Marlon Moraes (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 37 Preview and Predictions

Matthew Petela Staff Writer

It’s full steam ahead for the UFC with yet another consecutive weekend of fights on “Fight Island.” This weekend, it’s the bantamweights who take center stage when former title challenger Marlon Moraes takes on rising star Cory Sandhagen in the headlining bout of UFC on ESPN+ 37.

Denver’s Sandhagen was on a roll inside the UFC, winning his first five fights with the promotion. That came to a screeching halt when he fell by first-round submission to Aljamain Sterling in June. Moraes’ last outing was at UFC 245 in December, when he won a controversial split decision over former featherweight champion José Aldo. Both men will look to reinstate themselves into the title picture with a demonstrable performance on Saturday night.

In the co-main event, featherweights Edson Barboza and Makwan Amirkhani clash. Barbosa has struggled recently and decided to make the move down to featherweight to try to kickstart his career. This hasn’t been the case thus far, but he would make a big statement with a win over Amirkhani. On the other hand, outside of a recent loss to Shane Burgos, Amirkhani has won three of his last four and seems to be putting things together nicely at 145 pounds. Should Amirkhani be able to get the better of the longtime UFC standout Barboza, it would be a major feather in his cap.


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Elsewhere on the main card, we enter the land of the giants with heavyweight action between Ben Rothwell and Marcin Tybura. These big men have each rattled off consecutive wins. While the first thing many fans think of at heavyweight is the awe-inducing power the fighters have, these two guys have demonstrated that, despite their appearance, they have sneaky strengths in the grappling realm as well.

This week’s fights, like all the action on “Fight Island,” takes place inside the Flash Forum. The prelims stream live on ESPN+ at 5 p.m. ET, followed at 8 p.m. ET by the main card, also on ESPN+. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Bantamweight contenders Marlon Moraes and Cory Sandhagen take center stage on Saturday. Moraes is working his way toward another title shot. Will Sandhagen derail those efforts?

Sumian: There is generally a clear path to formulating a recipe for victory when it comes to the main event of a UFC card. However, this fight presents certain challenges due to the most recent performances of both of these highly ranked bantamweights.

Moraes is coming off an unusual split-decision victory against former UFC featherweight champ José Aldo in what many individuals, including UFC President Dana White, believed was a fight where Aldo clearly won two out of three rounds. Meanwhile, Sandhagen suffered a quick submission loss to Aljamain Sterling in his last outing. He would have earned a title shot had he won. Neither combatant was able to shine, but the winner of this bout still can make a claim to being the next man up once current champion Petr Yan and the aforementioned Sterling do their dance.

When it comes to experience, Moraes has Sandhagen beat by miles. The former bantamweight title challenger has fought the best of the best in the division, including Henry Cejudo, Jimmie Rivera and the aforementioned tandem of Sterling and Aldo. If it were not for Cejudo’s sheer will and utter determination, Moraes could very well be the champion at this point in time.

Moraes gives up a significant height and reach advantage here, which would make one think he will do whatever he can to avoid the long striking ability of Sandhagen and turn this into a close-range boxing and grappling match where he should have the advantage. The Brazilian contender holds black belts in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and he averages an impressive 1.72 knockdown ratio per 15-minute bout. Expect Moraes to make this fight close, grueling, and at times exhausting in an effort to negate the movement and length of Sandhagen.

Sandhagen remains one of the most fun fighters to watch grow and develop in the Octagon due to his relentless striking, ability to utilize the reach, and his impressive footwork. The game plan for the No. 4-ranked bantamweight will be no different in this bout. He will try to stay on the outside and pepper Moraes with long jabs and whipping leg kicks. Sandhagen has proven his ability to finish fights both on the ground and the feet, but his strength is in tiring out his opponent with constant movement and volume striking while avoiding close encounters in the clinch.

This fight should be close throughout all five rounds, but Moraes will have his hand raised in a close-but-convincing unanimous decision. The Brazilian will use his experience, ability to stay calm and calculated, and his power to keep up with Sandhagen’s striking. Moraes will secure a couple of takedowns too, which should score some major points on the scorecards. The only question is, who is next for the top-ranked UFC bantamweight?

Petela: It has been 10 months since we’ve seen Moraes in action, but it strangely seems like much longer given all the fights the UFC has put on. The Brazilian did not look like the best version of himself in his last fight and probably didn’t deserve to come away with the win over Aldo. He is only 32 years old, so it is not as if his best days are long in the past. However, maybe fighting the high-level talent in the UFC over and over is wearing him down. Moraes looked unbeatable inside the World Series of Fighting and didn’t lose for a stretch of five years. However, many of those opponents were a clear notch or two below the type of competition he now faces.

Sandhagen looked nearly invincible inside the cage until running into the buzzsaw that is Sterling. A quick turnaround after only four months away is exactly what the doctor ordered. He will get back on the horse and pick up an emphatic TKO win late in this contest.

Expect a frantic pace until the fourth or fifth round. It will be Moraes, not Sandhagen, whose gas tank runs out first. His hopes for a title will be further derailed and probably thwarted for good. Sandhagen, on the other hand, will once again make a case for himself being one of the best bantamweights in the world and will be only one or two wins away from his own crack at the belt.

Ben Rothwell and Marcin Tybura get a featured spot in this lineup. What can we expect out of these two veteran heavyweights?

Petela: Not much.

Rothwell looked less than inspired in his last two outings, a split decision win over Ovince St. Preux and a TKO against Stefan Struve in a fight that Rothwell was losing until Struve was compromised by multiple shots to the groin. Tybura has won back-to-back outings against less-than-elite competition, but he has shown that he struggles mightily when put inside the Octagon against top-notch opponents.

Could this turn out to be a highlight-reel victory for one of the two fighters? Sure, but that’s the case anytime two huge men start throwing lunch-box-sized fists at each other. More likely is a fight that lulls fans almost to sleep prior to the high-paced action set to follow. Neither of these fighters is on the short list of title contenders, and pairing them against each other does nothing more than keep both men busy. A win for Rothwell or Tybura doesn’t catapult them into any sort of contention, but there is always the outside chance of a one-punch knockout that alone makes this a fight worth watching.

Sumian: Agreed. This fight might end up being a slugfest, but it is ultimately meaningless in regards to the heavyweight division’s standings. Both fighters are considerably past their prime and respectfully hold no chance of returning to UFC heavyweight relevance at this point in time. Expect Rothwell to win a close, though probably uneventful, three-round decision.

Tagir Ulanbekov, Dricus Du Plessis, KB Bhullar and Alan Baudot — do we need to know these names?

Sumian: All four UFC newcomers are worth tuning in to watch, but pay extra attention to Ulanbekov and Du Plessis.

Due to his status as a flyweight with an impressive 10-1 mark, Ulanbekov is likely number one on this list. Furthermore, he is Khabib Nurmagomedov’s teammate, so the attention on this young man should definitely be there. The Dagestani native is a ground specialist who is currently riding a three-fight winning streak, and he faces Bruno Silva in his debut.

Du Plessis is a four-time former champion across South African and Polish MMA organizations. He has done so while compiling a 14-2 record. He has earned himself a main-card spot, which indicates the UFC’s faith in his ability to perform. Du Plessis has fought at both welterweight and middleweight, but he makes his debut in the latter of those divisions against Markus Perez, who is no cake walk. However, Du Plessis will make some noise with an impressive victory.

Bhullar and Baudot will also be interesting to watch in their respective debuts. Bhullar has compiled an impressive 8-0 record outside the UFC and joins the company as a middleweight against the always-dangerous Tom Breese. Bhullar has finished six of his eight opponents, with four of those wins coming by way of knockout. Baudot makes his debut after compiling an 8-1 record. If he is able to get past Tom Aspinall, then the French fighter will be a welcome addition to the UFC heavyweight division, which is in constant need of fresh talent.

Petela: The only exciting name here in terms of prospects for a long tenure inside the UFC is Bhullar. “The Bengal” is one of the most exciting middleweights in the world not to have fought inside the UFC, and he’ll do big things with this opportunity. He has his hands full with Breese, but don’t be surprised to see him make waves down the road even if he falters in his first UFC appearance.

This may sound like a broken record or a pessimistic outlook, but the remaining newcomers just aren’t ready for the big time yet. As my favorite old saying goes, “The best ability is availability.” This is exactly what the UFC has with this new crop of fighters. These are guys who are available in a pinch to take a fight. Good for these fighters for answering the call. Maybe after a few bumps and bruises inside the cage, they will even find their footing. However, right now, they aren’t names that need to be instantly remembered.

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

Petela: Edson Barboza. One half of the evening’s co-headliner, he has lost three straight and has already publicly asked for his release. The Brazilian has not had the success at featherweight that he anticipated and therefore hasn’t seen the career rejuvenation he had hoped to see. A fourth straight loss and another blemish at a second weight class has all the makings for a final outing inside the UFC. Fortunately for Barboza, he should pick up a win over Makwan Amirkhani in a fun, high-paced striking battle and live to fight another day inside the Octagon.

Sumian: The loser of the fight between Ben Rothwell and Marcin Tybura. Although both are on two-fight winning streaks, those wins have not come against top-tier competition, nor have they been impressive showings. The loser of this fight might find themselves being offered a fight they simply have no interest in and for less money, which could lead to a request for release and new home.

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

Sumian: Markus Perez and Dricus Du Plessis are going to steal the show. Du Plessis is a top middleweight prospect the UFC has finally added to its roster, and Perez is eager to get back to the win column after a loss to Wellington Turman. Both men will be hungry and ready to trade blows until someone gets submitted or knocked out.

Petela: Giga Chikadze and Omar Morales. Chikadze is a former kickboxing world champion who has amassed a 3-0 record inside the UFC, but all of those wins have been closely contested fights, including two split decisions. He has a tough task ahead of him in Morales, who is undefeated through 10 bouts and also has high-level precision striking. This will be a stand-up contest for as long as it lasts, and it will be telling to see whether or not Chikadze can put it all together and take the next step in his MMA career or whether the hard-hitting Morales will be able to keep his perfect record intact.

Pair this card with…

Petela: Four Loko, if you can find it. The headliner is going to be a frantically paced tilt between two high-energy bantamweights, so you’ll need the jolt to keep up with the activity inside the cage. Just don’t go overboard and send your heartrate into overdrive. The fights won’t be nearly as much fun to watch from the emergency room.

Sumian: The phrase “Welcome to the New Age.” The UFC continues to put on cards pretty much on a weekly basis, and the company is keen on featuring a lot of freshman and sophomore fighters who have come from various organizations or Dana Whites Contender Series. It seems like the UFC is set on growing its roster with new and diverse talent on a regular basis, which has led to some incredible UFC debuts, memorable fights, and a wide array of potential future contenders. In regards to a suitable drink, let’s go with something light, such as a Truly Seltzer or Malibu’s new Splash canned cocktails. Like this card, these drinks are fun, new and light.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Marlon Moraes vs. Cory Sandhagen Moraes Sandhagen
FW: Edson Barboza vs. Makwan Amirkhani Barboza Barboza
HW: Ben Rothwell vs. Marcin Tybura Rothwell Rothwell
MW: Markus Perez vs. Dricus Du Plessis Du Plessis Perez
HW: Tom Aspinall vs. Alan Baudot Aspinall Baudot
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
FW: Youssef Zalal vs. Ilia Topuria Zalal Zalal
MW: Tom Breese vs. KB Bhullar Bhullar Breese
HW: Rodrigo Nascimento vs. Chris Daukaus Daukaus Daukaus
MW: Impa Kasanganay vs. Joaquin Buckley Kasanganay Kasanganay
BW: Ali Al-Qaisi vs. Tony Kelley Al-Qaisi Kelley
FW: Giga Chikadze vs. Omar Morales Chikadze Chikadze
Women’s BW: Tracy Cortez vs. Stephanie Egger Cortez Cortez
FlyW: Tagir Ulanbekov vs. Bruno Silva Ulanbekov Silva