After a full two weeks removed from the UFC’s welcome back triple header, we are back to Las Vegas this Saturday with another fight card featuring former champions, rising stars and recognizable veterans on ESPN. A welcome return to the fight capitol of the world needed a big card, and the UFC has delivered – let’s get into it:
Our main event of the evening features the return of former UFC Welterweight Champion Tyron Woodley (19-4-1 Career, 9-3-1 UFC) taking on a magnificent challenge in red hot Brazilian grappling expert Gilbert Burns (18-3 Career, 11-3 UFC).
In March of 2019, reigning defending champion Woodley made his fifth title defense against Kamaru Usman at UFC 235. A Vegas favorite, and looking to extend his 6-fight win streak, he was the victim of a 5-round mauling courtesy of the Nigerian Nightmare, losing his crown in a lopsided unanimous decision. Woodley, a former NCAA All American wrestler from the University of Missouri, was shockingly out-grappled for 25 minutes, relegating him back to title contender as opposed to title holder.
Woodley hasn’t fought since the loss, and his return from a near 15 month layoff will be far from a tune up fight. Gilbert Burns could not be in a more different situation than Woodley, he has momentum on his side following a 5-fight win streak, capturing victory in 7 of his last 8 fights. The winner of this bout expects to have serious title implications in a stacked 170 lbs weight class.
What to Expect
This will be a tough fight to predict or gauge because of how different Woodley looked in his last fight against Usman opposed to his general dominance. Woodley is notorious for his ruthless one punch power and takedown defense. Prior to his fight with Usman, Woodley had only been taken down one time in his UFC Career, allowing him to dictate the pace of all his matchups.
However, Woodley was taken down twice by Usman, who also maintained cage control aggressively over the entire contest. Burns, who is a former World Champion in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu prior to his MMA career, has to think that if he can control Woodley against the cage and score takedowns, than he can submit Woodley. That may prove tough considering Usman has a decorated college wrestling background like Woodley, and created a hole in Woodley’s game that seemed to never exist before.
I would expect a slow start between two fighters who don’t want to make an over zealous mistake, and a test of both Woodley’s grappling pace and Burns’ chin as the rounds unfold.
The Co-Main Event:
We have been spoiled with great heavyweight matchmaking upon the UFC’s return, and once again no shortage of the big boys as Bulgarian brawler Blagoy Ivanov (18-3 (1) Career, 2-2 UFC) squares up with Augusto Sakai (14-1-1 Career, 3-0 UFC).
Ivanov has had an unreasonably difficult first four fights in the UFC. Coming from the World Series of fighting in 2018 with a pro record of 16-1 (1), he was tossed in the cage with former heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos in his UFC debut. An expected loss came from the bout, and he took back to back wins before losing a marginal decision over top contender Derrick Lewis. Ivanov is a crafty veteran, and he’s going to need that in his tough test with Sakai.
Sakai has emerged this year as a ranked heavyweight, winning all three contests he had in the octagon. The rising star has a big opportunity to take out a strong veteran and climb into the top 10 this summer.
What to expect?
I would expect for this to be a high volume, bombs away striking war. If Sakai has his way, it certainly will be. Sakai has won 11 of 14 by knockout and has never had a submission victory. Ivanov has a history of some submissions in his early career, but the big share of his recent bouts later in age have been to try and get inside and bang with his opponent. With a four inch reach advantage, I’d expect to see a lot of Ivanov charging and Sakai countering in an exciting matchup.
Fighters to Watch
The top of my fighters to watch list features long and lean up-and-comer Roosevelt Roberts (9-1 Career, 3-1 UFC). Roberts is only 26 years old, and has a wide arsenal of attacks he shows opponents making him dangerous everywhere. Standing 6’1, he is taller than most UFC lightweights and uses kicks to keep inside style fighters at bay, while also holding a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, he is equally as deadly standing as he is striking. I expect him to show off his variety against gritty Alabama native Brok Weaver (15-4 Career, 1-0 UFC) on the main card.
One of the biggest questions fight fans will have answered on the first fight of the main card Saturday is – can Mackenzie Dern (7-1 Career, 2-1 UFC) live up to the unbelievably high expectations cast on her MMA career?
Prior to Dern’s pro MMA debut in 2016, she was seen as having one of the deadliest Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu pedigrees in the history of the sport. Two world championships and an ADCC World Title all before her 24th birthday, Dern’s transition to MMA birthed expectations by many as her potentially being the next Ronda Rousey.
The road wasn’t as smooth as people thought. Sure, Dern was winning fights pretty easily, but she had a falling out with world renowned trainer John Crouch, and had missed weight in three of her seven pro fights. After back to back wins in the UFC and going 7-0 as a pro, Dern took time away after announcing her pregnancy. She returned after having her first child, and lost her first fight back to the octagon in October.
Now looking to get her career back on track, Dern has a tough test against striker Hannah Cifers (10-4 Career, 2-2 UFC). Making weight and winning in dramatic fashion could be the spark Dern needs to get her perennial prospect status back.
The last fight on the prelims features another women’s flyweight prospect with big expectations in Antonina Shevchenko (8-1 Career, 2-1 UFC). Shevchenko came to MMA after an unreal 39-1 pro kickboxing run and looked unbeatable in her early fights. Signing with the UFC, she had her first taste of adversity in a split decision loss to veteran Roxanne Modaferri in April of last year.
Shevchenko returned from her loss with a thundering performance in August, and is now taking a massive leap in competition fighting title contender Kaitlyn Chookagian (13-3 Career, 6-3 UFC), who is the third best flyweight in the world.
Shevchenko is in a fascinating spot fighting at flyweight as well, because the champion at flyweight (coincidentally who also holds her most recent victory over Chookagian), is her younger sister Valentina Shevchenko (19-3 Career, 8-2 UFC). A win for Valentina can shoot her up the ranks, but also creates a complicated sibling rivalry at women’s 125.
Main Card (6pm PST, ESPN)
Woodley def. Burns (KO)
Sakai def. Ivanov (Decision)
Carlyle def. Quarantillo (KO)
Roberts def. Weaver (Submission)
Dern def. Cifers (Submission)
Prelims (3pm pst, ESPN+)
Chookagian def. Shevchenko (decision)
Rodriguez def. Green (KO)
Hill def. Abreu (KO)
Royval def. Elliot (Decison)
Kenney def. Smolka (Decision)
Gutierrez def. Morales (Decision)