With the calendar year quickly coming to a close, the penultimate UFC event of 2020 is a loaded UFC 256 pay-per-view card topped off with a flyweight title contest.
Current champion Deiveson Figueiredo will look to set a UFC record for the shortest time between successful title defenses, having seen just 21 days between fights. He came away from his first title defense against Alex Perez unscathed while finishing Perez with a guillotine choke less than two minutes into the bout. His upcoming opponent, Brandon Moreno, also fought on that same UFC 255 card, where he defeated Brandon Royval by TKO just inside the first round. The early finishes by both Figueiredo and Moreno gave the UFC the perfect opportunity to replace the canceled bantamweight title fight slated to headline UFC 256 with the flyweight championship clash.
It seems like every time a fight is scheduled between two lightweight contenders, fans and pundits alike react as if the contest has the possibility to become an instant classic. Those reactions are well warranted due to the depth of talent in the division. The UFC 256 co-main event is no exception. Former interim titleholder and all-around wild man Tony Ferguson will try to bounce back from his loss to Justin Gaethje as he takes on the surging Charles Oliveira. Oliveira, 31, has the distinction of being the fighter with the most submission victories in UFC history. If he becomes only the second person to submit “El Cucuy,” then it will mark his 20th career submission and extend his UFC record to 15 wins by submission. Meanwhile, Ferguson is on the hunt for his 20th career stoppage when the two men face off.
Unlike some recent pay-per-view events, the excitement at UFC 256 extends past these two marquee fights. As usual, there are five contests in total on the pay-per-view portion of the card and the results of each contest have wide ranging implications on the near future at the top of their respective divisions.
Renato Moicano will try to improve to 2-0 since moving up to lightweight when he meets Rafael Fiziev. The pair was first slated to clash in November, but the bout was rescheduled after Moicano tested positive for COVID-19.
There’s also a middleweight clash between Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Kevin Holland. Jacare was originally supposed to fight Marvin Vettori, but the UFC played musical chairs with its fights when Holland tested positive for the coronavirus. Vettori took Holland’s place against Jack Hermansson on Dec. 5, and Holland filled the vacant spot against Souza for this Dec. 12 lineup.
The main card opens with a heavyweight showdown between rising star Ciryl Gane and former champion Junior dos Santos. The undefeated Gane has been out of action for a year since his win over Tanner Boser. He suffered a pneumothorax early in 2020 that forced him to the sidelines, and various issues from his scheduled opponents furthered his delay in returning to the Octagon. Dos Santos is on an unprecedented three-fight skid, with all of his losses coming by way of knockout. This clash with Gane will be a litmus test on whether dos Santos has anything left in the tank. If the Brazilian star loses, then the question will be whether it is time for him to hang up his gloves.
With coronavirus restrictions tightening throughout the country, UFC 256 will utilize the UFC Apex as the host venue without an audience in attendance. Fights begin with the early prelims on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ at 6:15 p.m. ET, followed on ESPN+ and ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET by the televised prelims. Action culminates on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET with the main card. Combat Press writers Matt Petela and Andrew Sumian provide insight and predictions in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo defends his title on an extremely short turnaround against Brandon Moreno, who is also just three weeks out from his most recent appearance. Will the quick return have a noticeable impact on either man? Does Figueiredo destroy Moreno as easily as he did Alex Perez at UFC 255?
Sumian: Due to the ease and length of their respective wins at UFC 255, neither man will be noticeably impacted unless it comes down to a bad weight cut. If both fighters make weight in a healthy manner and have spent the last few weeks honing their skills to prepare for each other, then we should be good to go for another exciting flyweight title bout.
Moreno enters as the top contender after compiling a 7-2-1 record since joining the UFC. After dropping a split decision to Askar Askarov in September 2019, he rebounded by rattling off wins over top-15 flyweights Kai Kara-France, Jussier “Formiga” da Silva and Brandon Royval. Despite being a prolific grappler with 10 submissions on his record, Moreno has focused on improving his striking to complement his overall MMA game. He put this on display against Royval and looked stellar. The bout ended in an unfortunate injury to Royval, but Moreno was dominating the fight using his improved striking and strong ground game.
Figueiredo could lock up the “Fighter of the Year” award if he is able to defend his belt for the second time in 2020 and extend his record to 4-0 before the year wraps up. The flyweight “God of War” has brought widespread attention to a division whose fan base was unfortunately nonexistent two years ago. Besides his sole loss to the longtime contender Formiga in March 2019, Figueiredo has been nearly perfect. He has rattled off five straight wins in less than 17 months while claiming the vacant UFC flyweight championship after Henry Cejudo’s retirement. His winning streak includes a dominant decision over Alexander Pantoja, a submission of scrappy veteran Tim Elliott, a pair of devastating finishes over Joseph Benavidez, and a slick first-round tapout of Perez. On the brink of stardom and red hot from his submission victory at UFC 255, Figueredo now gets the opportunity to make UFC history by pulling off the fastest championship turnaround and establishing himself as a top-five pound-for-pound talent.
Figueiredo will win this bout and further extend his dominance over the flyweight division, but Moreno will make it more difficult than Perez did. Don’t expect the Mexican native to get caught making mistakes that lead to a quick submission or devastating knockout. Instead, Moreno will look to push the pace in a controlled manner using his striking and the threat of the takedown. He will be well aware of the fact that if he allows the champ to get comfortable and into this groove, it will likely lead to a loss. Despite Moreno being a prolific grappler, Figueiredo’s grappling might just be better. The champ will be extremely comfortable engaging in a ground war. However, the ground games of both men will effectively cancel each other out. This will allow for the majority of the bout to take place on the feet, where Figueiredo certainly holds the advantage. He will pepper Moreno with smooth and accurate strikes as the challenger continues to march forward round after round and take the punishment due to his toughness. When it is all said and done, the champion will get his hand raised in a unanimous decision and set himself up for a showdown with Cody Garbrandt sometime in 2021.
Petela: It is absolutely incredible how quickly these guys are turning around from their last fights to headline the final UFC pay-per-view of 2020. What might be even more impressive, though, is the road that Moreno has had to take to land in a fight for the title. Most fans were introduced to him on the 24th season of The Ultimate Fighter, dubbed the “Tournament of Champions,” where 16 regional flyweight champions were brought in to compete for a shot at Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson’s belt. Moreno was the lowest seed in the tournament and lost in the opening round to the aforementioned top seed Pantoja. Then, after amassing a 3-2 record inside the UFC and suffering another loss to Pantoja, Moreno was unceremoniously cut from the organization. It only took one win, a TKO finish of Maikel Perez at Legacy Fighting Alliance 69, for him to earn another crack in the UFC. Moreno has steadily picked up steam since his return and has a chance to go from castoff to champion in just two years.
Unfortunately, he is going to run into a buzzsaw in Figueiredo and will ultimately fall short of achieving a storybook ending to this chapter of his career. There is just no aspect of this fight where Moreno will have a clear-cut advantage. His striking is indeed constantly improving, and his grappling ability is top notch, as proven by his 10 submission victories. However, Figueiredo has won three of his last four fights by tapout and has never been submitted. Additionally, the champ’s striking is a level above that of Moreno from a fluidity standpoint, not to mention that the Brazilian might be the hardest-hitting flyweight in UFC history. Not only will “Deus da Guerra” pick up another title defense, but he will also hand Moreno the first stoppage loss of his career.
The only thing that might go wrong for Figueiredo is the battle he has on the scale. It’s no secret that he lost his first shot at the title before the fight even started after he came in over the championship limit. This quick turnaround could prove difficult for him when attempting to make another weight cut. Don’t expect Figueiredo to miss weight, but if he looks particularly unsteady on the scale at weigh-ins, then it might be just enough to give Moreno a real shot at stealing the title.
Tony Ferguson is coming off a championship loss to Justin Gaethje in May. Will the lightweight contender return to the win column when he meets Charles Oliveira?
Petela: It is hard to use the loss to Gaethje as a barometer for how this fight will play out, because Oliveira is a totally different puzzle to try to solve.
The entire fight between Ferguson and Gaethje took place basically at boxing range, which for Gaethje also meant being in range to land low kicks. That night, Gaethje was the crisper, cleaner striker, but it wasn’t as if he escaped unscathed. Ferguson looked good as well in landing his fair share of shots, including one that wobbled Gaethje at the end of the second round. If this fight somehow plays out on the feet, then it will be a sure-fire win for Ferguson.
Despite an ever-improving striking game, Oliveira’s bread and butter will always be his jiu-jitsu. One does not become the UFC all-time leader in submissions by accident. In a pure grappling match, Oliveira would clearly and quickly show that he is on a different level than Ferguson. However, with the funky 10th Planet style of “El Cucuy,” combined with the ability to throw strikes — most importantly, his elbows — it should even the playing field a great deal.
Ultimately, Ferguson will be able to hold his own on the mat enough not to get submitted by Oliveira and stuff enough takedown attempts that a good portion of the fight takes place on the feet at distance. Ferguson will bloody Oliveira up over the first two rounds and finally close the show in the final frame. Don’t be surprised if the end comes by doctor’s stoppage due to a gnarly gash opened up by one of those patented Ferguson elbows.
Sumian: Oliveira is sporting an impressive seven-fight winning streak, which has led to a top-10 ranking in the UFC’s lightweight division and the opportunity to enter title contention if he is able to defeat Ferguson. However, the names in Oliveira’s streak are nowhere near the caliber of fighter that Ferguson is. Clay Guida, Jim Miller, Nik Lentz and a depleted Kevin Lee are all formidable fighters, but Ferguson is certainly on another level.
“El Cucuy” has fought the best of the best and won consistently before being stopped by Gaethje in an epic war. He’ll be rejuvenated and hungry in this one. Ferguson will bounce back with a dominant unanimous decision in a fight where he showcases his crafty striking and infamous pace.
Jared Vanderaa — do we need to know this name?
Sumian: Whenever a heavyweight joins the UFC roster while sporting a nickname like “The Mountain,” they certainly require attention. In all seriousness, though, Vanderaa’s debut is important, since the UFC is always in need of prospective heavyweights.
After compiling a 10-4 record, Vanderaa got the caught call to compete on Dana White’s Contender Series, where he made short work of Harry Hunsucker via a first-round TKO and joined the UFC heavyweight roster. The 6-foot-4 Team Quest representative is an established finisher who has notched a submission or knockout finish in 10 of his 11 victories. His best weapons include a very accurate left hook and a thunderous power right kick that has crippled a number of his opponents. If necessary, the California native is able to get it done with submissions too, which he proved when he pulled off a standing guillotine choke against Sean Johnson in their 2016 affair.
Currently on a two-fight winning streak and still only 28 years old, Vanderaa draws Serghei Spivac for his UFC debut. Spivac is a four-fight UFC veteran with a 2-2 record. Despite a tough debut opponent, Vanderaa will shine and get the W.
Petela: Vanderaa has the ability to finish fights with his striking as well as his grappling, and this immediately sets him apart from a number of the more lumbering heavyweights out there. It is immeasurable just how important the training at Team Quest can be for a fighter on the verge. The list of fighters who have lost their UFC debut and gone on to have great success is quite long, and Vanderaa’s name will eventually be added to that list.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 256?
Petela: Cyril Gane. The undefeated French prospect will turn into a full-blown contender with a win over former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. Gane’s three victories in the UFC were all more than respectable performances, but to take out a former champion will firmly put him on the map in the heavyweight division. Sure, he is facing a version of dos Santos that is noticeably past his prime, but the former champ hasn’t fallen off drastically. This will be a statement-making performance for Gane, and it will serve as a launching pad toward fights with the elite in a division that is always looking for fresh contenders.
Sumian: Kevin Holland. The surging middleweight contender has had a wild month after losing his headlining slot against Jack Hermansson, but he gets to bounce back against a legend in Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza on the main card. Holland will impress fans with the most high-profile win of his career when he scores a TKO of Souza in the second round and finally earns a UFC middleweight ranking.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 256?
Sumian: Junior dos Santos. The former UFC heavyweight champion is on a three-fight skid, with all of those defeats coming by way of knockout. Despite being a prolific boxer with some of the best hands the UFC has ever seen, dos Santos is no longer the dominant Brazilian phenom he once was. Rising heavyweight contender Ciryl Gane will get the job done against dos Santos and officially knock him out of the heavyweight top 15.
Petela: Charles Oliveira. This is his biggest fight to date, and it just so happens to be against a guy who is a stylistic nightmare. Oliveira can compete — and possibly beat — most elite lightweights, but falling short against Tony Ferguson in his first real test with a perennial contender (Kevin Lee doesn’t count) and former interim titleholder will set him back significantly. In a talent-stacked lightweight division that is still sorting out its title picture, Oliveira will be left out of the conversation.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: After the release of Yoel Romero and the statement by UFC President Dana White that there will be significant roster cuts to close out the year, most fighters who come out on the losing end at UFC 256 should be worried that their number might get called. One in particular is Peter Barrett. This will be his second official UFC fight, with his first being a lopsided decision loss to Youssef Zalal. If Barrett drops a second fight in the midst of the UFC’s purge, then he would be a prime candidate for release.
Sumian: Junior dos Santos. The former champion has suffered three consecutive knockouts. If he loses to a rising contender like Cyril Gane, then his time with the UFC might be coming to an end. The UFC is keen on making its roster leaner, and the obvious targets seem to be the longtime veterans who are no longer able to remain competitive and justify their high pay.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Gavin Tucker and Billy Quarantillo. These two highly underrated featherweights will go at it hard for as long the fight lasts.
Tucker is an established finisher with four wins by knockout and six by submission in his 12-1 pro career. He is coming off a pair of rear-naked choke victories at the expense of Seung Woo Choi and Justin Jaynes. Tucker is looking to extend his winning streak to three against the always tough Billy Quarantillo.
Since officially joining the UFC roster in December 2019, Quarantillo has been a perfect 3-0. He has not lost a bout since April 2016. The New York native enters this affair with a memorable unanimous-decision win over Spike Carlyle and a stunning third-round knockout of Kyle Nelson. Quarantillo is also a prolific finisher, with six knockouts and five submission victories through his 15-2 career.
This will be a wildly entertaining clash.
Petela: Cub Swanson and Daniel Pineda. How is this featherweight fight on the prelims?
Swanson most recently handed Kron Gracie his first professional MMA loss and looked good while snapping his own four-fight skid. Meanwhile, Pineda is coming off an incredible TKO win over Herbert Burns that really put him on the map.
If Pineda can get past a talented veteran like Swanson, then it will go even further toward proving he belongs in the cage with the division’s elite. Plus, Swanson doesn’t know how to have a boring fight. There should be fireworks early and often in this one.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Between the flyweight title on the line in the main event and two Tazmanian devils meeting in the lightweight co-headliner, you’re going to need to be on your toes for this one if you do not want to miss any of the action. Lay off the booze for the evening. Eat something light, like a salad with grilled chicken. You won’t want anything greasy or heavy sitting in your stomach as you leap out of your seat several times throughout the night. Once all is said and done, unwind with a little night cap of your favorite poison as you sit back and think about how the final UFC pay-per-view of the year delivered from start to finish.
Sumian: Hope and promise. This card has suffered plenty of casualties, including the loss of the featherweight title bout between Amanda Nunes and Megan Anderson, the bantamweight title clash between Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling, and late withdrawals of Andrea Lee and Angela Hill from the lineup. Despite this, the UFC has remained committed to putting together a fantastic year-ending pay-per-view with a number of fights that are sure to deliver. Mackenzie Dern, Cub Swanson, Renato Moicano, Tony Ferguson and many more have been among the most reliable fighters in terms of excitement and deliverance. Expect more of the same when these combatants take to the Octagon and remind fans throughout the world that, no matter what happens, “when there is a will, there is a way.” In regards to the drink of choice, this is in all likelihood the “true” New Year’s celebration for MMA fans, so bring out the good stuff: XO Plantation Rum.
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
FlyW Championship: Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno
LW: Tony Ferguson vs. Charles Oliveira
LW: Renato Moicano vs. Rafael Fiziev
MW: Kevin Holland vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza
HW: Junior dos Santos vs. Cyril Gane
Preliminary Card (ESPN2 and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
FW: Cub Swanson vs. Daniel Pineda
Women’s StrawW: Mackenzie Dern vs. Virna Jandiroba
FW: Billy Quarantillo vs. Gavin Tucker
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, 6:15 p.m. ET)
HW: Serghei Spivac vs. Jared Vanderaa
WW: Dwight Grant vs. Jingliang Li
FW: Chase Hooper vs. Peter Barrett
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