After an incredibly successful month of July in which the UFC put on four events on Yas Island in the United Arab Emirates, the UFC ends its time in Abu Dhabi and returns to its base camp in Las Vegas for UFC on ESPN+ 31.
The first event back at the Apex is yet again headlined by a pivotal middleweight match-up. This one features the surging Edmen Shahbazyan, who will face longtime middleweight contender Derek Brunson. The winner will surely move up in the rankings and face a highly ranked opponent in their next trip to the Octagon.
The main card features a long list of popular UFC fighters, including Vicente Luque, Randy Brown, Lando Vannata, Bobby Green and Trevin Giles. The co-main event is a women’s flyweight match-up between the No. 3-ranked Joanne Calderwood and No. 6 Jennifer Maia. A win for either lady could position them for a title shot against current women’s flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko.
The preliminary card is topped by a bantamweight showdown between Frankie Saenz and Jonathan Martinez, both of whom are looking to get back in the win column after suffering losses in their last respective UFC appearances. The preliminary card also includes notable UFC staples Ed Herman, Gerald Meerschaert, Ray Borg and Eric Spicely.
UFC on ESPN+ 31 goes down on August 1 and airs entirely on the ESPN+ streaming platform. The preliminary action begins at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the main card at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Matt Petela and Andrew Sumian preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Edmen Shahbazyan has made waves since joining the UFC roster. His undefeated career mark includes four Octagon wins, including three first-round stoppages. Will the rising middleweight star add another quick finish when he meets Derek Brunson in the evening’s main event?
Petela: If Shahbazyan was taking on the Brunson of two years ago or before, then the answer would be a resounding yes. However, the more mature and calculated style that Brunson has employed over his last two fights will make it much more difficult for the rising star to add a fourth consecutive first-round finish to his UFC resume.
Up until the end of 2018, Brunson was known for a wildly aggressive style that led to 11 career knockouts, all in the first round, including six inside the UFC. Unfortunately for the Wilmington, N.C., native, that style also led to him dropping four UFC fights by knockout, with three of them also coming inside the first frame. It was after two consecutive first-round losses — one to Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in the pair’s rematch and one to current champion Israel Adesanya — that the three-time NCAA Division II All-American wrestler made wholesale changes in his fight preparation and game-planning. He made the decision to move his training camps from his hometown in North Carolina down to South Florida at Sanford MMA (previously Hard Knocks 365), where he found the caliber of training partners that he felt he needed to compete with the elite fighters at 185 pounds. In addition to new training partners, Brunson seemingly flipped his in-cage approach 180 degrees. In his back-to-back wins since making the move, he outpointed both Elias Theodorou and Ian Heinisch over the course of 15 minutes en route to unanimous-decision victories. His added patience and decreased recklessness have served him well so far, and it will certainly help him make it into the latter rounds with Shahbazyan.
Ultimately, though, Shahbazyan will come away with a decisive victory before the final bell sounds. The Glendale Fighting Club product, much like the previous iteration of Brunson, is a hard-charging fast starter who has finished 10 of his 11 professional victories in the first round, including nine by way of knockout or TKO. His lone decision victory came in his official UFC debut when he squeaked by Darren Stewart with a split decision.
Early on in this main event, Brunson will be able to frustrate his California-born opponent. However, as the fight goes into the third round, there will be a distinct talent discrepancy with the edge firmly going Shahbazyan’s way. Shahbazyan, 22, is 14 years younger than the 36-year-old Brunson and therefore is improving rapidly, whereas, in the best-case scenario, Brunson is nearing the end of his prime.
Clearly, there is much more evidence to show that Brunson is capable of going the distance and picking up a decision win. He’s done so six times in his career, as opposed to the lone decision win for Shahbazyan. However, this comes down to the eye test. Despite his refined style allowing him to avoid the devastating early knockout losses that once plagued him, Brunson won’t be able to avoid the power of Shahbazyan for 15 minutes. It will only take one perfectly placed strike from Ronda Rousey’s former training partner to leave Brunson looking up at the lights and wondering whether or not it is time to call it a career after repeatedly coming up short to the highest level of talent in the division.
Sumian: That breakdown is on the dot.
Brunson has certainly been a more calculated and technical fighter in his last few Octagon appearances, and it has obviously paid off, resulting in two clear unanimous-decision wins. If you were to talk about some of the most athletic and powerful fighters on the UFC roster today, there is no way you can omit Brunson. The North Carolina native has pretty much all the tools you could want and need to be a successful UFC champion, but for some reason he has always hit a roadblock when fighting elite competition in the UFC.
Brunson’s newfound approach to fights is certainly a sign of maturity, but it also is not who he truly is. His former tendency to fight like a wild bull is what made him popular and fun to watch in the first place, and this side of him will come out again on Saturday. Brunson was in this exact situation before when he fought Israel Adesanya in 2018. He is going to do everything in his power to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself and that the surging younger contender does not take the next step up the UFC ladder at his expense.
Shahbazyan is a special talent, plain and simple. When was the last time a 22-year-old UFC fighter was ranked inside the top 10 with an 11-0 professional record and three consecutive first-round stoppages in the UFC? If you have not seen his first-round head-kick knockout of Brad Tavares, then you need to go find the clip immediately.
As impressive as his rise in the UFC middleweight division has been, Shahbazyan is taking a huge step up in competition here. He will be fighting a vastly more experienced and stronger fighter in Brunson, and he will have to be prepared for Brunson’s explosiveness and ability to control a fight’s pace through his wrestling and technicality.
At this point in his career, Brunson has become a middleweight gatekeeper. Those up-and-coming contenders who are able to beat him will prove that they are ready for the next step. On Saturday, Shahbazyan will do so via second-round stoppage.
What should fans expect out of the fight between welterweights Vicente Luque and Randy Brown?
Sumian: Is madness an acceptable answer? Luque and Brown have combined for 26 professional finishes and have distinctly proven their ability to consistently end fights both on the feet and the ground. I cannot understand how anyone can look at this fight and not immediately think “Fight of the Night/Year candidate.”
Luque is a true competitor who is willing to fight anyone on the UFC welterweight roster. The No. 12-ranked Brazilian contender could have easily waited for the UFC to match him up with a top-10 opponent, which he rightfully deserves, but he just wants to fight as often as possible. Luque’s Muay Thai is quite possibly the best among active UFC welterweights, and he has consistently proven his ability to pick apart opponents on the feet before finding an opening to land a vicious fight-ending strike. The only problem with Luque is that he takes a few to give a few. Despite landing over five significant strikes per minute, he also absorbs blows at the same rate. If he is able to mitigate how much damage he takes while landing his own shots, we could be talking about a UFC title fight for Luque in the next few years.
Brown is without a doubt one of the most underrated fighters on the UFC roster. “Rude Boy” has come a long way since he was discovered on Dana White’s Lookin’ for a Fight. He has delivered several memorable performances in the Octagon, including a third-round TKO of Bryan Barberena and a triangle-choke submission of Warlley Alves. He has compiled a two-fight winning streak and is now facing the toughest test of his professional career.
This fight is going to be fireworks from start to finish, and it will be one of the more memorable clashes of the evening. Brown will have his moments and prove that he is able to mix it up with the best in the division, but Luque will land often and earn the unanimous decision.
Petela: Madness and fireworks are perfect descriptions for this match-up.
These two men are born finishers, and each man has only gone the distance twice in their professional victories. This is a fight that UFC matchmakers had planned for the April 18 card that got canceled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, and Luque had a rematch with Niko Price in the interim.
It makes perfect sense for these two gunslingers to square off. They have a fair number of recent opponents in common, and none of those fights have been anything short of wildly entertaining. Both men scored TKO victories over the aforementioned Barberena and have also shared the cage with Price. Luque holds two victories over Price, whereas Brown was infamously knocked out by hammerfists from the bottom by “The Hybrid.”
Outside of their common opponents, Luque has the tougher strength of schedule, with his only recent loss coming to former two-time title challenger Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. That setback came in a “Fight of the Night” performance. Luque should be able to take a few things he learned from facing off with the champion kickboxer to slightly refine his come-forward, marauding style.
Ultimately, it will be the ever-so-minimal adjustments that Luque makes to fight with just a bit more technically savvy that will be the deciding factor. He’ll reset in the middle of a long striking exchange and capitalize on an opening that Brown leaves to come away with yet another knockout victory.
Nathan Maness and Timur Valiev — do we need to know these names?
Petela: Maness has an impressive professional record of 11-1. He has a well-rounded skill set that has led to four wins by knockout or TKO, two by submission, and five by decision. The only loss on his record came by a sidekick to his solar plexus courtesy of former UFC fighter Taylor Lapilus. That speaks well for Maness as he enters his promotional debut, but there are still question marks for this prospect. He isn’t coming in from one of the premier regional or international organizations like the Legacy Fighting Alliance, Cage Fury Fighting Championships or Cage Warriors. Rather, he has fought in Canada’s TKO Major League MMA and the Kentucky-based HardRock MMA. Suffice it to say that Maness has beaten all the people he should have beaten as an up-and-coming prospect, but the setback to a fighter who was at one point UFC-caliber talent means the jury is still out on whether or not “Mayhem” is someone whose name fans of the UFC need to know. Yet, Maness should start off with a win over a high-profile name in Ray Borg who has proven to be undersized at bantamweight despite showing repeatedly that he can’t make weight down at flyweight.
Valiev is a name a fair number of fans should already be familiar with from his time with the World Series of Fighting and, subsequently, the Professional Fighters League. He has spent time training with the likes of Frankie Edgar and Zabit Magomedsharipov in New Jersey, as well as training at Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque, N.M. Valiev made the move up from bantamweight to featherweight in 2018 and will make his Octagon debut against Jamall Emmers.
If the hype around Valiev is to be believed, he should certainly build his name into a high-profile mainstay amongst the top level of one of the promotion’s most talent-stacked divisions. Emmers should prove to be a good introductory opponent, too. The Pinnacle MMA product put up a good showing in his debut performance despite ultimately falling short to kickboxing ace Giga Chikadze in a closely contested split decision. Emmers and Valiev will bring out the best in each other and put this fight in contention for “Fight of the Night” honors.
Sumian: Maness should have a distinct size advantage over Borg and will earn himself a unanimous-decision win over his well-known foe. The victory will earn him a high-profile fight in his sophomore UFC appearance. He will be a great addition to a highly competitive UFC bantamweight division and should have consistent success in his new home.
Valiev has done it all. The Dagestani native has trained in wushu, boxing, kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and sambo. He certainly has a tough UFC debut ahead of him in Emmers. This could easily end up being one of the most entertaining fights of the night. Emmers will have a considerable height and reach advantage, which he should use to pepper Valiev with strikes early and often. Ultimately, Valiev’s path to victory will come down to his ability to negate Emmers’ reach and height edge by getting in close enough to wrestle and avoid damage. This fight is truly a toss-up, but Valiev will show he is the real deal and prove that he is a valuable addition to the UFC featherweight division.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Sumian: While he won’t necessarily be cut if he suffers a loss, Frankie Saenz is definitely getting close to the ropes. The eight-fight UFC veteran is 2-4 in his last six UFC appearances. He has never finished an opponent in the UFC and is coming off a first-round beatdown from Marlon Vera. There doesn’t seem to be any demand from fans to see him fight, and a two-fight skid might put him in a position to be cut sooner rather than later.
Petela: I might sound like a broken record, but one of these times I’m going to be right about Ray Borg hitting the chopping block. It is the same old story with Borg: he can’t make weight at flyweight and is clearly undersized and outgunned at bantamweight. For as much flak as the UFC gets for having ruthless business practices, it seems as if Borg has found a soft spot with someone in a position of power. With the family medical struggles that he has gone through, it is not hard to see why. Ultimately, the matchmakers will have to face the music and admit that Borg, even at only age 26, has already had his best days with the organization and should be looking for a home elsewhere.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Lando Vannata and Bobby Green. This is a rematch of a 2017 bout that ended in a draw after Vannata was docked a point for an illegal knee. That fight ended up earning both men a $50,000 bonus as “Fight of the Night.” Both fighters have had mixed results since then. Vannata has gone 2-2-1, and Green sports a 2-2 record. Not only should fans be in store for another barn-burner showdown, but the outcome could play a big part in the trajectory of both men’s careers. Each fighter needs a win to prove to fans, the promotion’s executives, and themselves that they belong on the biggest stage MMA has to offer.
Sumian: Kevin Holland and Trevin Giles. This fight is likely getting the least amount of attention compared to the other fights on the main card, but it absolutely has the ability to deliver the “Fight of the Night.” Holland and Giles are notorious finishers who have combined for 24 stoppages, including 14 in the first round. Holland is coming off a nasty first-round knockout of Anthony Hernandez. Giles most recently turned in a “Fight of the Night” performance against James Krause. Expect fireworks in this one.
Pair this card with…
Sumian: The word “quality.” I can close my eyes and point to any fight on the main card and confidently say it has a pretty good chance of being the best fight of the night. While this card may lack high-profile names like the ones present on last week’s card, I implore you to stick with it and watch as many of the fights as you can. There are going to be some awesome battles, as this lineup features superb matchmaking and exciting possibilities.
Petela: Outside of the headliners, this card is chock-full of fighters who have never found firm footing inside the UFC or whose best days in the promotion are in the rear-view mirror. However, each and every fighter on this card has been provided an opportunity to attract the attention of casual fans, who may be tuning in after being bitten with the combat-sports bug when the UFC was the only game in town, and executives who are dialed in on ramping up the fourth quarter of the calendar year with events held primarily in Las Vegas. In that spirit, pair this card with an ice-cold Yuengling. It’s likely a beer you dabbled in some time ago, but that never became your go-to beverage. Give it another chance to impress you. You just may end up being pleasantly surprised.
Main Card (ESPN+, 9 p.m. ET)
MW: Derek Brunson vs. Edmen Shahbazyan
Women’s FlyW: Joanne Calderwood vs. Jennifer Maia
WW: Vicente Luque vs. Randy Brown
LW: Lando Vannata vs. Bobby Green
MW: Kevin Holland vs. Trevin Giles
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
BW: Frankie Saenz vs. Jonathan Martinez
LHW: Ed Herman vs. Gerald Meerschaert
BW: Ray Borg vs. Nathan Maness
MW: Eric Spicely vs. Markus Perez
FW: Jamall Emmers vs. Timur Valiev
BW: Chris Gutierrez vs. Cody Durden
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