Jan Błachowicz (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 25 Preview and Predictions

The first time Corey Anderson and Jan Blachowicz met, they were both coming off losses and looking to firmly establish themselves as UFC-caliber light heavyweights. That was in 2015. The situation is different this time around. Anderson is riding a four-fight winning streak, and Blachowicz sports a 6-1 record over his last seven appearances. The stakes are much higher as well, with the winner possibly being next in line for a title shot against Jon Jones.

Anderson will look to replicate the first encounter, where he came away with a dominant unanimous decision. Blachowicz, meanwhile, is out to avenge the loss and move his record to 3-0 in rematches against fighters who had previously beaten him. The pair face off Saturday night in the main event of UFC on ESPN+ 25 in Rio Rancho, N.M.

The co-headliner features fan-favorite and New Mexico native Diego Sanchez in his first fight since signing a new UFC contract. The winner of the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter and the last member of the season to still compete in the UFC takes on Michel Pereira, a flashy kickboxer-turned-MMA-fighter who is coming off a unanimous-decision loss to last-minute replacement Tristan Connelly where fans called into question his elaborate dance routine as he walked to the Octagon only to run out of steam toward the end of the fight. Pereira will have to correct any cardio issues as he heads into his showdown with Sanchez, who is known for his intensity from the moment he is introduced through the final bell.


The main card also features a bout in the women’s flyweight division, where Montana De La Rosa clashes with Maria Romero Borella. At age 24, De La Rosa is an ever-improving prospect who will look to rebound from her first UFC loss. Borella is trying to move her UFC record above .500 and add her third victory within the promotion. The most noteworthy aspect of this fight is that it is one half of the first husband-and-wife pairing to fight on the same UFC card. In the opening bout of the evening, Montana’s husband, Mark De La Rosa, takes on Raulian Paiva in the men’s flyweight division.

UFC on ESPN+ 25 goes down inside the Santa Ana Star Center, just north of Albuquerque. The preliminary action begins at 5 p.m. ET, followed at 8 p.m. ET by the six-fight main card. The festivities air exclusively on the ESPN+ streaming service. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Corey Anderson stunned a lot of people when he destroyed Johnny Walker in just over two minutes. Will the rising light-heavyweight contender deliver another big finish when he meets Jan Blachowicz in the evening’s main event?

Sumian: Anderson is on a tear after finishing 2019 with the stunning and brutal finish of Walker and thereby delaying the hype train while also reminding fans that experience inside the Octagon should never be forgotten. Anderson is a very composed, well-rounded fighter who is currently riding a winning streak in which he’s topped Patrick Cummins, Glover Teixeira, Ilir Latifi and the aforementioned Walker. After suffering an unfortunate 2017 and dropping back-to-back contests via knockout to Jimi Manuwa and Ovince St. Preux, Anderson looks revitalized and ready to make a run at the title. He boasts impressive numbers and currently averages 4.37 significant strikes per minute, 4.96 takedowns per bout and an 83 percent takedown-defense rate.

Blachowicz has had an up-and-down career since joining the UFC. He heads into the main event against Anderson with an 8-5 record inside the Octagon. Sure, the Polish fighter is on a two-fight winning streak, but both wins came against middleweights Luke Rockhold and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, who were making their UFC light-heavyweight debuts. Blachowicz had a distinct size and power advantage and used these tools to gruesomely knock out Rockhold and edge out Souza in a very uneventful headlining bout.

More importantly, we have seen this fight before. These two men met more than four years ago, when Anderson won a dominant decision by using his superior wrestling and athleticism to heavily outpoint Blachowicz. Blachowicz certainly has a puncher’s chance, but Anderson has gotten exponentially better since that last meeting, whereas the Polish fighter has somewhat remained the same. Anderson will build off his incredible November 2019 performance against Walker and once again defeat Blachowicz by knockout or a lopsided decision. The win will put Anderson one fight away from a shot at the gold.

Petela: The knockout win over Walker was largely an anomaly for Anderson. Prior to that stunner, he hadn’t scored a knockout since 2016 against Sean O’Connell. “Overtime” isn’t known for having devastating one-punch power. He is at his best when he can dictate the pace, implement his wrestling, and outwork his opponent en route to a decision victory. That was his path to the win in the pair’s first encounter, but unfortunately for Anderson, he will have far less success the second time around.

Contrary to my colleague’s belief, Blachowicz is not the same fighter that he was at UFC 191 when the two men first squared off in the Octagon. His achilles heel had always been a less-than-optimal gas tank, an issue he has largely corrected over the last two years. He showed improved cardio in his March 2018 co-headlining appearance against Manuwa. The “Prince of Cieszyn” scored a unanimous decision in the affair, and the pair earned “Fight of the Night” honors. That 2018 fight, like this weekend’s bout, was a rematch, and Blachowicz was able to even the score. The same will happen against Anderson, putting Blachowicz next in line for a shot at Jon Jones’ title.

Albuquerque native Diego Sanchez takes to the cage opposite Brazil’s Michel Pereira in the co-headliner. Win or lose, will this be the last we see of Sanchez in the cage?

Petela: This will be the last time fans see him fight in the UFC, but it won’t be the last fight of his career. Sanchez is the last remaining fighter from the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter. He has competed across four weight classes over his 15-year promotional tenure. At 38 years old, he clearly isn’t among the absolute elite anymore. However, he loves to fight. We have seen time after time that it is incredibly difficult for fighters to walk away and never look back.

Sanchez’s encounter with Michael Chiesa was the last one on his UFC contract. He was briefly a free agent before re-signing with the company in December. While a free agent, Sanchez reached out to Lethwei world champion David LeDuc about taking a Lethwei fight. Anyone willing to take a fight in a different discipline — one that allows headbutts, no less — isn’t someone who is remotely close to walking away from the fight game. Whether it is with a different MMA promotion or in a different sport entirely, this won’t be the final combat-sports appearance for Sanchez.

I hate when fighters take fights in front of their hometown crowd. The added stress of ensuring everyone who wants to attend can get a ticket and the pressure not to disappoint the thousands of people who bought tickets specifically to see you win outweighs any “home-court advantage” that the crowd may provide. However, Sanchez is a different type of animal, even among mixed martial artists, and the stress leading up to the fight and the pressure on fight night won’t derail him from performing to the best of his abilities. He is one of the most important combat-sports figures in the region and deserves a hometown send-off.

Sumian: Many were disappointed in Pereira’s last bout, where he dropped a decision to Tristan Connelly after coming off a very impressive knockout of Danny Roberts. Although Sanchez has gone 2-1 in his last three bouts, it is very apparent that he has lost a significant step after his 30-26 loss to Chiesa.

Pereira will try to bounce back in this bout and return to his winning ways by using his movement and superior striking to beat Sanchez to the punch. However, Sanchez has the momentum of the home crowd and his vast UFC experience working in his favor. He’ll edge out a close and competitive decision over the up-and-coming Pereira.

It’s very possible Pereira finishes Sanchez, but the New Mexico native is more likely to go out with a bang, using his effective ground game and elite toughness to grind out a Rocky-esque decision over Pereira.

Brok Weaver and Daniel Rodriguez — do we need to know these names?

Sumian: Yes, and yes. Both Weaver and Rodriguez have the skill set, background and experience to achieve success in the UFC.

Weaver is a 28-year-old lightweight who has tons of experience outside the Octagon. His record stands at 14-4. He recently won a convincing unanimous decision against Devyn Smith on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series and earned a chance to shine on the big stage. Weaver is a big lightweight at 6-foot tall and with a 73-inch reach. Currently riding a seven-fight winning streak, the Alabama native will make a statement in his debut to put fans and his fellow lightweights on notice.

Rodriguez is exciting, plain and simple. The California native, at 6-foot tall and with a 75-inch reach, is equally as imposing as Weaver. The former lightweight, who meets Tim Means in a welterweight affair on Saturday, enters the Octagon with a 9-1 record. He looked impressive in 2019 after knocking out Evan Solorio with a perfectly timed knee and defeating Rico Farrington by decision on the Contender Series. That being said, he is going up against one of the toughest fighters in the welterweight division and moving up to 170 pounds for this bout. This has to be one of the more difficult UFC debuts for a fighter in a long time. Rodriguez is a valuable addition to the roster, but he will have a tough task on Saturday night in trying to defeat the established, well-respected, and crafty Means.

Petela: Yes, both of these newcomers have the potential to stick around for some time in the UFC and climb their way into contendership.

Weaver was supposed to make his promotional debut in October against Thomas Gifford, but he was removed from the card for undisclosed reasons. He’s an 18-fight veteran who is just entering his physical prime. Fans should definitely expect Weaver to make waves in the lightweight division. He has a very large frame to consistently make the 155-pound limit, so it will be interesting to see if he is eventually forced up a weight class as he gets older and cutting weight becomes more difficult.

Rodriguez is making the move to the division where Weaver might eventually end up. It will be a good litmus test for whether or not he can compete at an elite level against bigger, stronger fighters. He is a finisher who has only seen the judges’ scorecards once through nine wins. If he adapts well to his new weight class, Rodriguez could make a run into the rankings before too long. If he doesn’t, then he will still bring his fair share of exciting fights during his time under the UFC banner.

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

Petela: Casey Kenney and Merab Dvalishvili.

Kenney made his UFC debut on a week’s notice and picked up a unanimous decision in a very close fight where he showed high-level transitional grappling that resulted in some very exciting scrambles. He then went on to out-grapple Manny Bermudez to move his promotional record to 2-0.

Dvalishvili could — and maybe should — be 4-0 in the UFC. He lost a split decision to Frankie Saenz in his debut that many people thought should have gone in Dvalishvili’s favor. In his sophomore outing, he lost via a controversial technical submission to Ricky Simon. It seemed as if Dvalishvili had survived a mounted guillotine attempt by Simon, but after Dvalishvili struggled to get to his feet, referee Liam Kerrigan ruled that he was unconscious when the horn sounded and awarded the win to Simon. Since that controversial loss, the New York-based fighter has won back-to-back outings to build some momentum. His background is in the traditional and transitional wrestling disciplines of his native Georgia. He has a wide variety of takedowns in his arsenal to bring the fight to the canvas.

The scrambles alone in this fight will be worth the price of admission.

Sumian: Jim Miller and Scott Holtzman.

Both men are crafty, experienced fighters who are constantly working throughout the entirety of the bout. This will be a fast-paced affair where both men have their moments and test each other’s will in a thrilling battle.

Miller is a UFC staple who has fought the best of the best. Holtzman is currently 6-3 in the UFC after collecting a doctor’s stoppage TKO of Dong Hyun Ma. Both fighters have a good ground game and average roughly two takedowns per bout.

Watching these two well-rounded fighters battle it out for superior position and threaten with dangerous submissions will be a treat for the fans.

Pair this card with…

Sumian: The feeling of potential. Yes, this is a “Fight Night” card and does not boast a ton of huge names, but there are a number of potentially exciting fights that will surely surprise fans and provide loads of entertainment. Diego Sanchez against Michel Pereira, Lando Vannata versus Yancy Medeiros, John Dodson againstNathaniel Wood, and the clash between Jim Miller and Scott Holtzman — these are but a few of the very interesting match-ups that will plunge this card into the realm of excitement and multiple finishes. Throw in some Chimay Blue, a strong dark ale that doesn’t look great on the outside but tastes fantastic from the first sip, and you and your buddies got yourself a fun night to look forward to.

Petela: Pabst Blue Ribbon. It’s true this card isn’t full of superstar names or high-profile bouts, but it is loaded with blue-collar, bring-your-lunch-pail-to-work, gritty fighters. When you have Tim Means and Jim Miller on the same card, you can almost guarantee one of them will be involved in a “Fight of the Night”-worthy slugfest. So, crack open an ice-cold PBR and enjoy some good old-fashioned working-man’s MMA.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LHW: Corey Anderson vs. Jan Blachowicz Anderson Blachowicz
WW: Diego Sanchez vs. Michel Pereira Sanchez Pereira
Women’s FlyW: Montana De La Rosa vs. Mara Romero Borella De La Rosa De La Rosa
LW: Brok Weaver vs. Rodrigo Vargas Weaver Weaver
FlyW: Ray Borg vs. Rogério Bontorin Bontorin Bontorin
LW: Yancy Medeiros vs. Lando Vannata Vannata Medeiros
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
WW: Tim Means vs. Daniel Rodriguez Means Means
BW: John Dodson vs. Nathaniel Wood Wood Dodson
LW: Scott Holtzman vs. Jim Miller Holtzman Holtzman
LHW: Devin Clark vs. Dequan Townsend Clark Clark
BW: Casey Kenney vs. Merab Dvalishvili Kenney Dvalishvili
Women’s BW: Macy Chiasson vs. Nicco Montaño Montano Chiasson
FlyW: Mark De La Rosa vs. Raulian Paiva De La Rosa De La Rosa