Derrick Lewis (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 18 Preview and Predictions

Matthew Petela Staff Writer

With the next challenger to Stipe Miocic’s title still unknown, two contenders will meet on Saturday at UFC on ESPN 18 in hopes of making a huge statement toward why they deserve that distinction.

Curtis “Razor” Blaydes has won four straight fights, but he has come under fire from UFC President Dana White for not delivering on his trash talk and instead putting on “safe” performances. Now, Blaydes meets Derrick Lewis in a five-round main event as the UFC closes out the penultimate month of 2020. Lewis is on a three-fight winning streak, and in his most recent fight, he broke the UFC record for most knockouts at heavyweight (11) when he stopped Aleksei Oleinik.

In a contest that received a late promotion into the co-headlining slot, Anthony “Lionheart” Smith returns to action for the third time in 2020. Smith, whose quick rise has been followed by an equally swift decline, looks to avoid going an entire calendar year without a victory for the first time since 2013. His opponent, Devin Clark, is on the hunt to make it 3-0 this year and pick up the biggest win of his career over the former title challenger Smith.


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Heavyweight Parker Porter is in search of his first win inside the Octagon after suffering a knockout loss to Chris Daukaus in his promotional debut. UFC newcomer and Dana White’s Contender Series alum Josh Parisian stands in Porter’s way. Parisian was victorious in both his appearances on the Contender Series and earned his contract with a knockout win over Chad Johnson in August.

A pair of flyweights will make their sophomore appearances with the company when Amir “The Prince” Albazi takes on Zhalgas Zhumagulov. Albazi made his UFC debut on short notice and was able to pick up a win over Malcolm Gordon. Zhumagulov did not fare as well in his first UFC outing, losing a unanimous decision to Raulian Paiva at UFC 251.

The main card opens with a pair of fights pitting all-action fighters against one another. Miguel Baeza and Takashi Sato square off in welterweight action, while prospects Spike “The Alpha Ginger” Carlyle” and Bill “Senor Perfecto” Algeo clash in a featherweight contest.

Due to ongoing restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, UFC on ESPN 18 will be held inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The prelims kick off on ESPN2 and ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET. They will be followed with the same viewing availability at 10 p.m. ET by the main card. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Despite both men residing among the top five in the heavyweight division, Curtis Blaydes and Derrick Lewis have not previously squared off inside the Octagon. What can fans expect when these heavyweights collide?

Sumian: The reason Blaydes and Lewis have not previously squared off inside the Octagon is simple: there’s a high-percentage chance of a snoozer here.

Despite garnering criticism from UFC President Dana White for his most recent “safe” performance, Blaydes has done everything right to position himself for a title shot once Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou run it back for the strap sometime in early 2021. The 6-foot-4, heavy-handed wrestler has rattled off four consecutive wins, which most recently includes a TKO of Junior dos Santos and a dominant decision victory over Alexander Volkov. The Illinois native has only suffered two defeats in his pro MMA career, and they have come courtesy of the aforementioned Ngannou.

Since those setbacks, Blaydes has vastly improved and evolutionized his game from that of a one-trick-pony wrestler to a versatile and craftty dual-threat fighter capable of finishing his opponent anywhere the fight goes. His improvement became most evident in his January clash with dos Santos. On paper, Blaydes was taking on arguably the most proficient pure boxer in the heavyweight division who had delivered numerous highlight-reel knockouts throughout his career. Oozing with confidence, Blaydes met dos Santos in the center of the Octagon and used his vastly improved footwork and striking to score a stunning second-round knockout of the former UFC heavyweight champion and capture the attention of fans around the world. Now, Blaydes sits at No. 2 in the UFC heavyweight rankings while looking better than ever. The only problem? Lewis.

Lewis is without a doubt one of the most difficult UFC heavyweights to understand. At any time, the No. 4-ranked Houston resident can feel like a contender or someone not worthy of a ranking at all. Despite what seems like a very unpredictable and shaky career in the UFC, Lewis has compiled a 15-5 promotional record that includes victories over Roy Nelson, Travis Browne, Ngannou, Volkov, and Aleksei Oleinik. The former title challenger truly fought the best of the division while compiling several winning streaks and delivering spectacular highlight knockouts. After dropping back-to-back fights against Daniel Cormier and the aforementioned dos Santos, he has rebounded with a three-fight winning streak that includes victories over Blagoy Ivanov, Ilir Latifi and the aforementioned Oleinik. An impressive win over Blaydes might just be what Lewis needs to earn himself another crack at UFC gold.

This bout will go one of two ways, and the likelihood of it going one way more than the other is probably why the UFC has taken so long to put these two big men in the Octagon together. It’s either going to be Blaydes via unanimous decision or Lewis by way of knockout. The only chance Lewis has of winning this bout is to score an improbable finish over the more well-rounded and better conditioned Blaydes. If Lewis is not able to do so, then expect Blaydes to control him for five straight rounds en route to a unanimous nod or perhaps lock up a submission after Lewis tires out.

Petela: This fight has all the makings of a near carbon copy of the clash between Alistair Overeem and Jairzinho Rozenstruik from December 2019 in Washington, D.C., where Overeem took Rozenstruik out of his comfort zone and tried relentlessly to turn the fight into a grappling match at the first sign of danger. The approach worked for just under 25 minutes.

From the onset, expect Lewis to be cautious of Blaydes’ wrestling and not be overly aggressive. We have seen Lewis look hesitant to engage when facing an extreme risk against Francis Ngannou, and while it is a totally different skill set across the Octagon from him this weekend, it would be understandable — and intelligent — not to overcommit to power strikes. “The Black Beast” will spend the vast majority of the fight on his back foot while attempting to avoid being put on his back with Blaydes on top of him. Lewis will end up getting taken down a few times throughout the fight, but these sequences will come late in the rounds, which means he won’t take too much damage before the bell sounds.

Blaydes might be feeling the pressure to deliver a fan-friendly performance after the criticism from White, but when he is locked inside a cage with Lewis, that pressure will be wholly mitigated by the fear of waking up with a flashlight in his face. There isn’t a fighter in the heavyweight division who the current version of Blaydes doesn’t have a decent chance at beating, but he will need to put himself at serious risk in order to do so here. That risk might be worth it for the title, but not just to put himself in White’s good graces.

Lewis is no stranger to come-from-behind victories. On Saturday night, when he finds himself on the verge of losing a lopsided decision, “The Black Beast” will come to life. He’ll land a late flurry flush on Blaydes’ chin and get another knockout victory. This one is going to be boring… until it isn’t.

Since his meteoric rise through the light-heavyweight division culminated in a valiant, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to dethrone Jon Jones, Anthony “Lionheart” Smith has fallen on hard times while going just 1-2. Can he right the ship and snap a two-fight skid when he meets Devin Clark on Saturday?

Petela: Mentally, there is no question that Smith wants to be inside the Octagon. His loss to Glover Teixeira is a prime example that Smith doesn’t understand the meaning of the word quit. Unfortunately, the best days for Lionheart are behind him. He won’t regain the form that saw him earn a title shot. He is only 32 years old, but he has an incredible amount of wear and tear on his body. Smith has already been through 49 professional fights. As a comparison, both the aforementioned Jones and Alexander Gustafsson are a year older than Smith and yet each has in excess of 20 fewer pro bouts than Smith. Teixeira, at 41 years old, has 39 fights. There are just too many miles on Smith’s engine to think he can physically be the same fighter he was a few short years ago.

The match-up with Clark is an unfortunate one for Smith. Clark hasn’t had much success against the elite light heavyweights, with his UFC losses coming against current champion Jan Błachowicz, Aleksandar Rakić and Ryan Spann. Since the loss to Spann, however, things have seemingly come together for the “Brown Bear,” who has picked up two consecutive wins. Not only was Clark able to earn those two victories, but it seems as if he is turning the corner and putting together his amateur boxing skills and his NJCAA national champion wrestling pedigree with much more fluidity. Clark has become a very good light heavyweight and will take full advantage of this showdown with Smith in what is somewhat of a changing of the guard.

Sumian: It is hard to argue with that logic.

Despite fans wanting desperately for Smith to return to his contender form, it seems like those days truly are long gone. He was utterly dominated by both Teixeira and Rakić and seemed to be visibly weaker than his light-heavyweight counterparts. To stay in any shape or form of relevance in the division, Smith will need to find a way to beat the surging contender Clark.

On paper, Clark seems to be a “get back on track” fight for Smith. However, that is not really the case. This is a perfect bout to determine if the birth of a prospective contender is ready to occur. Despite Smith’s recent performances, a victory for Clark here certainly puts him in the top 15 of the division. When it is all said and done, Smith will find himself on a three-fight skid after losing a unanimous decision to the improving Clark, who might just land a big top-10 opportunity in 2021.

Josh Parisian — do we need to know this name?

Sumian: Without a doubt. Parisian made quite an impression on the Contender Series in August when he knocked out Chad Johnson in stunning fashion and earned himself a date on a UFC card. The 6-foot-4 heavyweight tank has compiled a 13-3 pro record and is currently riding an impressive six-fight winning streak as he prepares to make his Octagon debut.

The Michigan native is a proven finisher who has submitted or knocked out 92 percent of his opponents. This makes him an extremely attractive addition to the UFC heavyweight roster, which is always in need of new blood.

Parisian makes his debut against Parker Porter, who is coming off an unsuccessful UFC debut against Chris Daukaus at UFC 252. Parisian will come out aggressively in this bout and score a first-round knockout of Porter to capture even more of the attention of his boss, as well as UFC fans.

Petela: All of those things are true, and Parisian will likely get a win in his debut against Porter. However, I’m not nearly as confident that he will have what it takes to fight in the UFC.

Taking nothing away from Parisian’s victory over Roufusport’s Johnson, there haven’t been many high-caliber fighters standing across from Parisian as a professional. Prior to his Contender Series win, his last four opponents held a combined record of 16-29. It is far too early to know whether the victory over Johnson is the beginning of a stellar run with the organization or a fluke win for a run-of-the-mill big man who hits hard.

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

Petela: Ashlee Evans-Smith. This will be her return to bantamweight after a 1-1 stint as a flyweight. After a loss to Andrea Lee in her last outing over a year and a half ago, “Rebel Girl” has gone just 1-3 over her last four fights, and her record inside the organization stands at an unremarkable 3-4. Another loss could likely be the final nail in the coffin for Evans-Smith’s run with the UFC. There’s also that pesky matter of her being accused of stealing donated medical supplies at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. This incident certainly won’t help her case for remaining on the roster.

Sumian: Rachael Ostovich. Despite having a fairly large following, the flyweight has not shown any indication that she is able to compete with the division’s top talent. Ostovich is currently on a two-fight skid courtesy of Montana De La Rosa and Paige VanZant. The Hawaiian native has compiled a professional record of 4-5 and has not fought in the UFC since January 2019. A loss this weekend should certainly put her on the chopping block.

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

Sumian: Takashi Sato and Miguel Baeza will deliver the fireworks. These two men have combined for 18 knockouts and always bring it when they enter the Octagon. Sato is 2-1 in the UFC and has yet to go the distance during his time with the company. The undefeated Baeza has two wins thus far inside the Octagon after finishing both Hector Aldana and Matt Brown in the second round. This is a “Fight of the Night” candidate, folks.

Petela: Bill Algeo and Spike Carlyle. This is the second UFC appearance for Algeo, who made his debut on short notice against Ricardo Lamas. Despite coming up short, “Senor Perfecto” held his own with his veteran opponent in an entertaining fight where both Algeo’s talent and toughness were on display. Carlyle lost a whirlwind unanimous decision to Billy Quarantillo in his last outing, which was an action-packed brawl. With these two prospects both looking to get the sour taste of a loss out of their mouth, there is no doubt this fight steals the show early on in the night. More importantly, we will finally be able to definitively answer the age-old debate over which nickname sounds funnier when announced by Bruce Buffer: “The Alpha Ginger” or “Senor Perfecto.”

Pair this card with…

Petela: There are a lot of fighters on this card who have fallen on hard times inside the UFC. Many of them are in desperate need of a win to keep their careers on track. For this reason, there will be an even wider emotional disparity than normal post-fight between the winning and losing fighters. So, make sure that you keep yourself in position to celebrate the highs, but avoid getting sucked into the lows. The best way to do this is with that old faithful, Captain Morgan and Coca-Cola.

Sumian: Could not have said it better myself. This card is a weaker lineup compared to most, but it will deliver in high-quality fights as the combatants aim to rejuvenate their careers with impressive finishes. There are several contests here with potential “Fight of the Night” chemistry. Bring out the hold rum and coke as the weather gets cold. The drink, combined with these fights, should serve to warm you up while out-performing its expectations.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+ and ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET)
HW: Curtis Blaydes vs. Derrick Lewis Blaydes Lewis
LHW: Anthony Smith vs. Devin Clark Clark Clark
HW: Josh Parisian vs. Parker Porter Parisian Parisian
FlyW: Amir Albazi vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov Albazi Albazi
WW: Miguel Baeza vs. Takashi Sato Baeza Sato
FW: Bill Algeo vs. Spike Carlyle Algeo Algeo
Preliminary Card (ESPN+ and ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET)
Women’s BW: Ashlee Evans-Smith vs. Norma Dumont Dumont Dumont
BW: Martin Day vs. Anderson dos Santos dos Santos dos Santos
Women’s BW: Rachael Ostovich vs. Gina Mazany Mazany Mazany
LW: Kai Kamaka III vs. Jonathan Pearce Pearce Pearce
BW: Su Mudaerji vs. Malcolm Gordon Gordon Mudaerji
BW: Nate Maness vs. Luke Sanders Maness Sanders