Holly Holm (Daniel Archuleta/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 16 Preview and Predictions

On the heels of a thrilling return to “Fight Island” at UFC 253, the organization is now set for an event headlined by former women’s bantamweight champion Holly Holm and Mexican rising star Irene Aldana. These two ladies top the bill at UFC on ESPN 16.

Holm is looking to win consecutive bouts for the first time since she lost the title — and her perfect MMA record — to Miesha Tate at UFC 196. Holm sports just a 3-5 mark since her earth-shattering head-kick knockout of Ronda Rousey, Holm would like to silence critics who have begun to compare her to Buster Douglas.

This is Aldana’s first fight of 2020. She’s angling to keep the momentum she built at the end of 2019 when she threw one of the best left hooks in women’s MMA history at UFC 245 to promptly close the show in her fight against Ketlen Vieira. A win over a former champion would do wonders for the resume of Aldana and make a loud statement that she has arrived as a threat to the belt at 135 pounds.


Heavyweight sluggers Yorgan De Castro and Carlos Felipe land in the co-main event slot. Each man looks to rebound from their first professional loss. De Castro fell short against world-renowned scumbag Greg Hardy. Felipe dropped a majority decision in his last outing against Sergey Spivak. WIth the power both of these knockout artists carry, this fight likely won’t go the distance.

Also on the main card, we have another former champion, as Germaine de Randamie squares off against Julianna Peña. For the most part, de Randamie has proven to be among the best of the best, with her only two UFC losses coming at the hands of two-division champ Amanda Nunes. Her opponent, Peña, returns to action for the first time in over a year and just the second time since 2017. Peña’s most recent fight got her back to her winning ways with a unanimous decision over former flyweight title holder Nicco Montaño. A victory over de Randamie will prove that Peña is back and better than ever after taking time off to start a family.

To round out the main card the middleweight division will be on display when Dequan Townsend squares off against highly touted newcomer Duško Todorović. The winner of this battle will be one to keep an eye on as they look to make their way into the shark tank that is the upper echelon of the middleweight division.

For the second week in a row, Flash Forum on Yas Island will be the host venue for Saturday’s event. UFC on ESPN 16 kicks off with the prelims at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+. The main card follows on both ESPN and ESPN+ at 10:30 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Since 2018, Irene Aldana has gone 5-1 inside the Octagon with only a split-decision loss to Raquel Pennington. Now, Aldana is set to meet former champ Holly Holm. Can Aldana add a signature win to her resume and cement herself as a bantamweight title contender, or will Holm be too much for the Mexican star?

Sumian: Yes, she certainly can and certainly will.

When it comes to naming viable contenders that are worthy to challenge Amanda Nunes for UFC gold in the near future, Aldana is on that very brief list. She has looked fantastic in her last few Octagon appearances, in which she has averaged just under six significant strikes per minute and an impressive 93 percent takedown defense. The Mexican native stunned UFC fans with a first-round TKO of fellow contender Ketlen Vieira in December to land a No. 6 ranking in the women’s bantamweight division. Aldana now gets a chance to possibly position herself for the next title shot if she is able to beat Holm, who currently sits at No. 2 and possesses a resume that is a thing of legend in women’s MMA.

No disrespect to Holm and her incredible MMA career, but the former UFC women’s bantamweight champion who shocked the world with a second-round knockout of Ronda Rousey is long gone. If anything, she’s now just a gatekeeper for future contenders. If you have not seen Holm’s last fight, a rematch against Pennington, then don’t bother seeking it out. The bout could possibly take the award for worst fight of 2020, as Holm consistently backed up, showed no confidence, and edged out Pennington solely off bouncing around and throwing ineffective long strikes. Nunes made quick work of Holm in July 2019 with a first-round TKO of the former champ, and it doesn’t seem likely that the 38-year-old Holm will find a way to earn another title shot unless she is able to go on an impressive three- or four-fight winning streak.

Holm is a big step up in competition for the surging Aldana, though, and it is very possible that she is able to edge out the rising contender in a boring kickboxing match. However, expect Aldana to rise to the occasion and pressure Holm into a grueling, fast-paced affair that will negate Holm’s ability to control the distance with her signature striking. Aldana will take a unanimous decision over the former champ and establish herself as a top-three contender in the division.

Petela: The version of Holm that knocked out Rousey may have been a big step up in competition for Aldana. The Holm that we saw in the rematch against Pennington is definitely not that same fighter.

This contest with Aldana is a last-ditch effort for Holm to remain relevant at bantamweight. We have seen her in this position before, notably when she fought Bethe Correia, and she came through with a remarkable head kick in the third round. That was three years ago. Now, at age 38 against a stalwart like Aldana, she will not be able to replicate that past success.

This is the perfect fight for Aldana. She will come away with a dominant win over a former titleholder and give herself a valid shot at becoming the next challenger at 135 pounds. People remember the perfectly thrown left hook that Aldana landed to knock out Vieira, but she is much more than a one-punch wonder. Aldana has three submissions on her resume to complement her six knockouts, and with the passionate Mexican fanbase behind her, she could morph into one of the UFC’s next big stars.

The ladies are featured prominently on this card, with additional bouts at bantamweight between Germaine de Randamie and Julianna Peña and at strawweight between Loma Lookboonmee and Jinh Yu Frey. Which of these women makes the biggest statement on Saturday?

Petela: Peña. Since winning season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter, she has had only one setback inside the Octagon. That loss came against current flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko. Peña has only fought once since then while taking two and a half years off to start a family. “The Venezuelen Vixen” won her return bout over Nicco Montaño. Despite an injury that took her out of a fight scheduled for this past March, expect Peña to pick up right where she left off and put on an impressive and aggressive grappling-heavy attack to thwart the world-championship level of kickboxing from de Randamie.

A win here will speak volumes for where Peña is now in her career. The only woman to beat “The Iron Lady” in the UFC so far is two-division titleholder Amanda Nunes. More than just a stepping stone, this win will be a launching pad to a reintroduction into the bantamweight elite for the triumphant Peña.

Sumian: Peña has been one of the most talented fighters to come out of TUF. She is backed by a stellar wrestling game and ever-improving striking. It was roughly three years ago that she was in a No. 1 contender match with the aforementioned Schevchenko. She lost via armbar in round two. After her two-plus-year hiatus, her return victory over Montaño by unanimous decision effectively put her back into the mix.

De Randamie is a fantastic striker, but her weaker ground game was exposed by Nunes in December when she challenged for the UFC gold. Peña will do much of the same and secure a second unanimous decision in a row.

Duško Todorović, Cameron Else, Jordan Williams and Nassourdine Imavov — do we need to know these names?

Sumian: Out of these four names, Todorović is by far the most significant debut. The Serbian middleweight, who is perfect through nine pro fights, joins the UFC averaging an 89 percent finish rate. He’s coming off a dominant unanimous-decision win on Dana White’s Contender Series, too. Todorović faces Dequan Townsend, whom he should make short work of en route to officially announcing himself to UFC fans around the world.

Else is currently riding a three-fight winning streak as he prepares to make his UFC debut against Kyler Phillips. Phillips is coming off a successful UFC debut of his own and holds an impressive 7-1 mark. Else trains out of Jackson-Wink MMA, but he will face a very stiff test in Phillips. Although he’ll probably lose, Else would certainly make an impressive showing if he does pull off the win.

Williams and Imavov debut against each other and have similar records at 9-3 and 8-2, respectively. The winner of this bout will gain some momentum and earn a step up in competition for their next appearance, while the loser will likely be given one more chance to prove he belongs with the best of the best. Williams has a slight advantage in regards to experience and is coming off a knockout victory on the Contender Series. The winner will be worth paying attention to going forward.

Petela: Todorović is as close to a sure thing as a prospect can be with his remarkable ability to finish a fight from any position at a moment’s notice while also managing his energy to keep control of a fight from bell to bell. There’s no doubt that fans should keep a very close eye on him.

Maybe it’s my natural pessimism, but I don’t have faith in the other three newcomers. Sure, they have impressive records and have shown the flashes of brilliance needed in order to get signed by the UFC. However, the more fight footage I watched, the less convinced I became that they would make a significant impact within the promotion.

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

Petela: Dequan Townsend. In his UFC debut, Townsend stepped in on late notice and was overwhelmed by Dalcha Lungiambula in a light-heavyweight fight. He subsequently moved down to middleweight and came up short against Bevon Lewis. In his third UFC bout, Townsend moved back up to light heavyweight, where he was on the wrong end of a unanimous decision.

This pattern of going back and forth between weight classes is something Townsend has done throughout his career. His frame really speaks to him being a fighter who is too big to effectively cut down to 185 and too small to perform well against naturally bigger light heavyweights. Unfortunately, the 195-pound division only exists in theory in major MMA promotions, so Townsend might continue to struggle as he looks for a weight class to call his permanent home.

After falling to newcomer Duško Todorović at middleweight, Townsend will be forced to pack his bags with an unfortunate 0-4 record in the organization.

Sumian: The loser of the fight between Carlos Condit and Court McGee.

Condit is a former UFC welterweight champion who has provided UFC fans with some of the best fights in the division. McGee is a former TUF winner who has struggled to deliver a successful UFC run since winning the show in 2010. These two men have combined for a 1-9 record through their respective last five UFC appearances each. They have noticeably looked worse and worse going into each bout, too.

The difference here is that Condit has taken roughly two years off since his last UFC appearance, so one can only hope this has allowed him to work on some of his shortcomings as he prepares to make another run in the division.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that the loser of this bout should certainly no longer be fighting in the UFC. If Condit loses to someone like McGee, it is a clear sign that he no longer has what it takes to compete in the UFC. On the flipside, if McGee loses and turns in a UFC record of 1-5 through his last six appearances, is it reasonable to assume that the UFC does not re-sign him.

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

Sumian: Loma Lookboonmee and Jihn Yu Frey. Both of these women are coming off losses and will look to rebound effectively by putting on a “Fight of the Night” performance. Expect a fast-paced, exhilarating bout where both women have their moments and keep fans entertained for the full 15 minutes.

Petela: Casey Kenney and Heili Alateng. These two bantamweight up-and-comers will engage in nonstop action for a full three rounds. Kenney’s only setback since joining the UFC came against Merab Dvalishvili. Meanwhile, Alateng is a perfect 2-0 since getting the call up to the big show. Both men have yet to turn 30 and are each just one or two wins away from emerging as a contender. Despite being very early on in the card, this fight has the potential to be the one that fans are left talking about at the event’s conclusion.

Pair this card with…

Petela: Rolling Rock. Nobody picks up a case of Rolling Rock thinking that they are about to open the best bottle of beer they’ll ever taste. Nor does someone buy Rolling Rock and feel disappointed because it is unbearably awful. That’s what we have in this card. Don’t set your expectations too high and you won’t be let down. Just the way a Rolling Rock quenches your thirst after a day of yard work — so I’m told, at least, since physical labor is not my forte — this card will provide the sustenance that MMA fans need week in and week out, but won’t do much more than that.

Sumian: The phrase “Never judge a book by its cover.” This card certainly lacks star power and notable fights to keep casual fans glued to the TV, but I implore you to tune in. UFC on ESPN: Eye vs. Calvillo was a very similar card to this one. It certainly looked bleak on paper, but it ended up delivering a memorable night of fights, four performance bonuses, and the birth of a new contender in Cynthia Calvillo. This will be a similar evening in which we witness the emergence of Irene Aldana and Julianna Peña, as well as several fighters making their UFC debuts or sophomore appearances.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 10:30 p.m. ET)
Women’s BW: Holly Holm vs. Irene Aldana Aldana Aldana
HW: Yorgan De Castro vs. Carlos Felipe De Castro De Castro
Women’s BW: Germaine de Randamie vs. Julianna Peña Peña Peña
MW: Dequan Townsend vs. Duško Todorović Todorović Todorović
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 7:30 p.m. ET)
BW: Kyler Phillips vs. Cameron Else Phillips Phillips
WW: Carlos Condit vs. Court McGee Condit Condit
FW: Joshua Culibao vs. Charles Jourdain Jourdain Jourdain
MW: Jordan Williams vs. Nassourdine Imavov Williams Imavov
Women’s StrawW: Loma Lookboonmee vs. Jinh Yu Frey Lookboonmee Lookboonmee
BW: Casey Kenney vs. Heili Alateng Kenney Kenney
LW: Jessin Ayari vs. Luigi Vendramini Ayari Ayari