Dustin Poirier (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 12 Preview and Predictions

On Saturday night, the UFC will wrap up its June schedule from the Apex with UFC on ESPN 12 before heading out to Abu Dhabi for a July on “Fight Island.” The event’s headliner is a top-five lightweight showdown in which third-ranked Dustin Poirier faces fifth-ranked Dan Hooker.

The match-up between Poirier and Hooker is an exciting one. Poirier’s last outing came in September, when he faced Khabib Nurmagomedov in a lightweight title-unification bout. He lost to the undisputed champ, as everyone else has, but he had a nice run going into the bout with wins over Max Holloway, Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje. A win will certainly keep him on track for a rematch. However, Hooker is no easy opponent.

In the last year, New Zealand’s Hooker has picked up three wins in a row, with the latest coming from a split decision over Paul Felder in February. With 10 knockouts and seven submissions in his 28-fight pro career, Hooker is a very well-rounded fighter who could climb even closer to title contention this weekend.


The main card rounds out with a welterweight bout between Mike Perry and Mickey Gall, a middleweight fight featuring Brendan Allen and promotional newcomer Kyle Daukaus, and a heavyweight showdown between Maurice Greene and Gian Villante.

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 four-fight main card. Combat Press writers Kyle Symes and Dan Kuhl preview the action this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.

Dan Hooker just squeaked by Paul Felder in February. Now, he’s set for a lightweight clash with recent title challenger Dustin Poirier. Which man emerges with the win, and how do they get it?

Symes: This is an interesting fight that could prove to be a turning point in the careers of both men. Poirier has been a mainstay on the UFC roster for nearly a decade and is among the more popular fighters in the promotion. Fans know that when Poirier is on the card, excitement is sure to follow. However, the elusive signature win for Poirier was missing for years. He’d always be good enough to hang with any group of contenders, but failed to move up to the elite status in the division.

That changed in 2017 when Poirier began an incredible run of five victories over some of the best in the lightweight division, plus then-featherweight kingpin Max Holloway in an interim lightweight title contest. While Poirier finally put gold around his waist in the Holloway fight, it was the win over Justin Gaethje which really showcased what years of training at American Top Team produced. The old Poirier would’ve been caught in a firefight with one of the division’s most aggressive and toughest fighters. Instead, the new Poirier kept his composure and outlasted the seemingly indestructible Gaethje.

Hooker, meanwhile, has been on an impressive run of his own. After struggling to put up consistent results, he began to turn the corner in 2017. He has since gone 8-1, with the one loss coming to dangerous striker Edson Barboza. Hooker’s run has featured victories over a number of established names like Jim Miller, Gilbert Burns, Al Iaquinta and Felder. This fight without a doubt will be the true measuring stick to see if Hooker’s improvement is enough to push him to the upper echelon of the division.

Does Poirier have enough in the tank after more than 10 years of fighting to maintain his status as one of the best? Is Hooker for real? These are questions that will certainly be at the forefront of the minds of fans and analysts when breaking down this bout.

This isn’t a case of Poirier slowing down to the point where the surging challenger takes his spot. Poirier is coming off a submission loss, but there’s certainly no shame in losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov. Hooker is coming off a very questionable decision victory, and you have to admire that he’s striking while the iron is hot and gunning for a top contender. However, Poirier’s experience in big fights and overall improved game will be too much for Hooker.

Poirier will start out a little slower than normal, given his extended layoff and Hooker’s ability to strike at range, but this is a five-round affair, which will give “The Diamond” plenty of time to start pulling ahead on the scorecards for a unanimous nod.

Kuhl: While I agree with most of my colleague’s analysis, it’s easy to take Poirier with his wealth of experience and well-rounded style. He literally has it all, including some of the best coaches and training partners in the game at the ATT home camp in Coconut Creek, Fla. The fourth-round TKO of Gaethje deserves an accolade in and of itself.

However, I feel we are overlooking a lot about Hooker. He enters this fight with three-inch height and reach advantages. He has also spent time training at Tiger Muay Thai and City Kickboxing, which are also some of the best camps in the world. Perhaps, most impressively, he defeated the aforementioned Burns via first-round knockout. Burns is now set to fight for a welterweight title next month, but the Brazilian took the loss at the hands of Hooker, who has spent some time at featherweight. While Hooker’s fight with Felder was close, he has dominated some seriously tough veterans.

Poirier is the slight betting favorite in this one, but I’m inclined to play devil’s advocate and go with Hooker. I will not be surprised if I’m wrong, but Hooker’s size and momentum are two x-factors that give him an advantage.

Are Mickey Gall and Mike Perry deserving of the co-headliner slot?

Kuhl: Let’s be realistic. No, Perry and Gall do not deserve to serve as a co-main event. However, looking at the card, top-to-bottom, it’s not a surprise that they landed there. Both men have name recognition, but that’s about it.

Perry is 2-5 in the last two and a half years, while not a single one of Gall’s wins came over a guy who is even in the UFC anymore. Most fighters on Perry’s run would’ve been cut by now, and it’s still hard to understand Gall’s place in the promotion when the only true tests he has faced — Diego Sanchez and Randy Brown — both beat him handily.

As far as the actual match-up between Perry and Gall, this is the very definition of a striker versus a grappler. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Gall earns his wins by submission, and the boxer Perry takes them by knockout. That’s pretty much the story of their careers, with only a few minor variations. However, let’s not oversimplify this.

While Perry’s grappling prowess may not be at the same level as Gall’s, he has a purple belt and has only been taken down six times during three of his UFC fights. Perry is a far superior striker to Gall, and when the fight starts, Perry is going to come in and lay the heat. This one ends by knockout in the first round.

Symes: Normally, I’d agree that this match-up absolutely doesn’t belong in the co-main event, but then I remember the state of MMA and the UFC in 2020. The UFC can pretty much throw anything up as a main event or co-headliner right now, especially on an ESPN card. I’d like to think ESPN would apply some pressure to get better fights on the network, but the UFC will likely give them the “we’re doing the best we can do to put on live sports in a pandemic” line.

Regardless, it’s pretty safe to say that this fight is only happening because of name value. Perry is one of the more interesting characters to compete in the UFC in recent years, while Gall made a name for himself by calling out — and beating — CM Punk. A guy with Perry’s record almost certainly would’ve been cut by now, but he generates plenty of reactions, both positive and negative, from MMA fans. Gall has been better during his UFC run, but he has indeed failed the litmus test for moving up the rankings multiple times.

Perry recently posted a video of his knuckles, face and nose cut up and bloody, which would be concerning for any normal fighter. However, that’s likely what Perry would look like after each weekly sparring session. The lack of training partners and open gyms would hurt most fighters as well, but Perry seems like just the type of person to still get some kind of training in, even during a pandemic.

If you’re looking to make a smart bet, Gall is the guy. The more fun pick, though, is Perry.

Kyle Daukaus, Miranda Maverick, Jinh Yu Frey, Kay Hansen and Ramiz Brahimaj — do we need to know these names?

Symes: Daukaus could be an interesting addition to the UFC’s middleweight division. He earned a win on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, but it wasn’t enough to earn a UFC contract. Now, he finally gets his shot to compete in the UFC. It does come with a caveat, though. This one is on very short notice. He’s a guy who has a ton of finishes in his career, and we all know UFC President Dana White, as well as the fans, love guys who don’t let fights go to the scorecards.

Maverick, an Invicta Fighting Championships veteran, is on a pretty nice roll lately. She has topped well-known fighters like DeAnna Bennett and Pearl Gonzalez. Both of those ladies have competed in the UFC previously, but they aren’t there now. So, while she holds wins over established names, does that mean Maverick is able to compete at the UFC level?

Brahimaj is a mystery to me. He hasn’t competed since March 2019. Despite your feelings on ring rust, there’s no substitute for live competition. For his first fight in over a year to be in the UFC is no joke. Hopefully, the lack of a crowd and overall build-up for this card can help alleviate the pressure of not only competing for the first time in over a year, but doing so inside the Octagon.

Kuhl: Late additions Frey and Hansen are both Invicta standouts who have made some waves during their respective careers, but it will be interesting to see how they fare against the UFC’s strawweight elite. Before they get there, they will need to face each other on Saturday.

Frey is a former Invicta atomweight champ. She moves up a weight class for her Octagon debut, but she was on the bigger end for an atomweight. She has a pretty well-rounded game as well. After posting back-to-back wins over Minna Grusander, she lost a Rizin title shot to Ayaka Hamasaki, who she had fought and lost to previously in Invicta. Frey came back with a win over Ashley Cummins for the second time in February and has had just the right amount of time to get ready since her last camp. Frey is, however, prone to decisions. While she has great conditioning, she has not shown much stopping power. She’s one to keep an eye on, but time will tell if she can make an impact in the big show.

Hansen is a tough one. At age 20, she’s still really young. She is definitely a talented fighter and sits at 6-3 as a pro. Hansen is a natural strawweight who has even fought in a flyweight bout, which she lost by majority decision. She has stopped five of her nine opponents and was only stopped once, but Frey will be her biggest test to date. Hansen has come a long way since making her pro debut at age 18.

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

Kuhl: If Mike Perry loses to Mickey Gall, he has to be cut. He is already on a rough run, and Gall has never beaten a quality opponent. Ipso facto, if Gall beats Perry, Perry can likely be lumped into the category of no longer being a quality opponent. That’s not meant as a slight against Gall. He’s still young in his career with plenty of time to improve, but a win over Perry would be a pretty terrible look for Perry.

Symes: Perry is a pretty obvious choice, but let’s turn to the heavyweight division and the loser of the bout between Gian Villante and Maurice Greene. It has the potential to be “Fight of the Night” (more on that in a minute), but both men have to be on thin ice with the UFC. Villante has been fighting for over a decade and has one Ring of Combat title to show for it. He has a modest 28-17 record and has failed to generate any momentum during his UFC tenure. Greene has competed for GLORY kickboxing and was on The Ultimate Fighter, but he has dropped two straight after starting his UFC career off with a three-fight winning streak. There’s always a need for heavyweights, especially with the amount of cards the UFC puts on, but three straight losses would be tough to overlook.

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

Symes: It’s absolutely the heavyweight clash between Villante and Greene. Whether he’s winning or losing, Villante has a knack for getting himself in these ugly fights that produce exciting results and moments. Greene’s two-fight skid has him at a point where another loss would almost certainly send him packing. Given that Greene won’t have to worry about Villante looking for constant takedowns, we can expect both men to trade shots on the feet. This almost certainly won’t be the most technical display of MMA, but it should be exciting.

Kuhl: How about the match-up between Luis Pena and Khama Worthy? Worthy came into the UFC for his 21st pro fight while riding a five-fight winning streak and then defeated Devonte Smith with a nasty knockout. He was supposed to fight again in April before things started getting canceled, so he’s hungry as hell to get back in there. Pena, on the other hand, is still only 26 years old and trying to prove himself in the division. After making it into the promotion through The Ultimate Fighter 27, he’s gone 4-2, with his last fight ending in a victory over Steve Garcia in February. Worthy will be one of Pena’s most experienced opponents to date, so this one should be a barnburner as both guys look to make a name for themselves.

Pair this card with…

Kuhl: This is the last card at the UFC Apex before the promotion shifts to “Fight Island” for the month of July, but the UFC is not exactly going out with a bang. Outside of the main event, the rest of the card doesn’t really have any implications for any other division. However, this is one of those cards that people may write off only to end up regretting missing an exciting event. So, if you like surprises, what could be better than a box of what comedian Jim Gaffigan affectionately refers to as “gamble chocolates”? Grab a box of Russell Stover’s and enjoy the indulgence.

Symes: I wish the UFC would’ve ended the UFC Apex experiment with more substance, but that’s not going to happen. So, grab your local favorite pizza and beer (or beverage of choice). If the card is as bad as it looks on paper, you’ll at least have some good food in your belly. And if the card turns out to exceed expectations, you just scored a great fight night and some delicious food.

Fight Picks

Fight Symes’s Pick Kuhl’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Dustin Poirier vs. Dan Hooker Poirier Hooker
WW: Mike Perry vs. Mickey Gall Gall Perry
MW: Kyle Daukaus vs. Brendan Allen Allen Allen
HW: Gian Villante vs. Maurice Greene Greene Greene
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
LW: Luis Pena vs. Khama Worthy Worthy Worthy
Women’s FlyW: Mara Romero Borella vs. Miranda Maverick Maverick Maverick
HW: Philipe Lins vs. Tanner Boser Lins Lins
Catchweight (150 pounds): Sean Woodson vs. Kyle Nelson Nelson Woodson
WW: Takashi Sato vs. Ramiz Brahimaj Sato Sato
WW: Jinh Yu Frey vs. Kay Hansen Frey Hansen
WW: Jordan Griffin vs. Youssef Zalal Zalal Zalal