Frankie Edgar (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 15 Preview and Predictions

Matthew Petela Staff Writer

At long last, it seems former lightweight champion Frankie “The Answer” Edgar will make his first walk to the Octagon as a bantamweight. Fans and pundits have been calling for the longtime featherweight stalwart to drop down to 135 pounds since the division’s inception in the UFC, but now Mark Henry’s star pupil, having tried to gain featherweight gold for a third time, has finally decided to fight at what most would consider his most natural weight class. At UFC on ESPN 15, Edgar dives straight into the deep end of the division when he takes on Pedro Munhoz.

Munhoz has rattled off wins in three of his last four fights, including finishes over Bryan Caraway and former champ Cody Garbrandt. Petr Yan recently claimed the belt vacated by Henry Cejudo, and the winner of this weekend’s main event will be near the top of the list of contenders, especially with UFC President Dana White hesitant to declare Aljamain Sterling the clear next title challenger.

In a late addition to the card, Ovince St. Preux meets Alonzo Menifield in the co-headlining slot. After dipping his toes into the water unsuccessfully at heavyweight against Ben Rothwell, St. Preux moves back to his longtime home at light heavyweight. Meanwhile, Menifield will try to rebound from his first professional loss, which came against Devin Clark. Menifield takes the place of OSP’s original opponent, Shamil Gamzatov. St. Preux has fallen on tough times recently, dropping three of his last four fights. If St. Preux, 37, can get his hand raised, he will show that he is somewhat successfully holding off the undefeated Father Time.


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The main card also features Poland’s Marcin Prachnio, who seeks his first UFC victory in what will be his third appearance with the organization. His foe on Saturday evening will be Dana White’s Contender Series alum Mike Rodriguez, who has also struggled inside the UFC. Rodriguez has compiled a 1-2 record with one no-contest in what otherwise would have been another setback for the 31-year-old fighter.

The curtain jerker for the four-fight main card is a welterweight clash between Daniel Rodriguez and Takashi Sato. Rodriguez has won both of his UFC contests. He first stepped in to defeat Tim Means and then added a May victory over Gabe Green. Sato burst into the UFC in 2019 with a TKO victory over Ben Saunders before being submitted by Belal Muhammad just three months later. The Japanese fighter was able to bounce back with a 48-second knockout over last-minute replacement Jason Witt in June. Now, Sato will try to quash any lingering doubts about his skill set against the hard-hitting Rodriguez.

As has become standard for UFC events in the time of coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, UFC on ESPN 15 takes place inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The show starts at 5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+ with the preliminary fights. The main card follows at 8:30 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Fourth time’s the charm? Frankie Edgar and Pedro Munhoz have, for various reasons, seen their fight repeatedly delayed and rescheduled. So, will they finally enter the cage on Saturday? If so, how does Edgar fare in his bantamweight debut?

Kuhl: Remember a long time ago when Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson were supposed to finally fight for a fifth time, and a global pandemic got in the way only a week prior? Well, that same pandemic has been jacking up fight schedules left and right, which is why this fight has been rescheduled a couple times. However, the Edgar/Munhoz situation is much different than the Khabib/Ferguson curse. If these guys are halfway smart and want to get paid, they should be making sure that anyone within two degrees of separation has been living in a bubble. I do believe they will fight, but, these days, who knows?

Let’s assume they do hit the cage. Edgar will be making his 135-pound debut after spending the last seven years as a featherweight, where he faced José Aldo twice and Max Holloway once, all for the title and all unsuccessfully. This happened after he ruled the lightweight division for two years before dropping the title to Benson Henderson.

During Edgar’s golden years, everyone kept telling him to drop down, but he kept proving them wrong. As a featherweight, he only lost to champions and Brian Ortega, until “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung finished him handily in December. Fresh off a new multi-fight deal, he is finally ready to test himself as a bantamweight, and who better to welcome him than Munhoz?

Munhoz entered the UFC as an undefeated Resurrection Fighting Alliance bantamweight champ. Since joining the roster, he has gone 8-4-1, and he still has never been stopped. He has knockout power, which he illustrated in his starching of Cody Garbrandt. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt also has slick submission skills, including a nasty guillotine choke. Munhoz is five years younger than Edger, so he is a little closer to his prime.

Edgar seemed damn near impossible to stop for almost his entire career, but he has now been finished twice in the last two years. That’s not a good sign, especially in the lighter divisions. As a lightweight, Edgar was a smaller, quicker guy. At bantamweight, especially against a guy like Munhoz, he could actually end up on the bigger and slower side of things. Saturday will certainly “answer” a lot of questions.

Munhoz is coming off a decision loss to Aljamain Sterling in June 2019, and Edgar is coming off the aforementioned beatdown from Jung after dropping a five-rounder to Holloway last summer. The younger and fresher Munhoz has a better chance in this one. He is only 33 years old, has had time to rest and regroup, and could still be entering his best years. Edgar, on the other hand, has shown signs of slowing growth, and while he always faces tough competition, he is 1-3 in the last two and a half years.

Munhoz comes in quick and ready to score a finish. He packs some good power for a bantamweight, and Edgar will be giving up some of the advantages he had over the bigger guys. If this one goes the distance, which both men will be trying to avoid, then Munhoz will be able to pick up the decision.

Petela: Rumors of Edgar’s move down to bantamweight have been the MMA equivalent of a Bigfoot sighting over the last few years, with promises of proof that never truly deliver. However, this weekend will indeed be the time when we finally get that proof. Edgar will finally make the walk to the Octagon to take on Munhoz.

Munhoz should indeed be the faster fighter. However, one of the reasons this fight has had to be rescheduled is because of Munhoz testing positive for COVID-19. It wasn’t evident that he was made seriously ill by the virus, but so much is still unknown about the lingering effects of the disease. It wouldn’t be a surprise if we see a version of Munhoz that is just a shade slower than peak form.

Another key factor is Munhoz’s recent loss to the aforementioned Sterling. Sterling is a part of the Serra-Longo team on Long Island, and it is no secret that Mark Henry and company have a friendly relationship with both Matt Serra and Ray Longo. The teams have worked closely over the years and had fighters cross-train in preparation for fights. There could have been some observations and pointers shared over a slice of pizza or two.

The final reason why Edgar will walk away victorious comes down to the game plan. As noted, Munhoz holds a knockout victory over Garbrandt, who, prior to his fight with Raphael Assunção, also spent the majority of his camp in New Jersey with Coach Henry. With all of the hours spent watching footage of Munhoz, Henry should have meaningful insight into Munhoz’s tendencies. Henry is one of the smartest minds in MMA and a wizard when it comes to pre-fight preparation. He will keep Edgar a few moves ahead of Munhoz and help him to capitalize on tendencies that Munhoz himself might not even know he has.

This lineup includes two significant prelim fights on the women’s side. Which ladies should we expect to deliver big on Saturday?

Petela: The shining star amongst the females this weekend will be Mariya Agapova. She made waves in her UFC debut when she submitted Hannah Cifers a little more than halfway through the first round and earned “Performance of the Night” honors. Agapova takes on Shana Dobson in a favorable match-up.

Agapova’s lone professional loss came during the Contender Series to Tracy Cortez, who has since moved up to bantamweight. With Valentina Shevchenko sitting atop the flyweight division, Agapova is a prospect to watch with the potential to one day soon emerge as a legitimate contender to the throne.

Dobson stormed onto the scene to win her UFC debut by knockout in 2017 after a failed run on The Ultimate Fighter. She has struggled since then to the tune of three straight losses. Dobson was knocked out for the first time in her professional career in her last outing against Priscila Cachoeira. The UFC matchmakers did Dobson no favors by pairing her up with a rising star. This one won’t end well for the Miami native.

Kuhl: Agreed. Agapova has a ton of potential, while most people with Dobson’s record would have already been cut. It’s only a matter of time before Dobson suffers that fate too.

In the other women’s clash, Mizuki Inoue takes on Brazil’s Amanda Lemos.

Any women’s MMA fan who is worth their salt knows that Inoue, who has a decade of pro experience under her belt, is super tough. She can easily go the distance and has a nasty armbar game. Inoue has been a Deep Jewels champion and won her UFC debut nearly a year ago, following a lengthy run with Invicta Fighting Championships.

Lemos came into the UFC undefeated with a 6-0-1 record before dropping her debut to Leslie Smith by TKO in July 2017. After sitting out for two years, she was back in action in December with a first-round submission of Miranda Granger.

Both ladies have a lot to prove on Saturday night, but Inoue will use her experience to take this one a full three rounds and pick up the decision win.

Jorge Gonzalez, Mark Striegl, Timur Valiev, Matthew Semelsberger and Carlton Minus — do we need to know these names?

Kuhl: Most of the newcomers this week are veterans of the sport. Valiev has 18 pro fights. Gonzalez and Striegl have 20 or more outings. Yet, these are certainly not apples-to-apples comparisons.

Two and a half years ago, Striegl, an 18-fight veteran at the time, took on a guy who was making his pro debut in a fight that went the distance. Meanwhile, Valiev’s last six fights were all wins, and his opponents, two of whom he finished, combined for a record of 105-20-1. Valiev was actually on track for a huge year in the 2018 Professional Fighters League featherweight tournament before he suffered an injury. The tough Dagestani fighter, who bounces between bantamweight and featherweight, should definitely be at the top of this list. It will be a tough test on Saturday for Striegl, a former URCC featherweight champ.

Gonzalez, who has fought across several smaller promotions, was able to show some glimmer of a bright future when he knocked out UFC vet Luke Barnatt in February 2019. However, almost every one of Gonzalez’s other opponents was either low on experience or had a sub-.500 record. Gonzalez is a finishing machine, but he has a lot to prove against former Fury FC light-heavyweight champ Ike Villanueva.

Semelsberger and Minus face off in an interesting prelim. Both men combined have less experience than most of the other newcomers do individually. Semelsberger is coming in the greenest of them all, with a 6-2 record and only one previous opponent who had more than seven fights on their record. Minus has been a regular on the Alaskan circuit, but his sole loss was in his one PFL fight, which he dropped by submission to longtime UFC vet Rick Story.

It’s easy to try to guess who to watch when it comes to newcomers, but it’s always up to them to bring the pleasant surprises. However, it should be no shock if Valiev walks away victorious and makes a big run in the UFC.

Petela: Valiev has been expected to make his UFC debut a few times now, most recently just earlier this month before he was pulled for undisclosed reasons from his scheduled bout against Jamall Emmers. Fans should be familiar with his name at this point, and for good reason.

In terms of the other debuting fighters, their lengthy professional resumes on the regional and international scenes speak to the notion that they have never had the pure talent to make it at the highest level. Gonzalez may be able to notch a highlight-reel knockout or two before all is said and done, but don’t expect even him to make waves against anyone inside the top 20 of his division.

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

Petela: It feels bizarre to even think it, but it’s Frankie Edgar. No question, the man is a sure-fire Hall of Famer who has put on some of the most spectacular performances in the sport’s history. His trilogy with Gray Maynard alone puts him in rarified air. However, “The Answer” has now lost three of his last four fights, including two via knockout. Maybe the long-awaited move down to bantamweight will breathe new life into the fighting pride of Toms River, N.J., but if not, then this could be it for the former lightweight champion and perennial featherweight contender. If he can no longer contend for a championship, it’s doubtful that Coach Mark Henry will want to see Edgar continue to take damage.

Kuhl: Edgar seems like the obvious choice, but I’m not certain I agree. He just signed a new multi-fight deal and is entering a new weight class. The last time he switched divisions, he started out with a loss in a title fight against José Aldo, only to go beat five guys in a row to earn another shot.

Instead, the pick here is Shana Dobson, who is in a bad place right now. She is 3-4 as a pro, and 3-5 if you include her TUF loss to Roxanne Modafferi. Dobson has only finished one opponent at the pro level, and she is now on a three-fight skid. Dobson is set to face Mariya Agapova, a killer who can finish the fight everywhere. Agapova won her UFC debut just two months ago with a rear-naked choke of Hannah Cifers. Not only does Dobson have her back against the wall, but there’s even a chance that a less-than-impressive win could get her cut anyway.

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

Kuhl: Austin Hubbard and Joe Solecki. Hubbard, a former Legacy Fighting Alliance lightweight champ, comes in with a 2-2 record in the UFC after destroying Max Rohskopf, who was thought to be on track for a big future in the UFC, just two months ago. Solecki won his fight during the 2019 season of the Contender Series and picked up a win over veteran Matt Wiman in December. Both guys are slick on the ground, but I have a little more faith in Hubbard’s striking. Needless to say, this lightweight battle could be a barn-burner.

Petela: That’s a great call and should be a fun fight, but let’s turn our attention to the bantamweight contest between Mark Streigl and Timur Valiev. It should be ultra-competitive, and it’s also Valiev’s Octagon debut, which has been such a long time coming. It will be fun to see Valiev showcase his talents and garner a little more recognition amongst fans who haven’t seen him in action during his time within smaller promotions.


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Pair this card with…

Petela: Takeout Chinese food, but not authentic Chinese cuisine — you know the type. It’s delicious, but it ultimately leaves you unsatisfied and looking for more just an hour or two after you finish eating. The same goes for this card, which has a high-profile main event that is sure to deliver but lacks real substance and depth beyond that. It will leave an empty feeling in the collective stomach of MMA fans.

Kuhl: A laptop with a solid internet connection. Outside of a couple names, it’s safe to assume that most mainstream fans will not know who a lot of these fighters are. A Google search will really help bring context to who’s in this one. That being said, there are some exciting match-ups here. This is one of those cards that doesn’t muster high hopes from fans, but it could end up as an “Event of the Year” candidate.

Fight Picks

Fight Kuhl’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8:30 p.m. ET)
BW: Pedro Munhoz vs. Frankie Edgar Munhoz Edgar
LHW: Ovince St. Preux vs. Alonzo Menifield St. Preux St. Preux
LHW: Mike Rodriguez vs. Marcin Prachnio Rodriguez Rodriguez
WW: Takashi Sato vs. Daniel Rodriguez Rodriguez Rodriguez
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 5:30 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Mariya Agapova vs. Shana Dobson Agapova Agapova
Women’s StrawW: Mizuki Inoue vs. Amanda Lemos Inoue Inoue
LW: Austin Hubbard vs. Joe Solecki Hubbard Hubbard
LHW: Jorge Gonzalez vs. Ike Villanueva Villanueva Gonzalez
WW: Matthew Semelsberger vs. Carlton Minus Minus Semelsberger
BW: Mark Striegl vs. Timur Valiev Valiev Valiev