Gilbert Burns (Gleidson Venga/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 258 Preview and Predictions

The welterweight title will be on the line this weekend in the main event of UFC 258 when former teammates meet in Las Vegas.

Champion Kamaru Usman attempts to defend his belt against challenger Gilbert Burns. The two men were originally scheduled to clash on Fight Island at UFC 251, but Usman instead fought and defeated Jorge Masvidal after Burns tested positive for COVID-19. Now, the pair face off inside the smaller Octagon at the UFC Apex.

Burns earned this title shot by putting together a six-fight winning streak that includes victories over Demian Maia and former titleholder Tyron Woodley. Usman’s win over Masvidal marked his second successful defense of the belt he won from Woodley. The “Nigerian Nightmare” remains perfect since a 2013 loss in the second fight of his pro career and now sits at 17-1 overall inside the cage.


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In the co-main event, the women’s flyweight division will be on display when Maycee Barber makes her long-awaited return after over a year on the shelf rehabbing a torn ACL she suffered in her most recent bout. That fight also marked her first pro loss. Barber takes on Mexico’s Alexa Grasso, who made a successful transition to the weight class in her last performance when she outdueled Ji Yeon Kim en route to a unanimous nod.

The main card also features a middleweight clash between Kelvin Gastelum and Ian Heinisch. Gastelum would like to snap his current three-fight skid, while Heinisch tries to notch back-to-back victories after suffering three consecutive setbacks of his own.

In additional action, bantamweights collide when Pedro Munhoz takes on Jimmie Rivera. Munhoz dropped a close split decision to Frankie Edgar in his last fight. Rivera outshone Cody Stamann in July to get back to his winning ways after dropping two in a row.

The main card kicks off in the middleweight division, where Maki “Coconut Bombz” Pitolo tangles with Julian “The Cuban Missile Crisis” Marquez. Both men are looking to get things back on track after recent defeats. Pitolo has dropped three out of his last four fights. This will mark the end of a two and a half year layoff for Marquez, whose last fight in July 2018 ended in a split-decision loss to Alessio Di Chirico.

UFC 258 takes place on Saturday, Feb. 13, and begins with the early prelims on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ at 6:15 p.m. ET. The action switches to ESPN for the televised prelims at 8 p.m. ET and then shifts to pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET for the main card. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.

Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns were once teammates. Now, they meet for Usman’s welterweight title. Should fans expect to see a new champion on Saturday night?

Sumian: This showdown will turn out to be one of the most technical and competitive title bouts of the year. Both top-tier welterweights boast a flawless offensive and defensive ground game, ever-improving striking, and newfound knockout power that has been on full display in their recent appearances. Whether or not the title exchanges hands in this high-profile welterweight clash, fans are in for a high-level affair.

Since winning The Ultimate Fighter 21 in 2015, Usman has built an impeccable resume that includes a 12-fight winning streak, a welterweight championship victory, and two successful title defenses. To put it bluntly, he has been as dominant as they come and is certainly deserving of entering the conversation of one of the best welterweights in recent UFC history.

Throughout his run, Usman has averaged 4.60 significant strikes per minute, 3.44 takedowns per 15 minutes, and a 100 percent takedown-defense rate. His well-balanced and ever-improving skill set is that of the perfect champion. It includes a lengthy wrestling pedigree, along with technical and fluid striking that makes him one of the most difficult opponents to prepare for in MMA.

The champion is comfortable mixing it up on the feet and the ground, which has been apparent in his title defenses against Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal. He demonstrated his ability to adjust to his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses in those fights. He opted to pick apart Covington on the feet, and he utilized his grappling against Masvidal. Now, Usman will look to extend his overall winning streak to 16. However, he faces perhaps his most difficult challenge in the Octagon yet.

Ever since his return to welterweight, Burns has been on an incredible run. This march toward a title shot includes dominant victories over Gunnar Nelson, Demian Maia and former kingpin Tyron Woodley. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace has looked better than ever. He, too, is as well-rounded as they come.

The Brazilian is inarguably one of the most complete and decorated grapplers on the UFC roster today. He carries immense knockout power in both of his hands to compliment his aggressive, technical ground attack. Burns is extremely comfortable striking with his opponent prior to threatening various takedowns from numerous angles as he looks to consistently pressure and fluster his opponent. If he doesn’t score a submission or knockout, then he is working every single second of the round to make his opponent as uncomfortable as possible in an effort to negate any successful offensive attack. Burns is currently averaging a solid 3.15 significant strikes per minute and 2.21 takedowns per 15 minutes..

As regular training partners in the past, these men are very familiar with each other. They are aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and will no doubt look to exploit them on Saturday night. The key in this bout will be who is more successful in implementing their stand-up. While Usman is slightly the better all-around grappler due to his wrestling pedigree, Burns will be able to keep this fight on the feet as he works hard to fight off Usman’s offensive grappling attack consistently.

The easy answer here is to pick Usman by unanimous decision. However, nothing good ever comes easy. The two men will exchange blows before Burns lands a powerful shot that stuns Usman and sends Burns into finish mode. Burns will then shake up the division when he finishes the champ via TKO.

Petela: These two fighters have been constantly evolving their games. They are not only stellar in their specialties, but also well-rounded mixed martial artists.

This contest should really be a great match-up. Regardless of the outcome, this won’t be the last time they meet. Usman is 33, while Burns is 34. They aren’t youngsters, but there is still time for a rematch or perhaps even a trilogy.

The biggest unknown in this affair will be the level of improvement in Usman’s striking following a year under the tutelage of Trevor Wittman. This means Usman has had a sparring partner in Justin Gaethje, and that experience could end up being invaluable for the champ. Gaethje might not be able to mimic Burns’ style perfectly, but he’s given Usman months alongside a hard-hitting fighter with an elite wrestling background. This could be the perfect way for Usman to sharpen his skills for this scrap.

If this fight had happened when it was first scheduled, the short time in Colorado might have actually been a detriment to Usman. Instead, he took on BMF champion Masvidal and largely stifled any offense coming his way. Now that there has been additional time to devote as a pupil of Wittman, it gives Usman the added knowledge to truly implement the proper game plan.

It won’t be easy for Usman to impose his wrestling skills against Burns, so expect a similar fight here to the one Usman had with Covington. It will be contested mostly on the feet. Instead of Burns being the one to land something heavy that wobbles Usman, the opposite will occur. An educated Usman will connect with a right hand to hurt Burns and then patiently work to a TKO finish late in the fight.

Maycee Barber is now more than a year removed from her last fight and first pro loss, which came to Roxanne Modafferi. She has another top-tier foe in front of her in the form of Mexico’s Alessa Grasso. How will Barber fare in this match-up?

Petela: This should be a high-quality, entertaining fight.

These two women could be the core of the flyweight division over the next several years. While the setback against Modafferi and subsequent injury likely ended Barber’s chances at becoming the youngest UFC champion ever, it is important to remember that she is still only 22 years old and growing into her prime.

Grasso struggled to make the strawweight limit toward the end of her run in the division, and the move up to 125 pounds allows her the chance to show off her complete skill set without depleting herself terribly with an extreme weight cut.

There are a lot of similarities between these two ladies. Not only are they the same height and have a similar reach — Grasso has a one-inch advantage — but they are also fist-first strikers who prefer to stand and trade. There’s no doubt, though, that each woman’s ground game has improved since joining the UFC. They are becoming well-rounded fighters, as evidenced by Barber’s ability to survive on one leg against the grappling ace Modafferi and Grasso’s “Fight of the Night” loss to NAIA All-American wrestler and former champion Carla Esparza.

The difference maker in this fight, however, is going to be Barber’s knee. This is a tough first fight back to test out an ACL repair. In Grasso, Barber is taking on someone who is fleet of foot and has crisp boxing skills.

This one will go to the scorecards, where Grasso wins by a wide margin after picking apart Barber with her superior boxing for 15 minutes.

Sumian: This will be a very entertaining and active fight between two future flyweight contenders. Grasso will continuously stick and move in this bout, while Barber struggles to keep up and fire off her own successful offensive attack. Barber might be a force in the division at some point in her career, but she will need time and patience to fully recover from her ACL injury and hone her skills.

Philip Rowe — do we need to know this name?

Sumian: After suffering losses in his first two professional bouts, “The Fresh Prince” has been on an absolute tear. Rowe has now rattled off seven straight victories, all by way of stoppage. The native New Yorker made a splash in 2019 when he knocked out Leon Shahbazyan on Dana White’s Contender Series to earn a UFC contract. Now, he makes his Octagon debut against Gabe Green, who is coming off an unsuccessful UFC debut. Rowe will be successful in this fight, but I am not quite ready to say we need to know his name. He is certainly a hungry and aggressive finisher, though, and a victory on Saturday will result in worthy praise.

Petela: Rowe is starting out his UFC career at age 30 with less than 10 fights on his resume over a six and a half year career. He certainly burst onto the radar with his knockout win in the Contender Series, but he hasn’t cut his teeth in the more notable UFC feeder promotions. His ceiling is relatively unknown. His first performance under the lights in the big time will go a long way in showing whether or not he is a contender or a pretender.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 258?

Petela: Alexa Grasso. An impressive win over a burgeoning star like Maycee Barber in the co-headlining slot of a pay-per-view would be the biggest win of her career. She will not only pick up even more fans in her native Mexico, where she is already a star, but she will get to show off to a wider audience how good she is and how fun it is to watch her fight. This will be the beginning of her climb up the rankings.

Sumian: Kelvin Gastelum. Despite the obvious answer of Gilbert Burns, Gastelum will certainly be the biggest winner of the evening. The former top middleweight contender has had a rough go of late, which has resulted in a three-fight skid. He has been forgotten and left for dead, but look for him to remind everyone that he’s still got some life left in him after all. Gastelum will rebound with a powerful decision victory over a very tough opponent in Ian Heinisch and earn a high-quality opponent for his next appearance.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 258?

Sumian: Maycee Barber. With a loss to Alexa Grasso, the confident and cocky former undefeated flyweight prospect will find herself on a two-fight skid as she continues to face stiffer challenges in the Octagon. While it’s very possible Barber establishes herself as a future flyweight contender, it will not happen on Saturday night.

Petela: Ian Heinisch. He snapped a two-fight skid with his TKO win over Gerald Meerschaert and reclaimed his place inside the UFC’s middleweight top 15. However, a loss to Kelvin Gastelum this weekend will again leave him outside of the rankings with losses in three out of his last four bouts. This will show fans and UFC matchmakers that Heinisch doesn’t have what it takes to beat the best of the best at middleweight. His hopes of being a title contender will be all but gone.

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

Petela: Polyana Viana. The Brazilian picked up a win over Emily Whitmire in her last outing, but her prior three fights ended in disappointment. She has gone back and forth between the strawweight and flyweight divisions, but she has never really been able to build momentum in either weight class. If Viana drops her fight to Mallory Martin, who is 1-1 inside the UFC, then it could likely be the last time we see her compete in the Octagon. Don’t write her off entirely, though. This could be a really great grappling match-up between two BJJ brown belts, either of whom could emerge with the win.

Sumian: Gabe Green. The UFC newcomer is making a sophomore appearance after dropping a unanimous decision to Daniel Rodriguez. A loss to Phillip Rowe, which will likely happen, would put Green close to the chopping block.

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

Sumian: Belal Muhammad and Dhiego Lima. These two very entertaining and underrated welterweights were set to clash in December, but the bout was scrapped due to COVID-19 complications. These guys are each on an impressive three-fight winning streak and will be eager to pull off another victory in an effort to score a possible top-10 opponent in the always-entertaining UFC welterweight division.

Petela: Ricky Simón and Brian Kelleher. Hopefully, the third time’s the charm for these two hard-hitting bantamweights. They both possess high-level wrestling and grappling, and they keep a high pace throughout their fights. This one is as close to a can’t-miss affair as you’ll find.

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

Petela: Pedro Munhoz. His clash with Jimmie Rivera will be one heck of a fight, and it will end with a knockout finish for Munhoz. While he began his martial-arts journey with judo and jiu-jitsu, Munhoz is never opposed to a stand-up showdown. That’s what he will have when he squares off against the Kyokushin Karate black belt Rivera. It’ll be a technical battle to start, but a slugfest will break out later in the fight that leads to a highlight-reel finish for Munhoz.

Sumian: Rodolfo Vieira. The name might be relatively unknown to MMA fans, but Vieira is a legendary figure in the realm of grappling. The Brazilian phenom has a grappling record of 100 wins and only nine losses, which makes him one of the most high-profile UFC additions in the last couple of years. Vieira made his UFC debut in 2019 when he submitted Oskar Peichota in the second round. In his next appearance, he notched a first-round submission of Saparbek Safarov. The Brazilian, who now stands at 7-0, will add another name to his growing MMA resume when he submits Anthony Hernandez to earn a bonus check.

Pair this card with…

Sumian: A warm-up. A warm-up’s job is to prepare the body prior to taking part in a workout. This card is a warm-up to what is set to come in March, which includes two loaded, action-packed cards and five title fights. Despite boasting a very competitive headlining bout, the remainder of this lineup lacks the star power and high stakes that many are used to seeing in a UFC pay-per-view.

Petela: While typically I save the pizza for Wednesday nights, this fight card calls for a good slice. There’s not much on the docket outside of a great main event, so pair it with a thin-crust pie.

FIGHT PICKS
Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
WW Championship: Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns Burns Usman
Women’s FlyW: Maycee Barber vs. Alexa Grasso Grasso Grasso
MW: Kelvin Gastelum vs. Ian Heinisch Gastelum Gastelum
BW: Pedro Munhoz vs. Jimmie Rivera Munhoz Munhoz
MW: Julian Marquez vs. Maki Pitolo Pitolo Pitolo
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Bobby Green vs. Jim Miller Green Green
MW: Rodolfo Vieira vs. Anthony Hernandez Vieira Vieira
WW: Dhiego Lima vs. Belal Muhammad Muhammad Muhammad
Women’s StrawW: Polyana Viana vs. Mallory Martin Martin Martin
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, 6:15 p.m. ET)
FW: Ricky Simón vs. Brian Kelleher Kelleher Kelleher
WW: Gabe Green vs. Phillip Rowe Rowe Rowe
Women’s FlyW: Gillian Robertson vs. Miranda Maverick Maverick Maverick
Catchweight (140 pounds): Andre Ewell vs. Chris Gutierrez Ewell Ewell