Kevin Lee (Dan Kuhl/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 28 Preview and Predictions

UFC 248 is in the books. Fans were treated to some of the most memorable fights and moments thus far in 2020. After a night that delivered arguably the greatest women’s MMA fight in history, we head into the week with an upcoming UFC Fight Night featuring a number of popular Brazilian fighters who get a chance to shine in their home country in a night that’s sure to deliver another set of highlights.

In the UFC on ESPN+ 28 main event, top lightweight contenders Kevin Lee and Charles Oliveira are out to add a win to their fight resumes. The surging Brazilian Oliveira wants to add his seventh win in a row against the Detroit native Lee, who is coming off a phenomenal head-kick knockout of Gregor Gillespie in November.

The co-headliner features a pairing of top Brazlian grapplers Demian Maia and Gilbert Burns. The longtime UFC veteran Maia intends to prove he can still mix it up with the division’s elite. His fellow Brazilian Burns seeks to extend his winning streak to five and break into the top 10 of the UFC welterweight rankings.


The card also features the return of Johnny Walker, who suffered his first defeat in the Octagon to Corey Anderson in November. Fans will also witness the lightweight debut of Renato Moicano. In addition, the lineup boasts a number of potential “Fight of the Night” candidates, including the flyweight scrap between Jussier “Formiga” da Silva and Brandon Moreno, the lightweight clash that pits Fransisco Trinaldo against John Makdessi, and the welterweight bout between Elizeu Zaleksi dos Santos and Alexey Kunchenko. Get ready for a fun night of fights featuring Brazil’s best.

It all gets underway from the Ginásio Nilson Nelson in Brasilia, Brazil, on Saturday, March 14. The preliminary card airs live on ESPN at 5 p.m. ET. The main card follows on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Matt Petela and Andrew Sumian preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Charles Oliveira is currently enjoying the longest winning streak of his UFC tenure, but now he’s tasked with fellow lightweight Kevin Lee in the evening’s headliner. Will “do Bronx” keep his streak alive?

Petela: It’s astonishing that Oliveira is only 30 years old, considering he is coming up on his 10-year anniversary with the promotion. He has certainly had his share of ups and downs throughout the tenure, but along the way he has managed to rack up 15 post-fight bonuses, which is tied for second all time. Even more impressive is his UFC record 13 submission victories, two more than Demian Maia and three more than the legendary Royce Gracie. It certainly seems like “do Bronx” is putting all the pieces together as he moves toward his second decade inside the UFC. However, there is one major reason why Oliveira’s winning streak will come to an end in this weekend’s main event: Firas Zahabi.

Lee’s move to Tristar Gym in Montreal was the right choice at the right time. The former interim title challenger had hit a rough patch, missing weight in his fight with Edson Barboza, coming up short for the second time against Al Iaquinta, and suffering a submission loss to Rafael dos Anjos in his lone bout in a short-lived move up to welterweight. The whispers started to appear publicly about whether the Grand Valley State University wrestler was a contender or a pretender. This all coincides with the tragic death of his head coach and mentor Robert Follis, which understandably affected Lee both physically and mentally. “The Motown Phenom” decided to leave Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas and ultimately landed on Tristar as his new home.

Lee, now rejuvenated by the move and under the leadership of arguably the greatest mind in MMA, looked fantastic in his return to lightweight where he picked up an emphatic first-round knockout over previously undefeated contender Gregor Gillespie. The sample size is small, but the results speak volumes. From the opening bell, it was evident that Zahabi had helped Lee improve his striking en route to his first KO/TKO not to come from ground-and-pound.

Without this newfound striking prowess, Lee’s best chance at beating Oliveira would be to implement his wrestling. However, this is a dangerous game to play. Thanks to Zahabi, Lee won’t have to go into the proverbial lion’s den. Instead, he will be able to keep the fight standing, where his tremendous power will once again be on display as he picks up a second consecutive jaw-dropping knockout.

Sumian: Olivera’s impressive six-fight winning streak will be tested by a focused and revamped Lee. Make no mistake, Lee, with the guidance of Zahabi, is capable of giving any lightweight contender a very uncomfortable evening.

Olivera’s aggressive pace, improved striking, and slick submission game is perhaps one of the best and most well rounded in the division. Yet, come Saturday, it won’t matter. Lee did indeed look like a new fighter when he took on Gilliespie in November. The bout resulted in an impressive head-kick knockout. With the finish, Lee comes back to life and re-enters the pool of deadly UFC lightweight contenders in 2020.

Lee is currently averaging four significant strikes per minute, an impressive three takedowns per bout, and an 81 percent takedown-defense rate. To put it simply, there is nowhere that Olivera can really threaten the experienced and physically imposing Lee in this bout. Lee will mix in his improved striking, score a takedown, and pound away until the ref has seen enough.

Are we in store for a passing of the torch when the 42-year-old Demian Maia meets 33-year-old Gilbert Burns in a welterweight showdown?

Sumian: Absolutely.

Burns is on his way to becoming a top-five welterweight, and he just so happens to have to get there by defeating the longtime UFC veteran and former title challenger Maia. Burns is currently riding an impressive four-fight winning streak. He most recently defeated Gunnar Nelson as a late replacement in September. The UFC was certainly appreciative, because it has given the No. 12-ranked Burns a top-five opponent in Maia. If Burns wins this bout, then he is definitely going to find himself in the top 10 of the UFC’s welterweight division. From there, the fight possibilities are endless.

Maia is riding his own quiet three-fight winning streak after most recently defeating Ben Askren via rear-naked choke in October. The Brazilian grappler is used to being able to use his subpar striking to eventually get the fight to the ground and lock up a submission. The problem is, he’s fighting another skilled grappler. Although not as good as Maia, Burns is very impressive on the mat. His skills will be more than enough for the younger contender to keep Maia guessing and dictate the pace of the fight.

Burns should have a considerable strength and cardio advantage over his 42-year-old counterpart. He will use those tools to punch and kick his way to a unanimous decision over Maia and land himself in a position to fight for a top-five spot in the coming months.

Petela: Maia has been one of the premier names at welterweight since he joined the division in 2012. The five welterweight fights he has lost have all come at the hands of fighters who have held championship titles within major MMA promotions. He had a recent three-fight skid where he fell short in his own bid for the title against Tyron Woodley, got beaten soundly by Colby Covington on the night fans were introduced to Covington’s professional wrestling-esque heel persona, and then lost a lackluster fight to Kamaru Usman. He has rattled off three straight wins since then, showing that even without a clear path back to title contention he remains a real threat to anyone who stands across the Octagon from him.

What an opportunity this presents for Burns. It’s a co-main event in Brazil against a fellow countryman who has long been a fan-favorite amongst Brazilians, as well as arguably the most talented jiu-jitsu player to ever fight in the UFC. Burns’ Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu resume may not be as robust as that of Maia, but it includes a 2011 gold medal at the Mundials, the most prestigious BJJ tournament in the world. Burns won’t try to avoid grappling, and the two men will have a fantastic no-frills showdown of tried and true jiu-jitsu skills and techniques.

Burns will come out with the win and continue his ascent toward the top of the division. This indeed will be a true passing of the torch where Burns will become the best representative of jiu-jitsu in a weight class loaded at the top with standout wrestlers.

Despite relinquishing his spot as the top jiu-jitsu practitioner among the welterweight field, Maia will still be able to implement his grappling against the vast majority of fighters in the division. Maia will sneak in a couple more high-caliber wins before he hangs up the gloves and calls it a career.

David Dvořák — do we need to know this name?

Petela: It’s been almost eight years since “Killa Khroust” has lost a fight. He has racked up 13 straight wins, and not a single one of those has gone the distance. To borrow an old infomercial catch phrase, “But wait, there’s more.” Of those consecutive finishes, it has been almost a 50/50 split of wins by TKO or submission. Dvořák has seven TKOs and six submissions on his current streak, so his opponent, Bruno Silva, will be stuck between a rock and a hard place against the debuting Czech fighter.

With the rumors of a potential rematch between Deiveson Figueiredo and Joseph Benavidez, it looks like the flyweight division will be sticking around. Dvořák could be the shot in the arm the division needs to increase its popularity amongst casual MMA fans who have long overlooked the weight class.

Sumian: It’s hard to disagree with my colleague here. The man is riding a lengthy winning streak where all of his victories have come by way of a first- or second-round finish. Dvořák could be just the kind of new blood the flyweight division needs to spark the interest of the general MMA community. He’ll come out aggressive and confident, and he’ll likely add another win and finish to his incredible resume. Look out, UFC flyweights!

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

Sumian: To no surprise, this card boasts a lot of competitive fights and big names. No one fighter is riding a losing streak large enough to label them as necessarily “on the ropes,” but for the sake of this segment, let’s go with Renato Moicano.

The former featherweight is coming off two knockout losses in a row, courtesy of José Aldo and “The Korean Zombie” Chang Sung Jung. Fortunately for Moicano, these guys were fellow top-ranked featherweights in the division.

After careful consideration, the Brazliain chose to move up to an even more competitive lightweight division, where he is slated to meet Damir Hadžović. Hadžović is 3-3 in his UFC campaign and most recently lost to Christos Giagos.

While fully expected to win and shine in his divisional debut, Moicano is in a precarious situation. If he wins, then he will more than likely receive a top-15 opponent due to his status as a lasting featherweight contender in the past. If he loses, then the former top-five featherweight falls even further down the rabbit hole and will have to evaluate continuing at lightweight or returning to a division where he was already ranked.

Petela: Francisco Trinaldo is in a must-win situation despite coming into this fight off a win over Bobby Green in his last outing. Trinaldo has alternated wins and losses over his last six fights and is coming up on his 42nd birthday later this year. He has been vocal about wanting to continue fighting until his body can’t handle it anymore. His fight against John Makdessi should be a fun one to watch, but this could be the end of the road if Trinaldo comes out on the wrong side of the outcome.

I’ve spoken ad nauseam about the depth of the lightweight division, but it bears repeating that there are so many absolute monsters at 155 pounds that the UFC doesn’t really need an aging fighter with a lackluster record in recent years.

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

Petela: Amanda Ribas and Randa Markos.

Regardless of its position on the fight card, there isn’t enough attention being paid to this strawweight showdown. Ribas handed Mackenzie Dern her first professional loss when the two prospects met in October. It was the biggest win of her young career. Meanwhile, Markos got back on track in her last fight when she picked up a split-decision victory over Ashley Yoder in Singapore just two weeks after Ribas’ win over Dern.

It was originally supposed to be Paige VanZant taking on Ribas, but an injury forced her out of the fight and Markos didn’t hesitate to step up to the plate. If Ribas can use the pinpoint accuracy she showed off against Dern, then it could be a lopsided affair. If the fight becomes primarily a grappling match, then this could turn out to be a fun back-and-forth scrap.

Sumian: The amount of potential “Fight of the Night” candidates on this card is absolutely absurd. It’s incredible that a majority of these fights ended up in the same lineup. In terms of a sleeper match, Fransisco Trinaldo and John Makdessi need to be mentioned.

Makdessi is currently riding a three-fight winning streak and has compiled a 4-1 record over his last five UFC appearances. The longtime TriStar fighter boasts an exciting karate background and, if on point, is capable of landing on anyone he faces. Trinaldo is another longtime UFCer. He has finished more than 50 percent of his fights by knockout or submission.

A showdown between Makdessi’s stylish striking arsenal and Trinaldo’s aggressive pace and athleticism will surely make for a memorable bout.

Pair this card with…

Sumian: If you can find it in time, perhaps a bottle of Brazil’s most popular spirit, Cachaca. This spirit, derived from sugarcane juice, can be used to create a variety of drinks, including the Brazilian version of an Old Fashioned. So, have your buddies over, sit back and relax with a glass of Cachaca in hand and enjoy an epic night of fights.

Petela: Little Caesar’s. It’s not the greatest, but it’s pizza you can just walk in and pick up without even ordering ahead. This isn’t a high-profile card, so you’re probably not going to want to do anything other than kick back, relax, and enjoy a fun night of fights alone or with a small group of friends. Plus, you can celebrate Detroit’s own Kevin Lee by stuffing your face with an extra slice from the company that was founded right there in his hometown.

Fight Picks

Fight Petela’s Pick Sumian’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Kevin Lee vs. Charles Oliveira Lee Lee
WW: Demian Maia vs. Gilbert Burns Burns Burns
Women’s StrawW: Amanda Ribas vs. Randa Markos Ribas Ribas
LW: Renato Moicano vs. Damir Hadžović Moicano Moicano
LHW: Johnny Walker vs. Nikita Krylov Walker Walker
FlyW: Bruno Silva vs. David Dvořák Dvořák Silva
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 5 p.m. ET)
LW: Francisco Trinaldo vs. John Makdessi Makdessi Makdessi
WW: Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos vs. Alexey Kunchenko Kunchenko dos Santos
BW: Rani Yahya vs. Enrique Barzola Yahya Yahya
FlyW: Jussier “Formiga” da Silva vs. Brandon Moreno Formiga Formiga
Women’s FlyW: Mayra Bueno Silva vs. Maryna Moroz Moroz Moroz
Women’s BW: Veronica Macedo vs. Bea Malecki Macedo Macedo