Deiveson Figueiredo (instagram.com/daico_deusdaguerra)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 255 Preview and Predictions

Matthew Petela Staff Writer

This weekend, it’s a championship doubleheader at the top of the UFC 255 card with both of the organization’s flyweight titles on the line.

In the main event, Deiveson Figueiredo squares off against Alex Perez as he looks to make his first defense of the title he claimed in his second victory over perennial contender Joseph Benavidez. A win would be the fifth consecutive for Figueiredo, who is also currently riding a three-fight finish streak. Perez will look to win the title and move his winning streak to four. The challenger suffered his last loss at the hands of the aforementioned Benavidez.

The co-headliner is a clash for the women’s flyweight title. Valentina Shevchenko seeks to defend her crown for the fourth time when she takes on Jennifer Maia. Shevchenko is yet to lose since returning to the flyweight division. The champ has looked head and shoulders better than any woman that the UFC has put inside the cage with her. However, Maia is out to play the spoiler. The challenger is a modest 3-2 over her last five appearances and will not only try to win the title but also silence the numerous critics who have been outspoken in saying that she doesn’t even deserve this title shot or belong in the same cage as Shevchenko.


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A clash of exciting welterweights also lands on the main card, with veterans Mike Perry and Tim Means set to tangle. Perry recently snapped a two-fight skid when he picked up a unanimous decision over Mickey Gall. Means has alternated wins and losses over his last four outings, but he will attempt to put together back-to-back wins for the first time since 2016 when he collides with Perry.

Katlyn Chookagian, a former women’s flyweight title challenger, will try to rebound from a first-round stoppage loss when she takes on Cynthia Calvillo. Calvillo is on the hunt for consecutive wins over former title contenders. Her last victory came against Jessica Eye.

The main card rounds out with a rematch at light heavyweight between Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Paul “Bearjew” Craig. The men fought to a split draw in their first encounter. Both men have picked up wins since that meeting, with Craig defeating Gadzhimurad Antigulov on the same card where Rua completed a successful trilogy with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.

The host venue for UFC 255 is once again the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, with no fans in the audience per coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions. The early prelims kick off on ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed at 8 p.m. ET by the televised prelims on ESPN2 and ESPN+. The action then switches over to ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET for the main card. Combat Press writers Julius Choi and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Alex Perez has earned a crack at flyweight champion Deivison Figueiredo after scoring a first-round stoppage over Jussier “Formiga” da Silva. What is Perez’s route to victory here?

Choi: Perez was not the first person on Figueiredo’s radar for a first title defense. That honor, of course, belonged to Cody Garbrandt before an unfortunate bicep injury forced him out of the fight. Yet, Perez has been nothing short of dominant during his stay at the top flight in the sport. He has accrued five finishes through the seven wins he’s packed in the bag in the Octagon. Even though all indications point to him becoming a champion for the promotion one day, part of me wonders if this title shot comes slightly too early. He was slated to fight Brandon Moreno on the same card in what would have been a title-eliminator bout in the eyes of many. That would have been a much more palatable route for Perez, who has only fought two guys in his career that are currently in the top 10 of the division.

Perhaps it was destiny that Perez fought in the prelims of UFC 227. He was able to witness history being made when the flyweight title, which had been seemingly inseparable from the first and only champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, changed hands and put Henry Cejudo one step closer to triple gold status. Overshadowed by the two title fights, Perez brutalized the formerly undefeated Jose “Shorty” Torres with a hurricane of punches for a first-round finish. However, people failed to acknowledge the birth of a great white shark. If the same kind of aggression unleashes at UFC 255 on Saturday like it did when he fought Formiga and Torres, then Perez is going to significantly increase his chances of becoming the flyweight champion.

It also seems like Perez can best Figueiredo if the fight goes to a decision. He often does enough in points, as evident by a 12-1 record under these circumstances. Perez has been into championship rounds twice before in his career as well. He defeated Anthony Figueroa by unanimous decision for the ninth of 10 straight wins during a three-year stretch, albeit for a smaller promotion in Tachi Palace Fights. Formiga was able to pull off that feat himself last year before embarking on a current trip in which he’s now experiencing the longest losing streak (three) of his career.

Petela: The best path to victory for Perez is to drag this fight into deep waters and pick up a decision victory. This all starts with his leg kicks. The victory over Formiga showed how devastating those kicks can be, and they will be crucial in slowing down Figueiredo and removing some of the next-level power that the Brazilian has in his hands.

Perez, as noted, has picked up 12 wins by decision so far in his professional career. Figueiredo has just three. Both men have one decision loss on their record. Figueiredo likes to get his business done early, whether by knockout or submission. If Perez can take this fight into the later rounds, then he will be able to pull away and ensure that the title changes hands.

With that being said, this one is more likely to end early. Joseph Benavidez, the second best flyweight to ever fight in the UFC, was stopped inside of two rounds in both meetings with Figueiredo. Perez will suffer a similar fate this weekend. A heavy punch will drop Perez, and Figueiredo will follow him to the ground, snatch his neck, and force a tap. On Saturday, the champion picks up his first of what will eventually be several successful title defenses.

Women’s flyweight title challenger Jennifer Maia is just 1-1 over her last two contests. Is she worthy of this title bid against Valentina Shevchenko?

Petela: No. She is not even close to worthy of a title shot against Shevchenko. Not only is she just 1-1 over her last two outings, but she’s a pedestrian 3-2 over her last five fights. In two of her last three appearances, Maia also missed weight. She has built herself a resume of one of the least worthy title challengers in UFC history.

This fight will add injury to insult for her, too. Maia has virtually no chance at toppling the current titleholder. She is clearly no match for the multi-time Muay Thai champion on the feet, where nobody at 125 pounds has even shown to be in Shevchenko’s league. Maia is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but Shevchenko has already demonstrated that she is more than capable on the mat herself.

There is no area of this fight where Maia will have a distinct advantage. In most cases, she will be severely outgunned by the champion. This will be a one-sided rout and another example of how much better Shevchenko is than any other woman currently fighting in the flyweight division.

Choi: At age 32, the champ has yet to punch her ticket to paradise. She has so much more to give to the sport. She’s one tier below the consensus top pound-for-pound female fighter in Amanda Nunes after having lost both their head-to-head battles. Most recently, Shevchenko dropped a split decision against “The Lioness” for the bantamweight belt at UFC 215 in 2017.

Since that sequel bout, Shevchenko has moved down to flyweight, where she has looked better than she did at 135 by rattling off five wins in a row, with three of them being accounted for as stoppage victories. Her ability to win a fight in almost any way imaginable makes it unsettling for her opponent. This will be the case once again when she looks to defend her flyweight title for the fourth consecutive time since she took the crown from Joanna Jędrzejczyk at UFC 231.

Maia, 32, has won against good competition, including the well-respected Roxanne Modafferi twice. The second of those results was a more decisive unanimous verdict after beating Modafferi in the smallest of margins via split decision in the first go-around under the Invicta FC banner. Yet, the Brazilian seems to be just a hair behind the more elite competition. She has proven that she can hang around with the best of them, such as one-time bantamweight and flyweight title challenger Liz Carmouche and No. 2-ranked Kaitlyn Chookagian, but she ultimately falls short of the points she often needs to be favored in decisions, an area that was once considered to be Maia’s forte prior to her arrival in the UFC in 2018.

Jared Gooden, Dustin Stoltzfus, Louis Cosce and Sasha Palatnikov — do we need to know these names?

Choi: All of these fighters have red flags that make you second guess what they can achieve in the UFC.

Cosce looks good on paper as an undefeated fighter in seven bouts and turned some heads by finishing a more experienced and battled-tested Victor Reyna in the first round of their recent fight on Dana White’s Contender Series. However, arguments can be made about his strength of schedule, which includes a three-fight winning streak against Art Hernandez, Bill Smallwood and Daniel McWilliams. Those three men are all over the age of 35.

Gooden, meanwhile, has made a name for himself in the National Fighting Championship. He compiled a 9-2 record while becoming the promotion’s welterweight champion in 2017 when he defeated Elijah Wynter, who was 2-0 at the time and has not fought professionally since. Gooden’s first and only title defense of the NFC belt resulted in a knockout of Sean Kilgus with just one second left to spare in the opening round. Perhaps the only person of note that Gooden has fought is one-time Bellator fighter Dave Vitkay, to whom Gooden dropped a unanimous decision for the first professional loss of his career.

The one fighter I do feel good about is Palatnikov. Very few people get a second lease on life, but Palatnikov, who was put in jail for his involvement in an armed robbery, has exactly that, having turned to a professional MMA career to help him sort his earlier mishaps in life. His home-country roots of Hong Kong, which has over 50 amateur fighters on record, has been a big motivating factor for him. Palatnikov, who stands 6-foot-1, is a big fighter for the welterweight division, but only time will tell if he can rise up into the ranks with a solid first impression to UFC President Dana White like Khamzat Chimeav has done.

Petela: Cosce and Stoltzfus are both Contender Series products. Given the recent success of that show as a feeder system, it is only fair to seriously consider these two men as potential promotional mainstays. Stotlzfus also has submission wins on his resume by twister and kneebar. With the tricky grappling skills he possesses, he should be a fun fighter to watch mature and grow.

Gooden is a finisher with unproven skills. He hasn’t faced many noteworthy fighters over his career, so there are still question marks surrounding his abilities.

Palatnikov could be the standout of this incoming class, despite not having the most experience or the best resume. He passes the eye test and could be a real threat in the years to come.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 255?

Petela: Tim Means. Not only will the veteran fighter pick up back-to-back wins for the first time since 2015, but the second of those victories will come against Mike Perry. It’s safe to say that “Platinum” has been falling out of public favor recently, with outside-the-cage antics that range from controversial to downright deplorable. By knocking off Perry, “The Dirty Bird” will prove that he still belongs in the thick of things inside the UFC and get a profile bump from people who instantly become fans solely because he gave Perry the kind of beating so many people want to give him.

Choi: Brandon Moreno. He has accomplished so much at the age of 26, with the exception of becoming a UFC flyweight champion. He did hold the 125-pound title for the World Fighting Federation and successfully defended it three times. With Joseph Benevidez defeated twice by Deiveson Figueiredo in one year and Alex Perez getting his chance later in the evening in the main event, Moreno could promote himself to the top contender spot with another win against a top-10 guy like Brandon Royval. He very well deserves it after having gone undefeated in his last four fights with a 3-0-1 mark. It is no wonder why matchmakers tried their best to make his bout with Ray Borg happen in 2018.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 255?

Choi: Joaquin Buckley. No one’s stock at the company is higher than his at the moment in the wake of his one-in-a-lifetime spinning-back-kick knockout of Impa Kasanganay a month ago at UFC on ESPN+ 37. While no one can deny that it was a spectacular finish, he still has fought just twice under the gaze of the UFC brass and was on the receiving end of a brutal third-round knockout punch from Kevin Holland that sent his mouthpiece flying two months before the Kasangay bout.

Kudos to Buckley for achieving what Conor McGregor would have wanted: A fight “season” in 2020 where he was in the cage four times. His upcoming fight against Jordan Wright will mark the sixth time in the 26-year-old’s career that he is going against an undefeated fighter. All but one of his losses have come from undefeated foes. Buckley lost to 11-0 wrestler Logan Storley at Bellator 197 via unanimous decision and was knocked out by 5-0 Jackie Gosh in the first round at 2016’s Bellator 164.

Wright comes into this fight undefeated in 12 bouts with an 11-0 record. Ten of those 11 victories were first-round finishes. He is surely wanting to win in a more definitive matter after getting a doctor’s stoppage TKO in round one when he left Isaac Villanueva with one of the worst cuts in recent memory from a knee in the clinch.

In an interview with LowKick MMA’s James Lynch in late October, UFC welterweight James Krause confirmed that Buckley has been kicked out of every gym in St. Louis for trying to call out people one to two weight classes below him. This reputation has made him look like the Charlie Zelenoff of MMA, which does no good for a fighter that has fought 14 times since he burst into the professional ranks in 2014 and is 26 years old. He’s going to need to be reserved if he does not want to be potentially blackballed.

Petela: Jennifer Maia. The wide gap in talent between Maia and Valentina Shevchenko will be on full display in their title fight. The disparity is going to be so glaringly obvious that it will be tough for Maia to rebound. The past three Shevchenko opponents have had mixed results after facing the champ, and it’s a tough argument to make that they didn’t leave a piece of themselves in the Octagon, or rather that Shevchenko took a piece of them. Jessica Eye is 1-1 since her title bid and has missed weight in both of those bouts. Liz Carmouche was released from the organization. Katlyn Chookagian picked up a win over Antonina Shevchenko, but then got steamrolled by Jessica Andrade. Maia will have even less success than those women, and this really could be the beginning of the end to her career.

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

Petela: Alan Jouban. He is just 1-3 over his last four fights, with his only win coming against Ben Saunders. Jouban mixed in a closely contested split-decision loss to Dwight Grant as well, but the two emphatic losses came by TKO to Niko Price and submission to Gunnar Nelson. Those guys are both respected fighters, but they are gatekeepers inside the UFC. If Jouban, 37, can’t pick up a win over Jared Gooden in the latter’s UFC debut, then it might be time for his sole focus to be dedicated to his modeling career. However, his precision striking should keep Gooden at kickboxing distance, allowing Jouban to avoid taking heavy damage while picking up a unanimous decision to keep his spot on the roster secure for now.

Choi: Paul Craig. As fantastic as he can look when he wins — he has five victories in the UFC — Craig has looked just as bad in his losses. It’s one thing to lose to a 22-year-old prospect in Jimmy Crute, but it’s another thing to lose to a guy like Khalil Rountree who struggled early on in their UFC tenure by losing two straight. There’s also the draw he got a year ago against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, who is clearly in the twilight of his career now as a middling light heavyweight. This scheduled rematch with Rua is far from a sequel bout that anyone is clamoring over, as you just don’t know what kind of Craig will show up on game day.

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

Choi: Daniel Rodriguez and Nicolas Dalby.

Alongside Jared Cannonier, Daniel Rodriguez is the purest and most clear-cut example of “I let my fighting do the talking.” He’s an undefeated UFC prospect with three Octagon wins. Despite being a 33-year-old man, he fights like someone who has a chip on their shoulder and wants to put the world on autopilot with his wild stand-up game. Rodriguez quietly rose to prominence in North America while collecting checks from Combate Americas, where he posted a 100 percent finishing rate in his five wins through six fights with the organization.

Rodriguez currently has an overall record of 13-1 and is on a nine-fight winning streak. In his UFC debut against Tim Means, he landed some powerful punches in tight space and buckled his opponent like a folding chair in the second round before he secured a standing guillotine submission. Much like the zone that basketball players can enter that makes them feel like every shot they take is a make, Rodriguez has buzzsawed his way to victory many more times than not.

The last fight Rodriguez had against Dwight Grant in late August might have been one of the quickest comebacks that developed in the Octagon. Grant knocked down Rodriguez with a right hand, but the fight was wisely not stopped by referee Chris Tognoni. This led to a Rodriguez comeback in which he nabbed a TKO win in under two and a half minutes of work. To no fault of his own, he had three schedule bouts this year scrapped — Bryan Barberena had to pull out to have a procedure done to fix an artery rupture, Takashi Sato was ruled unfit to compete by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and Kevin Holland suffered a shoulder injury that took him out of the May 30, 2020 tilt.

After Orion Cosce withdrew from his fight against Dalby, it was confirmed that Dalby’s new dance partner would be Rodriguez. Dalby impressed fans with a unanimous-decision win over Alex Oliveira, but he was then submitted by Jesse Ronson via rear-naked choke in the opening stanza of their fight. The former Cage Warriors two-time welterweight champion should want nothing more than a result that reflects positive things in his development.

Petela: Kyle Daukaus and Dustin Stoltzfus.

Daukaus is coming off his first career loss, which came in his UFC debut. However, he showed a level of grit that is rare even among the toughest athletes on the planet. He gets an opportunity to shine this weekend against the Contender Series product Stoltzfus. This will be an exciting fight for as long as it lasts, but eventually Daukaus will pick up his first UFC win and add another submission to his record.

Pair this card with…

Petela: A viewing of Little Giants, a great movie where the underdog comes out on top. That won’t be the case in the UFC 255 co-headliner, though, where the underdog will end up getting pummeled mercilessly. Unless Jennifer Maia has Junior Floyd and Becky “The Ice Box” O’Shea in her corner, she doesn’t stand a chance. So, keep the mood light on Saturday and see Rick Moranis in one of his finest moments, a juxtaposition from his most recent appearances in the spotlight.

Choi: The MLS playoffs. Fans of the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga dismiss the MLS by calling it a retirement league. While I can see where they pulled that label from, the MLS has a farm system that is very underrated. Alphonso Davies is a product of the league, and the LAFC’s Diego Rossi could very well go on to be a great player for the Uruguayan Men’s National Team. This UFC 255 card has two championship belts on the line, so in the name of sweet, sweet victory, the MLS postseason that crowns a winner every year with the MLS cup will complement the card well.

Fight Picks

Fight Choi’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
FlyW Championship: Deivison Figueiredo vs. Alex Perez Perez Figueiredo
Women’s FlyW Championship: Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jennifer Maia Shevchenko Shevchenko
WW: Mike Perry vs. Tim Means Perry Means
Women’s FlyW: Katlyn Chookagian vs. Cynthia Calvillo Calvillo Chookagian
LHW: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs. Paul Craig Rua Craig
Preliminary Card (ESPN2 and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Brandon Moreno vs. Brandon Royval Moreno Royval
MW: Joaquin Buckley vs. Jordan Wright Wright Wright
Women’s FlyW: Antonina Shevchenko vs. Ariane Lipski Lipski Lipski
WW: Nicolas Dalby vs. Daniel Rodriguez Rodriguez Rodriguez
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, 6:30 p.m. ET)
WW: Alan Jouban vs. Jared Gooden Gooden Jouban
MW: Kyle Daukaus vs. Dustin Stoltzfus Daukaus Daukaus
WW: Louis Cosce vs. Sasha Palatnikov Palatnikov Cosce