Before Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa duke it out for the Middleweight championship in September (details), two division standouts will look to stake their claim as top contenders this Saturday (July 25, 2020) when former champion Robert Whittaker squares off with British finisher Darren Till inside Flash Forum on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. UFC on ESPN 14 will also see “Shogun” Rua face “Minotouro” Nogueira in a Light Heavyweight trilogy match and Fabricio Werdum welcome the formerly retired Alexander Gustafsson to the Heavyweight division.
Eight “Prelims” undercard bouts will set the main stage for the unprecedented seven-fight main card. Here’s the first batch:
265 lbs.: Raphael Pessoa vs. Tanner Boser
Eleven months after a 99-second victory in his LFA debut, Raphael Pessoa (10-1) got the call to welcome Ciryl Gane to the Octagon and tapped to an arm triangle late in the first. He managed to fight his way into UFC’s win column less than three months later, though, upsetting Jeff Hughes in Singapore.
He has scored six first-round finishes among his seven total stoppages.
After cruising past Daniel Spitz in his Octagon debut, Tanner Boser (18-6-1) likewise earned himself a meeting with Gane, who handed “The Bulldozer” a decision defeat in Busan. Boser returned six months later to score the biggest win of his career, knocking out Philipe Lins with a brutal combination.
He replaces Justin Tafa on less than two weeks’ notice for a one-month turnaround.
Boser’s win over Lins is legitimately one of the most surprising performances of the year. I’ve long derided the Canadian for movement-heavy, power-light style, but he showed the ability to maintain the movement and variety that got him this far while delivering knockout blows. A Heavyweight with that sort of footwork and gas tank with a genuine mean streak is something to watch out for.
While Pessoa did better than I expected against Hughes, I chalk a lot of that success up to Hughes throwing barely half as many strikes as he did in his UFC debut. Boser figures to be a far more active and elusive target. Expect him to cruise to a comfortable victory at range.
Prediction: Boser via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Bethe Correia vs. Pannie Kianzad
Bethe Correia’s perfect (3-0) Octagon start gave way to a 1-4-1 skid that saw her suffer three stoppage defeats. Correia (11-4-1) came up huge as an underdog in Oct. 2019, however, out-striking Sijara Eubanks for her first decisive victory since 2014.
“Pitbull” is two inches shorter than Kianzad and will give up four inches of reach.
A successful run in The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) house carried Pannie Kianzad (12-5) to the Finale, where she tapped to a Macy Chiasson rear-naked choke. After returning to Sweden for a win on the regional circuit, she returned to the Octagon, where she fell to top prospect Julia Avila before claiming a decision over Jessica-Rose Clark.
She has scored three professional knockouts to Correia’s two.
As much as Correia shocked me and the rest of the MMA world with her win over Eubanks, this looks like too tricky a matchup. Kianzad, beyond being a capable boxer in her own right, has notable advantages in height and reach that will ostensibly prevent Correia from getting the close-quarter brawl she craves. Plus, “Banzai” showed some impressive volume against Clark, meaning Correia is unlikely to outwork her.
Though neither is likely to finish the other, Kianzad should be able to potshot her way to a comfortable win. So long as she doesn’t get sucked into Correia’s sort of slugfest, she controls the fight behind her jab en route to a unanimous decision victory.
Prediction: Kianzad via unanimous decision
170 lbs.: Ramazan Emeev vs. Niklas Stolze
Ramazan Emeev (18-4) parlayed a strong run in M-1 into a flawless (3-0) Octagon start that saw him knock Alberto Mina from the ranks of the unbeaten. Injury and visa issues then kept him on the shelf for more than one year, after which he suffered his first loss since 2014 against Anthony Rocco Martin.
“Gorets” is the shorter of the two by two inches.
Germany’s Niklas Stolze (12-3) is mint (4-0) since a 1-2 slump, scoring finishes in three of those bouts. This Saturday’s fight will be his first since a unanimous decision victory in April 2019.
He replaces the injured Shavkat Rakhmonov on just over two weeks’ notice.
I’ll admit, I’m a bit bummed that we lost Rakhmonov — his high-octane striking would have made for an intriguing style clash with the grind-happy Emeev. Still, Stolze’s got some offbeat and effective stand up of his own that could definitely trouble the Russian if it turns into a kickboxing match.
Unfortunately for him, it probably won’t. Emeev is unashamedly willing and generally able to turn any fight into a slow-paced slog. Stolze’s dynamism won’t matter much when Emeev will punish any fancy kick or committed punch with a takedown attempt or trip to the fence. Emeev scores his fourth UFC decision win in fan-unfriendly fashion.
Prediction: Emeev via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Nathaniel Wood vs. John Castaneda
Nathaniel Wood (16-4) lived up to his nickname with three consecutive submission victories in the Octagon, one of which earned him “Performance of the Night.” The run wasn’t to last, as a competitive bout with John Dodson came to a crashing halt early in the third round courtesy of “The Magician’s” lethal left hand.
“The Prospect” has knocked out eight professional opponents and submitted another six.
John Castaneda (17-4) claimed victory over Cheyden Leialoha on “Contender Series,” but his efforts weren’t enough to earn him a contract. He ultimately extended his win streak to 11 before dropping two straight, then got back in the win column with a submission of Marcelo Rojo.
“Sexi Mexi” steps in on short notice for Umar Nurmagomedov, who withdrew after the death of trainer Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov (details).
Between Wood’s life-or-death brawl in Cage Warriors, his early struggles with the stand up of Johnny Eduardo, and the Dodson debacle, it’s become clear that he’s inherited trainer Brad Pickett’s struggles with striking defense. Luckily for him, Castaneda has too many vulnerabilities to properly exploit that. Most notably, he’s fairly easy to hit in his own right and is weak off the back foot, where he’s open to the sorts of aggressive striking and effective takedowns that have been Wood’s bread and butter in the Octagon.
To win this fight, Castaneda needs to consistently force Wood backward, which I simply don’t see him doing. He’s got a bit of pop in his hands and some solid wrestling credentials, but they’re not nearly enough to keep “The Prospect” off of him. In the end, Wood bullies him for either a mid-round stoppage or dominant decision.
Prediction: Wood via second-round technical knockout
Four more UFC on ESPN 14 undercard bouts remain to preview and predict tomorrow, including the latest from Featherweight prospect Movsar Evloev and the Octagon debuts of two British standouts. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs!
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on ESPN 14 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+/ESPN “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+/ESPN at 8 p.m. ET.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC on ESPN 14: “Whittaker vs. Till” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.