Rafael dos Anjos (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 41 Preview and Predictions

With Islam Makhachev a last-minute withdrawal from this weekend’s UFC on ESPN+ 41 main event with a staph infection, the hard-hitting Paul Felder has stepped in on short notice to take on Rafael dos Anjos.

This fight will be the first time the Brazilian former lightweight champion competes at 155 pounds since his 2016 loss to Tony Ferguson. For Felder, it marks a return to action after he hinted at retirement following his controversial loss to Dan Hooker. An impressive performance this weekend may cause Felder to consider sticking around to make one more run at lightweight gold now that Khabib Nurmagomedov has retired.

The co-main event is a match-up of hard-hitting welterweights Abdul Razak Alhassan and Khaos Williams. “The Ox Fighter” just added to his highlight reel in his last bout with a 27-second knockout of Alex Morono in his freshman appearance inside the UFC. Meanwhile, Alhassan seeks to rebound from only his second professional loss. Both of these fighters have the potential to bring crowd-pleasing violence as they try to earn a show-stealing victory.


Elsewhere on the main card, middleweights are set to clash when Julian Marquez meets Saparbeg Safarov and Eryk Anders battles Antônio Arroyo. With middleweight champion Israel Adesanya now slated to meet light-heavyweight kingpin Jan Błachowicz in 2021, the fighter with the most impressive performance among this quartet might find himself at the beginning of a long haul toward title contention.

The evening’s preliminary card is capped by a strawweight contest between Kay Hansen, who makes her sophomore appearance with the promotion, and newcomer Cory McKenna. In the deepest women’s division in the UFC, these two young prospects will be hungry to make a name for themselves.

UFC on ESPN+ 41 will be held once again in a fan-free UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The prelims get underway at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN+, followed at 7 p.m. ET by the main card. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview this week’s action as they go Toe-to-Toe.

After just one win through his last five welterweight appearances, Rafael dos Anjos is set to return to the lightweight division in the evening’s main event. With Islam Makhachev out, Paul Felder has stepped in to face the Brazilian on five days’ notice. How likely is Felder to spoil dos Anjos’ return to the division where he once reigned as champion?

Sumian: The headlining bout went from a likely lopsided wrestling match to a potential “Fight of the Year” candidate between two of the most entertaining UFC lightweight veterans of recent memory. To put it plainly, Felder has a very strong chance of playing spoiler to dos Anjos even though he is far more friendly stylistically than Makhachev.

Dos Anjos enters this bout on a two-fight skid courtesy of Leon Edwards and Michael Chiesa, two of the top-ranked welterweights currently active in the UFC. After realizing he was undersized for the division and unable to handle the larger opponents that make up the top-15 at welterweight, the former UFC lightweight champ has decided to come back down for one last run in arguably the most talented division in MMA today. It was at lightweight where he went on two separate five-fight winning streaks and captured the championship at the expense of Anthony Pettis. Since then, the Brazilian has compiled a 5-6 record.

It has been roughly nine months since Felder engaged in a “Fight of the Year” candidate with fellow lightweight Dan Hooker. The result of the bout was a disappointing split-decision loss for the Philadelphia son and serious consideration for retirement. Thankfully, Felder took the time to reflect on his loss. He has confirmed that he will continue to fight and actively pursue opponents that entice him. As a result, he has stepped up to face dos Anjos on extremely short notice. He has even agreed to take the bout at 155 pounds and at the planned five rounds, which deserves praise in itself. Since 2017, Felder has compiled a 5-2 record with both of his losses coming by way of split decision. He is widely regarded as one of the most tough, competitive and entertaining fighters in the UFC today, and he has not disappointed fans throughout his exciting career in the organization.

Due to the change in opponent, expect the game plan of dos Anjos to change significantly. The former champ would have likely wanted to avoid going to the ground if he was facing Makhachev due to the Russian’s elite wrestling background. However, he likely holds a significant grappling advantage over Felder. As a result, he’ll use his improved striking to close the distance with kicks as he looks to tie up Felder and find a way to impose his stellar Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu background. Felder, meanwhile, will want to keep the fight on the feet where he can utilize his diverse striking arsenal.

This fight is going to be fun, to say the least. Both men are fantastic strikers who have demonstrated their ability to be comfortable wherever the fight takes place. However, expect Felder to come out of this bout with his hand raised. He will not finish dos Anjos, but he will land early and often as dos Anjos struggles to find his range and garner any momentum.

Petela: This fight will certainly be very different from the anticipated match-up between Makhachev and dos Anjos. In a way, it will be a truer test of the former lightweight champ’s overall skills, because he hasn’t had time to game-plan for the striking of Felder. Instead, the Brazilian was surely focused on a grappling-heavy attack from Makhachev. While wrestlers have been the Achilles’ heel for dos Anjos, at least he had several weeks to prepare for what he was facing until this last-minute change of opponent. It makes sense why he would call out Michael Chandler, the NCAA Division I All-American wrestler out of Missouri.

The weight cut here will likely be even more grueling than normal for Felder. He is far from a small lightweight, often admitting to walking around at north of 190 pounds. Without a fight scheduled and with more focus recently on his blossoming commentating career, what kind of shape he is in will be a big question mark heading into this contest. Regardless of his conditioning, he will still carry with him heavy hands capable of ending the fight at a moment’s notice.

So, it comes down to the game plan of dos Anjos and the conditioning of Felder. The edge goes to dos Anjos. Short-notice fights can tax the cardiovascular system of any fighter, but it will be particularly true in Felder’s case, because he wasn’t entering or coming out of a fight camp. “The Irish Dragon” will win the first round and perhaps look like he is headed for a stoppage victory, but his gas tank will fail him midway through the fight. At that point, dos Anjos will capitalize and pick up a submission victory.

After destroying Alex Morono in just 27 seconds in their February encounter, Khaos Williams returns against Abdul Razak Alhassan. Alhassan has scored all 10 of his victories by some form of knockout, and Williams has four stoppages via strikes. Does this one end in a knockout, and if so, who gets it?

Petela: This one will be fun while it lasts, but it won’t last long. The edge goes to Alhassan. It comes down to experience, and he has fought tougher competition over his career than Williams has seen. Even in a loss to Mounir Lazzez, Alhassan took “Fight of the Night” honors while standing toe-to-toe with the knockout machine.

Both of these men like to get to work early. All of Alhassan’s finishes have come in the first round, and only one of Williams’ stoppage wins has made it past the opening stanza. Neither one of these fighters is going to want to see this one drag into the later rounds, especially Alhassan, who has never picked up a win on the judges’ scorecards.

This fight will have fans wondering if a contest that only lasts a few minutes can rightfully be called “Fight of the Night.”

Sumian: Agreed. This bout certainly fits the scope of potential “Fight of the Night,” as both combatants will look for the big shot early and often.

Despite Williams’ impressive 27-second debut, expect Alhassan to find a home for the big shot and get the finish in round two. This is certainly not a knock on Williams, who has a bright future in the UFC.

Cory McKenna and Kanako Murata — do we need to know these names?

Sumian: McKenna enters the women’s strawweight division of the UFC after a unanimous-decision victory over Vanessa Demopoulos on Dana White’s Contender Series and a 5-1 professional card. She takes on Kay Hansen, who made her UFC debut in June with an armbar finish of former Invicta FC atomweight champion Jinh Yu Frey. A win over Hansen, should she get it, will start turning heads toward the English native.

Murata, another addition at strawweight, enters with an impressive 11-1 record and certainly has the resume of a prospective contender. The Japanese fighter, who joins the UFC following a championship win under the Invicta banner, has finished over half her fights by knockout or submission. She’s set to meet a very experienced Randa Markos, though. If she gets the victory, Murata will solidify her status as a UFC newcomer to closely follow. It will also perhaps set her up for a big fight in 2021.

Petela: As much as I hate to do it, I have to agree.

McKenna might become a real contender at strawweight, but her task in this debut against Hansen is a tough one. The Team Alpha Male fighter will probably start her UFC career with a loss, but that shouldn’t be enough to write her off entirely.

Murata will be a real threat at strawweight, and she will probably hand Markos her third straight loss. Murata probably doesn’t fit the mold of the image of a Japanese wrestler, but she is a very strong grappler with a background in both sport wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. She will be fun to watch as she climbs her way toward the rankings at 115 pounds.

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

Petela: Ashley Yoder. Despite having one of the best nicknames in the UFC — she’s known as “Spider Monkey” — Yoder does not have a secure place on the promotion’s roster. She has dropped back-to-back fights to bring her record in the organization to a lackluster 2-5. If she falls to Miranda “Danger” Granger in this battle of fantastic nicknames, then it will be the second three-fight skid on her record with only two consecutive wins sprinkled in during her tenure. Unfortunately for Yoder, who is 7-6 overall, Granger is a dangerous prospect with huge potential coming off her first professional loss, so she’ll be extra motivated to get back into the win column. It will be back to the regional scene for the 33-year-old Dan Henderson disciple after this one.

Sumian: Despite her resilience and willingness to save a fight, Ranka Markos is certainly in danger. She is 1-3 in her last four UFC appearances and seems to be losing a significant step in her ability to compete with the division’s top tier, which is apparent in her last few bouts. She now draws UFC newcomer Kanako Murata, who is on a seven-fight winning streak and has the makings of a prospective UFC women’s strawweight contender. A loss to Murata puts Markos on a three-fight skid and possibly sends her to the chopping block.

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

Sumian: Jose Alberto Quiñonez and Louis Smolka. These two lengthy strikers have been involved in a number of exciting fights. Neither fighter goes on cruise control, as they fight hard and true for as long as the bout goes on. They are each coming off a loss to a top-ranked bantamweight and will look to bounce back with an impressive win.

Petela: Alex Morono and Rhys McKee. Morono is coming off the devastating loss to Khaos Williams, while McKee had the misfortune of making his debut against Khamzat Chimaev. Both men want to erase the memory of their last outing. With two guys as talented as Morono and McKee looking to put on a performance that will take some of the sting away from those brutal losses, we should be in for a high-intensity showdown. This will be the 11th fight in the UFC for Morono and just the second for McKee, so Morono has a clear experience advantage. However, it will be competitive throughout. Don’t be shocked to see McKee come away with his hand raised, though.

Pair this card with…

Petela: High-speed internet and a chair that doesn’t recline. Look, there are a lot of fighters who are less than well known on this card, so it might take a bit of Googling throughout the event to get familiarized with some of them as they walk toward the cage. Yet, this doesn’t mean the fight card won’t be full of moments that have you jumping out of your seat. Speaking from experience, sitting down in a recliner as a highlight-reel knockout happens can easily result in a rolled ankle or accidental toss of your sleeping dog halfway across the room. So, make sure you’re sitting upright and try to keep all four-legged creatures off your lap for this one.

Sumian: With the change of opponent in the main card, this event went from one to miss to make sure you tune in. Felder and dos Anjos are two of the most recognizable names in the UFC lightweight division who combine for 26 finishes and three fights of the night. Expect them to deliver a performance to remember as they engage in an all out war. The remainder of the card certainly lacks name power but expect these fighters to shine when no one expects them too. In conjunction with the weather shift from hot to cold, pair this card with a classic: Southern Comfort and coke. Like this card, Southern Comfort sounds dull and uneventful at first. However, in the cold weather it starts to warm you up just like this card will when the finishes come early and often!

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
LW: Paul Felder vs. Rafael dos Anjos Felder dos Anjos
WW: Abdul Razal Alhassan vs. Khaos Williams Alhassan Alhassan
MW: Julian Marquez vs. Saparbeg Safarov Safarov Safarov
MW: Antônio Arroyo vs. Eryk Anders Anders Arroyo
Catchweight: Brendan Allen vs. Sean Strickland Allen Allen
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Kay Hansen vs. Cory McKenna Hansen Hansen
Women’s StrawW: Ashley Yoder vs. Miranda Granger Granger Granger
WW: Alex Morono vs. Rhys McKee Morono McKee
BW: Louis Smolka vs. Jose Alberto Quiñonez Smolka Smolka
Women’s StrawW: Randa Markos vs. Kanako Murata Murata Murata
BW: Tony Gravely vs. Geraldo de Freitas de Freitas Gravely
HW: Don’Tale Mayes vs. Roque Martinez Mayes Martinez