January showdown with Cory Sandhagen that was supposed to mark the former lightweight champion’s debut at bantamweight. Instead, he remains at featherweight and heads overseas to take on Jung in the latter’s home country of South Korea.

Jung has fought sparingly over his eight-year tenure with the UFC, largely due to his mandatory military service that led to a nearly four-year absence from 2013 to 2017. Despite the long periods of inactivity, Jung remains one of the most dangerous men at 145 pounds, and fans know they are in for a treat every time he steps into the cage. He bounced back from his last-second knockout loss to Yair Rodriguez in late 2018 with a TKO win over Renato Moicano in the first minute of their June match-up. Jung will look to build upon that momentum against Edgar and show that he is not only one of the most entertaining fighters but also a real threat as a top contender in the featherweight division.


A pair of light-heavyweight knockout artists share the cage for the co-main event. Former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir takes on prospect-turned-contender Aleksandar Rakić. Oezdemir recently got back in the win column with a TKO over Ilir Latifi. The victory brought an end to Oezdemir’s three-fight skid. Rakić burst onto the UFC radar with a devastating head-kick knockout of Jimi Manuwa in June, and he looks to take another giant step toward a title shot with a win over “No Time.”

One half of 2016’s “Fight of the Year,” Doo Ho Choi is out to right the ship and avoid dropping three consecutive fights when he takes on Charles Jourdain in a main-card bout. Choi has put on spectacular performances in each of his last four fights, winning “Fight of the Night” honors in his two recent losses and “Performance of the Night” bonuses in his last two wins. Jourdain got off to a rough start in his promotional debut when he lost a unanimous decision to Des Green. He’s still on the hunt for his first Octagon victory.

UFC on ESPN+ 23 takes place inside the Sajik Arena in Busan, South Korea. The prelims get underway at 2 a.m. ET on Saturday on ESPN. The main card follows on ESPN+, with the first bout set to kick off at 5 a.m. ET. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

”The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung went from a scheduled fight against Brian Ortega to a showdown with Frankie Edgar. Is this an easier fight or a tougher one for the South Korean star?

Huntemann: Oh, Frankie Edgar. I know we have all heard the joke by now that the only things to survive a nuclear apocalypse would be cockroaches, Twinkies and possibly Keith Richards. I would add Edgar to that list, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible. He just doesn’t go away and manages to finagle himself into big fight after big fight.

Is his match-up with Jung as big as Edgar’s previous outings against the likes of Benson Henderson, José Aldo or UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway? No, not really. However, if Edgar defeats Jung on short notice, then he might have just as much of an argument for a rematch with Holloway as anyone else would for a title shot. Also, once again, Edgar proves that it usually pays to be in UFC President Dana White’s good graces.

Edgar is a tougher match-up for Jung than Ortega would have been. This is not only because Jung is preparing for a new opponent on short notice, but because Edgar’s legendary toughness is well known. You just can’t put him away. Edgar will make Jung work for all five rounds to get a win. In Ortega’s last fight against Holloway, he took an absolute beating and the fight was called off a round or so later than it probably should have been. For the record, I’m not questioning Ortega’s toughness — the pummeling he took from Holloway for as long as he did solidified him as one of the toughest in the UFC — but I just think Jung will have to work that much harder to top Edgar than he would have against Ortega.

The Korean Zombie put on an incredible performance in his last fight against Renato Moicano, and that momentum can carry over for him into this fight.

Petela: It’s impossible not to love Edgar for the reasons my colleague pointed out, but I am having a hard time seeing a scenario where Edgar gets his hand raised after this fight. At this point in his career, and especially after training for a fight at bantamweight, Edgar is an undersized featherweight. These guys seemingly keep getting bigger and bigger.

This should be an easier fight for The Korean Zombie, simply because Edgar doesn’t do anything super tricky or sneaky. The former champ likes to box and wrestle, and he does those things incredibly well. He can go the entire fight seemingly without breaking a sweat. Jung won’t have to worry about the insane submission threat that Ortega brings to the table. Edgar has solid grappling, but he’s not the same threat as “T-City.”

Edgar is in perpetual motion anytime he steps foot in the Octagon, but he does get hit. If Jung is able to connect early to slow down Edgar ever so slightly, then it could minimize the effectiveness of Edgar’s takedown attempts. If we find ourselves watching a 25-minute stand-up battle, then the odds are heavily in Jung’s favor.

Aleksandar Rakić has won his first four UFC fights. He’s finished his last two opponents in the first round, including Jimi Manuwa in just 47 seconds. How will he fare against Volkan Oezdemir?

Petela: Not only has Rakić finished his last two opponents, but he has stoppages in 10 of his 12 professional victories. Eight of those finishes came in the opening round. This man clearly understands that fighters don’t get paid by the hour.

The man standing across the cage from him isn’t a fan of the judges’ either. Oezdemir became a household name with first-minute knockouts over Misha Cirkunov and the aforementioned Manuwa. His most recent loss came at the hands of upcoming title challenger Dominick Reyes in a controversial split decision that many fans — and this writer — thought should have gone the way of “No Time.”

Manuwa was already at the tail end of his career when Rakić put him away. The 30-year-old Oezdemir is still in his prime and should be the toughest test of the 27-year-old Austrian’s career. Both men come from a kickboxing background, but Oezdemir prefers to rely on the power in his hands, whereas Rakić likes to throw a wide variety of punches and kicks to separate his opponent from consciousness. Those kicks of Rakić will be the difference in this fight as he scores his third consecutive knockout.

Huntemann: Even though Oezdemir finished Ilir Latifi in his last fight, the three-fight skid he faced before that win took a toll on him. Rakić is a fighter on the rise in what is still a very lean light-heavyweight division.

The fact that Rakić hasn’t lost since his very first pro MMA bout more than eight years ago really says all that needs to be said. Oezdemir will be a tough test, but only for a while. The variety of strikes Rakić likes to deploy should make all the difference indeed and will allow him to continue his march toward a possible title shot.

Omar Morales — do we need to know this name?

Huntemann: The undefeated Morales has won his last three fights via stoppage, including one on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. He already has some experience on a big stage after winning a fight in just under a minute in Bellator MMA last year. Morales’ native Argentina is also home to one Santiago Ponzinibbio, who is knocking on the door of a title shot in the UFC’s welterweight division. Perhaps there is something to be said about those Argentinians, so, sure, Morales should definitely be a guy to keep an eye on.

Petela: At 34 years old, Morales needs to make a splash quickly to capitalize on the few years he has left in his athletic prime. He has all the tools to do just that, finishing fights by submission and knockout. He’s also shown that he has the cardio to go a full 15 minutes and pick up the decision victory. He’s definitely a name to know and someone who could become a problem for others in the lightweight division. I’m excited to see Morales kick off his UFC run.

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

Petela: Ciryl Gane and Tanner Boser. Gane was en route to a dominant decision victory in his last fight before slapping on a heel hook in the final minute of his contest with Don’Tale Mayes. That’s not bad for a guy who came to MMA after beginning his combat-sports career in kickboxing. Gane is a heavy favorite (-600) in this fight, so it should be one the French heavyweight wins. It will be fun to see what else he has in his box of tricks.

Huntemann: Said Nurmagomedov and Raoni Barcelos. This bantamweight preliminary-card bout features two guys with a combined 29 pro fights, but only two losses between them. It appears more and more as if fighters named Nurmagomedov just grow on trees out there in Dagestan. This particular Nurmagomedov hasn’t lost since 2014, just like Barcelos. These two men are coming off impressive performances in their previous fights and are absolutely capable of big finishes. Keep an eye on both of these fighters and this fight in particular.

Pair this card with…

Huntemann: Since this card takes place just a few days before Christmas, and by this point we all are hopefully done with our holiday shopping and are probably just exhausted and ready for the holidays to begin, I say you don’t need a damn thing to pair with this card. Just sit back on the couch, kick your feet up, and relax.

Petela: I wonder how my colleague finished his Christmas shopping when I haven’t told him what I want yet. Anyway, like many of the overseas fight cards, this one takes place very early in the morning — or very late for all you night owls. There are some sneaky good fights on this card that are flying under the radar, but you’re going to want to pay close attention from start to finish. So, pair this card with a nice Death Wish coffee. The 600 mg of caffeine per cup will be exactly what you need in order to be firing on all cylinders to watch this event from start to finish.

Fight Picks

Fight Huntemann’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 5 a.m. ET)
FW: “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung vs. Frankie Edgar Jung Jung
LHW: Volkan Oezdemir vs. Aleksandar Rakić Rakic Rakic
FW: Doo Ho Choi vs. Charles Jourdain Choi Choi
LHW: Da Un Jung vs. Mike Rodriguez Rodriguez Jung
MW: Jun Yong Park vs. Marc-André Barriault Parkk Park
BW: Kyung Ho Kang vs. Pingyuan Liu Liu Kang
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 2 a.m. ET)
HW: Ciryl Gane vs. Tanner Boser Boser Gane
FW: Suman Mokhtarian vs. Seung Woo Choi Mokhtarian Mokhtarian
LW: Omar Morales vs. Dong Hyun Ma Morales Morales
FlyW: Alexandre Pantoja vs. Matt Schnell Pantoja Pantoja
BW: Said Nurmagomedov vs. Raoni Barcelos Barcelos Nurmagomedov
Women’s FlyW: Amanda Lemos vs. Miranda Granger Granger Granger
BW: Heili Alateng vs. Ryan Benoit Benoit Benoit