Chan Sung Jung (R) (Gleidson Venga/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 38 Preview and Predictions

The long-awaited return of former featherweight title challenger Brian “T-City” Ortega is finally here. At UFC on ESPN+ 38, Ortega meets “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung in the night’s headliner.

The lead-up to this fight has been strange, to say the least, with multiple rumored dates nixed due to injury or coronavirus precautions. There was also the peculiar war of words between Zombie, who doesn’t speak English, and Ortega. Then, there was the bizarre physical confrontation between Ortega and a friend of Jung’s during a prior UFC event. Now, it will finally get settled when these two men clash inside the cage. Both fighters are in the conversation for the next crack at champion Alexander Volkanovski, and the winner of this fight just may secure a title shot with an impressive performance.

In the co-headliner, it’s a heavyweight clash between Ciryl Gane and newcomer Ante Delija. Gane has been impressive so far in the UFC, where he has racked up two submission victories and a unanimous decision through his first three fights. His opponent, Delija, is a hard-hitting Croatian prospect whose last loss came to UFC veteran Marcin Tybura by way of a leg injury. Delija will be up against a rising star in Gane who already resides inside the division’s top 15. Should the newcomer pull off a victory, MMA fans across the world will immediately recognize the name Ante Delija.


Women’s flyweights take the stage on the main card when former title challenger Kaitlyn Chookagian faces former strawweight titleholder Jéssica Andrade. This is a turning point for both women. Chookagian needs to demonstrate that she is improving and that the lopsided loss to current champion Valentina Shevchenko was not an accurate barometer of her talent level. Meanwhile, this is the third weight class for Andrade inside the UFC. She saw success at both bantamweight and strawweight, but now the Brazilian will look to reach the pinnacle once again and attempt to dethrone Shevchenko.

The Flash Forum — or “Smash Forum,” as it was aptly nicknamed by last week’s commentary crew — on Yas Island will once again serve as the host venue for Saturday’s “Fight Island” show. In a bit of a matinee event, the preliminary card will get underway at 4 p.m. ET, with the main card set to follow at 7 p.m. ET. The UFC on ESPN+ 38 card can be viewed in its entirety on ESPN+. Combat Press writers Jaewon Paik and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.

This will mark Brian Ortega’s first fight since a torn ACL. How will the headlining featherweight perform in his comeback bout against “Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung?

Paik: It has been a while for “T-City,” hasn’t it? Last time we saw him inside the Octagon, it was nearly two years ago in a fight that didn’t go his way for the first time in his professional career.

While Ortega was taking some time off to mend from the aforementioned injury and a brutal fight against then-champion Max Holloway, Jung was on a very different path. Since suffering his last loss against Yair Rodriguez just about a month before Ortega fought Holloway, the Zombie has been on a mission, taking out both Renato Moicano and Frankie Edgar in the first round. It is not that he just finished those guys quickly, but the manner in which it was done. Both fights were pure domination for however long they lasted, especially the Edgar fight, in which Jung managed to knock down Edgar multiple times and completely control the fight on the ground as well for three minutes.

Truth be told, I am somewhat worried for Ortega. Zombie’s power has always been underrated, but he recently seems to have hit a different level with his striking, particularly in the pocket. In Ortega’s last outing, he was hit over 300 times over the course of 20 minutes. Ortega came out recently and said his broken hand was the reason why he absorbed that many shots. It’s going to be a completely different scenario against Zombie, with the consequence of getting hit being far more grave than it was against Holloway. There is also the factor that Zombie has been the more active fighter.

Many people would say the key for Ortega to win this fight would be his submission game. This, however, is far easier said than done, as Zombie possesses one of the most underrated grappling games in the sport. What will determine the outcome is how much Ortega has improved defensively on the feet. However, it is hard to see many avenues that favor Ortega, even just from the stylistic point of view. Zombie will move up the ladder to be the next featherweight contender after this fight.

Petela: It seems incredibly rare that it’s not Zombie who has questions about ring rust surrounding him leading into this fight. Given his mandatory military service and sporadic fight schedule over the years, this seemed to be a through line during talk about every one of his fights. This time, it’s his opponent with the long layoff and the questions surrounding his ability to compete at 100 percent.

Honestly, ring rust won’t be a factor. Ortega will come into the fight Saturday night as the best version of himself we have ever seen. Unfortunately for him, that still won’t be enough to get the win over Jung.

Outside of a perfectly placed and timed up elbow from the aforementioned Rodriguez, Zombie has looked as close to perfect as any fighter in the featherweight division. He’ll thwart the grappling attack of Ortega with his counter wrestling and scrambling abilities early in the fight and turn this one into a technical striking battle where he will shine. It will end with a doctor or corner stoppage, not dissimilar to the way Ortega’s fight with Holloway concluded. Don’t be surprised to see the belt around Jung’s waist by midway through 2021.

After a lengthy run at strawweight, Jéssica Andrade is set to move up to flyweight following two straight losses. Will she rediscover her winning ways against Katlyn Chookagian?

Petela: Yes. Flyweight will be the Goldilocks division for Andrade. She started out in the UFC at bantamweight, where she was too small to beat the division’s elite. Then, she dropped all the way down to strawweight, where she was too big and didn’t have the speed to hold onto the title. Now, she’ll find that at flyweight she fits in just right.

Andrade will overwhelm Chookagian with her lights-out power, combined with the timing and speed that she developed fighting against the smaller women at strawweight. This will be a breakout performance for the Brazilian, who will dominate Chookagian even more than the long-reigning champion Valentina Shevchenko did.

After a standout performance here, Andrade will be on the fast track to a title shot, where she will provide a difficult and interesting challenge to Shevchenko. As for Chookagian, this fight will further show that she has reached the peak of her MMA abilities. While Chookagian is wildly talented, she just isn’t at the level that she needs to be in order to become a champion.

Paik: This is honestly a pick ’em fight for me. However, I am going to have to disagree with my colleague that Andrade will dominate Chookagian.

The main reason for this disagreement is because Andrade was already small at strawweight in terms of height and reach, and now she will be going up against bigger and taller fighters, with Chookagian serving as the perfect example. Chookagian stands at 5-foot-9, which is tall even by bantamweight standards. Chookagian may not have the best striking in the division or even the best distance management for that matter, but maybe she doesn’t have to have either when fighting someone almost eight inches shorter.

In her last fight, Chookagian also proved that she could take the fight to the ground if she wanted to against Antonina Shevchenko. This ability to get the fight to the mat will simply make the job tougher for Andrade. Chookagian rides this one out to a decision victory.

Ante Delija, Mateusz Gamrot, Guram Kutateladze and Mark Striegl — do we need to know these names?

Paik: We have an extremely good list of new names coming into the promotion on this card, but I’d like to mainly focus on one name: Gamrot.

Gamrot, who makes his Octagon debut as a lightweight, comes into this weekend undefeated at 17-0. He is one of Poland’s brightest prospects. His main accomplishments include two wins against Norman Parke, who has already been in the UFC and has a lot of experience. In the final fight of their trilogy, Gamrot was able to close the books on the rivalry with a TKO stoppage in the third round, which also gave Parke his first ever TKO loss. With solid striking and no fear of grappling, it will be extremely interesting to see how Gamrot fits into the most competitive division in the UFC, but by no means does he have an easy task in front of him on Saturday night.

Gamrot’s opponent, Kutateladze, joins a growing list of Georgian fighters in the UFC. He will look to make a splash right away against Gamrot. While his last fight lasted only 44 seconds, we were able to see a lot of solid qualities in Kutateladze. He moves with a lot of fluidity on the feet and also showed in his last fight that he is able to weather the storm, as he was rocked and took several hard shots before landing the knockout blow. This fight, will more likely than not be a stand-up battle, and it has a strong possibility to be one of the best fights of the night.

Unlike the lightweight division, heavyweight could always use an exciting new name, and Delija is a good one. The 6-foot-5 Delija’s nickname “Walking Trouble” explains a lot. However, he will be met with another giant in Saturday night’s co-headliner when he meets Ciryl Gane, who, amazingly, has only been a professional mixed martial artist for two years after a career in Muay Thai and holds a record of 6-0. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that whomever comes out of this fight with their hands raised will likely get a significant jump in competition in their next bout.

Delija surely has a tough opponent in front of him, but the one with the toughest promotional debut opponent might be Striegl. His Octagon debut comes against Said Nurmagomedov, who suffered his first loss in five years in December. At age 28 and with plenty of experience, Nurmagomedov will be out to prove a point against Striegl. However, Striegl also possesses a lot of experience, and it is also possible that he benefited from a year and a half he’s had off since his last fight. I’m particularly looking forward to the grappling exchanges in this fight between two very versatile fighters. It should be a good opener to the card.

Petela: This might come as a shock, but I’m very optimistic about this crop of newcomers.

Striegl has been out of action for over a year, but he has amassed an impressive 18-2 record. Unlike some journeymen who finally make their way into the UFC, he has fought in some top-notch organizations, including ONE Championship. There’s no doubt that Striegl has a tough debut ahead of him, but he could end up spending a number of years inside the Octagon.

Maybe it’s my Polish heritage that biases me, or maybe it’s the extensive coverage provided here on Combat Press, but I’m most excited about the debut of Gamrot. His undefeated record is no joke. He has picked up wins over some of the best fighters in Eastern Europe, and he served as a two-division champion in KSW.

Delija and Kutateladze have bigger question marks surrounding them, but this entire class of incoming fighters has a really high upside and should do more than survive a few bouts inside the UFC. Don’t be shocked to see them all thrive.

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

Petela: Thomas Almeida. A loss against Jonathan Martinez would mean Almeida is on the dreaded three-fight skid that so often leads to a pink slip. Almeida came on as a highly touted prospect, but he just hasn’t been able to right the ship since he fell short against Cody Garbrandt in his first UFC main event. His lone win since then came against Albert Morales, but he fell short against both Jimmie Rivera and Rob Font. With new prospects emerging seemingly all the time and fighters like Merab Dvalishvili and Marlon Vera turning into contenders, the bantamweight division is as talented as it’s ever been. There really isn’t a need for the UFC to keep a floundering Almeida on the roster.

Paik: John Phillips. He may not be on a losing streak per se, but the Welsh fight has lost four out of his last five, including three in which he was finished. Ever since he entered the UFC, Phillips has not lived up to his nickname as “The Welsh Wrecking Machine.” He simply has not been able to get anything going, and, at age 35, if he suffers another loss on Saturday, it will be very hard for him to make a case to stay in the UFC.

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

Paik: Claudio Silva and James Krause. This fight wouldn’t have been out of place on the main card or as the headliner for the prelims. However, it is currently slated to be just the fifth fight of the night. This means it is flying under the radar. The fight was originally scheduled to pit Silva against Muslim Salikhov, but Salikhov was pulled from the card about a week ago. Krause steps in on short notice for the second time in a row, but his last fight earned “Fight of the Night” honors. Keep an eye on this one.

Petela: Jun Yong Park and John Phillips. Phillips certainly has had a rough go of it inside the UFC, but he has a long history of exciting fights. You have to go back to 2008 to find a fight of his that ended in a decision. Pair him with Park, who has finished or been finished in two-thirds of his professional fights, and you have the recipe for an all-action showdown. Don’t be surprised if this fight becomes the early front runner for “Fight of the Night.”

Pair this card with…

Petela: Modelo. This is probably a long overdue recommendation, but better late than never, right? It is, after all, the official beer of the UFC. It even spawned the instant classic that is the Brian Ortega Modelo commercial with the infamous line, “Ten years ago, Brian Ortega made a choice.” What started as a story of courage and optimism turned into internet lore almost instantly when Ortega was sidelined with injuries and fell out of favor with a portion of the fan base by the way he handled the cageside altercation with The Korean Zombie’s entourage. So, in honor of that fabled commercial, grab a Modelo as you get settled in to watch these two wildly talented featherweights finally meet inside the Octagon.

Paik: Wow, it’s pretty tough to top that. Everyone knows about that commercial’, so it’s only fitting, especially considering we haven’t seen Ortega compete in two years. I’m going to counter with a Korean drink called soju, which works quite well with spicy food. The drink — and the spicy food, actually — is very fitting for this card, and especially the headliner that features Zombie. Give it a shot.

Fight Picks

Fight Paik’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
FW: Brian Ortega vs. “Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung Jung Jung
HW: Cyril Gane vs. Ante Delija Gane Gane
Women’s FlyW: Jéssica Andrade vs. Katlyn Chookagian Chookagian Andrade
LHW: Modestas Bukauskas vs. Jimmy Crute Bukauskas Crute
BW: Thomas Almeida vs. Jonathan Martinez Almeida Almeida
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET)
LW: Mateusz Gamrot vs. Guram Kutateladze Gamrot Gamrot
Women’s FlyW: Gillian Robertson vs. Poliana Botelho Botelho Botelho
WW: Claudio Silva vs. James Krause Silva Krause
MW: Jun Yong Park vs. John Phillips Park Park
LW: Fares Ziam vs. Jamie Mullarkey Ziam Ziam
LHW: Gadzhimurad Antigulov vs. Maxim Grishin Grishin Antigulov
BW: Said Nurmagomedov vs. Mark Striegl Nurmagomedov Nurmagomedov