After the debacle that was last week’s UFC event, the organization is looking to avoid a repeat of the injury- and illness-riddled card as it heads back to the Apex for the final show before UFC 252.
The UFC on ESPN+ 32 headliners reside in the heavyweight division, where knockout artist Derrick “The Black Beast” Lewis takes on grappling whiz Aleksei “The Boa Constrictor” Oleinik. Both men are riding two-fight winning streaks heading into this five-round showdown. They are looking to retain or increase their relevance in the turbulent flagship division of the UFC.
The co-main event features former middleweight champion Chris Weidman, who takes on the surging Omari Akhmedov. The two men could not be on more opposite paths. Weidman has dropped five of his last six fights, whereas Akhmedov has won five of his last six outings. The only thing keeping Akhmedov from being a perfect 6-0 over his last six fights is a draw with Marvin Vettori. With a win over Weidman, Akhmedov would prove he belongs among the upper echelon at 185 pounds. A win for Weidman will quash some of the critics who say it is time for the Serra-Longo product to retire.
The main card includes four more contests. There is a middleweight match-up between Hawaiian bruiser Maki Pitolo and British fighter Darren Stewart. The women’s bantamweight division will also be on display with Yana Kunitskaya squaring off against Julija Stoliarenko. A potential “Fight of the Night” contender lurks between notable veterans Beneil Dariush and Scott Holtzman. The main card also includes a late addition, with middleweights Kevin Holland and Joaquin Buckley set to lock horns.
In compliance with coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, UFC on ESPN+ 32 will not have fans in attendance and will take place inside the UFC Apex. The fight card can be viewed in its entirety on ESPN+ with the prelims beginning at 6 p.m. ET and the main card at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
The heavyweight main event pits power puncher Derrick Lewis against grappler Aleksei Oleinik. Will we see a knockout for Lewis or a submission from Oleinik?
Sumian: Has the statement “It’s a coin toss” ever been more appropriate for a UFC heavyweight bout? This fight has the potential to be over in 20 seconds or drag on for 25 minutes.
Lewis currently ranks at No. 4 in the heavyweight division, but don’t let that fool you. The Texas native is nowhere near the caliber of fighters as Curtis Blaydes, Francis Ngannou, Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic. Instead, he relies on his incredible power to topple opponents while usually being picked apart for the majority of a bout. Lewis averages a subpar 2.53 significant strikers per minute, a 45 percent significant-strike defense rate, and a 53 percent takedown-defense rate. He has a tendency to gas and fade, which has led to a number of questionable bouts, including his latest outing against Ilir Latifi which the majority of viewers felt Latifi had won. Still, Lewis has a puncher’s chance against anyone in the heavyweight division. He has done it time after time against the likes of Travis Browne, Alexander Volkov and Marcin Tybura. While he may lack the technique and fundamentals that are possessed by most UFC fighters on the roster today, his power and ability to deliver thunderous blows should never be underestimated.
Oleinik is simply incredible. To be competing at such a high level at the “young” age of 43 is something to be celebrated and praised. The No. 10-ranked UFC heavyweight is coming off back-to-back wins over Maurice Greene and Fabricio Werdum. He is likely looking for a last-ditch effort to get his shot at the title, which has led to a collision course with “The Black Beast.”
This fight truly has two possible outcomes: a Lewis knockout victory that comes under two minutes of the first round or an Oleinik submission win somewhere between rounds three and five. As he has done so many times in the past, Oleinik will be able to avoid enough damage on the feet, which will tire Lewis and lead to an eventual Oleinik takedown. It won’t come easy, but Oleinik will be able to navigate to a dominant position and secure any one of his masterful submissions to score a victory and possibly enter the top five of the UFC heavyweight rankings.
Petela: Despite both men coming into this bout on the momentum of back-to-back wins, neither one has looked all that impressive recently. Lewis was lackluster in victory against Latifi, a puffed-up light heavyweight. Oleinik squeaked by Werdum in a fight where neither man appeared particularly hungry for the win.
This fight will go the distance in a total snoozefest, rivaling both the fight Lewis had with the aforementioned Ngannou and the recent middleweight title contest between Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero for all-time stinkers.
If there is one thing that Oleinik doesn’t want, it is to feel the brute strength of his opponent’s fists smashing into his face. Meanwhile, Lewis has to avoid getting drawn into a grappling match with the “Boa Constrictor.” To that end, both fighters are going to be hesitant to be in close quarters with each other. Lewis will end up getting the better of the few exchanges that we do see, and his punches will do more damage than the couple that Oleinik lands. By the end of this main event, the few fans who haven’t tuned out or fallen asleep will see Lewis get his hand raised. Luckily for “The Black Beast,” there won’t be any fans in attendance to mercilessly boo him out of the arena.
Omari Akhmedov has not lost a middleweight bout in the UFC. He’s now set to fight former champ Chris Weidman in the evening’s co-headliner. How does this fight play out, and will Akhmedov remain undefeated in the UFC’s middleweight division?
Petela: This is a do-or-die fight for Weidman. The former middleweight kingpin who defeated the legendary Anderson Silva twice has fallen on hard times, to say the least. He hasn’t just lost five of his last six bouts; he has lost them all by knockout or TKO. Outside of the controversial stoppage in the Gegard Mousasi fight, these affairs have all been particularly brutal finishes. One has to wonder whether or not his chin can hold up. Luckily for Weidman, Akhmedov hasn’t notched a knockout win since moving up to middleweight inside the UFC.
In nearly every fight, Weidman’s most likely path to victory starts with his ability to dictate the grappling, where he can put to use his NCAA Division I All-American wrestling skills and the black belt in jiu-jitsu that he earned under the tutelage of Matt Serra. However, in this fight against Akhmedov, he is facing an international master of sport in combat sambo, a grappling-heavy martial art. Weidman has been spending more time than normal in South Carolina leading up to this fight while training his striking with his brother-in-law, fellow UFC fighter Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson.
Don’t expect to see “The All-American” come out in a sideways stance and darting in and out the way Thompson does, but do expect him to show a marked improvement in the striking realm and an advantage on the feet. Weidman will end up coming away with the win to show that, while the low-fuel light may be on, he still has a bit of gas in the tank and maybe a win or two more to claim before calling it a career.
Sumian: This is going to be rough. Yes, Akhmedov has not fought the same level of talent that Weidman has encountered throughout his career, but it simply does not matter. Akhmedov has morphed into a new fighter at middleweight, and he isn’t slowing down in a co-headlining showdown with Weidman.
Akhmedov has gone 3-0-1 in his four middleweight bouts, including convincing unanimous-decision victories over Tim Boetsch, Zak Cummings and Ian Heinisch.
It’s rare for a fighter to gain newfound success when changing weight classes after suffering four brutal knockout losses in his last five fights. Weidman certainly didn’t succeed when he chose to move up and challenge Dominick Reyes, one of the most talented and dangerous light heavyweights currently active in the UFC today. The result was another brutal knockout loss and perhaps some serious pondering on if it is time to call it quits. Instead, Weidman has returned to middleweight to face the No. 11-ranked Akhmedov in hopes of achieving victory and launching himself back into the top 15.
Unfortunately, it just won’t happen. Akhmedov will do enough to tame Weidman and claim a rather uneventful unanimous nod.
Alex Munoz, Peter Barrett and Ali Alqaisi — do we need to know these names?
Sumian: It’s a questionable call on both Barrett and Alqaisi. Alqaisi is joining the bantamweight division, and this bout will determine if he is ready to be here. Barrett is a 33-year-old featherweight making his UFC debut against Youseff Zalal. He is 11-3 in his career, and a win over Zalal will get people to turn heads.
However, the real name here is the undefeated Alex Munoz. The Dallas native is 6-0 in his professional career and is making his debut against the always-dangerous Nasrat Haqparast. The fact that the UFC is giving Munoz such a dangerous debut is evidence that the organization truly is excited for his arrival. Munoz is a product of the famous Team Alpha Male and will look to make a huge splash on Saturday night.
Petela: This is a perfect example of how the best ability right now is availability. It’s admirable that the UFC is continuing to put on events week after week, but the company is reaching the bottom of the barrel in its search for prospects ready for the big time. No disrespect to Munoz, Barrett or Alqaisi, but all three of these fighters need a little more time before they are ready to enter the UFC.
Nothing proves this more clearly than Barrett’s performance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. He was able to pick up a decision victory, but that was over a year ago. He hasn’t fought since.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Former middleweight champion Chris Weidman. The Long Island native has lost five of his last six fights, dating back to his first pro loss at UFC 194 against Luke Rockhold. Weidman has been plagued by injuries and bad luck, which have derailed a career that started on track toward being one of the greatest of all time. A loss to Akhmedov here unfortunately would be the final nail in the coffin signaling that it’s time for Weidman to hang up the gloves once and for all.
Sumian: Andrew Sanchez. While the UFC middleweight is 2-1 over his last three UFC bouts, he is 2-3 over his last five outings. Unfortunately, he’s also a very uneventful fighter. All his wins have come by way of dragged-out decisions. Meanwhile, his losses have been highlight finishes for his opponents. If Sanchez suffers another loss and goes 2-4 in his last six UFC outings, there would be no logical reason for the promotion to keep him around.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Without a doubt, it’s Beneil Dariush and Scott Holtzman. Holtzman is coming off a “Fight of the Night” performance in a victory over Jim Miller. Dariush has posted three straight “Performance of the Night” showings. Put these two in the cage, lock the door, and get ready for all-out madness.
Petela: Youssef Zalal and the debuting Peter Barrett. Zalal sports a 9-2 record that includes two consecutive wins since joining the UFC. Barrett brings an 11-3 mark into the Octagon and most recently defeated Sang Hoon Yoo on the Contender Series. Expect this to be a third consecutive win inside the UFC for Zalal, but it won’t come easily against Barrett.
Pair this card with…
Petela: It is time to realize that the UFC is putting fight cards together primarily to meet its programming obligations. After the successful run on “Fight Island,” it is clear that the events in Las Vegas, outside of pay-per-view cards, are not very deep. Even the fights toward the top of the lineup aren’t necessarily all that special. In that spirit, pair this event with Bud Light. You won’t be wowed, but your needs will be met nonetheless.
Sumian: This is by far the most lacking card of the last three months. Many of the fights seem forced or have no reason to happen at all. Don’t get crazy for this one, folks. Grab some decent takeout food and a Jameson on the rocks or vodka soda.
Main Card (ESPN+, 9 p.m. ET)
HW: Derrick Lewis vs. Aleksei Oleinik
MW: Omari Akhmedov vs. Chris Weidman
MW: Maki Pitolo vs. Darren Stewart
Women’s BW: Yana Kunitskaya vs. Julija Stoliarenko
LW: Beneil Dariush vs. Scott Holtzman
MW: Kevin Holland vs. Joaquin Buckley
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
WW: Tim Means vs. Laureano Staropoli
LW: Nasrat Haqparast vs. Alex Munoz
MW: Andrew Sanchez vs. Wellington Turman
FW: Gavin Tucker vs. Justin Jaynes
FW: Youssef Zalal vs. Peter Barrett
BW: Irwin Rivera vs. Ali Alqaisi
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