Joseph Benavidez (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 30 Preview and Predictions

It’s been a while since the UFC has had a flyweight champion. Henry Cejudo last defended his flyweight crown in January 2019. He eventually vacated the belt, and it was to go to a new champion in February when Deiveson Figueiredo first met Joseph Benavidez inside the Octagon. Things didn’t go as planned, however. Figueiredo missed weight, making him ineligible for the title, and then won the fight. Now, the Brazilian gets another chance at the scales and a rematch with Benavidez for the strap. Perhaps this time, at UFC on ESPN+ 30, things will go more smoothly.

Figueiredo and Benavidez cap off a lineup that also features rising flyweight contenders Alexandre Pantoja and Askar Askarov in the opening contest of the main card, but middleweights Kelvin Gastelum and Jack Hermansson take the much more prominent spot as the co-headliner. Gastelum is on a mission to overcome a two-fight skid that started with a title loss to Israel Adesanya. Hermansson is also out for a rebound win after he was stopped by Jared Cannonier in September. Despite their recent bad fortunes, these two 185-pounders remain among the contenders in their division.

The main card also features a potential lightweight showcase for Marc Diakiese, who is set to meet Kazakhstan’s Rafael Fiziev. The 27-year-old Diakiese has bounced back nicely from a three-fight skid to secure victories over Joe Duffy and Lando Vannata. He’s out to build upon his recent success against a 7-1 fighter in Fiziev.


Rounding out the main card, former KSW champion Ariane Lipski finally gets her long-awaited fight against prospect Luana Carolina. The two flyweight ladies have twice had their scheduled bout scrapped due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

UFC on ESPN+ 30, the second event to take place at UFC’s “Fight Island” complex on Yas Island in the United Arab Emirates, kicks off at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday with a seven-fight preliminary card on ESPN+. The action continues at 8 p.m. ET with the five-fight main card. Combat Press writers Matthew Duffy and Bryan Henderson preview all of the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

With a vacant flyweight belt on the line, Deiveson Figueiredo and Joseph Benavidez clash for the second time in their careers. In their first encounter, which took place in February, Figueiredo earned the stoppage win. Will history repeat itself on Saturday night?

Duffy: Although Figueiredo missed weight last time out, the extra weight didn’t really play much of a factor in the outcome of the fight. The 32-year-old Brazilian has put together a fantastic run since joining the UFC in 2017. He’s extremely well rounded and possesses a pair of explosive hands. You can never count Benavidez out, but ultimately, this fight will play out very similarly to the first encounter.

Henderson: The positive COVID-19 test scare with Figueiredo almost caused us to have to look at a very different fight. Fortunately, it looks like the Brazilian will make the walk to the cage after all.

Figueiredo’s immense power factored into the first meeting with Benavidez, who succumbed to a TKO. Figueiredo landed a right cross and then sealed the deal with a flurry of ground-and-pound strikes. The win for the Brazilian was his ninth by some form of knockout.

Benavidez has had tough luck in the flyweight division. He played second fiddle to Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, then Henry Cejudo, and now it appears he’s stuck in the same spot against Figueiredo, who trains at the 35-year-old’s previous camp of Team Alpha Male. That only further cements Figueiredo’s chances against an opponent with which his team of coaches is incredibly familiar. The only difference between this fight and their first encounter is that Figueiredo will make weight and leave with the title belt.

How likely is it that Kelvin Gastelum snaps his two-fight skid when he meets Jack Hermansson in the evening’s co-headliner?

Henderson: While Gastelum has suffered back-to-back losses, those setbacks haven’t come against just anybody. The first loss in his current skid came courtesy of Israel Adesanya in a fight for the interim middleweight crown. Then, Gastelum was eked out in a split decision by Darren Till. Gastelum is taking on huge challenges, and sometimes that approach will lead to multiple losses.

This time, the former The Ultimate Fighter star draws Hermansson, who already holds wins over the likes of Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Dave Branch. The 32-year-old Swede is out to score a rebound victory of his own, though, after falling to Jared Cannonier last year and having a contest against Chris Weidman scrapped due to the current pandemic.

Hermansson has relied heavily on submissions and ground-and-pound to get the job done, but Gastelum has been beaten more handily by strikers in his recent fights. However, the 28-year-old former title challenger is also significantly outsized as a middleweight here. Hermansson will enjoy three inches in height and six inches in reach over Gastelum. That could be the difference in what should be yet another stumble for Gastelum.

Duffy: It’s evident that much of Gastelum’s resume has been built on well-known, but past-their-prime veterans. That trend came to a screeching halt in April 2019, when Gastelum lost to Adesanya in their fight for the interim middleweight championship. His loss to Till was narrow, so his two-fight skid is nothing of great concern.

Hermansson has seemingly come out of nowhere to plant himself among the middleweight division’s elite. He possesses a dangerous submission game and is solid on the feet, but Gastelum’s sharp boxing game will be too much for the Swede to handle. I envision Gastelum catching Hermansson with a crisp combo to finish the fight and get back to his winning ways.

Roman Dolidze, Amir Albazi, Malcolm Gordon and Carlos Felipe — do we need to know these names?

Duffy: It’s been close to two years since Dolidze last competed, thanks to a suspension handed down by the USADA prior to his UFC debut. He is very untested, but Khadis Ibragimov should be a good measuring stick for the 31-year-old debutant.

Albazi and Gordon will face each other as they make their respective debuts. Albazi’s lone career loss was handed to him by Jose “Shorty” Torres, a fighter who in all honesty still belongs in the UFC. Of the four debuting fighters, Albazi has the brightest future, and I’m excited to see what he can bring to the table. He’ll get the better of Gordon on Saturday night.

Felipe, similarly to Dolidze, has been on the sidelines for a long time after he was handed a two-year suspension for doping. Luckily, he’s only 25, so if he’s been training hard, then the time off may not have a significant impact on the trajectory of his career. Unfortunately for Felipe, he makes his debut against Sergey Spivac, who is a pretty tough test for a debuting fighter. It will be interesting to see how Felipe fares.

Henderson: This isn’t quite on par with the head-turning freshman class that was ushered in at UFC 251 — how about that Jiří Procházka debut? — but there’s certainly potential here.

Albazi and Gordon likely have the highest ceiling of this group. This largely has to do with the division where they reside. These guys are in a flyweight field that has become even more shallow with the departure of two former champs and a cleaning out of the roster when the UFC almost ditched the weight class. That’s not to say these guys aren’t talented fighters. Albazi has just the aforementioned loss to Torres while also delivering 11 finishes among his 12 career wins. Canada’s Gordon has recorded notable wins over The Ultimate Fighter alum Yoni Sherbatov and UFC veteran Chris Kelades. Even the loser should get at least one more opportunity inside the Octagon as long as he doesn’t deliver a complete clunker this weekend.

The doping suspensions for Dolidze and Felipe are cause for concern. How much of their respective undefeated records has relied on that extra edge? Dolidze did defeat solid veterans Eder de Souza and Michał Pasternak in his two fights prior to the suspension, but his upcoming foe Ibragimov had an even more impressive regional record before joining the UFC and should be able to secure the victory over the newcomer. Felipe could have an even more difficult time finding a win in his debut against Spivac, and he’s only beaten middling competition thus far on the regional level. It’s doubtful either of these guys will stick around in the UFC for very long.

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

Henderson: Joe Duffy really needs a win on Saturday night. The Irish fighter gained a small flash of stardom due to a non-UFC victory over Conor McGregor and a solid 4-1 start to his UFC tenure, but he’s struggled recently. Duffy was stopped via strikes by James Vick, sat on the sidelines for all of 2018 and then got decisioned in his return against Marc Diakiese in early 2019, which again was followed by a long hiatus. If Duffy can’t beat Joel Alvarez, who is just 1-1 so far in the UFC, it might be the end of the line for the veteran lightweight.

Duffy: It’s been a rough ride in the UFC for Khadis Ibragimov thus far. Bad decision-making and a poor gas tank have highlighted his first two fights with the company. A loss to Roman Dolidze will almost certainly spell the end of Ibragimov’s UFC run. Fortunately for the young fighter, he’s been handed a very winnable match-up against the unproven Dolidze. Ibragimov has what it takes to save his career by winning this fight.

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

Duffy: Davi Ramos and Arman Tsarukyan will face off in the second bout of the evening. Despite its low billing on the card, we can expect a high-level competition between these two very promising and exciting lightweight fighters.

Ramos is a world-class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, but he’s shown that he has crazy power as well. Meanwhile, Tsarukyan, 23, is a very intriguing prospect who turned heads when he made his UFC debut and held his own against Islam Makhachev. Speaking of Makhachev, he handed both Ramos and Tsarukyan their most recent defeats. I can see the matchmakers setting the winner of this fight up with a top-15 opponent.

Henderson: If Deiveson Figueiredo’s COVID-19 scare had turned out to be real, the main event could have featured Alexandre Pantoja as a late replacement to challenge for the title. Instead, the Brazilian remains one of the main-card openers, alongside Askar Askarov. This might not be a deep sleeper, but it’s an excellent bout that could position the winner as a soon-to-be title contender. Pantoja is a 26-fight veteran who pushed Figueiredo to the scorecards when the pair met approximately a year ago. Askarov is an undefeated Russian fighter who could make a real impression in only his third Octagon appearance after already fighting Brandon Moreno to a draw and defeating Tim Elliott. This should be a great one.

Pair this card with…

Henderson: An appreciation of the men’s flyweight division. Yes, this lineup features solid fights across a wide range of weight classes, but the real treasures here come for flyweight fans. The headliner between Deiveson Figueiredo and Joseph Benavidez is the highlight of the evening, but more treats can be found further down the docket when Alexandre Pantoja clashes with Askar Askarov and the UFC welcomes Malcolm Gordon and Amir Albazi to the mix. This is arguably one of the deeper cards for the division in quite some time, and perhaps it will even convert some people into fans of the lightest of men’s divisions.

Duffy: A special recognition of just how lucky we are to be able to tune in to three UFC events within a week. To make things even sweeter, we get another championship fight after we had three at UFC 251.

Fight Picks

Fight Duffy’s Pick Henderson’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW Championship: Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Joseph Benavidez Figueiredo Figueiredo
MW: Jack Hermansson vs. Kelvin Gastelum Gastelum Hermansson
LW: Marc Diakiese vs. Rafael Fiziev Diakiese Diakiese
Women’s FlyW: Ariane Lipski vs. Luana Carolina Carolina Lipski
FlyW: Alexandre Pantoja vs. Askar Askarov Pantoja Pantoja
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
LHW: Khadis Ibragimov vs. Roman Dolidze Ibragimov Ibragimov
Catchweight (150 pounds): Grant Dawson vs. Nad Narimani Dawson Dawson
LW: Joel Alvarez vs. Joe Duffy Duffy Duffy
BW: Brett Johns vs. Montel Jackson Jackson Johns
FlyW: Amir Albazi vs. Malcolm Gordon Albazi Albazi
LW: Davi Ramos vs. Arman Tsarukyan Ramos Tsarukyan
HW: Sergey Spivac vs. Carlos Felipe Spivac Spivac