Halloween is over, and it’s not quite Christmas time, which means it’s that time of year where people think about all the things for which they are thankful. That might be difficult for UFC fans, who missed out on a showdown between the most decorated heavyweight champion of all time and arguably the greatest mixed martial artist in history. Originally, the annual Madison Square Garden event was supposed to be headlined by a heavyweight title match between Stipe Miocic and Jon Jones, but with a pectoral injury forcing Jones out of the contest, we, instead, get an interim title fight between Sergei Pavlovich and Tom Aspinall in the co-main event slot. The vacant light heavyweight championship fight moves to the main event, as former champion Jiří Procházka takes on former middleweight champion Alex Pereira for the belt Jamahal Hill vacated last July due to injury.
Prochazka voluntarily surrendered the belt after a serious shoulder injury left him sidelined for over a year, and he looks to take back what was once his. Pereira is aiming to become a two-division champion after dethroning Israel Adesanya to secure the middleweight championship before losing the belt in the pair’s rematch. That would give former GLORY Kickboxing champion Pereira the unique distinction of being a two-division champion in two different sports.
The rest of the main card is also littered with notable bouts, including a women’s strawweight bout between the division’s former champion Jessica Andrade and jiu-jitsu megastar Mackenzie Dern. The lightweight division is highlighted on the main card, as Matt “The Steamrolla” Frevola takes on French sensation Benoit Saint-Denis in a showdown between two of the division’s most exciting combatants. Opening the main card is a featherweight tilt between Pat Sabatini and Diego Lopes, who are both submission aces looking for a win to catapult them towards the top of the division.
The early prelims air live on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ starting at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the preliminary card on ESPNEWS and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The main card airs on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
The light heavyweight title matchup pits two very dynamic yet different fighters against each other; how does this clash between Jiří Procházka and Alex Pereira play out?
Kuhl: It’s really hard not to like Jiří Procházka and his whole approach to the fight game. The Czech fighter is extremely talented, and he is a complete character. The guy is straight out of a comic. Procházka is super entertaining to watch, his style is fun, and he’s on a 13-fight winning streak – all but one by finish – for a reason. He is dynamic, and he is a hard puzzle to crack, as he has shown in his three UFC fights. It was in his last Octagon appearance in Jun. 2022 that he earned the UFC light heavyweight title by tapping out second-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Glover Teixeira in the fifth round of the Brazilian’s first title defense.
Procházka was supposed to rematch Teixeira for the strap six months later, but had to vacate the belt on less than three weeks’ notice after a shoulder injury and has not fought since. Meanwhile, former GLORY Kickboxing middleweight and light heavyweight champion Alex Pereira, who had already beaten former UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya twice in kickboxing, was blazing his own MMA trail.
Pereira entered the UFC in Nov. 2021 with a 3-1 MMA record, and he was already 33-7 as a pro kickboxer. He proceeded to rip through four opponents in a row, including current middleweight champ Sean Strickland, and longtime foe Adesanya for the title. After losing the title to Adesanya in their rematch, he decided to move up to light heavyweight, which made sense, as he was huge for a middleweight. In his light heavyweight debut, he took a decision over former 205-pound champ Jan Błachowicz at UFC 291 in July.
After Procházka vacated the light heavyweight belt, Błachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev fought to a draw for the title in Dec. 2022, and it was left vacant. Jamahal Hill then won the title with a dominant five-round win over Teixeira, but he, too, had to vacate the belt last summer with an injury. This put Procházka back in position to earn his belt back, but the timing is not ideal with Pereira quickly proving to be a dominant light heavyweight.
Procházka vs. Pereira is setting up to be an amazing match-up. Both men are absolute demons in the cage, and both are capable of putting together an early finish. Both have a high striking output, with Pereira holding the obvious edge in striking defense. They also have similar takedown averages and good takedown defense. This all leads me to believe that Pereira has a big advantage in this one.
If this fight stays standing, which I suspect it will, the Brazilian kickboxer will dominate this fight. Procházka is a fantastic Muay Thai stylist, with a whopping 25 knockouts in MMA, but Pereira is a former two-division GLORY Kickboxing world champion, and there are certainly levels to teh striking game.
I have Pereira handing Procházka his third MMA knockout before the end of Round 3.
Petela: Of every fight that I have been looking forward to, this one is right up there with the most excited I have ever been, and it is definitely the most clueless I have ever been about the outcome. Alex Pereira can end a fight in an instant and so can Procházka. Though, as Dan mentioned, Pereira is the more credentialed kickboxer. It isn’t a toss-up that, if this one stays standing, Pereira would definitely be much more likely to win. But, Procházka’s unconventional style gives him a bit more than the typical puncher’s chance.
Pereira’s grappling is constantly improving, especially under the tutelage of his close friend Glover Teixeira.But, as the old saying goes, you can’t teach a grown man to wrestle. Pereira is years behind Procházka in terms of time put into the submission grappling realm, and, if Procházka can get the fight horizontal, he will be able to exploit the shortcomings of his opponent.
This fight can’t live up to the fight that won Procházka the title against the aforementioned Teixeira, but I have a feeling that it ends in similar fashion. Procházka scores a submission win, probably earlier in this fight than he did to win the belt. He reclaims the title this weekend and will be ready to take on Jamahal Hill once Hill returns from his injury. The light heavyweight division hasn’t been this stacked with talent since the prime days of Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and that class of 205-pound fighters.
The co-main event came together on short notice with an injury to Jon Jones forcing him out of action; will it be Sergei Pavlovich or Tom Aspinall who is crowned the interim champion?
Petela: As much as I would have liked to see Stipe Miocic get a crack at winning back the heavyweight title, this matchup is just as compelling as the originally scheduled matchup between current champ Jon Jones and Miocic. It may lack some of the name recognition, and the current resumes don’t stack up to those of Jones and Miocic, but Sergei Pavlovich and Tom Aspinall are definitely two fighters who are going to be staples atop the heavyweight division for the next decade.
Aspinall is the more well-rounded fighter, but Pavlovich has dangerous and devastating power, even by heavyweight standards. The smart plan for Aspinall is to try and get this fight to the mat to wear down Pavlovich and force him into deep waters where he won’t be as explosive. As Curtis Blaydes can attest, that’s easier said than done. I believe that this fight will be determined by the success or failure of the first three takedown attempts by Aspinall. If he struggles to get Pavlovich down and hold him down early, he’s going to end up on the wrong end of a highlight reel. If Aspinall has success, and he can control Pavlovich throughout the first round, he will eventually be able to score a submission victory. I don’t think that happens. Rather, while trying to close the distance, Aspinall is going to eat a big shot, and the fight will be over in an instant. Pavlovich will be crowned the new interim heavyweight champion.
Kuhl: While I first thought the UFC 295 main event was one of the most difficult fights to predict in recent history, the co-main event between Tom Aspinall and Sergei Pavlovich may be one of the toughest to predict in history. We have two first-round knockout artists who are only a year apart in age, and while Aspinall is taller, Pavlovich has a longer reach. The biggest difference, as Matt alluded to, is the grappling. The English BJJ black belt has 100-percent takedown accuracy and 100-percent takedown defense. He also is slightly better with his striking defense, but the grappling is where he clearly has the upper hand.
Where I will disagree with Matt is how this one ends. Aspinall is a heavyweight, and every opponent could end the fight with a big shot. But, he has yet to get caught. I see ASpinall successfully getting this one to the ground, and eventually finishing Pavolvich on the ground in Round 2.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 295?
Kuhl: Alex Pereira. In what was to be a co-main event, he will now serve in the headliner fight of a huge card at Madison Square Garden. He is already a two-division champion in GLORY Kickboxing, and if he wins the light heavyweight belt over Procházka, that would make him a two-sport, two-division world champion, which is history in the making.
Petela: With titles on the line in the co-main and main events, it has to be a winner of one of those contests, so I’ll say Sergei Pavlovich. With a knockout win over Aspinall and the interim title wrapped around his waist, he will find himself in a great position. His next fight will either be to unify the heavyweight title against Jon Jones, or to unify the belts with Stipe Miocic, if the Jones-Miocic bout materializes, and Miocic comes out on top. Should both of those men retire, Pavlovich will wind up the full champion and will score a big payday in his first title defense.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 295?
Petela: Stipe Miocic. Honestly, he’s rapidly running out of time if he’s going to fight again at the very highest level. With Jon Jones’ injury putting their showdown on the shelf for at least eight months, Miocic is getting ever closer to losing the inevitable showdown with Father Time. The UFC didn’t offer him a chance to fight for the interim belt against either Pavlovich or Aspinall so there’s a slight possibility that if the Jones fight doesn’t materialize properly due to Jones’ health or some type of contract dispute we will never see Miocic fight again. This interim title just adds one more roadblock on his trek back to heavyweight gold.
Kuhl: Sergei Pavlovich. After winning six knockouts in a row, a loss to Aspinall will out him out of title reach for quite some time. As Matt mentioned above, Stipe Miocic got screwed out of a title shot after the Jon Jones injury set up an interim title bout that he was not invited to. However, after an interim champ is crowned, the next logical fight is the unification bout between Saturday’s winner and Jones, but with Miocic lying in wait, Saturday’s loser will be sent two-to-three fights toward the back of the line. With my prediction being Aspinall to win the interim belt, Pavlovich will not get another sniff at the title until at least 2025, if ever again.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I could say this, but I’m not sure if anyone’s UFC career is truly on the ropes in this card. This one is stacked from top to bottom. If I had to say one person’s name, it would be Urijah Faber’s protege, Viecheslav Borshchev. “Slava Claus” is 2-2 in the Octagon after his second-round knockout of Chris Duncam on the Contender Series in 2021. He faces Azerbaijan’s Nzim Sadykhov, who is currently on a nine-fight winning streak after only losing his pro debut. A loss on Saturday would put Borshchev at 2-3 in the UFC, which is not a comfortable place for anyone to be.
Petela: As per usual, the UFC loads these Madison Square Garden cards with big names and exciting fights, so I agree with Dan that there really isn’t a fighter who should expect a pink slip with a loss. However, if Jessica Andrade doesn’t get a win, she might find herself officially moving on from contender to gatekeeper. She has lost three straight fights, all against top-notch competition, but I don’t think the UFC will cut the former strawweight champion with a loss. This is a different type of make-or-break fight for Andrade, but it is very close to a must-win.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: This might be cheating because it is on the main card, but not nearly enough of the MMA talking heads are giving adequate attention to Matt Frevola vs. Benoit Saint-Denis. These two are both all action fighters who aren’t shy about taking damage in furtherance of a victory. Someone is getting finished in this one and I’d bet an amount of money that matters to me that both men will leave with more than their fair share of cuts and bruises by the time this fight concludes.
Kuhl: Jared Gordon and Mark Madsen should put on a war. The Danish wrestler Madesn suffered his first loss of his 10-year pro career last November, when he submitted to Grant Dawson’s rear-naked choke. Gordon, on the other hand, is 1-2-1 in his last for fights, with his last fight ending in a no-contest back in Apr. 2023 when a clash of heads with Bobby Green knocked Gordon out in the first round. Both of these guys are hungry to get back in the win column, and this should be a great fight.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: Mateusz Rębecki. The Polish fighter is a finishing machine, and he faces Roosevelt Roberts, who serves as an injury replacement for Nurullo Aliev. While Roberts is a UFC vet, who is no slouch, Rębecki is a buzzsaw, and a finish of Roberts will earn him the extra pocket money.
Petela: Pat Sabatini. He bounced back from his first UFC loss by submitting Lucas Almeida in his most recent outing. He is going up against another submission specialist this weekend, as he takes on Diego Lopes, so this fight should be fun as long as it lasts. The scrambles in this one are going to be incredible, and, after a back-and-forth fight, I expect to see Sabatini pull one of the many submissions that he has locked up before. Against someone like Lopes, that will all but guarantee him a post-fight bonus.
Pair this card with…
Petela: One thing that the UFC does well when they go to Madison Square Garden is making the broadcast special to match the atmosphere inside the world’s most famous arena. In that vein, pair this card with a staple of the Big Apple, the dirty water dog. You may not have roach coaches in your neighborhood, but that shouldn’t stop you from cooking up some hot dogs and letting them sit in a disgusting pot of hot water to get that pure New York flavor.
Kuhl: UFC 295 is going to be an amazing card, and you will not want to look away. That being said, it probably makes the most sense to stick with your local New York-style pizza. Large and thin with huge slices, and, if you want to keep it true, the only toppings should be sauce and cheese. Something low-maintenance, requiring no effort, will be the way to go for this card.
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
LHW Championship: Jiří Prochakza vs. Alex Pereira
HW Championship: Sergei Pavlovich vs. Tom Aspinall
Women’s StrawW: Jessica Andrade vs. Mackenzie Dern
LW: Matt Frevola vs. Benoit Saint-Denis
FW: Pat Sabatini vs. Diego Lopes
Preliminary Card (ESPN+/ESPNEWS, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Steve Erceg vs. Alessandro Costa
Women’s StrawW: Tabatha Ricci vs. Lupita Godinez
LW: Mateusz Rębecki vs. Roosevelt Roberts
LW: Nazim Sadykhov vs. Viacheslav Borshchev
Early Prelims (UFC Fight Pass/ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
LW: Jared Gordon vs. Mark O. Madsen
BW: Kyung Ho Kang vs. John Castaneda
FlyW: Joshua Van vs. Kevin Borjas
FW: Dennis Buzukja vs. Jamall Emmers
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