If the last two UFC cards were a showcase for up-and-coming or overlooked talents, then Saturday’s show serves to put the spotlight back on some familiar faces.
There are hidden gems in the UFC on ESPN 14 lineup, but a quick glance reveals four former UFC champions on the card as well as three fighters who have competed for UFC titles. Not bad for the last event of the promotion’s initial visit to Fight Island.
Robert Whittaker competes for the first time since losing his middleweight belt to Israel Adesanya. “The Reaper” returns from a much-needed break to recover from what he called “burnout,” and he now has to defend his spot against recent divisional debutant Darren Till. It took Till six fights to earn his first UFC title shot, could he launch himself into a meeting with Adesanya (or Paulo Costa) by knocking off Whittaker?
The stakes in the co-main aren’t as high, but the matchmakers are tipping the proverbial cap to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira by giving their trilogy bout a prominent spot, as it will be one of the last times we see either man compete. Shogun has acknowledged his career mortality several times in recent years, while “Minotouru” has already said he expects Saturday to mark the end of his 19-year career.
Two other former champions are in play, with former heavyweight king Fabricio Werdum welcoming three-time light heavyweight title challenger Alexander Gustafsson to a new division, and inaugural UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza facing the undefeated Marina Rodriguez.
In other main card action, scorecard-averse light heavyweights Paul Craig and Gadzhimurad Antigulov clash, welterweight veteran Alex Oliveira takes on Peter Sobotta, and Khamzat Chimaev competes for the second time in 10 days when he meets debuting Cage Warriors standout Rhys McKee in a welterweight bout.
What: UFC on ESPN 14
Where: Yas Island in Abu Dhabi
When: Saturday, July 25. The entire event will air on ESPN and ESPN+, with the eight-fight preliminaries starting at 5 p.m. ET, and the five-fight main card starting at 8 p.m. ET.
For many, it’s going to be difficult to shake the image of Robert Whittaker being outclassed and finished by Israel Adesanya in his most recent fight. Whether it was uncharacteristic carelessness by Whittaker or just the writing on the wall that a superior champion had arrived, the results left something to be desired.
Dismissing Whittaker at this stage of his career would be folly though. Just 29, “The Reaper” is still among the pound-for-pound elite even if he left a few pounds of flesh in the cage going 50 minutes with Yoel Romero. He’s insanely tough and few are better at recovering from adversity than Whittaker, which might be his most important attribute when he fights Darren Till.
Till doesn’t have the finishing power of Romero or Adesanya, but he does have a tricky and accurate striking style and the ability frustrate opponents. It’s easy to imagine him edging out the first two rounds on the scorecards with his excellent range fighting, forcing Whittaker to adapt and mount a comeback.
There’s plenty of room for drama in the championship rounds and in a battle of wills, I favor the former titleholder. I can’t see Till evading Whittaker’s best shots for five rounds and after the tide turns in the third, Whittaker will find the off-switch and put Till down for the count in either the fourth or fifth.
The clear advantage in this matchup has to go to Shogun. He’s always been a better striker and a better athlete than Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and five years since their second meeting there’s no reason to assume that any of that has changed.
One wrinkle to consider is that Nogueira just could eschew any semblance of strategy and comes out looking to stand and bang. Maybe that’s the recipe for him to finally pick up a win against his longtime rival. It could also be the recipe for Shogun knocking him flat unconscious. With respect to Nogueira, his durability has only trended downward in the twilight of his career and while this should be a fun fight, its Rua who will emerge as the winner. The only difference is that Nogueira might not make it to the scorecards this time.
Hi Alexander Gustafsson, welcome to the heavyweight division! Your first test coming off of a submission loss? A former UFC champion with one of the deadliest ground games in MMA. Have fun!
Despite the tough draw for Gustafsson’s heavyweight debut, I still like his chances. He always seemed like a candidate to move up in weight, but it was understandable that he chose not to as he was always in the mix at 205 pounds. Much like his contemporary Jon Jones, Gustafsson has the size and reach needed to stand with giants. Knockout power is another question as Gustafsson has always been more of a “death by a dozen cuts” type. That’s not necessarily a bad thing at heavyweight, particularly if Gustafsson’s cardio translates. He could be a difficult change of pace for some of the division’s best.
He’ll have the striking advantage in this matchup, though Fabricio Werdum is a skilled muay Thai fighter. Werdum’s plan will probably be to keep things competitive on the feet while looking for any opportunity to grab Gustafsson and get this to the mat. At 42, I don’t trust Werdum to be able to consistently take Gustafsson down and I see his energy waning by the second round. That’s Gustafsson’s time to start pouring on the pressure and building an advantage on the scorecards.
Gustafsson by decision.
One could argue that Marina Rodriguez’s rough third round against Cynthia Calvillo exposed her grappling shortcomings, but there’s a couple of things to keep in mind: 1) Calvillo badly missed weight for that fight and you have to believe that the strength advantage benefited her as time went on and 2) Rodriguez showed impressive survival skills with Calvillo pouring on the ground-and-pound. That should be the kind of fight that makes an athlete better, not worse.
Should Rodriguez’s takedown defense have stagnated, she’ll be easy pickings for Carla Esparza. The former UFC champion is a grinder and her first order of business will be to get on the inside of the lanky Rodriguez to cut off her offensive options. From there, it’s a matter of driving Rodriguez into the cage and getting those precious takedowns.
As I said above, I’m confident that Rodriguez’s team has emphasized wrestling defense. On the feet, she’ll piece up the shorter Esparza with her straight combinations and lethal clinch game. A scrappy Esparza won’t go down easy, but once Rodriguez gets those long limbs firing, she could end this one inside the distance.
Let’s just hope that these two grapplers don’t neutralize each other to the point that we get the dreaded “jiu-jitsu guys lukewarm kickboxing bout.” Paul Craig proved he has a functional striking game by going the distance with Shogun in his most recent outing, but the real fun here will be seeing how his submission skills match up against those of Gadzhimurad Antigulov.
A fighter who has yet to see the second round since joining the UFC, Antigulov wants to initiate the action as soon as possible and the early moments of this fight could see him doing serious damage to Craig in the clinch and on the mat. But Craig has earned a reputation as a comeback artist for a reason and I fully expect him to pull another rabbit out of his hat. With Antigulov hammering away from top position, Craig will find a way to either attack from bottom or sweep and before Antigulov realizes what’s happening, “Bearjew” will have him tapping out.
Alex Oliveira is always a candidate to take the Fight of the Night, especially when paired up against someone with a similar skill set. It’s unfortunate that Peter Sobotta fights so rarely, because he’s the kind of well-rounded fighter that brings out the best in his opponents and Oliveira should be no different.
Look for this one to be contested on all fronts for as long as it lasts, with Oliveira and Sobotta trading strikes from distance and engaging in some fun scrambles once they get a hold of one another. I’m actually predicting that this won’t last long as I have this image in my head of Sobotta catching Oliveira with a submission in round one. We’ll see how it plays out.
This is such an excellent matchup between prospects, it’s a shame that one has to take their first UFC loss. Rhys McKee, 24, has all the makings of a future favorite with his fan friendly style, but he’s running into a bulldozer here in Khamzat Chimaev.
Taking a second fight in 10 days might actually benefit Chimaev as he was hardly touched in his win over John Phillips and now is the time for him to keep the good times rolling. He’s an elite wrestler and he’s going to shoot in right off the bat to set the tone. In terms of physique, he’s similar to McKee, but McKee should have the advantage on the feet due to his sneaky power.
Unfortunately for McKee he won’t get the chance to show much of his busy striking game. Chimaev will plant him on his butt quickly and finish on the ground in either the first or second round.