Alistair Overeem (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 7 Preview and Predictions

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of fighting in Washington, D.C., is probably Democrats and Republicans clashing over who has the worst ideas for government policies. That changes this weekend when the UFC takes center stage in our nation’s capital with the promotion’s first event in D.C. since 2011.

The headlining match-up has fireworks written all over it, with a pair of heavyweights that don’t like to leave their fights in the hands of the judges. Decorated kickboxing veteran Alistair Overeem has scored finishes in 40 of his 45 wins. His opponent, Jairzinho Rozenstruik, has knocked out eight of the nine men he has faced en route to a flawless 9-0 record.

Rozenstruik stepped into this fight on short notice to replace Walt Harris, who was forced to withdraw due to the disappearance and ultimately tragic, untimely death of his stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard. This fight comes just over a month after “Bigi Boy” needed only 29 seconds to dispatch former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski. This will mark the fourth fight of 2019 for Suriname’s Rozenstruik, who made his promotional debut in February and has scored three early finishes, the longest of those three fights lasting under six minutes.


Overeem is nothing short of a combat-sports legend. The veteran of Pride, K-1 and Dream is looking to put together a three-fight winning streak after dropping consecutive bouts by knockout to top contenders Francis Ngannou and Curtis Blaydes. A win over the surging Rozenstruik won’t bolster Overeem’s position in the rankings, but it will keep his name on the list of men one or two fights away from a shot at the heavyweight championship, the one belt that has eluded the “Demolition Man” over his prestigious career.

The co-main event also had a shake up from the originally scheduled match-up. It now pits California native Cynthia Calvillo against undefeated Brazilian fighter Marina Rodriguez in a matchup of top-10 strawweights. Originally, Calvillo was slated to face off against Claudia Gadelha, but an injury forced the former title challenger out of the contest. Rodriguez took Gadelha’s place on just six weeks’ notice. The lone blemish on Calvillo’s record is a unanimous-decision loss to inaugural strawweight champ Carla Esparza. She has gone on to pick up a submission win over Poliana Botelho and a unanimous decision over Cortney Casey. The winner of this contest will plant themselves among the cream of the crop at strawweight and likely stand a win or two away from a crack at the title currently held by Weili Zhang.

The main card also features a pair of heavyweight veterans in Stefan Struve and Ben Rothwell. After snapping a three-fight skid in February, Struve had seemingly retired. Then, he signed a new six-fight contract with the UFC. At only 31 years old, “Skyscraper” is young in terms of heavyweights, but he is already a 40-fight veteran who has been through a plethora of health issues. Rothwell is looking to snap a three-fight skid of his own. A win over Struve would bring Rothwell’s UFC record to 7-6, but a loss could very well be the last time we see the Wisconsin native step inside the Octagon.

The fights take place inside the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., beginning with the early prelims on ESPN+ at 5:45 p.m. ET. The televised prelims get underway at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN and the action culminates with the main card, also on ESPN, at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Bryan Henderson and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Jairzinho Rozenstruik has rocketed into relevance in the UFC’s heavyweight division. After destroying former champ Andrei Arlovski in early November, he’s now set to replace Walt Harris in a showdown with perennial contender Alistair Overeem. Will Rozenstruik make another big statement in this fight?

Henderson: It’s quite common these days for a heavyweight to bolt up the UFC’s rankings board. Francis Ngannou actually took a very similar path to the one Rozenstruik is attempting, with an Overeem showdown coming on the heels of a first-round finish of Arlovski. Curtis Blaydes had Overeem’s number, but he couldn’t get past Ngannou. Now, it’s Rozenstruik’s turn.

The Suriname native has a perfect record through nine fights. Even more impressively, he’s steamrolled past Junior Albini, Allen Crowder and Arlovski in his three UFC outings. The “Bigi Boy” has eight knockouts to his name. He’s an intimidating force, and he comes close to matching Overeem’s height and reach numbers.

Of course, Overeem is no joke. The veteran has been near the top of the heavyweight polls for years. He shared the Pride ring with a number of heavyweight and light heavyweight greats, and he’s done the same in the UFC, where he holds wins over Brock Lesnar, Frank Mir, Junior dos Santos and Fabricio Werdum, among others.

Overeem’s not perfect, though. He has dropped fights to Ngannou, Blaydes, Ben Rothwell, Travis Browne, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Stipe Miocic. He can look to coast at times, and he also has a bad habit of underestimating less-accomplished foes. If he does this to Rozenstruik, he’s in for a rude awakening on Saturday night.

Despite Overeem’s inconsistency, the kickboxer has turned back recent opponents Aleksei Oleinik and Sergey Pavlovich. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Overeem, now 39 years old, is a tough out. However, his chin isn’t always solid. He was put away by perhaps the three most powerful opponents he’s met recently. Rozenstruik could make himself a household name against the established veteran.

Petela: What a great opportunity this is for Rozenstruik. Not only does he have his first opportunity on the main card of a UFC event, but he is part of the headlining affair. This comes with the possibility of fighting five rounds, though it would be a shock if this contest makes it the distance. It’s much more likely that it ends in the first round than it is that the judges will be needed.

“Inconsistent” is a great way to describe Overeem’s UFC career. He has rattled off back-to-back knockout wins after succumbing to the sheer power of Ngannou and the devastating ground-and-pound of Blaydes. Unlike most of his previous resurgences into contendership, Overeem’s bounce-back wins this time around haven’t been over the cream of the crop in the heavyweight division. He took care of Pavlovich in the Russian’s UFC debut and then finished a clearly past-his-prime Oleinik in under one round.

Rozenstruik certainly isn’t a household name, and Overeem could see this bout as a less dangerous match-up than his clashes with Mark Hunt and the aforementioned Werdum. If he comes in even slightly underestimating “Bigi Boy,” then he will pay for it dearly. Rozenstruik dropped Crowder with a jab and then put away Arlovski with a single counter check hook, so this one could be over quickly.

Will Marina Rodriguez continue her impressive UFC run when she meets Cynthia Calvillo in the evening’s co-headliner?

Petela: It’s tough to look good against Calvillo. While Rodriguez will pull out a win, it won’t be a memorable performance.

This is an interesting match-up from the rankings perspective, where Rodriguez sits at ninth and Calvillo at No. 10. Rodriguez is a replacement opponent for an injured Claudia Gadelha, and we don’t often see a higher-ranked opponent step in on short notice. Calvillo, a Team Alpha Male product who has fought on three pay-per-views and the first UFC on ESPN card, is the more recognizable of the two fighters, so it makes sense for Rodriguez to take the fight despite being ranked slightly higher than her opponent.

This will be a back-and-forth technical battle between two well-rounded women who have a few stoppage victories on their records but lack true fight-ending power in their hands. Their finishes largely come by an accumulation of damage inflicted, whether it is late in the fight or at the end of the round that results in a TKO or submission.

Rodriguez will get the better of the action overall and pick up a decision win that doesn’t leave a lasting impression with the fans.

Henderson: The betting lines might not indicate it, but Rodriguez seemingly came out of nowhere to make an impact in the UFC. She fought to a draw with Randa Markos, then edged Jessica Aguilar and Tecia Torres on the scorecards. She was only an underdog in one of those three fights, but fans were definitely more familiar with all of her foes.

This is why, as tough as it may be to look good against Calvillo, that’s exactly what Rodriguez will manage to do. She won’t enjoy quite the size disparity in her favor that came against Torres or even Aguilar, but her skill set and power are enough to make life difficult for Calvillo. Rodriguez has great takedown defense, plenty of scrambling and reversal abilities when she does end up on her back, and the dexterity to fight through submission attempts.

Calvillo is likely to be the most difficult test yet for Rodriguez. Torres may be more highly regarded, but she can come out flat sometimes and also gave up way too much height and reach to Rodriguez. Markos and Aguilar are grinders who couldn’t hang with the more diverse fighter across from them. Calvillo brings a lot to the table that none of those former Rodriguez foes could, including the ability to finish a fight anywhere it goes. She’s proven herself against a sturdy list of pro opponents and even topped Aspen Ladd while still competing as an amateur.

The problem is that Calvillo still won’t have the answer to the Rodriguez puzzle. The Californian fighter has victimized plenty of strikers, but Rodriguez isn’t a pure striker. Calvillo’s background training with a strong wrestling camp at Team Alpha Male is great, but it won’t stop Rodriguez from reversing position or stuffing takedown attempts. This will still be a very competitive fight, but it should go to Rodriguez in yet another outing that solidifies her standing as one of the best 115-pounders around.

Jacob Kilburn, Billy Quarantillo, Joe Solecki and Mallory Martin — do we need to know these names?

Henderson: We’re probably not looking at any future champions here.

Martin is the high-profile name in the group, thanks to her time in Invicta and the Legacy Fighting Alliance. She topped Micol di Segni on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, but she’s also suffered losses to Sunna Davíðsdóttir and Maycee Barber. The strawweight fighter could find a foothold with the UFC, but she needs to score some signature wins to establish herself as a future contender. She’s going to have a tough time winning her promotional debut, as she steps in on very short notice against former Invicta champion Virna Jandiroba.

Quarantillo and Solecki have a lot left to prove. These guys earned their UFC contracts via the Contender Series, but their stoppage wins didn’t come against particularly noteworthy competition. Quarantillo, a 30-year-old featherweight, gets late-notice replacement Jacob Kilburn — a newcomer who, by the way, didn’t even manage to win his own Contender Series fight — and is only likely to add another rather unremarkable name to his resume. Solecki, a 26-year-old lightweight, has a winnable first fight against Matt Wiman, who is winless since returning from a nearly five-year hiatus. However, Solecki, who has suffered two previous losses, might only find success against the league’s low-hanging fruit.

Petela: One of the confusing things about this fight card is that the UFC doesn’t seem to be using the visibility of its ESPN platform to introduce many of its top-tier prospects to a larger audience. Perhaps the thought process is to load this card up with familiar veteran names like Ben Rothwell and Stefan Struve that might draw in a larger casual audience for a one-time ratings spike.

As far as this event’s freshman class, I couldn’t agree more with my colleague. Nobody making their debut in D.C. has a particularly high ceiling, or at least they haven’t demonstrated that type of potential thus far in their careers. Martin very likely could make a career out of being a middle-of-the-pack strawweight, but Solecki is going to be taking a serious step up in competition — and not one he will handle well.

Kilburn as a last-minute replacement might not have the same name recognition or overall skill level as Quarantillo’s original opponent Chris Fishgold, but that shifts all the pressure onto Quarantillo, who by all measurables should come out with the victory. Regardless of the outcome, I don’t see either man making themselves a mainstay in the UFC.

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

Petela: Bryce Mitchell and Matt Sayles. Both of these guys are finishers, but largely in different ways. Mitchell has ended eight of his 11 wins via submission. Sayles has six wins by knockout on his 8-2 record. This fight will have the fans in D.C. on the edge of their seats, no matter the outcome.

Henderson: There are a few possible sleeper fights in this lineup, but let’s go with Cody Stamann and Yadong Song. Yes, it’s on the main card, but it’s still a somewhat overlooked fight on a card featuring two huge heavyweight clashes and a pair of strawweight ladies in the co-main event.

Stamann has had a steady run through the UFC competition. He settled for split verdicts over Bryan Caraway and Tom Duquesnoy, but those are hardly easy fights. His only loss came to Aljamain Sterling, who has become a fixture in the bantamweight title hunt. Meanwhile, Song has quietly made his way through four Octagon appearances with a perfect mark and three stoppages.

Stamann’s a grinder, but Song has three “Performance of the Night” awards already to his name. This could be a great way to kick off the main card.

Pair this card with…

Henderson: Popcorn. This could be a night of knockouts. The headliners are certainly capable of delivering on this front, co-headliner Marina Rodriguez has five knockout finishes, and the lineup also features proven knockout artists Ben Rothwell, Yadong Song, Rob Font, Thiago Alves and Tim Means. We could see some bodies crashing to the canvas on Saturday evening, so sit back and enjoy.

Petela: Heineken. Alistair Overeem grew up in the Netherlands and Jairzinho Rozenstruik hails from the former Dutch colony of Suriname, which still holds close economic and political ties to the Netherlands, so enjoy the heavyweight clash with a few Heinekens or, if you’re bold go, with Heineken Light and a slice of lemon, a delicious trick I learned several years back from a wise colleague.

Fight Picks

Fight Henderson’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET)
HW: Alistair Overeem vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik Rozenstruik Rozenstruik
Women’s StrawW: Cynthia Calvillo vs. Marina Rodriguez Rodriguez Rodriguez
HW: Stefan Struve vs. Ben Rothwell Struve Struve
Women’s BW: Aspen Ladd vs. Yana Kunitskaya Ladd Kunitskaya
BW: Cody Stamann vs. Yadong Song Song Song
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET)
BW: Rob Font vs. Ricky Simon Font Font
WW: Thiago Alves vs. Tim Means Means Means
FW: Jacob Kilburn vs. Billy Quarantillo Quarantillo Quarantillo
FW: Bryce Mitchell vs. Matt Sayles Mitchell Mitchell
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Matt Wiman vs. Joe Solecki Solecki Wiman
Women’s StrawW: Virna Jandiroba vs. Mallory Martin Jandiroba Martin
MW: Trevor Smith vs. Makhmud Muradov Muradov Muradov