After the most heralded fight card of the year, UFC 259, the UFC wastes no time getting back to the action with UFC Fight Night: Edwards vs. Muhammad, an event headlined by a pair of welterweight contenders.
Leon Edwards has been out of action for over a year and a half, but he makes his long-awaited return this weekend against Belal Muhammad. Edwards has won eight consecutive fights, dating back to 2016. His last loss came against reigning champion Kamaru Usman. Muhammad has been impressive as well, with four straight wins and only one setback in his last nine outings.
This weekend’s co-main event takes us to the light-heavyweight division, where a pair of ranked fighters clash. Misha Cirkunov sits at 11th in the official UFC rankings and is coming off an impressive Peruvian necktie submission of Jimmy Crute. However, it has been 18 months since that highlight-reel victory. Cirkunov’s opponent, Ryan Spann, is currently ranked 13th and has been more active recently. Spann is coming off his first loss since joining the UFC, though.
The main card also includes a heavyweight showdown between longtime UFC contender Ben Rothwell and former Professional Fighters League heavyweight king Philipe Lins. Rothwell has struggled recently, going just 2-4 over his last six appearances. The big man is coming off a decision loss to Marcin Tybura. Lins has also seen better days in his career. The Brazilian looks to notch his first victory inside the UFC after joining the promotion on the heels of his PFL tournament championship.
Four other contests join the main card. There’s a can’t-miss featherweight clash between Dan Ige and Gavin Tucker. Also, the women’s strawweight division will be showcased when Angela “Overkill” Hill meets Ashley “Spider Monkey” Yoder. Flyweights Manel Kape and Matheus Nicolau will also square off, as will middleweights Eryk Anders and Darren Stewart.
UFC Fight Night: Edwards vs. Muhammad takes place inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The fight card can be viewed in its entirety on ESPN+, beginning with preliminary action at 5 p.m. ET. The main card follows at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action and predict the outcomes in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
It’s been 19 months since surging welterweight Leon Edwards has seen action. Will he pick up where he left off when he collides with Belal Muhammad in the night’s headliner?
Sumian:The Brit is certainly capable of putting on a memorable clinic against the rising Muhammad. The question, as always, is how much ring rust will play a role in this highly anticipated welterweight showdown. Prior to his layoff, Edwards was on an impressive winning streak that included victories over Vicente Luque, Donald Cerrone and Rafael dos Anjos.
Edwards was on target for an eventual title shot after being matched up with former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. Unfortunately, that fight was scrapped. Edwards was most recently slated to face the surging Khamzat Chimaev on multiple cards throughout the back half of 2020 and the early months of 2021. However, the fight never came to fruition and now Chimaev has been replaced with the equally impressive Muhammad.
This new pairing could lead to numerous storylines playing out depending on how this bout ends. Edwards boasts one of the more well-rounded MMA arsenals in the division. He is able to formidably compete on both the feet and ground with any of his top-10 welterweight peers. Besides a decision loss to the current champion Kamaru Usman, the Brit has looked utterly flawless, but he lacks a big name on his resume that would ultimately launch him into the undisputed No. 1 contender conversation. On Saturday night, Edwards can remind the world why he was once considered the most worthy contender for the gold.
Edwards’ foe Muhammad is perhaps the best example of an underappreciated mixed martial artist. The Chicago native has quietly compiled an impressive 9-3 UFC record while defeating the likes of Jordan Mein, Tim Means, Randy Brown, Curtis Millender, Lyman Good and Dhiego Lima. Fresh off a convincing decision win over Lima and currently riding a four-fight winning streak, he has the opportunity of a lifetime against Edwards in this short-notice bout.
The Roufusport standout is known for relentless pressure, never-ending cardio, and a well-balanced attack that utilizes volume striking to set up numerous takedowns and clinch battles that ultimately exhausts and frustrates his opponent for as long as the bout lasts. On Saturday, Muhammad will have to bring his absolute best if he hopes to defeat Edwards and continue his climb up the welterweight rankings.
In all likelihood, most people will write off Muhammad and call this an easy win for Edwards. That’s not the case, though. Muhammad’s recent improvements, combined with Edwards’ long layoff, will turn this into an extremely competitive fight in which Edwards just narrowly edges out Muhammad on the scorecards. Muhammad will continously attack Edwards by utilizing takedown attempts and clinchwork, while the Brit tries to establish some distance and fire leg and body kicks to slow down the pace of his counterpart. When it is all said and done, Edwards will get the win and Muhammad will have established himself as a top-10 welterweight. Both men will receive big fights in their next UFC appearances and perhaps engage in a rematch somewhere down the line.
Petela: Edwards should get a ton of credit for taking this fight. He was thrice scheduled to face the aforementioned Chimaev. That contest seemed at least worth the risk because of the exposure it would give Edwards if he was able to stop the hype train. With this fight against Muhammad, he faces all the risk of a dangerous fighter with a lower ranking without the same upside.
Meanwhile, this is a giant opportunity for Muhammad. He is 8-1 over his last nine fights, but he has gone unheralded despite this level of success. He has been a huge advocate for himself, though, and called for a top opponent in his most recent post-fight interview. Now, he gets that chance on short notice to finally have all eyes on him. Muhammad will deliver and spoil the return of Edwards.
This will indeed be a highly competitive fight from start to finish. However, Muhammad will pull away ever so slightly in the final rounds on his way to a unanimous nod. Both men are known to be able to keep a high pace throughout their fights, and this will again be the case on Saturday. They will exchange a high volume of strikes, with both men landing their fair share. The difference will be Muhammad’s power. While he is not a knockout artist per se, he hits harder than most other volume strikers. In the latter stages of the contest, this will become evident.
Edwards will slow down after absorbing a copious amount of Muhammad’s punches, particularly body shots. This won’t be a case of ring rust or fatigue due to a long layoff. Instead, it will be because Muhammad is a legitimate contender at welterweight.
The co-main event features Misha Cirkunov and Ryan Spann, a pair of light heavyweights who are flirting with a top-10 UFC ranking. Which man emerges with the victory and how do they get it?
Petela: Despite being finished in the first round by Johnny Walker in his last outing, Spann looked good as the bout opened and had Walker in trouble before the Brazilian was able to turn the tide. It was his overly aggressive attempts to finish Walker that left him vulnerable and a mismanagement of energy that caused Walker’s shots to do more damage than they would have otherwise. This fight was a major hiccup on Spann’s road toward contendership, but he has likely made the necessary adjustments in order to put Cirkunov away early.
Spann’s coaches at Fortis MMA will have no doubt been forcing him to make these corrections during this extended — the fight was originally slated to happen in December — training camp. Sayif Saud has shown over the past few years that he is without question one of the most elite MMA coaches on the planet. Under Saud’s continued tutelage, Spann will make the jump into the top 10 and work his way into status as a legitimate threat to the title. That starts this weekend with an emphatic stoppage of Cirkunov via a first-round knockout.
Sumian: Agreed, with one exception: it will be a dominant unanimous decision rather than a knockout.
Spann will be more cautious in this bout after suffering the knockout loss to Walker, but he will utterly dominate Cirkunov. Spann is certainly a top-10 and even potentially a top-five talent in the division, and he will continue to get better in every bout. His recent loss was a fluke that will do nothing but help Spann improve in the long run.
Gloria de Paula and Marcelo Rojo — do we need to know these names?
Sumian: Rojo makes his debut against the very game Charles Jourdain, who was originally scheduled to face Steve Garcia. Garcia pulled out of the bout for undisclosed reasons, so Rojo has the opportunity to seize the moment. The Argentinian has compiled a hefty 16-6 mark outside of the promotion. He is an established finisher who has ended 14 of his 16 wins before the final bell. If his UFC debut is a success, then we could be looking at a worthy addition to the UFC featherweight division.
De Paula’s debut comes after a dominant decision win over Pauline Macias on Dana White’s Contender Series in November. The 5-2 strawweight has three knockout victories in her career and is currently riding a two-fight winning streak. She draws the struggling Jinh Yu Frey and will likely pull off another unanimous-decision victory. The real test will come in her sophomore UFC appearance where she will face a significant step up in competition. If she is successful, we could be witnessing the birth of a future strawweight contender.
Petela: There’s a lot to like about Rojo. This iteration of “Pitbull” is a finisher, only once in his professional career has he gone the distance in victory. He is also one of the few fighters to have a DQ victory due to “biting” on his resume. At the end of the day, though, his prospects of becoming a mainstay in the UFC aren’t high. His most recent loss is to current UFC fighter John Castañeda, who picked up a win over Eddie Wineland recently but hasn’t been totally consistent. Rojo will look impressive in his debut and come away with a win, but don’t expect him to climb too close to the rankings.
De Paula is certainly talented, but only time will tell if she’s someone fans need to know well. She fights in the deepest women’s division, where there are a plethora of other talented fighters. She should have entertaining fights against some of these ladies. How her first few affairs shake out will give us a much better picture of whether she can build herself into a contender.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Philipe Lins. The 2018 PFL Heavyweight Tournament winner has not had a smooth transition into the UFC. He has struggled mightily since joining the promotion, falling to 0-2 after a decision loss to Andrei Arlovski and suffering a first-round knockout courtesy of Tanner Boser. Even in the era of instability that lingers on due to COVID-19, three straight losses to start his tenure will be all the UFC brass needs to give Lins his pink slip.
Sumian: Jinh Yu Frey. The Arkansas native has fallen to 0-2 since joining the UFC and will likely drop a third straight when she meets Gloria de Paula this weekend. That will lead to an eventual cut for the former Invicta FC atomweight champ, who has not been able to get it going up in weight in the UFC thus far.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Dan Ige and Gavin Tucker take the cake on this one, folks. Ige might be taking on an unranked featherweight after his incredibly five-round war with Calvin Kattar, but Tucker should not be taken lightly and is definitely a top-15 talent in the division. The pair have combined for 18 finishes and are extremely balanced fighters who use constant movement and have been involved in numerous striking battles. These guys will take “Fight of the Night” honors.
Petela: Angela Hill and Ashley Yoder. On paper, this should be smooth sailing for Hill. However, Yoder poses some unique threats, particularly in the grappling realm. With “Overkill” coming off of back-to-back razor-thin losses, this contest seems like it should be a “bounce back” fight for the Maryland native. It will end up being a lot closer than most people think, though, and it will be entertaining along the way.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Eryk Anders. It has been a tumultuous past few years for the former Alabama linebacker. He hasn’t shown the type of evolution as a fighter that many had expected. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is the power he has in both his punches and kicks. This weekend, with a willing dance partner like Darren Stewart, “Ya Boi” will have the opportunity to show off his power and earn a post-fight bonus.
Sumian: Jonathan Martinez. The 13-3 bantamweight has already scored very impressive knockout finishes over Liu Pingyuan and Frankie Saenz in his UFC tenure. This brings his career tally up to seven knockouts. We’re in store for yet another one on Saturday when Martinez finishes Davey Grant in the second round and takes home his second UFC bonus to date.
Pair this card with…
Sumian: A “Fight of the Night” buffet. This card may go under the radar after a majority of fans spent last Saturday afternoon and evening viewing UFC 259. Despite the pay-per-view delivering in a majority of ways, the main card lacked memorable fights. This card will compensate for that. The match-ups between Dan Ige and Gavin Tucker, Eryk Anders and Darren Stewart, and Leon Edwards and Belal Muhammad will all resonate with fans for days. These will be some of the best clashes of the year.
Petela: Chicago-style hot dogs. Muhammad will come away with the biggest win of his career, so watch while enjoying one of his hometown’s famous foods. The most important thing to remember while enjoying your hot dog that has been “dragged through the garden” is that Chicagoans insist that you never put ketchup on it. This is simply unacceptable.
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Leon Edwards vs. Belal Muhammad
LHW: Misha Cirkunov vs. Ryan Spann
HW: Ben Rothwell vs. Philipe Lins
FW: Dan Ige vs. Gavin Tucker
Women’s StrawW: Angela Hill vs. Ashley Yoder
FlyW: Matheus Nicolau vs. Manel Kape
MW: Eryk Anders vs. Darren Stewart
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Cortney Casey vs. JJ Aldrich
BW: Rani Yahya vs. Ray Rodriguez
FW: Charles Jourdain vs. Marcelo Rojo
BW: Jonathan Martinez vs. Davey Grant
Women’s StrawW: Jinh Yu Frey vs. Gloria de Paula
WW: Jason Witt vs. Matthew Semelsberger
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