Gilbert Burns (Gleidson Venga/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 9 Preview and Predictions

Maybe UFC President Dana White was talking about Las Vegas when he discussed hosting events on “Fight Island.” After all, Hawaiians do refer to Vegas as the “Ninth Island.” Regardless of the outspoken UFC head’s intentions, after a week off following the trilogy of events in Jacksonville, Fla., the UFC returns to action with its first full night of fights to be held at the UFC Apex. The venue played host to season three of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series and allows for easy hosting of UFC events on a larger scale while states slowly reopen to professional sporting events amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Under normal circumstances, this weekend’s headliner would have title implications, with former champion Tyron Woodley taking on rising star Gilbert Burns, who has used victories over Gunnar Nelson and Demian Maia as a launching pad into a No. 6 ranking. This will be the first outing for Woodley since he dropped a lopsided unanimous decision and his title to Kamaru Usman at UFC 235 in early 2019. Burns competes for the fourth time in 10 months and the second this calendar year, both without fans in attendance. He stopped the aforementioned Maia in the co-main event of the UFC’s last card before the coronavirus forced the UFC to temporarily shut down. A win for either man will place them at the front of the line to challenge Usman when he makes his second title defense.

The evening’s co-headliner features two thunderous heavyweights vying to become legitimate title contenders when Blagoy Ivanov takes on Augusto Sakai. Originally scheduled for UFC 249, this fight could very likely see the winner crack the top 10 in the heavyweight rankings, with Ivanov and Sakai currently sitting at Nos. 12 and 13 in the official rankings respectively.


The main card also features a lightweight showdown between Roosevelt Roberts and Brok Weaver. Roberts bounced back after his first career loss with a victory over Alexander Yakovlev in November. The highly touted prospect Weaver won his UFC debut after opponent Rodrigo Vargas landed a blatantly illegal knee to a downed Weaver that resulted in a disqualification victory of which “Chata Tuska” has publicly admitted he is less than proud to have on his record. This is a chance for Weaver to get what he considers to be a legitimate win over a very talented fighter in Roberts.

With the UFC Apex acting as the host venue, the action gets underway at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday with the preliminary card. The main card follows at 9 p.m. ET. All fights can be viewed on either the ESPN network or via live stream on the ESPN+ platform. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.

Gilbert Burns has already topped three very solid UFC opponents. Does he continue his streak when he meets former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley this weekend?

Sumian: Have you seen the size of Burns’ neck? It’s hard to imagine anyone knocking out the surging welterweight contender. “Durinho” will stop Woodley and land himself a title shot in the back half of 2020 or in early 2021.

Woodley was a fantastic champion throughout his reign and might very well be in the conversation as one of the top three welterweight champions of all time in the UFC. However, it is hard to imagine him returning to his former glory and positioning himself for a chance at UFC gold once again after his incredibly underwhelming title-defense performance against Kamaru Usman. Woodley was dominated from start to finish and looked as if he had never fought in the UFC prior to that night. Usman exposed Woodley’s counter striking by pressuring him for five straight rounds and never letting the former champ get comfortable enough to fire thunderous counter strikes and dictate the pace using his wrestling background.

Woodley is averaging less than three significant strikes per minute and is not known for being the aggressor in his bouts. He is 38 years old, and the welterweight division is stronger than ever. This makes the narrative of Woodley once again becoming a champion go from difficult to extremely unlikely.

Meanwhile, Burns has compiled an 11-3 mark since his 2014 arrival in the UFC. He is currently riding an impressive five-fight winning streak. The No. 6-ranked Brazilian welterweight is on fire after handing fellow Brazilian Demian Maia his first knockout loss in over a decade. “Durinho” has found incredible success at 170 pounds, where he uses his impressive strength, elite Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and powerful striking to engage his opponents in fast-paced and exciting bouts. Burns has noticeably improved in every single one of his performances and continues to entice fans due to his ability to knock out or submit anyone who stands in front of him.

Unless Woodley has made major changes to his game, which is unlikely, Burns will continue his winning streak with a stoppage by way of strikes to secure himself a top-three ranking. “Durinho” will pressure Woodley similar to what Usman did before finding the finish and quite possibly positioning himself as the next title challenger for the UFC welterweight championship.

Petela: There was a lot of talk amongst MMA analysts and fans in the early months of 2020 when it seemed Woodley was hesitant to take on Leon Edwards before that fight was scheduled for UFC London. Of course, it was ultimately scrapped due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In the last event prior to the halting of all major sporting events due to the pandemic, Burns looked incredible in his knockout win over Maia. Once the promotion decided to resume hosting events, he became very vocal online about wanting to take on the former champ Woodley. Again, it seemed as if Woodley was hesitant before eventually agreeing to the bout.

While some people have been critical of “The Chosen One” for not being gung-ho to fight either Edwards or Burns, the former champion’s position is understandable. A win over either man doesn’t move Woodley much closer to a title shot, nor does it do much to boost his legacy as an all-time great. At age 38, Woodley should be carefully selecting who he meets inside the cage, as he is also fighting against the undefeated Father Time.

When it comes down to the Xs and Os, though, this is a wildly appealing contest. Woodley is a world-class wrestler. Burns is a truly elite jiu-jitsu player. Their respectively impressive, though vastly different, grappling skills will likely cancel each other out and turn this into a showdown of two incredibly powerful, if less than perfectly technical, punchers. Neither man will leave this battle unscathed.

Despite the one-punch knockout power each man holds, this fight will go the distance. Only once in each man’s career have they dropped a fight by knockout. Burns was stopped down at lightweight by Dan Hooker, while Woodley fell prey to one of the most impressive striking combinations in memory when he lost a fight for the vacant Strikeforce welterweight title to Nate Marquardt in 2012. In the end, with each man bruised and bloody, it will be Woodley who gets his hand raised in a very closely contested showdown that proves to be a small bump in the road for Burns and a small step towards regaining the title for Woodley.

Blagoy Ivanov and Augusto Sakai are on the edges of the heavyweight contendership. Which man solidifies their standing in the division, and what’s their route to victory in this contest?

Petela: Ivanov is coming off a split-decision loss to Derrick Lewis, whereas Sakai is riding a five-fight winning streak into this contest. So, when it comes to momentum, Sakai clearly has the edge. However, their recent results do not tell the whole story heading into this match-up. These men have faced very different competition over their last several fights.

The UFC has been a baptism by fire for Ivanov. He made his debut against former champion Junior dos Santos and lost a clear unanimous decision. He bounced back with wins over Ben Rothwell and Tai Tuivasa before dropping the decision against Lewis. His 2-2 mark while going against a former champ, a former title challenger, a perennial contender, and a hard-hitting prospect is nothing to thumb your nose at for a promotional newcomer.

Sakai, meanwhile, has two knockouts and one split-decision win through his first three UFC outings. He, too, fought a former champion, but that man was Andrei Arlovski, who despite a recent victory over Philipe Lins hasn’t been the fearsome “Pitbull” of old in quite some time. Sakai’s two knockouts came against Chase Sherman and Marcin Tybura. With all due respect to those men, trying to put them in the same category as Ivanov’s opponents is foolish.

This one comes down to strength of schedule, and that’s why all signs point to Ivanov getting the nod in this showdown. It will go the distance, with each man landing their share of heavy shots. When the final bell rings, there will be no doubt that Ivanov got the better of the action in what will end up looking mostly like a boxing match.

Sumian: As much as I love my colleague’s thorough breakdown, I have to disagree entirely.

Ivanov has shown his durability while also taking very heavy shots throughout this UFC career. The No. 12-ranked heavyweight has been average, at best. Yes, Ivanov has fought Lewis, dos Santos, Rothwell and Tuivasa in his short time with the UFC, but let’s be honest and admit that the heavyweight division is nowhere near the level of most of the other divisions in the UFC. Rothwell and dos Santos are both past their prime, Lewis is way too streaky to consider as a top-five heavyweight, and Tuivasa was never as good as people made him out to be, which is now apparent in his current three-fight skid.

Sakai will come out in this bout ready to prove his worth as a top UFC heavyweight. He will do just that with a unanimous decision over Ivanov, if not a finish in round two or three. Sakai has a four-inch height and reach advantage over his Bulgarian counterpart, and his only loss came in a split decision against Cheick Kongo. Sakai will use his relentless attack, powerful looping punches, and constant pressure to defeat Ivanov and secure a high-profile opponent for his next bout.

Brandon Royval — do we need to know this name?

Sumian: Whenever there is a newcomer to the UFC flyweight division, it is important to discuss him. The division is in need of new and consistent talent.

Royval has compiled a 10-4 record and is currently riding a two-fight winning streak that includes back-to-back first-round finishes of Joby Sanchez and Nate Williams. The 27-year-old Colorado native has shown a wide array of skills by finishing opponents with submissions and strikes throughout his career. The highlight of his resume is a knockout via a devastating knee against Danny Mainus.

Royval makes his Octagon debut against one of the toughest and most experienced flyweights in the league. Tim Elliott is just 2-4 in his last six UFC appearances, but the veteran has the ability to give any opponent a rough night. That being said, Royval should be able to come out and shine against the former UFC title challenger and position himself for a big fight in a division that is in desperate need of star power.

Petela: Agreed. Royval is a legitimate threat at flyweight who finds himself in a position to take advantage of the need for fresh talent in the division. It feels almost like the weight class has the seesawing plot line of a daytime soap opera (or so I’m told — it’s not like I record Days of Our Lives or anything), and with the title sitting vacant, the UFC needs a new character to build the interest of fans.

Royval has the opportunity to be the perfect shot in the arm for the division and make a name for himself with a big performance against Elliott. It will be no walk in the park, but Royval has the skills and poise to take out the unconventional Elliott. This will be the first step in a rather short march toward a title shot for Royval. So yes, indeed, fans should know his name.

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

Petela: Tim Elliott.

It’s no secret that a three-fight skid is often the recipe for a pink slip from the UFC. If Elliott can’t get by the newcomer Brandon Royval, it will be his third strike. The veteran is just 2-4 since rejoining the UFC after winning his season of The Ultimate Fighter and earning a title shot against then-champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson.

After falling short in a surprisingly competitive contest with Mighty Mouse, Elliott defeated Louis Smolka before being submitted by Ben Nguyen. The cut down to 125 pounds was taking a toll on Elliott, so he moved up to bantamweight for a fight with Mark De La Rosa in which he looked good and pulled off a pretty gnarly anaconda choke. Despite the success up a weight class, he moved back down to flyweight and lost his next two appearances. His opponents were certainly of a very high level in Deiveson Figueiredo and Askar Askarov, but this weekend’s task is to try to spoil Royval’s promotional debut. Should he fail in his bid to halt the newcomer, then it is likely that Elliott will find himself looking for a new organization to call home.

Sumian: I have scoured the entire card in hopes of coming up with a good answer for this question that doesn’t simply piggyback on my colleague’s choice. Instead, I am going to interpret the question in a somewhat different manner and choose Tyron Woodley.

Woodley is in no shape or form on the verge of being cut by the UFC. However, the former champion is on the ropes in the sense of welterweight title-shot relevance if he loses to the No. 6-ranked Burns this weekend. The UFC welterweight rankings include Woodley, Colby Covington, Jorge Masvidal, Leon Edwards, Stephen Thomspon and Burns. Covington arguably deserves a rematch against Kamaru Usman as it is, and Masvidal and Edwards have certainly made their cases for title-shot worthiness. If Woodley loses to Burns, the 38-year-old likely falls to a No. 5 ranking and watches any hopes of another championship run go out the door. For Woodley, a win is a must to stay relevant in the upper echelon of the welterweight division.

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

Sumian: Louis Smolka and Casey Kenney. These two men have a total of 20 combined finishes and stand as two of the more interesting fighters to keep an eye on in the bantamweight division.

This is Smolka’s second stint with the UFC. He has thus far compiled a 2-1 record, with both wins coming by way of finish. He has always been entertaining and is constantly looking for the finish in his bouts.

Kenney lost to Merab Dvalishvili in his last bout. He, too, has compiled a 2-1 UFC record. The 29-year-old remains one of the most prominent prospects at 135 pounds and will no doubt come back strong in this UFC appearance.

Petela: Katlyn Chookagian and Antonia Shevchenko.

This will be the second time Chookagian finds herself in the cage with a Shevchenko. Her last bout was a failed bid at dethroning the seemingly unbeatable champion and younger of the two sisters, Valentina Shevchenko. In the neighborhood, it’s normally the older sibling’s job to exact revenge for their younger brother or sister if someone gets the better of them in a fight. Rarely would you see an older sibling try to beat up someone who couldn’t get past the younger family member. This more closely resembles the Diaz brothers both taking on — and submitting — Takanori Gomi.

This match-up is fascinating, because it leaves the loser of the fight in quite a precarious position. Where does Chookagian go from here if she ends up on the wrong end of a fight with both sisters? A loss here might end her hopes of ever getting another shot at the crown. Meanwhile, Antonina is also facing the possibility of a second loss in the division where her sister reigns, and against an opponent who she should know well from helping Valentina prepare for the Pennsylvania-born and New Jersey-trained fighter.

If the older Shevchenko falls short, then it not only brings doubts to how her elite kickboxing skills have translated over to MMA but also gives Valentina the trump card in all sibling arguments from here to eternity. This fight has atypical stakes, but they are intriguing nonetheless.

Pair this card with…

Petela: After the week off, this fight card is flying under the radar. Fans will be surprised with the quality of the fights they see this weekend. In the spirit of being pleasantly surprised, this event is best paired with Downeast Cider’s Aloha Friday. I will admit I was skeptical of a “pineapple-infused” cider, but this seasonal blend is a real winner, just like this weekend of fights.

Sumian: Grab yourself some burgers, hot dogs and a Blue Moon for this one, folks. This fight card is generally simple, but it provides the same level of enjoyment every time. The docket features some well-known names that have delivered throughout their careers, including Tyron Woodley, Mackenzie Dern, Katlyn Chookagian and Louis Smolka. While it might not make fans incredibly excited or thrilled at first glance, you will be satisfied and happy by the end of the night that you watched this in conjunction with some burgers and beer.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 9 p.m. ET)
WW: Tyron Woodley vs. Gilbert Burns Burns Woodley
HW: Blagoy Ivanov vs. Augusto Sakai Sakai Ivanov
WW: Daniel Rodriguez vs. Gabriel Green Rodriguez Rodriguez
LW: Roosevelt Roberts vs. Brok Weaver Roberts Weaver
Women’s StrawW: Mackenzie Dern vs. Hannah Cifers Dern Dern
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Katlyn Chookagian vs. Antonina Shevchenko Chookagian Chookagian
Billy Quarantillo vs. Spike Carlyle Quarantillo Quarantillo
LHW: Jamahal Hill vs. Klidson Abreu Hill Hill
FlyW: Tim Elliott vs. Brandon Royval Royval Royval
BW: Louis Smolka vs. Casey Kenney Kenney Kenney
FW: Chris Gutierrez vs. Vince Morales Gutierrez Gutierrez