Michael Chiesa (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 20 Preview and Predictions

The UFC is certainly taking advantage of the newly constructed Etihad Arena on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. The company is hosting three events in a span of eight days. The second of these shows, UFC on ESPN 20, is an early morning affair on Wednesday.

Originally slated to feature the highly anticipated showdown between Leon Edwards and Khamzat Chimaev, the event took a hit when Chimaev was unable to compete due to COVID-19 complications. Instead, the headliner now includes welterweights Michael Chiesa and Neil Magny. They are the eighth- and ninth-ranked 170-pounders in the UFC, and both fighters will look to extend a three-fight winning streak to climb ever closer to the top five.

The co-main event also takes place at welterweight, where veteran Warlley Alves tangles with Mounir Lazzez. The Tunisian-born Lazzez makes his second Octagon appearance. Meanwhile, Brazil’s Alves hopes to bounce back from a submission loss to Randy Brown in November 2019.


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At light heavyweight, Ike Villanueva takes on Vinicius Moreira. Both men are in search of their first UFC victory. Neither competitor has seen the judges’ scorecards yet in their promotional tenure, and only once in their combined five Octagon appearances have they managed to see a second round.

The lone women’s fight on the main card is a flyweight clash between Roxanne Modafferi and Viviane Araujo. This is another pairing of eighth and ninth-ranked fighters.

Elsewhere in the lineup, Lerone Murphy tries to keep his undefeated record intact and add a 10th professional win. His foe is Douglas Silva de Andrade, who currently holds a 26-3 mark. Both men are looking to march toward the rankings in the talent-stacked featherweight division.

All-action flyweights open up the main card when Matt “Danger” Schnell takes on Tyson Nam. This marks the return to 125 for Nam after two knockout victories in bantamweight contests. Schnell did not fare well in his previous bout, falling to Alexandre Pantoja by knockout to snap a streak of four straight wins.

North American viewers will see a rare early morning start time due to the time differences across the world in the United Arab Emirates. The Jan. 20 show’s preliminary fights begin at 9 a.m ET, followed at noon ET by the main card. ESPN and the ESPN+ streaming service will be the dual broadcast homes for the entire event. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the event in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Neil Magny has not managed more than three consecutive wins in a row since a 2014-15 winning streak came to an end after seven fights. He enters the evening’s headliner opposite Michael Chiesa with the chance to post his fourth win in a row. Can he do it and finally end this recent frustrating trend?

Sumian: The winner of this bout certainly positions themselves for an intriguing welterweight contender match-up. Magny had an incredibly successful 2020 campaign that included wins over above-average welterweights Li Jingliang, Anthony Rocco Martin and Robbie Lawler. All three contests were dominant performances from Magny, who used his reach and volume striking to outscore and outpace his opponent for three rounds. Despite being derailed frequently throughout his career in the UFC after building up notable streaks, Magny has still compiled an impressive 17-6 UFC record, no doubt due to his evolving striking and notable reach and height compared to the rest of the division.

Magny has shown a considerable weakness in his ability to negate his opponent’s offensive grappling. This usually leaves Magny on his back. Several opponents, including Demian Maia and Rafael dos Anjos, have been able to dominate him there before securing a submission. Prior to his current winning streak, Magny suffered a devastating knockout courtesy of Santiago Ponzinibbio, who pressured Magny from the start before finding a home for a vicious overhand right that dropped Magny face first. Magny has learned tremendously from that loss and realized the importance of utilizing his height and reach to avoid the looping power punches of shorter foes. He will now have to prove that he is finally ready for the top-tier welterweights when he takes on the grappling sensation Chiesa.

It is truly incredible what a fresh start in a more fitting weight class can do for a fighter. After establishing himself as a top-10 lightweight, Chiesa suffered through losses at the hands of Kevin Lee and Anthony Pettis. He was positive that competing as a UFC lightweight was no longer a life he could continue living if he hoped to compete at his very best. “Maverick” made the move to welterweight at UFC 232 against highly respected veteran Carlos Condit and dominated the former UFC interim champ before securing a kimura in round two. It was the start of a new streak for the former The Ultimate Fighter 15 competitor.

Chiesa followed up his impressive divisional debut with a dominant decision victory over Diego Sanchez. He was a completely different combatant than he had been as a lightweight. Several months later, he earned perhaps the biggest test of his career when he was tasked with another former UFC champion, the aforementioned dos Anjos, in a bout that would ultimately prove just how high his ceiling was in his new weight class. Unsurprisingly, Chiesa shined yet again and earned a unanimous nod over the Brazilian to launch himself into the top 10 of the UFC welterweight rankings. After almost a year off, he now returns for a key fight against Magny.

This bout is as intriguing as they come. It will ultimately decide who earns a top-six opponent for their next UFC appearance. Magny’s game plan will consist of keeping this fight on the feet and using a combination of volume striking and everlasting cardio to continuously pepper Chiesa with jabs and crosses at range. Chiesa will look to use his aggression and improved striking to close the distance and wrap up his taller foe in an effort to secure a takedown and bring the fight into a realm where he will have a distinct advantage.

This affair will have a cat-and-mouse feel to it. Both competitors will try to implement very distinct and different game plans. However, it will be Chiesa with his hand raised after earning a convincing decision over Magny.

Petela: When it comes to life’s greatest unanswered questions, there are ones like Who killed Kennedy? and Was the moon landing real?. In the MMA world, those queries are joined by another mystery: How in the world did Chiesa ever make 155? He looks big even at welterweight, and the move up has benefited him tremendously. It was clear in his last two fights at lightweight that the cut caused him to be far from his best. His three fights at 170 have not only ended in victory for Chiesa, but they have also featured a Chiesa who looks demonstrably healthier and is able to maintain a higher pace without compromising his cardio.

As great as Chiesa’s gas tank has looked, this fight favors Magny, whose cardio is on another level entirely, if it manages to go the distance. Magny doesn’t have tremendous power or a world-class submission game, but he is extremely technically proficient and uses his length well to keep his opponent at distance while he slowly drains their energy with a high-volume attack and keen movement. He is always trying to lead the dance, whether he is moving forward or backwards. Magny just never seems to get tired. The ultimate deciding factor then is whether he can implement his game plan. If he can, then this bout will conclude in a lopsided victory for Magny in which Chiesa is almost a sitting duck by the later rounds.

However, don’t expect to see the scorecards. Chiesa knows as well as anyone that his best path to victory is to exploit his distinct grappling advantage and get this fight down to the mat early. Once Magny finds himself on his back, he will immediately try to work back to his feet. He might succeed once or twice, but he will eventually make a technical mistake that Chiesa can capitalize on to lock up a submission, most likely a rear-naked choke. Magny’s winning streak ends at three once more, while Chiesa emphatically announces his arrival as a top welterweight contender.

This lineup features two key bouts in the women’s flyweight division. The UFC’s eighth-ranked Roxanne Modafferi meets ninth-ranked Viviane Araujo, while Victoria Leonardo and Manon Fiorot make their respective debuts inside the Octagon. Who impresses?

Petela: The newcomers will outshine the UFC veterans, regardless of the outcome.

Modafferi is one of the unsung pioneers of women’s MMA, but she is 38 years old and has alternated wins and losses over her last eight fights. This also happens to coincide with her tenure inside the UFC. “The Happy Warrior” looked great in her contest against Maycee Barber, but she was unable to secure a finish even after Barber was significantly compromised with a knee injury. It was nearly three years and seven fights ago that Modafferi won a contest without going to the scorecards.

Araujo has certainly looked good in her recent outings. She is 6-1 over her last seven contests. The lone loss came against Jessica Eye in a fight where Eye missed weight by nearly five pounds. The momentum is very much in Araujo’s favor. She will likely come away with a win, but it is very difficult to look good against Modafferi. The tricky jiu-jitsu and judo of “The Happy Warrior” gives all of her opponents fits. Even when she gets outpointed, Modafferi fights in a manner that isn’t all that conducive to show-stopping, action-packed performances from her or her opponent.

The other scrap features Leonardo, who is coming off her first career TKO win and her fifth finish in 10 pro fights. The Dana White’s Contender Series alum has fought in top UFC feeder leagues Invicta FC and the Legacy Fighting Alliance. She also won in her lone Bellator appearance. Leonardo joins the UFC roster with one heck of a pedigree and should realize a lot of success with the organization.

Leonardo’s opponent, France’s Fiorot, is a finisher who is 5-1 overall. Fiorot is riding a five-fight winning streak since dropping her pro debut. She has won her last three bouts via TKO. Fight Island will be a home game of sorts for her after a stint inside the UAE Warriors promotion. This match-up will feature plenty of action. Both women will leave a lasting impression with fans and UFC executives, no matter who gets their hand raised.

Sumian: Modafferi is certainly one of the most recognizable and popular names in women’s MMA, largely due to her sincere kindness, raw personality, and never-say-die heart. These qualities have been on display throughout her UFC career. However, “The Happy Warrior” will suffer a loss to the younger, fresher Araujo. The Brazilian will be able to utilize her quick feet, fluid striking, and defensive wrestling to constantly stick and move while avoiding Modafferi’s ground game. Modafferi will quickly grow frustrated and start darting forward with desperate takedown attempts. Araujo will respond by moving and resetting to the center of the Octagon. While the fight will be competitive and entertaining, it will result in a clear decision victory for Araujo.

How can one not get excited for a women’s flyweight bout that features the nicknames “Fury” and “The Beast”? The clash between Leonardo and Fiorot should be an entertaining affair between two up-and-comers who have so far combined for nine finishes. Leonardo certainly holds the experience advantage over her French opponent, but Fiorot will deliver big with a first- or second-round TKO.

Francisco Figueiredo and Mason Jones — do we need to know these names?

Sumian: Francisco Figueiredo, a native of Brazil, joins the UFC flyweight division. He is the brother of the current divisional champ, Deiveson Figueiredo. Prior to his UFC signing, Francisco compiled an 11-3 record and established himself as a consistent finisher, whether by way of knockout or submission. Can he fight as well as his brother? Only time will tell.

Due to his perfect mark and success as a two-division Cage Warriors champion, Jones is the more significant debut. “The Dragon” is a native of Wales. He is easily one of the most promising debuting UFC lightweights of recent memory. His 10-0 record consists of four knockouts, three submissions, and three decision victories. One of Jones most notable wins was his comeback performance against Kacper Machida. Jones overcame early adversity after being taken down and pressured by Machida. He rallied back with a wave of devastating knees in the clinch that sent Machida to the canvas and gave Jones the TKO victory. Jones boasts an extremely well-rounded game. He has constant forward movement, powerful offensive grappling, and relentless volume striking that can quickly overwhelm his opponent. Jones will make a huge splash in the lightweight division when he takes on and soundly defeats Mike Davis on Wednesday morning.

Petela: Yes, Francisco is Deiveson’s brother. However, he’s also been notably inactive recently. Francisco’s last fight took place in September 2019, and he spent almost 18 months on the sidelines prior to that bout. He will pose a real threat to any opponent he faces in the grappling realm, where he has notched seven wins by submission. He doesn’t have the otherworldly power of his older brother, but he has a decently well-rounded stand-up attack. Francisco might not have the same career trajectory as Deiveson, and the two of them will almost certainly never amass the cult-like following of the Diaz brothers. However, he’s someone who could be a serviceable bantamweight over the next several years.

I am equally optimistic about Jones. The Welsh fighter checks all the boxes for a highly touted prospect: he had success at a highly respected international promotion; he has yet to taste defeat; and he has picked up wins by knockout, submission and decision. Joes is diving into the shark tank at lightweight, but the 25-year-old will be making waves before he starts approaching his 30th birthday.

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

Petela: Markus Perez. His Joker makeup at weigh-ins is a decent schtick, but a loss to Dalcha Lungiambula would mark his third consecutive setback. Perez’s last appearance ended in a first-round knockout loss to promotional newcomer Dricus du Plessis. Prior to that, he dropped a unanimous decision to Wellington Turman. Neither of those fighters are UFC mainstays — not yet, at least — and Lungiambula, for as impressive as he looked in his debut, is coming off a bad knockout courtesy of Magomed Ankalaev. Three straight losses to fighters nowhere near the top 15 of the division might make the UFC realize that the pre-fight antics aren’t worth the trouble for someone whose ceiling isn’t all that high within the organization.

Sumian: Zarrukh Adashev. He could find himself in a similar situation if he is unable to rebound from his devastating knockout loss to Tyson Nam. The New York resident is currently 3-2 in his career with no real momentum. His time in the UFC could be nearing its end.

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

Sumian: It is hard not to go with the flyweight clash between Tyson Nam and Matt Schenll. Nam has been on fire with back-to-back knockout victories over Zarrukh Adashev and Jerome Rivera. The Hawaiian has never looked better, and he enters this bout as the No. 13-ranked UFC flyweight. After compiling a four-fight winning streak between 2017 and 2019, Schnell suffered a disappointing first-round knockout defeat courtesy of Alexandre Pantoja. Now, “Danger” returns to the Octagon after a year’s absence in search of a rebound win.

Petela: Ricky Simon and Gaetano Pirrello. Simon was supposed to face Brian “Boom” Kelleher at UFC on ABC 1 in a rescheduled contest from November, when one of Simon’s cornermen tested positive for COVID-19. This time around, it was Kelleher who tested positive. Pirrello stepped up on short notice, and the fight was moved back four days. It will be Pirrello’s UFC debut, and he should be a sizable underdog. However, he has real fight-ending power and shouldn’t be counted out. He just might pick up his 12th career knockout. Simon got back on the right track with a win over Ray Borg in May 2020 after dropping back-to-back fights. Those setbacks were only his second and third professional losses. The high-octane Simon and his forward pressure should make this one a fun addition to the show.

Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?

Petela: Tyson Nam. The Hawaiian fighter is riding back-to-back knockout victories and already earned a bonus for his finish of Zarrukh Adashev. He drops down to flyweight to take on Matt “Danger” Schnell, who despite having eight submission wins began his combat-sports training in karate and holds a black belt in that martial art. Both of these men like to get into old-fashioned brawls. With the power that Nam carries into the contest as the naturally larger fighter, he will land a finishing blow that has fans jumping out of their seats.

Sumian: The United Kingdom’s Lerone Murphy. The Stockport resident does not get enough attention as a featherweight contender in the making. After compiling a 7-0 record, he made his promotional debut at UFC 242 and fought to a draw with the always-tough Zubaira Tukhugov. Murphy returned 10 months later and delivered in spectacular fashion with a first-round knockout of Ricardo Ramos. He’ll turn in a similar performance when he takes on Douglas Silva de Andrade.

Pair this card with…

Sumian: A recovery week, coupled with stretching. No, not really. This rare Wednesday show, sandwiched between two very high-profile Saturday cards, is sure to deliver a few memorable moments. However, it is bound to be overshadowed by the event the weekend prior and, of course, the rematch between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor set to take place just a few days later. So, save it for the weekends. Use this card as a morning to sit back, relax, and get some needed rest. Chow down on some breakfast and prepare for the upcoming weekend.

Petela: Just like every Wednesday, it’ll be pizza night for me. But this card takes place in the morning. Wake up a little early and make yourself a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs. This event certainly lacks the name recognition of the two Saturday shows, but there are a number of intriguing match-ups that could provide some mid-morning fireworks. You’re going to want to head into this card on a full stomach so you don’t miss too much action running back and forth to the refrigerator in search of snacks.

FIGHT PICKS
Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 12 p.m. ET)
WW: Michael Chiesa vs. Neil Magny Chiesa Chiesa
WW: Warlley Alves vs. Mounir Lazzez Alves Lazzez
LHW: Ike Villanueva vs. Vinicius Moreira Moreira Villanueva
Women’s FlyW: Roxanne Modafferi vs. Viviane Araujo Araujo Araujo
FW: Lerone Murphy vs. Douglas Andrade Murphy Murphy
FlyW: Tyson Nam vs. Matt Schnell Schnell Nam
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 9 a.m. ET)
BW: Ricky Simon vs. Gaetano Pirrello Pirrello Pirrello
FlyW: Su Mudaerji vs. Zarrukh Adashev Mudaerji Adashev
LHW: Dalcha Lungiambula vs. Markus Perez Perez Lungiambula
BW: Jerome Rivera vs. Francisco Figueiredo Figueiredo Rivera
LW: Mike Davis vs. Mason Jones Jones Davis
Women’s FlyW: Victoria Leonardo vs. Manon Fiorot Leonardo Leonardo
MW: Omari Akhmedov vs. Tom Breese Breese Akhmedov
BW: Umar Nurmagomedov vs. Sergey Morozov Nurmagomedov Nurmagomedov