Paul Felder (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 26 Preview and Predictions

Lightweight fireworks!

This weekend, the UFC heads down under to beautiful Auckland, New Zealand, for the third time for a card headlined by Paul Felder and Dan Hooker. Both men are equally anxious to get back into the Octagon and continue their climb toward UFC lightweight supremacy.

Felder and Hooker sit respectively at Nos. 6 and 7 in the official UFC lightweight rankings. Each man enters the contest on a two-fight winning streaks that has elevated their contender status toward the top tier of the ultra-competitive division.


The last time the UFC was in Auckland — in 2017, when Derrick Lewis and Mark Hunt were the headliners — the show delivered spectacular results, with five finishes on the main card alone. In fact, it was that very same card where Hooker delivered a brutal knee that sent Ross Pearson to the canvas and put fellow lightweights on notice. Since then, Hooker and Felder have evolved into exceptional combatants with 5-1 records for each fighter in their last six outings. The winner will surely further elevate themselves as a potential lightweight contender in a weight class that features the likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje.

The remainder of the card features familiar names, including Karolina Kowalkiewicz, Angela Hill, Jake Matthews, Emil Weber Meek and Marcos Rogério de Lima. Kowalkiewicz looks to snap a three-fight skid when she takes on Yan Xiaonan. Hill makes her sixth Octagon appearance in 12 months after stopping Hannah Cifers via elbows in January. The preliminary card is topped by Jake Matthews and Emil Weber Meek in a clash of exciting and powerful welterweights.

UFC on ESPN+ 26 goes down inside the Spark Arena on Feb. 22. The preliminary action begins at 4 p.m. ET, followed at 7 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.

Lightweight headliner Dan Hooker has been a surprise breakout fighter after entering the UFC with a modest 10-4 mark. Does he keep his run going when he clashes with Paul Felder?

Petela: Unfortunately for the crowd, the hometown fighter will come out on the wrong side of this one.

Hooker has looked great in his last two fights, knocking out James Vick halfway through the first round and then picking up a lopsided unanimous decision over Al Iaquinta at UFC 243. Prior to that, he had been stopped by a body punch in the third round by Edson Barboza in a fight where Hooker absorbed an incredible amount of damage and was demonstrably too tough for his own good.

Felder has twice stood toe-to-toe with the aforementioned Barboza and has been on both ends of split-decision thrillers. Hooker won’t be able to withstand the punishment from Felder over five rounds. That’s not to say that Felder won’t be taking his fair share of damage from Hooker, but this will be a war of attrition where Felder limps away with his hand raised.

This fight perfectly demonstrates why the lightweight division is the best and deepest division in the history of MMA. Neither Felder nor Hooker are inside the top five of their weight class, and yet it’s not far-fetched to think that either man could wind up wearing the championship belt before too long. While a win would put Felder a victory or two away from a shot at the belt, a loss for Hooker certainly doesn’t lower his stock as an elite fighter.

Sumian: What a fantastic job by the UFC for putting this fight together. It is truly hard to imagine a better pairing to headline a UFC fight night.

Both Felder and Hooker have broken out in the last few years to establish themselves as two of the toughest, hard-hitting, ever-evolving fighters in the UFC lightweight division. In a weight class that’s stacked with contenders from top to bottom, it takes special individuals to be recognized as contenders in line to fight for the UFC lightweight strap.

Felder is on a two-fight winning streak in which he outstruck the aforementioned Vick and edged out Barboza in a verdict that truly could have gone either way. On the other hand, Hooker is also riding back-to-back victories. This weekend, Hooker will emerge the victor and extend his streak to three and possibly elevate himself into the division’s top five.

This fight will be competitive, gritty and very fast-paced. Both combatants will try to dictate the pace, distance and center control using the number of weapons in their striking arsenals. Felder will likely have a speed advantage and be able to land a number of low leg kicks to damage Hooker when he is within range. However, Hooker will use his four-and-a-half-inch reach, equally as impressive and evolving striking game, and the surge of the hometown crowd to edge out Felder in a 29-28 decision.

The light heavyweights in the co-main event were both humbled in their last outings. Jim Crute suffered his first pro loss against Misha Cirkunov in September. Michał Oleksiejczuk lost for the first time since 2014 when he was submitted by Ovince Saint Preux, also in September. Which fighter gets back in the win column on Saturday?

Sumian: These guys are in similar positions. After each fighter won two bouts in a row, they were granted top-15 opponents that led to their first losses in the UFC. This can only mean neither individual is ready for the upper tier of opponents in the UFC and needs to gain the experience and skills necessary to compete with the best in the division.

These men have proven to be exciting finishers, though. Seven of Crute’s 10 wins have come by way of finish, and 10 of Oleksiejczuk’s 14 victories have come via knockout.

Crute has respectable wins over Paul Craig and Sam Alvey, but the stats don’t boast anything to rave over. Crute has only landed 1.14 significant strikes per minute in his UFC career and averages just over 50 percent on both his striking and takedown defense. On the other hand, Oleksiejczuk averages 5.43 significant strikes per minute, almost two takedowns per bout, and a strong 70 percent striking defense. He has the advantage in experience, reach and power while also averaging better stats in almost every single department.

Oleksiejczuk will take this fight early and with ease.

Petela: The loss Crute suffered to Cirkunov was a hectic scrambling battle that almost ended in the first round and wasn’t a lopsided performance. Crute was in a dominant position and had hurt Cirkunov before the position was reversed and he fell victim to a gnarly peruvian necktie. Meanwhile, Oleksiejczuk became the fourth person to be submitted by OSP with a Von Flue choke. It’s tough to take a lot away from these outings. Neither man’s resume contains a lot of wins over truly elite fighters.

It’s hard to argue with the statistics my colleague laid out, but I’m going with Crute to pick up the win in New Zealand. Oceania is an interesting place where there is a natural geographic rivalry between Australia and New Zealand, but when one of their own takes on a fighter from a different part of the world, the crowd will embrace the “local” fighter unlike any other region on Earth. This creates the perfect recipe for Crute. He will be buoyed by the crowd without having to be “the guy” to carry the weight of the fight card. He’ll pick up a stoppage win in a fun fight between two guys who could eventually be contenders at 205 pounds.

Joshua Culibao — do we need to know this name?

Petela: Culibao is an undefeated youngster from Australia who sports an 8-0 record and has finished five of those wins by knockout or TKO. Anytime someone joins the UFC with this type of resume, they are a name worth knowing.

The matchmakers have put Culibao in an interesting position. He takes on Jalin Turner, who was initially set to meet Jamie Mullarkey before the Aussie fighter suffered an injury. Turner is coming off a loss to Matt Frevola and has a losing record of 1-2 in the UFC, so this might seem like a showcase fight for Culibao. However, the contest could be a double-edged sword. Turner is a big lightweight who fought Vicente Luque at welterweight, whereas Culibao is a featherweight who moved up to 155 for this opportunity. Culibao is definitely someone to keep an eye on, but don’t be surprised if he stumbles out of the blocks.

Sumian: The UFC has been very aggressive in acquiring and featuring new talent in the last few months, which is great for building a phenomenal roster. Culibao will shine in front of the hometown crowd with a TKO of Turner to leave fans clamoring for more. The move to lightweight should be beneficial, as he joins one of the hardest divisions in the UFC.

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

Sumian: Jake Matthews and Emil Weber Meek.

It’s not much of a sleeper, but it is just so good that it needs to be mentioned more. These welterweights are going to light up the UFC prelims. If Felder and Hooker do not get “Fight of the Night” honors, then it will be as a result of this bout taking home the bonus.

If you have ever seen Meek, then you know he is the closest thing to a real-life Viking that has ever stepped foot in the Octagon. He’s athletic, energetic and equipped with a solid gas tank. Meek is a well-rounded welterweight who is still fairly green in his UFC career. Not many people will remember that his second fight in the UFC came against Kamaru Usman, who is now the UFC welterweight champion. Meek lost that fight, but he certainly showed his durability and the skills to compete with the UFC elite.

Matthews is a 12-fight UFC veteran, yet he is still only 25 years old. He enters this bout with an 8-4 UFC record. Matthews is still very much learning and evolving as a mixed martial artist. He’s backed by a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and a 2.26 takedown average per bout. Matthews is always looking to take his opponent to the canvas, impose his stellar ground game, and threaten his opponents with various submissions.

Petela: Zubaira Tukhugov and Kevin Aguilar.

Tukhugov will probably always be best remembered for his role in the post-UFC 229 melee. He has only fought once since that night, going to a draw at UFC 242 against Lerone Murphy. Aguilar dropped a unanimous decision to Dan Ige in his last fight, but the loss snapped a nine-fight winning streak. Neither one of these men are that highly touted, but don’t be surprised when this fight leaves fans looking forward to seeing more of both featherweights in the future.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Petela: Karolina Kowalkiewicz.

The Polish fighter is on a three-fight skid and has gone just 2-5 over her last seven bouts. After she picked up a win over Rose Namajunas in a title eliminator, Kowalkiewicz was thought to be the woman with the best chance at dethroning Joanna Jędrzejczyk. It turns out that she was not.

Things have not gone as planned since Kowalkiewicz came up short against Jędrzejczyk. It served as her first professional loss, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. While Kowalkiewicz has been stumbling, the strawweight division has become the deepest women’s weight class in the UFC. The title has changed hands multiple times, prospects like Tatiana Suarez have become full-fledged contenders, and new prospects like Amanda Ribas have arrived on the scene. If she is not able to come out with a win over Yan Xiaonan, Kowalkiewicz could be facing the end of the line.

Sumian: Kowalkiewicz is definitely in a precarious position. However, for the sake of being different, my pick has to be Priscila Cachoeira. The flyweight is also riding a three-fight skid. She now faces Shana Dobson as the first bout of the preliminary card and desperately needs a victory to keep her place on the UFC roster.

Pair this card with…

Sumian: The new age. While the main event is a huge fight that has several implications for the UFC lightweight roster, the remainder of the card features a UFC debut, up-and-coming fighters, and several combatants who certainly need a victory to keep their spot in the highly competitive UFC. This is the type of card where fans will tune in solely for the opportunity to watch two of the most exciting lightweights in recent UFC history. However, if they tune in earlier, they will be blessed with a mix of exciting fights and memorable finishes as the new age of UFC fighters begin their campaign to establish themselves as household names. If it’s a drink you are looking for, let’s go with FireBall Whiskey. It is sweet, spicy, and fairly easy to drink, and it sums up our main event fairly well.

Petela: A stockpile of your favorite caffeinated beverage. After the completion of this event, you won’t want to miss the rematch between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury for boxing’s heavyweight crown. While the adrenaline from what is a can’t-miss whirlwind main event will last you a while, it’s going to be late before the two big men make the walk to the ring. You are going to need a little boost to keep you alert for this historic rematch of unbeaten heavyweight boxers who both have a legitimate claim as the best heavyweight in the world, for now.

Fight Picks

Fight Petela’s Pick Sumian’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
LW: Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker Felder Hooker
LHW: Jim Crute vs. Michał Oleksiejczuk Crute Oleksiejczuk
Women’s StrawW: Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Yan Xiaonan Xiaonan Kowalkiewicz
HW: Marcos Rogério de Lima vs. Ben Sosoli de Lima de Lima
LW: Magomed Mustafaev vs. Brad Riddell Mustafaev Riddell
FW: Zubaira Tukhugov vs. Kevin Aguilar Tukhugov Aguilar
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET)
LW: Jalin Turner vs. Joshua Culibao Turner Culibao
WW: Jake Matthews vs. Emil Weber Meek Matthews Matthews
WW: Callan Potter vs. Kenan Song Potter Potter
FlyW: Kai Kara-France vs. Tyson Nam Kara-France Kara-France
Women’s StrawW: Loma Lookboonmee vs. Angela Hill Hill Hill
WW: Maki Pitolo vs. Takashi Sato Soto Sato
Women’s FlyW: Shana Dobson vs. Priscila Cachoeira Dobson Dobson