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UFC on ESPN 4 predictions

Rafael dos Anjos (pictured) fights Leon Edwards in the welterweight main event of UFC on ESPN 4 in San Antonio on Saturday
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC is bringing a key welterweight matchup and a trio of heavyweight bouts to San Antonio this Saturday.

Leon Edwards’s path to a title shot doesn’t get any easier as he fights former 155-pound champion Rafael dos Anjos in the welterweight main event of UFC on ESPN 4. The 27-year-old Englishman has won seven straight fights including a W over Donald Cerrone, but at times it seems like his victory streak has been overshadowed by his feud with Jorge Masvidal.

It doesn’t help that Edwards’s last win was a split nod over Gunnar Nelson in a fight that failed to produce fireworks. Edwards doesn’t just need to beat “RDA” this weekend, he needs to do it in impressive fashion or he’ll continue to find himself on the fringes of the contender conversation.

The fourth UFC on ESPN show will feature plenty of big boys on the main card, including human python Aleksei Oleinik taking on dark horse contender Walt Harris, a prospect battle between Juan Adams and Greg Hardy, and veterans Andrei Arlovski and Ben Rothwell meeting in a rematch of their 2008 Affliction encounter.

A pair of lightweight bouts round out the card, with “The Texecutioner” James Vick facing Dan Hooker, and San Antonio’s own Alexander Hernandez fighting Francisco Trinaldo.

What: UFC on ESPN 4

Where: AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas

When: Saturday, July 20. The entire card will air on ESPN with the seven-fight preliminaries beginning at 6 p.m. ET and the six-fight main card starting at 9 p.m. ET.

Rafael dos Anjos vs. Leon Edwards

You’re not going to out-technique Rafael dos Anjos. That’s bad news for Leon Edwards.

While Edwards has shown excellent wrestling skills during his recent win streak, he doesn’t have the smothering, physical style that fighters like Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington have used to foil “RDA.” He’s going to have to match dos Anjos skill-for-skill for 25 minutes and there aren’t many fighters at 155 pounds or 170 pounds who can do that.

Size will matter. Edwards has about four inches of height on the former lightweight champion, and he does a great job of establishing range, which will make it difficult for dos Anjos to get in close and throw the combinations he’s so fond of. He’ll also have to make good use of the clinch to score points when the fight gets mucked up, which is easier said than done against dos Anjos, who has an outstanding clinch game itself.

Dos Anjos will take it to Edwards with his own wrestling attack and he’ll be able to control Edwards on the ground even if he can’t through Edwards’s defense to do much damage or set up submissions. In case you haven’t guessed by now, these two are really evenly matched!

Because this one probably goes to the judges, I think dos Anjos will impress more with his offense even if the final striking numbers don’t show much separation between the two. Anything other than a trio of 48-47 scores would surprise me, and I predict those scores will be in dos Anjos’s favor.

Pick: Dos Anjos

Aleksei Oleinik vs. Walt Harris

One aspect of this matchup that is so interesting is that we really haven’t been able to see how Walt Harris operates on the ground. A last-minute matchup with Fabricio Werdum at UFC 216 went as expected, with Werdum running through Harris in just over a minute, but there was so little data to work with there and being submitted by Werdum isn’t a damning indictment of one’s grappling skills.

Ideally, Harris doesn’t spend one second on the ground with Aleksei Oleinik. He’s agile and strong enough to keep this one standing, and just as importantly he’s a patient fighter. So many of Oleinik’s opponents have fallen right into one of his traps after over-pursuing. As long as Harris doesn’t do the same, he should be fine.

Oleinik isn’t afraid to take a punch though, so if he senses he’s falling behind on the scorecards, he will put the pressure on Harris even if it means taking damage. How much he can withstand from the hard-hitting Harris is the question.

I have Harris winning by knockout before the third round.

Pick: Harris

Juan Adams vs. Greg Hardy

This is a wildcard matchup between two heavyweights who are unquestionably intriguing from a potential standpoint. There aren’t a lot of guys this size in MMA who also have their level of speed and coordination.

It’s tempting to pick Hardy just based on the strong finishing instincts he’s shown so far (barring that absolute brain fart against Allen Crowder), but based on what we’ve seen from Adams so far, he’s more well-versed in all aspects of MMA than the relatively green Hardy. One big worry for Adams advocates is that he is such a big target and there’s a good chance Hardy finds that chin early and sinks “The Kraken.”

What will help Adams a lot here is that he’s shown some ability to use his length effectively, an aspect of boxing that even far more experienced heavyweights sometimes have trouble with (*cough* Stefan Struve *cough*). He’ll have to be better than Hardy in this department because a slugfest could favor Hardy. And if Adams is able to get a takedown and has time to work from top position, Hardy won’t last long there.

Even though Adams’s lackluster striking defense is a red flag, I still think he frustrates Hardy with his jab before capitalizing on a mistake by the former NFLer and knocking him out.

Pick: Adams

James Vick vs. Dan Hooker

If James Vick hasn’t shored up his leg kick defense, he is going to be in for a long night against Dan Hooker; then again, the same could probably be said for Hooker.

One of the major concerns with Vick is that his game has stagnated. He has an average chin and his defensive skills haven’t improved enough to make up for it. Against a lethal kickboxer like Hooker, that is a recipe for disaster. Hooker excels at patiently waiting to find openings and with Vick, one is bound to open up.

It will be interesting to see if Vick pushes the pace early to speed Hooker up, a strategy that would prevent Hooker from getting into a rhythm. That’s not exactly Vick’s forte though. More likely, this is a chess match that Hooker gets the better of for 15 minutes.

Pick: Hooker

Alexander Hernandez vs. Francisco Trinaldo

This is a dangerous fight for Alexander Hernandez. Winning his first two UFC fights drastically altered the 26-year-old’s developmental curve, and after being humbled by Donald Cerrone, he’s now facing one of the toughest outs in the lightweight division.

Francisco Trinaldo is 14 years older than Hernandez, but don’t let that advanced age fool you: “Massaranduba” is a top-shelf athlete and as well-rounded as they come at 155 pounds. He’s also got a stiff left hand that Hernandez will have to watch out for. We know that Hernandez is a knockout threat himself and he’s also willing to grind things out on the ground if it comes to it.

That’s where Hernandez’s path to victory lies, in mixing his techniques to tire Trinaldo out and avoid the wild power of the Brazilian veteran. Saturday could mark a major turning point for Hernandez as a win will confirm that he’s here to stay among the top-20 lightweights in the UFC, while a loss could send him tumbling all the way back to the prospect pack.

Pick: Hernandez

Andrei Arlovski vs. Ben Rothwell

The Affliction rematch the world has been waiting for.

In their first meeting 11 years ago (almost to the day!), it was Andrei Arlovski who saw his hand raised after knocking Ben Rothwell out in the third round. At that time, Arlovski was a finishing machine, having picked up all but one of his first 14 wins by KO or submission; today’s version of Arlovski is not that, to put it kindly. “The Pitbull” hasn’t finished an opponent since May 2015.

Rothwell looked a step slow in his return from a three-year break earlier this year, failing to win over the judges in his last outing against Blagoy Ivanov. However, Rothwell still performed well overall, showing his usual unorthodox movement and a willingness to engage with Ivanov when the fight got sloppy. He’s always had strong submission skills too, though catching something on the experienced Arlovski is a long shot.

Aside from the main event, this is the toughest fight to call on the main card because both men are coming off of controversial decision losses and will be more motivated than ever to get a finish to avoid that scenario again. In that case, I lean towards Rothwell, who thrives in chaos, to score a revenge knockout.

Pick: Rothwell


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