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UFC on ESPN 9 preview, ‘Woodley vs Burns’ predictions

Strikeforce: Daley vs. Woodley Photo by Josh Hedges/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is back, as promised, with another mixed martial arts (MMA) fight card spread across both ESPN and ESPN+, which means you have no excuse to miss this Sat. night’s (May 30, 2020) big shebang ... unless you have an actual life and don’t care what happens inside the partially-empty UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Where athletes will compete inside a smaller cage amid tighter restrictions.

Headlining the UFC on ESPN 9 fight card will be the welterweight showdown pitting former 170-pound champion Tyron Woodley against streaking division bruiser Gilbert Burns. “Durinho” takes over for Leon Edwards, who got stranded across the pond when the shit hit the proverbial fan. Shortly before that bout gets underway, heavyweight co-headliners Blagoy Ivanov and Augusto Sakai collide for a spot in the 265-pound title chase.

Before we get to the main and co-main event analysis, be sure to check out the complete UFC on ESPN 9 preliminary card breakdown, expertly deconstructed by the jet-setting Patrick Stumberg here and here. Fighter-turned-writer-turned-fighter again, Andrew Richardson, did most of the heavy lifting for the rest of the main card right here. For the latest “Woodley vs. Burns” odds and betting lines click here.

170 lbs.: Tyron Woodley vs. Gilbert Burns

Tyron “The Chosen One” Woodley

Record: 19-4-1 | Age: 38 | Betting line: -175
Wins: 7 KO/TKO, 5 SUB, 7 DEC | Losses: 1 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 3 DEC
Height: 5’9“ | Reach: 74” | Stance: Orthodox
Striking accuracy: 448 of 939 (48%) | Takedown attempts: 5 of 13 (38%)
Current Ranking: No. 1 | Last fight: Decision loss to Kamaru Usman

Gilbert “Durinho” Burns

Record: 18-3 | Age: 33 | Betting line: +155
Wins: 6 KO/TKO, 8 SUB, 4 DEC | Losses: 1 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 2 DEC
Height: 5’10“ | Reach: 71” | Stance: Orthodox
Striking accuracy: 408 of 927 (44%) | Takedown attempts: 13 of 56 (39%)
Current Ranking: No. 6 | Last fight: Technical knockout win over Demian Maia

We as fans — and I think this holds true for any sport — have a tendency to fall out of love with ex-champions. Tyron Woodley lost his welterweight title after getting dominated by Kamaru Usman and not long after the dust settled at UFC 235, there was talk about “The Chosen One’s” legacy and whether he was really any good in the first place. That’s just the cruel nature of fandom and once you’re no longer on top, you’re a “can” who was “exposed” by real competition. Part of the blame in this case rests squarely on the shoulders of Woodley and his shitty attitude, registering just two fights over the last three years. Count me as one of the many fans who are sick of inactivity in a sport that is already watered down. That’s not a Woodley problem, that’s a UFC superstar problem. What does this have to do with his performance at UFC on ESPN 9 this weekend in Las Vegas? Quite a bit, when you consider that Woodley turned 38 back in April and laid an egg his last time out. He looks great and I’m sure he feels great, but sooner or later he’s going to have to answer to Father Time and if that phone rings in “Sin City,” Gilbert Burns is going to answer it.

That doesn’t mean I’ve boarded the “Durinho” hype train because I’m still not convinced he’s a major player at welterweight. It’s not like he’s facing off against a mid-tier veteran, we’re talking about the No. 1-ranked fighter in the world who is just one fight removed from a championship title reign. In addition, Burns is only in this division because he likes to stay active and welterweight always seems to be in need of a warm body. He certainly made the most of it, racking up three straight wins, but am I supposed to go crazy over a decision victory against Alexey Kunchenko? And I’m sorry but beating Gunnar Nelson, who like Kunchenko is unranked at 170 pounds, is not a big deal in 2020. I’m also not breaking out the party hats for his knockout win over Demian Maia who is one of the worst strikers in the division and just a few months in front of his 43rd birthday. Remember folks, Donald Cerrone won four straight when he moved up to welterweight and then it all went to hell when he started facing the division’s elite.

I know all the cool kids are picking Burns because Woodley is yesterday’s news. I would probably feel more confident in that selection had I seen “Durinho” compete against someone in the Top 5, like a Leon Edwards or a Colby Covington. Granted, his striking has come a long way since he got starched by Dan Hooker, but Burns does not have the speed or the power of Woodley. The question is, will “The Chosen One” actually use it? The Woodley who chopped down Carlos Condit and mummified Robbie Lawler would steamroll Burns. The play-it-safe Woodley who likes to wall-n-stall does not, though I would be remiss if I did not mention that “Durinho” has never been five rounds in his career, something the ex-champ has done four times over the last four years. Remember too, that we are talking about a lightweight who doesn’t diet facing a career welterweight who is built and moves like a thoroughbred. Unless the time off and inactivity, or the self-doubt in the wake of the Usman clinic has made him a lesser fighter, this is Woodley’s contest to lose. His wrestling is better (and neutralizes the jiu-jitsu), he hits harder, and has the kind of big-game experience that Burns has only watched on TV.

Prediction: Woodley def. Burns by unanimous decision

265 lbs.: Blagoy Ivanov vs. Augusto Sakai

Blagoy “Baga” Ivanov

Record: 18-3, 1 NC | Age: 33 | Betting line: -105
Wins: 6 KO/TKO, 6 SUB, 6 DEC | Losses: 0 KO/TKO, 1 SUB, 2 DEC
Height: 5’11“ | Reach: 73” | Stance: Southpaw
Striking accuracy: 196 of 530 (37%) | Takedown attempts: 5 of 8 (63%)
Current Ranking: No. 12 | Last fight: Decision loss to Derrick Lewis

Augusto Sakai

Record: 14-1-1 | Age: 29 | Betting line: -115
Wins: 11 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 3 DEC | Losses: 0 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 1 DEC
Height: 6’3“ | Reach: 77” | Stance: Orthodox
Striking accuracy: 184 of 386 (48%) | Takedown attempts: 1 of 2 (50%)
Current Ranking: No. 13 | Last fight: Knockout win over Marcin Tybura

I remember how excited I was when they announced this contest for the UFC on ESPN 9 co-main event. Just kidding. To be honest, I forgot they were even fighting until I sat down to write this preview and if you made it this far, god bless you fine sir (or madam). I know that sounds kind of dick-ish when you consider the record for both Blagoy Ivanov and Augusto Sakai, a combined 32-4, but “Baga” is 2-2 inside the Octagon and has yet to register a finish under the UFC banner. His Brazilian counterpart has performed much better though to be fair, he didn't have the unenviable task of facing the likes of Junior dos Santos or Derrick Lewis, who are both ranked in the division’s Top 5. Instead, he got to knock around a bunch of unranked heavyweights, perhaps a reward for performing so admirably on Dana White’s Contender Series. Both combatants had impressive runs for Bellator MMA and probably would have faced off back in summer 2014, but alas, Ivanov departed for World Series of Fighting (WSOF) just two months before Sakai made his promotion debut.

Sakai comes into this bout boasting considerable advantages in both height and reach. He’s also registered 11 knockouts in 14 wins. I just can’t see him finishing a brute as durable as Ivanov and I try not to bet against guys who get stabbed in the heart and walk it off. The question for this contest is whether or not “Baga” is going to be content to counterstrike or if he’ll actually use some of his world-class Sambo, good enough to dethrone Fedor Emelianenko back in 2008. This is only a three-round fight so if Sakai — who also hasn’t been finished in his MMA career — is busier on the feet and uses his length, he could follow the path of “Cigano” and box his way to victory. Ivanov might land more significant strikes but his counterstriking approach does not leave him active enough to sway the judges, which is why some of that grappling would come in handy, even if it’s just to neutralize his opponent’s output. This is a really tough call, which is why the betting line is so close, but I’m leaning toward the younger, more aggressive fighter to take a very close decision.

Prediction: Sakai def. Ivanov by split decision

Remember, the rest of the UFC on ESPN 9 main card predictions are RIGHT HERE. will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on ESPN 9 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the ESPN/ESPN+ “Prelims” undercard bouts at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the ESPN/ESPN+ main card start time at 9 p.m. ET.

For the rest of the UFC on ESPN 9 fight card and line up click here.

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