Alexander Volkov (L) (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 11 Preview and Predictions

The UFC’s modified schedule rolls on this week, again from the UFC Apex, with a clash of top-10 heavyweights meeting in the main event.

Curtis Blaydes sits at No. 3 in the rankings and is on a three-fight winning streak heading into the fight with Volkov. His most recent win came when he took out former UFC champion Junior dos Santos by second-round TKO. Volkov is currently 5-1 inside the promotion. His lone UFC loss came in the final seconds when he was knocked out by Derrick “The Black Beast” Lewis. The picture atop the heavyweight division has been cloudy for some time, but that picture is rapidly clearing up with a championship fight scheduled for later this summer. This main event will go a long way in determining the pecking order for who is next in line for a shot at the belt.

One of the most talented weight classes in the UFC is the featherweight division. The fighters at 145 pounds are sometimes overshadowed by the lightweights, but two rising stars in the division will square off in the upcoming co-headliner. Bronx, N.Y., native Shane Burgos seeks to extend his winning streak to four when he clashes with a resurgent Josh Emmett. Emmett took over a year off and had to have facial surgery to correct some of the damage caused during his loss to Jeremy Stephens. This hard-hitting pair of top-10 featherweights are out to mount a run toward a shot at Alexander Volkanovski’s championship belt.


The main card also features perennial women’s bantamweight contender Raquel Pennington, who looks to right the ship after dropping three of her last four fights. She takes on Marion Reneau, who is on a two-fight skid of her own. Both women have their backs against the wall as they try to maintain their status as top fighters at 135 pounds.

ESPN and ESPN+ will both broadcast the event on Saturday evening. The prelims get underway at 5 p.m. ET and will be followed immediately at 8 p.m. ET by the five-fight main card. Combat Press writers Jaewon Paik and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.

Outside of a lucky punch, is Alexander Volkov realistically capable of upsetting Curtis Blaydes in their heavyweight headliner?

Paik: Volkov on his best day is capable of upsetting a lot of heavyweights. He has been one of the best heavyweights in the world for a long time now, since before he joined the UFC. His only defeat in the promotion came against Derrick Lewis in a fight where Volkov was ahead on the scorecards before the knockout occurred.

The problem for Volkov is that Blaydes doesn’t seem to have an issue beating anyone in the division, with the clear exception of Francis Ngannou. Blaydes, while only being a pro for six years, has a long resume of significant names that he has defeated in the UFC, including Aleksei Oleinik, Alistair Overeem and, most recently, Junior dos Santos.

Typically, Volkov towers over his opponents with his rare height of 6-foot-7, but Blaydes, who stands 6-foot-4, is no short man himself. The reach department doesn’t seem to be in a huge favor for Volkov, either, as he will only hold a one-inch advantage over Blaydes.

In terms of the stylistic match-up, Blaydes’ wrestling background could spell trouble for Volkov. By no means is Volkov’s grappling a predominant weakness in his game, but “Drago” does like to keep his fights standing. Twenty of his 23 finishes have come by knockout. However, Blaydes will make it extremely difficult for Volkov to keep the fight where he is best. Blaydes takes the victory in this one.

Petela: Volkov has five chances to win this fight. The first minute of each round is where he must land a thunderous shot with the hopes of turning out the lights on Blaydes. By the 60-second mark in the fight, Blaydes will get deep in on a double leg and use his high-level collegiate wrestling to keep the fight on the canvas for the remainder of the round. This should be his plan at the beginning of every round, as he waits for an opportunity for the takedown and then lands enough ground-and-pound strikes to do substantial damage without getting reckless and giving Volkov a chance to get back to his feet.

Blaydes doesn’t need this fight to be on the canvas to win, though. He has the potential to use his ever-improving striking and land some heavy shots of his own en route to a victory, but the stand-up is where Volkov shines. A kickboxing match favors Volkov, but Blaydes would be a live dog.

It will be interesting to see how this fight impacts the heavyweight division if Blaydes does pull out the victory, as should be expected. With the trilogy between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier scheduled and the aforementioned Ngannou waiting in the wings, it may take a while for Blaydes to get his chance at the belt. If somehow Ngannou ends up as the champion, then it will be an even more difficult case for Blaydes to make that he is most deserving, seeing as the man on top has beaten him twice.

That being said, this should be one heck of an entertaining fight. Before all is said and done in his career, the belt will be wrapped around the waist of “Razor” Blaydes.

Josh Emmett and Shane Burgos are among the newly emerging stars of the featherweight division. Which man proves to be superior in the evening’s co-main event?

Petela: This will be a real coming-out moment for Burgos. Outside of his loss to fellow up-and-comer Calvin Kattar, Burgos has looked great inside the Octagon. He has won three straight since the lone setback on his record, including a victory over veteran contender Cub Swanson and two finishes — an armbar submission over Kurt Holobaugh and, most recently, a TKO over Makwan Amirkhani. He will continue his hot streak and pick up a statement win over Emmett.

Emmett is certainly riding one of the highest waves of his career coming into this showdown. The 35-year-old Team Alpha Male product has rebounded nicely from a brutal knockout loss to Jeremy Stephens by picking up a pair of show-stopping knockouts himself at the expense of Michael Johnson and Mirsad Bektic.

This one comes down to two things: age and time off. At the lighter weight classes, fighters can’t maintain their peak form as late as the heavyweights. Emmett, 35, is nearing the end of his prime fighting years, and he has not fought in nearly a year. While that does give his body some time off, it won’t be enough to allow him to defeat Burgos, who is six years younger at age 29 and who fought seven months ago. This could likely be the “Fight of the Night,” but it will be Burgos who goes on to become a legitimate contender.

Paik: This fight is easily one of the best bouts at featherweight this year.

Emmett really burst onto the scene when he knocked out Ricardo Lamas cold in late 2017. Since then, he has been put up against some of the best fighters in the division, with the only hiccup coming against Stephens. Since taking a year off following the loss, Emmett has looked as good as he ever has. He enters this fight on a two-fight knockout streak.

Burgos, since his first and only loss against Kattar in 2018, has only gotten better. In his fight against Amirkhani, he proved himself to be an upcoming threat to other featherweight contenders.

This is by far the toughest pick of the night. My colleague makes valid points about Emmett’s age and inactivity. However, Emmett is still one of the best fighters in the division in terms of well-roundedness, and he has rare knockout power for the division. Burgos is one of the best boxers in the division, so it’s going to be interesting to see how Emmett deals with the much taller and better fundamental boxer. Emmett brings a very free-flowing style and a tremendous wrestling background, and he has enough power and unpredictability to make it a tough night for Burgos.

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

Paik: Raquel Pennington.

Since her title shot against Amanda Nunes concluded in brutal fashion, Pennington has been struggling to rack up wins. Yes, she has continuously fought the best fighters in the division, but her only recent victory was a split decision over Irene Aldana nearly a year ago. Now, she probably won’t be released if she doesn’t walk away from this fight with a win, especially considering the depth at bantamweight and the fact that she is still the No. 6 contender in the division. However, a loss this weekend will completely cross her name off the list of possible title contenders for the near future. It is very possible that a bad outcome could result in Pennington dropping outside of the top 10. She turns 32 in September, and it will only get tougher for her to climb the ladder again.

Petela: Not to pile on, but my choice is Pennington’s fiancée, Tecia Torres.

The strawweight division is the deepest of all the women’s divisions in the UFC, and Torres is on a four-fight skid. Her last win came in December 2017 over Michelle Waterson. The “Tiny Tornado” has been competitive in each one of her four recent losses and has not been finished in any of those bouts, but a fifth straight defeat in a division where there are numerous prospects turning into contenders and contenders turning into legitimate title threats, time could be passing Torres by. She might find herself relegated to a new promotional home.

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

Petela: Matt Frevola and Frank Camacho.

This fight, which comes early on the prelims, will be one to set the mark to beat for “Fight of the Night” honors. Frevola won a somewhat controversial split decision in his last outing against Luis Pena and has a draw on his record in one of the best under-the-radar fights of the past few years. Camacho has hit a bit of a rough patch recently, dropping three of his last four, but he is a guy who brings every ounce of energy with him into the cage each and every time. This fight should be full of fun scrambles at a high pace that will really steal the audience’s attention.

Paik: That one has fireworks written all over it, but let’s turn our attention to Marc-Andre Barriault and Oskar Piechota.

Both of these middleweights are coming off three consecutive losses, so it is pretty easy to imagine what this fight means for them. Their recent struggles aren’t necessarily indicative of their potential, however, as both fighters have competed against some of the toughest contenders in the division in that span, including the likes of Krzysztof Jotko and Gerald Meerschaert.

Barriault and Piechota have great finishing rates, at 73 percent and 91 percent respectively. That could be a great predictor for a phenomenal fight where both fighters don’t rely on judges’ opinions too much.

Pair this card with…

Paik: All the recent retirements on top of the drama surrounding Jon Jones and Jorge Masvidal has left a bitter taste in my mouth, which is why I think IPAs are going to be fitting until things settle down a little bit. Whether it’s a Hazy Little Thing, Founders Brewing Co. All Day IPA, or just a simple Stone IPA, it’ll help big time to spark your mood up a bit for the fights.

Petela: The headlining bout is a showcase of elite heavyweights, so this card pairs well with an elite Scotch. Perhaps something like a Triple Cask Matured 15-year-old Macallan. Just like the early fights on the card, the Macallan 15 will set the tone from the beginning for a night of high-quality entertainment.

Fight Picks

Fight Paik’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
HW: Curtis Blaydes vs. Alexander Volkov Blaydes Blaydes
FW: Josh Emmett vs. Shane Burgos Emmett Burgos
Women’s BW: Raquel Pennington vs. Marion Reneau Pennington Pennington
WW: Belal Muhammad vs. Lyman Good Muhammad Muhammad
Jim Miller vs. Roosevelt Roberts Roberts Miller
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
LW: Clay Guida vs. Bobby Green Green Green
Women’s StrawW: Tecia Torres vs. Brianna Van Buren Torres Van Buren
MW: Marc-Andre Barriault vs. Oskar Piechota Piechota Piechota
Women’s FlyW: Cortney Casey vs. Gillian Robertson Casey Casey
LW: Matt Frevola vs. Frank Camacho Frevola Frevola
Women’s FlyW: Roxanne Modafferi vs. Lauren Murphy Modafferi Murphy
LW: Joe Solecki vs. Austin Hubbard Hubbard Hubbard