Jack Hermansson (T) (Keith MIlls/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 19 Preview and Predictions

Matthew Petela Staff Writer

The middleweight division is playing a game of musical chairs right now. After Kevin Holland tested positive for COVID-19, he was rescheduled for a date with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza at UFC 256 on Dec. 12. This left Jack Hermansson in need of a new match-up, which comes in the form of Jacare’s original intended foe, Marvin Vettori. The rising Italian star joins Hermansson in the main event for this weekend’s UFC on ESPN 19 card.

Hermansson bounced back nicely from a TKO loss to Jared Cannonier with a heel-hook victory over Kelvin Gastelum in July. Vettori will look to move his winning streak to four fights this weekend. The 27-year-old’s most recent outing resulted in a first-round submission finish of Karl Roberson. The Italian’s last loss came in a split decision against current middleweight kingpin Israel Adesanya.

In the co-headliner, Ovince St. Preux makes his second walk to the cage back at light heavyweight, where he once challenged for the title, after a one-off heavyweight fight against Ben Rothwell. His opponent will be rising star and undefeated prospect Jamahal Hill. Hill’s last outing ended in a first-round TKO of Klidson Abreu that was only slightly tarnished by his positive test for marijuana.


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The ladies also feature prominently on the main card when flyweight Taila Santos takes on Montana De La Rosa. Santos will try to move her UFC record to 2-1. She dropped her promotional debut to Mara Romero Borella, but evened out her UFC record with a win over Molly McCann. De La Rosa is coming off a loss to Viviane Araujo and needs a win to avoid going 1-3 over her last four contests.

The main card also features a slugfest at light heavyweight between Roman Dolidze and John Allan, as well as a featherweight contest between unbeaten Movsar Evloev and Nate “The Train” Landwehr.

Once again, the UFC Apex in Las Vegas will be the host venue for this event in a fan-free environment due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. UFC on ESPN 19 kicks off with the prelims at 7 p.m. ET and the main card following at 10 p.m. ET. The entire card can be seen on ESPN+ and ESPN2. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.

Every time Jack Hermansson gains a little bit of momentum, somebody comes along and knocks him off track. He’s once again in a good spot following the win over Kelvin Gastelum. Can the middleweight contender keep it rolling when he meets Marvin Vettori?

Sumian: It is very effortless to forget just how good Hermansson has been since his UFC debut in 2016. The Swedish native joined the UFC in September of that year after compiling a 13-2 record and has since extended his overall mark to 21-5 by turning in eight UFC victories through 13 appearances with the company. Prior to suffering a second-round TKO to Jared Cannonier in September 2019, the “Joker” was on one of the hottest winning streaks in the middleweight division, which included victories over Thales Leites, David Branch and Jacare. He rebounded successfully in July with the swift first-round submission of Gastelum to regain his contender status.

Hermansson is currently averaging 4.90 significant strikes per minute, less than two significant strikes absorbed per minute, and a daunting 2.38 takedowns per 15 minutes. The Swede, who stands 6-foot-1 and boasts a 77.5-inch reach advantage, is a problem for any top-15 middleweight.

Vettori might just be the most prominent UFC middleweight prospect in the game today. The Italian native made his Octagon debut in the month prior to Hermansson’s first UFC fight, and he has thus far compiled a 5-2-1 record in his few years with the promotion. Vettori is currently riding a three-fight winning streak at the expense of Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira, Andrew Sanchez and Karl Roberson. However, the 27-year-old is likely most known for being the only individual to win a judge’s scorecard against current UFC middleweight champ Israel Adesanya. He pushed the champ for three straight rounds with constant forward movement, a consistent striking attack, and relentless persistence. Vettori, who currently sits at No. 13 in the UFC’s middleweight rankings, is eager to one day earn another chance to face Adesanya. To do that, he will have to defeat Hermansson convincingly.

Prepare for an all-out war when these two men meet inside the cage on Saturday. Despite the chaos of an opponent change in the midst of a positive COVID-19 test, these guys will deliver a “Fight of the Night” candidate due to their entertaining styles and willingness to compete. The pair have combined for 28 professional finishes and have a knack for pushing the pace of any bout they are involved in for as long as it lasts.

Vettori is as tough and gritty as they come, but he has not faced even close to the level of competition Hermansson has throughout his UFC career. Hermansson will use length and reach to pick apart Vettori on the feet as Vettori moves forward in an attempt to close the distance. When it is all said and done, Hermansson will have earned a unanimous-decision victory over a very game and tenacious Vettori. Despite the loss, the Italian’s stock and ranking will undoubtedly rise. Meanwhile, Hermansson will earn himself a title-eliminator bout.

Petela: This fight will be more than serviceable as a last-minute replacement to the original match-up of Hermansson and Kevin Holland.

While Hermansson is the fighter more known for his submission game, it is actually Vettori who has more wins via submission (9) than his Swedish foe (6). This will be another fight where Hermansson comes out on the losing end of a contest where the risk is ultimately greater than the reward. If he were to pick up a win over Vettori, it doesn’t move his status up toward title contention much. Meanwhile, a defeat will set him back a great deal. This is not because Vettori isn’t an elite talent, but rather that the Italian doesn’t have much name recognition outside of being the guy who went to a split decision with Adesanya.

A win over the fourth-ranked Hermansson might just be the calling card that Vettori needs to get serious attention. It will potentially do even more for him than a win over his originally scheduled opponent, Jacare. This fight will very much be a coming-out party for the Italian middleweight, who shows that not only does he have the crisper boxing of the two men in the cage but that he can also more than hold his own on the ground with “The Joker.”

This card features a number of undefeated fighters with big tests in front of them. Jamahal Hill meets veteran Ovince St. Preux, Roman Dolizde clashes with John Allan, Movsar Evloev draws Nate Landwehr, Jordan Leavitt meets Matt Wiman, and submission specialist Ilia Topuria is tasked with Damon Jackson. Which of these undefeated fighters emerge unscathed?

Petela: Hill will make the biggest statement while keeping his undefeated record intact. A win over the former title challenger St. Preux will be the most impressive victory on his resume and a stepping stone to the upper echelon of fighters at 205 pounds.

Evloev is the other undefeated fighter who will come away with a win and have fans talking about how he’s the real deal. Landwehr is coming off the best win of his career in which he outpointed Darren Elkins for a unanimous-decision win. This fight will go the distance as well, but it will be clear that Evloev’s Greco-Roman wrestling background is no joke. He will use his skill set to stifle Landwehr for 15 minutes.

Don’t be surprised if a few other fighters maintain their unblemished marks, but none will make quite the statement that Hill and Evloev do with their respective performances.

Sumian: It would not be a surprise if Hill and Evloev do indeed make the biggest statements in regards to retaining their undefeated streaks, but do not sleep on Dolidze and Leavitt.

Dolidze is coming off an impressive first-round knockout of Khadis Ibragimov in his July debut with the company. The Georgian native is a powerful 6-foot-3 light heavyweight who is as equally skilled in MMA as he is physically imposing. He has compiled seven victories and has finished all of his opponents. Expect that streak to continue this weekend when he takes on John Allen and scores another impressive finish.

Leavitt, who fights out of Las Vegas, has all the makings of a prospect. The 7-0 Syndicate MMA team member has finished five of his seven wins via submission and was very impressive in his Dana White’s Contender Series fight in August. He secured a first-round arm-triangle choke to submit Jose Flores. Now, the 5-foot-11 lightweight looks to extend his undefeated streak in a UFC debut bout with veteran Matt Wiman, who is currently on a two-fight skid. The younger and fresher Leavitt will push the pace and turn in a dominant performance on his way to a unanimous-decision victory.

Jimmy Flick and Jordan Leavitt — do we need to know these names?

Sumian: I’ve already voiced my opinion on Leavitt above, so let’s move on to Flick, who joins the UFC bantamweight division after securing a third-round arm-triangle choke on Nate Smith in their September fight on the Contender Series. The 30-year-old Flick boasts a 15-5 career mark and is currently riding a three-fight winning streak. He has established himself as a submission specialist by defeating 13 of his 15 victories via tapout.

Flick draws Cody Durden, who is coming off a draw to Chris Gutierrez in August. Flick and Durden have combined for 23 professional finishes and will most certainly put on a show this weekend.

Petela: I’m not sold on either newcomer.

Flick is certainly a talented submission artist, but he’ll get exposed as a one-trick pony once he steps in the cage with elite talent.

Leavitt is undefeated and picked up a win over Leivon Lewis in the Legacy Fighting Alliance, but he has only seven fights under his belt and might not be ready to compete at the highest level just yet. Hopefully a rocky start doesn’t derail the potential he has for a successful career in the long run.

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

Petela: Gian Villante. The Long Island native has not looked good recently. His move up to heavyweight was puzzling, because he wasn’t a particularly big light heavyweight. He looked out of shape in his first fight in the division against Maurice Geene and lost by submission in a peculiar manner that had fans wondering whether it was more of a tap due to exhaustion than the choke. He’s 2-5 over his last seven fights, and the two wins have been by split decision. Villante has a winnable bout against Jake Collier this weekend, but a loss would very likely be the end of the road for him.

Sumian: Matt Wiman. Despite being a seasoned and at times very successful UFC veteran, the 37-year-old has not been able to keep up with the new blood in the UFC. He has suffered back-to-back losses since coming back to the UFC after a nearly five-year hiatus from the sport. Wiman is as tough as they come, but he will suffer a third-straight loss this weekend against Leavitt and likely leave the UFC for good.

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

Sumian: Damon Jackson and Ilia Topuria. The pair have combined for 21 submission victories and are currently riding notable streaks heading into their bout on Saturday. Jackson is 7-1 in his last eight bouts and is coming off a September 2019 “Performance of the Night” in a submission victory over Mirsad Bektić. Topuria is one of the many notable undefeated fighters on the card who is making his sophomore UFC appearance. Both will look to extend their respective streaks and engage in an incredible submission chess match for the ages.

Petela: The women’s flyweight battle between Taila Santos and Montana De La Rosa. Santos prefers to get her work done on the feet, where she’s recorded 10 knockout finishes. De La Rosa, on the other hand, has picked up eight of her 11 wins by submission. Can Santos keep the action standing? How she will fare once she gets taken down and into the grappling realm with De La Rosa? Those questions and the answers this fight provides will make it one that’s fun to watch.


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Pair this card with…

Petela: A six-pack of Miller Lite. This card has been shifted around, and the main event is very much like a last-minute sixer you grab on your way home after realizing your refrigerator is empty. It won’t be special. It won’t be memorable. However, it will satisfy the urge.

Sumian: That last-minute kickback on a Saturday night that ends up being extremely fun. You know the one: you have no plans and get that 6:50 p.m. call from one of your friends. You decide to get together. A quick market run follows, where you pick up the first chips, soft drinks and booze you see before heading home to hang out. It ends in a night full of fun performances and exciting finishes that is only sweetened by the fact that you entered with little to no expectations.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+ and ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET)
MW: Jack Hermansson vs. Marvin Vettori Hermansson Vettori
LHW: Ovince St. Preux vs. Jamahal Hill Hill Hill
Women’s FlyW: Taila Santos vs. Montana De La Rosa De La Rosa De La Rosa
LHW: Roman Dolidze vs. John Allan Dolidze Dolidze
FW: Movsar Evloev vs. Nate Landwehr Evloev Evloev
Preliminary Card (ESPN+ and ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET)
HW: Gian Villante vs. Jake Collier Villante Collier
LW: Matt Wiman vs. Jordan Leavitt Leavitt Wiman
FlyW: Jimmy Flick vs. Cody Durden Flick Flick
FW: Damon Jackson vs. Ilia Topuria Jackson Jackson
FW: Gabriel Benitez vs. Justin Jaynes Jaynes Benitez
BW: Louis Smolka vs. Jose Alberto Quiñonez Smolka Smolka