Robert Whittaker (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 14 Preview and Predictions

The party rages on, as another UFC event takes place on “Fight Island” this weekend.

The main event of UFC on ESPN 14 features two former welterweights who have moved up to the middleweight division. Darren Till showed flashes or brilliance at welterweight, but he struggled on the scale and then came up short in his title bid against Tyron Woodley. Now, the British fighter makes the long-awaited move to 185 pounds. Robert Whittaker realized several years ago that making the welterweight limit was draining his body physically. Since then, the New Zealander has moved on to become middleweight champion before dropping the title to Israel Adesanya in his last outing. The meeting between Till and Whittaker will go a long way in determining the chain of title contenders who may face the champion after Adesanya fights Paulo Costa.

In the co-headliner, we have a third meeting between legends Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Rua won the pair’s first meeting in the quarterfinal of the 2005 Pride middleweight tournament in one of the most epic fights the sport has ever seen. Both men are past their prime, but they feel this showdown is necessary before they enter into retirement.


Also on the main card, fans will be treated to a heavyweight showdown between former champion Fabricio Werdum and former light-heavyweight title challenger Alexander Gustafsson. Werdum is coming off consecutive losses for the first time in his career after dropping fights to Alexander Volkov and Alexei Oleinik. Meanwhile, Gustafsson returns to action after a two-fight skid of his own in which he dropped a title rematch to Jon Jones and then was submitted by Anthony Smith. Gustafsson, who declared his retirement after the loss to Smith, returns to action just 14 months later, a story all too familiar in the world of MMA. The winner of this fight might have enough left in the tank for a final run at contender status, while the loser could have to face the reality that the glory days truly are behind him.

UFC on ESPN 14 goes down on Saturday inside the Flash Forum on Yas Island in the United Arab Emirates. The preliminary fights kick off on ESPN and ESPN+ at 5 p.m. ET, followed on the same broadcast platforms by the main card at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action as they go Toe-to-Toe.

In his first middleweight fight with the UFC, Darren Till squeaked past contender Kelvin Gastelum. Will he find the same good fortune against former champion Robert Whittaker?

Sumian: This is not going to be a popular opinion, but it needs to be said: Till is not a top-level talent.

Till is one-dimensional, predictable and repetitive in most of his bouts. If you have seen Till fight on more than one occasion, then you are likely aware that he really only has one weapon. He stands in front of his opponent, bobs a couple of times and then throws either a 1-1-2 or a 1-2, hoping to land a devastating punch. That worked out well for him at welterweight, where he had a drastic physical advantage over smaller opponents such as Donald Cerrone. It will not fly at middleweight, though.

Jorge Masvidal showed the world that if you are patient, tactical and calm when facing Till, he will leave openings that are especially susceptible to hooks and uppercuts. The fact is that Till’s only quality wins have been over opponents he has a physical advantage over — Cerrone and Kelvin Gastelum. While beating Gastelum is surely an impressive feat, the middleweight division is full of fighters that can give Till loads of trouble.

In comes Whittaker, who everyone is writing off due to his devastating loss to Israel Adesanya. Whittaker’s quality of opponents is on another level compared to Till. Whittaker has faced Derek Brunson, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Yoel Romero (twice) and Adesanya. Even in the Adesanya fight, he was finding success before getting caught by a beautiful counter. It happens to the best of them. If it were not for constant health setbacks, it is not unreasonable to assume that Whittaker’s title reign would have consisted of three or four more defenses. He is easily one of the most well-rounded and well-conditioned fighters in the division.

The only question when it comes to “The Reaper” winning a fight is how healthy he is when he enters the Octagon. Based on his most recent statements, it seems that Whittaker has taken the time to heal up properly and carry out a well-thought-out training camp. He’ll enter the cage as healthy and ready as he has ever been. Whittaker will stop Till with strikes after a round or two of opening up and make a good case for a rematch with the champ, Adesanya.

Petela: I agree that pundits have fallen in love with Till prematurely. At this point in his career, he is not quite at the level of the middleweight elite. He very likely will one day mature into a perennial contender and eventual champion, but the lack of diversity in his skill set will prevent him from getting the win here.

This really is a “prove it” fight for Till, too. The victory over Gastelum wasn’t exactly the coming-out party at middleweight that fans of Till had been expecting. Far from a fight to showcase his potential at a more natural weight class, this fight with the former champion Whittaker could set back the young Scouser and further derail his aspirations of greatness.

Similarly, Whittaker is nearly in a must-win situation here. After his devastating loss to Adesanya to unify the championship belts, a loss in this contest with Till could breathe life into the idea that the two wars with Romero took a devastating toll on “Bobby Knuckles” that, combined with nagging health issues, will prevent him from ever achieving his true legendary potential.

Whittaker will have had enough time to heal and recover from illness and injury to be close to the top of his game. Both men have the power in their hands to close the show with one well-placed punch, but fans see time and time again that speed beats power and timing beats speed. It will be the timing of Whittaker that allows him to outstrike Till and end the fight before the 25 minutes have concluded. This will allow Whittaker to take one large step forward toward recapturing the title he so recently lost.

The co-headliner is a throwback to the Pride era, featuring Mauricio “Shogun” Rua against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Which of these legendary light heavyweights takes the win?

Petela: I have gone back and forth several times thinking about this fight. It’s not that I’m uncertain about who will come out of the cage with a victory, but whether this is a fight that I even want to see. My conclusion is that this third showdown between the two legends does not need to happen. There is no title on the line, the pair didn’t exchange wins the first two times they met, and they are both a far cry from their primes or even the versions of themselves that took to the cage in their 2015 encounter.

Nogueira is 44 years old and has alternated wins and losses over his last four fights, with both defeats coming by way of knockout. He looks stiff in the cage and relies solely on the power in his hands, which is all that is left from what once were a pair of the most technical boxing fists in MMA history.

Shogun, surprisingly, is only 38 years old. It seems like he’s been around forever, though. He fell to Anthony Smith by brutal knockout in his last loss, but he has since picked up an impressive TKO over Tyson Pedro and managed to fight to a draw with Paul Craig.

At this point, it should be a third victory for Rua, who will hopefully ride off into the sunset and leave “Little Nog” to limp into retirement without having avenged his two previous losses.

Sumian: Indeed, this fight does not need to happen. However, I am also not opposed to two out-of-their-prime Brazilian legends having a final say in the Octagon before retirement.

Shogun is a surprising 3-1-1 over his last five UFC appearances. He is unarguably one of the most popular, exciting and charismatic UFC light heavyweights to ever grace the Octagon. The former UFC light heavyweight champion has accomplished a lot in his illustrious career, including the aforementioned title reign, several “Fight of the Night” performances, and much more during his time with Pride. Not many fighters hold 21 professional finishes by way of knockout, which makes Shogun one of the most memorable finishers in UFC history. Despite his age, he is one of those fighters that fans will truly miss.

Unfortunately, “Lil Nog’s” career went in an entirely different direction when he joined the UFC. He has compiled a 6-6 mark since joining the promotion, and his two biggest wins came at the expense of past-their-prime stars Rashad Evans and Tito Ortiz. It hurts to say this, but he will probably be best remembered for being on the receiving end of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson’s brutal 44-second knockout. His TKO victories over Patrick Cummins and Sam Alvey were certainly fun to watch, but neither of those men are high-level light heavyweights.

It is not even a question that Shogun fought better talent and accomplished exponentially more than Nogueira throughout their careers. On July 25, fans get to say goodbye to two of the most recognizable Brazilians in MMA history. The result? A unanimous-decision victory for Shogun, who will use his signature leg kicks, bob, and brutal hooks to deliver one final win before calling it a career.

Rhys McKee, Jai Herbert, Tom Aspinall, Niklas Stolze and John Castañeda — do we need to know these names?

Sumian: Herbert is an exceptional talent who comes out of England and boasts an impressive 10-1 record, with eight wins by way of knockout. He won the vacant Cage Warriors lightweight belt against Jack Grant and defended it with a devastating knee knockout of Cain Carrizosa. The Brit is making his debut against a very seasoned Fransisco Trinaldo, who is still competing at a high level for a 41-year-old. Trinaldo’s biggest shortcoming at this point in his career is his tendency to fade in the later rounds. Expect Herbert to come out and stop Trinaldo with strikes and make himself a fine addition to the lightweight roster.

Anytime there is an addition to the comparably weaker heavyweight division, it is worth a mention. The division is pretty much ruled by Stipe Miocic, Dan Cormier and a lingering Francis Ngannou, so it certainly needs fresh talent. The debuting Aspinall is a towering 6-foot-5 heavyweight out of England who boasts a 7-2 record, with all seven of his wins coming by way of knockout or submission. The Brit has proven to have power in his hands while also sporting an impressive heel hook that has accounted for two finishes. Aspinall faces Jake Collier, who is moving up from the light-heavyweight division, in his UFC debut. Aspinall will earn his first UFC win by stoppage and announce himself to his fellow heavyweights.

The debuts of Stolze and Castañeda are also noteworthy. The welterweight Stolze comes out of Germany and has built an impressive 12-3 record, with nine wins by way of submission or strikes. He debuts against a very game Ramazan Emeev, who has yet to earn a finish in the UFC and is coming off a loss to Anthony Rocco Martin. Meanwhile, Castañeda has compiled a 17-4 record prior to his entry into the UFC. The Minnesota native has shown his ability to finish opponents both on the ground and on the feet and will look to add his name to a very competitive bantamweight roster.

Petela: I’m not saying that none of these newcomers have the potential to be mainstays in the UFC, but the current sports climate has given rise to a number of prospects who aren’t quite ready for the biggest stage in MMA. Outside of McKee, that is what we have in this crop of debuting fighters. These are talented individuals who could one day make a name for themselves amongst the best of the best, but who at this point are leaving the regional or international scenes prematurely. They will be one or two and done, depending on how gracious the UFC is to them for stepping up to fight during these uncertain times.

McKee is a standout from Northern Ireland who has amassed a 10-2-1 record in his professional career. He is riding a three-fight winning streak — all by stoppage — in the Cage Warriors promotion. He is in a great position to make a name for himself on the global stage if he is able to get past Khamzat Chimaev.

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

Petela: Bethe Correia. Despite winning her last fight, the Brazilian’s tenure in the UFC should come to a close if she fails to defeat Pannie Kianzad. Correia did not look like a former title challenger in her last outing, where she notched a lackluster decision victory over Sijara Eubanks. Prior to that win, “Pitbull” had lost two consecutive fights, including one in which she missed weight by a whopping five pounds. Luckily for Correia, she is taking on an opponent who has not looked all that great in her last few outings either. Kianzad only holds a 1-2 record inside the UFC. Correia should walk away with a win and avoid a pink slip, but every one of her future fights will still be a referendum on whether or not she belongs in the promotion.

Sumian: Gadzhimurad Antigulov. Unfortunately, the 20-6 UFC light heavyweight has hit a surprising two-fight skid after starting off 2-0 in his UFC career. Both of his losses have come by way of first-round knockout, making a win for him a must if he wants to stick around. He will have to do so against the ultra-tough Paul Craig, who has scored three performance bonuses and is coming off a taxing battle against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua that resulted in a draw. Both Antigulov and Craig are well versed on the ground, so this bout should be decided by who can implement their game plan more effectively.

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

Sumian: Out of the three “Fight Nights” scheduled to take place on Yas Island, this card is without a doubt the most loaded and makes this question quite difficult. With that said, let’s turn to the welterweight clash between Peter Sobotta and Alex Oliveira. The two men have combined for 36 finishes and have been involved in exciting bouts throughout their UFC careers. Oliveira, win or lose, is rarely involved in a scrap that does not deliver.

Petela: Does anyone even realize that Fabricio Werdum is fighting Alexander Gustafsson, who moves up to heavyweight, at this event? It is firmly planted in the middle of the main card, but with the high-profile middleweight headliners and the legends’ match in the co-main event, we have largely overlooked this intriguing match-up. It’s hard to say what will happen when these two big men throw down. It should be a fun stylistic clash between two men who clearly think they have things left to prove before calling it a career.

Pair this card with…

Petela: If you’re like me and think New Zealand’s Robert Whittaker will win the main event, then have a vegemite sandwich, a staple from the land he calls home. If you’re riding with Darren Till, then a classic English fish and chips will do the trick. On second thought, I’ve tried vegemite… I will be going with the fish and chips.

Sumian: The feeling of being pleasantly surprised and thrilled. After UFC 251, this week’s upcoming event is by far the most highly touted and loaded card of the Yas Island “Fight Night” trio. We get to see Whittaker, Till, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Alexander Gustafsson, Fabricio Werdum, Carla Esparza, Alex Oliveira and Fransisco Trinaldo all on one card. This lineup is definitely one of the most loaded ones we have seen in a while. It has the chance of delivering in a big way. While staying safe and socially distanced in the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, get together with a few close friends for an early afternoon — the action begins at 2 p.m. for those on the West Coast — of grilling, drinks and sun. For the main event, bring out some el pastor or carne and taco it up for the final July show on Yas Island.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
MW: Robert Whittaker vs. Darren Till Whittaker Whittaker
LHW: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira Rua Rua
HW: Fabricio Werdum vs. Alexander Gustafsson Gustafsson Werdum
Women’s StrawW: Carla Esparza vs. Marina Rodriguez Esparza Esparza
LHW: Paul Craig vs. Gadzhimurad Antigulov Craig Craig
WW: Alex Oliveira vs. Peter Sobotta Oliveira Sobotta
WW: Khamzat Chimaev vs. Rhys McKee Chimaev McKee
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
LW: Francisco Trinaldo vs. Jai Herbert Herbert Herbert
WW: Nicolas Dalby vs. Jesse Ronson Dalby Dalby
HW: Jake Collier vs. Tom Aspinall Aspinall Collier
FW: Movsar Evloev vs. Mike Grundy Grundy Evloev
HW: Raphael Pessoa vs. Tanner Boser Boser Boser
Women’s BW: Bethe Correia vs. Pannie Kianzad Kianzad Correia
WW: Ramazan Emeev vs. Niklas Stolze Emeev Emeev
BW: Nathaniel Wood vs. John Castañeda Wood Wood