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X-Factor! Some UFC on ESPN 14 main card predictions

This Saturday (July 25, 2020), Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will make one final trip (for now) to “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates, for UFC on ESPN 14. For the fourth time in three weeks, international talent will be on display inside the Octagon, notably a Middleweight clash between Australia’s Robert Whittaker and England’s Darren Till. I didn’t realize until I began researching the event for this write up, but there will be 15 — FIFTEEN!!! — bouts on Saturday, so here’s hoping it’s an action-packed night rather than endless decision-fest. Let’s stay optimistic and break down some main card fights!

Remember, we’ll be back later this week to preview and predict the biggest fights of Saturday’s event.

Heavyweight: Fabricio Werdum vs. Alexander Gustafsson

Best Win for Werdum? Fedor Emelianenko For Gustafsson? Glover Teixeira
Current Streak: Both veteran’s have lost two straight
X-Factor: Who has more left in the tank?
How these two match up: I’m a little disgusted, but also a bit intrigued.

Former Heavyweight champion Werdum has ... not looked great in his last couple fights. He can blame ring rust for the most recent defeat, but still, “Vai Cavalo” showed up in mediocre shape for both matches, and it cost him. At his best, Werdum is an aggressive kickboxer with world-class Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Gustafsson looked thoroughly flat in his last two losses as well, though he didn’t physically appear too bloated. At 33 years of age, Gustafsson is quite young for a new Heavyweight, and if his speed, power, and conditioning hold up in his new weight class, this could be a great move for the Swedish boxer.

F*ck me, this is a dumb fight to attempt to analyze.

At the very least, anyone considering betting should wait until weigh-in day. How does Gustafsson’s body look having packed on some additional pounds? Will Werdum continue to look like he raided a bakery? Those questions, at least, can be answered with a bit of patience.

There are plenty more unknowns though. How much of Werdum’s last performance can be attributed to ring rust? Is Gustafsson actually motivated to jump back from retirement? How will Gustafsson’s boxing hold up against a similarly tall opponent?

On paper, the stylistic match up favors Gustafsson. He’s younger, has excellent takedown defense, and his hands are far sharper. Perhaps there’s no reason to look beyond those simple facts, but I just find it difficult to trust Gustafsson at this point in his career. Werdum may not be at his peak, but he has yet to mentally fold inside the Octagon, and I don’t know if we can say the same about “Mauler” anymore.

Plus, a great deal of Gustafsson’s defense seems to boil down to being tall. Against a taller opponent aggressively (read: sloppily) throwing combinations, will leaning back work? It doesn’t seem like it.

Bottom line: I don’t have any confidence in this pick, and neither should you.

Prediction: Werdum via submission

Women’s Strawweight: Carla Esparza vs. Marina Rodriguez

Best Win for Esparza? Cynthia Calvillo For Rodriguez? Tecia Torres
Current Streak: Esparza has won three straight, whereas Rodriguez is undefeated at 12-0-2
X-Factor: Rodriguez’s size and strength advantage
How these two match up: This one could be fun.

Esparza is never the bigger woman inside the cage, but that rarely stops her from imposing her wrestling skill. Plus, “Cookie Monster’s” kickboxing has really improved over the last few years, which definitely helps set up shots.

Alternatively, Rodriguez is quickly making her claim as one of the division’s most violent women. The Muay Thai fighter throws elbows and knees with real menace, and she positively manhandles opponents in the clinch.

A quick history lesson: in both of Rodriguez’s draws, she largely dominated opponent her opponents on the feet, but she lost one round so badly on the mat that her foes picked up 10-8 rounds. Given Esparza’s toughness and ability to rally, that seems like a distinct possibility here as well, as both women have simply massive advantages in their respective comfort zones.

Since picking a draw seems like a copout, I’ll ultimately side with Esparza. The former champion has been facing real tough opposition, and while she’s been winning on tiny margins, those still count!

Esparza picks up just enough takedowns to snag a close one.

Prediction: Esparza via decision

Light Heavyweight: Paul Craig vs. Gadzhimurad Antigulov

Best Win for Craig? Magomed Ankalaev For Antigulov? Marcos Rogerio de Lima
Current Streak: Craig went to a draw last time out and won the fight previous, while Antigulov has lost two straight
X-Factor: Craig’s newfound confidence
How these two match up: Weird submission guy vs. weird submission guy!

For a while, Craig only managed to win fights in improbable upsets, catching onto submissions after his opponent tired from punching him in the face. In his last two bouts, however, Craig has improved his kickboxing a good bit, which has made him a more multi-faceted offensive threat.

Dagestan’s Antigulov is about as straightforward a fighter as you’ll find in mixed martial arts (MMA). He wastes almost no time in tackling his opponent and trying to take home a limb or land a strangle. A pro since 2009, 15 of his victories come via submission.

Once more, this is a strange one. Antigulov is really a one-round fighter, and while Craig is certainly mentally tough, he has been taken out in the first-round three times prior inside the Octagon. There’s certainly a considerable chance Antigulov tosses him to the mat, takes his back, and strangles him inside a couple minutes.

That said, Craig is improving, and I trust him quite a bit more in tough situations. If he can deny Antigulov that early finish, expect the Russian to fold beneath a stream of clinch knees.

Prediction: Craig via knockout

Welterweight: Alex Oliveira vs. Peter Sobotta

Best Win for Oliveira? Carlos Condit For Sobotta? Nicolas Dalby
Current Streak: Oliveira returned to the win column last time out, whereas Sobotta came up short
X-Factor: Oliveira’s inconsistency
How these two match up: We’ve got a real chance of a scrap here folks.

Oliveira doesn’t know how to have a boring fight. Whatever the Brazilian “Cowboy” opts to do inside the cage, he does so with violent intentions. Oliveira kicks seriously hard, runs into his cross in strange-but-powerful fashion, and is quite nasty from top position, too.

In his first UFC run, Sobotta was pretty strictly a grappler, which did not work well. His second stint with UFC has gone far more smoothly, largely because Sobotta’s a more dangerous threat on the feet and seems in better physical condition overall.

Nicholas Dalby is a common opponent between these two men (Sobotta won, Oliveira lost), and this fight does read rather similarly to Oliveira’s bout with Dalby. Once more, Oliveira is the more explosive and dangerous fighter, but he runs the risk of slowing down and losing to the more measured, technical combatant.

However, it’s worth-noting that Dalby had to really perform above his usual measure in that bout, and it was still a razor-close fight. Sobotta has fought since March 2018, and beating Oliveira feels like a major ask in his first return bout.

Prediction: Oliveira via decision

Welterweight: Khamzat Chimaev vs. Rhys McKee

Best Win for Chimaev? John Phillips For Antigulov? Tim Barnett
Current Streak: Chimaev is undefeated at 7-0 and won his first UFC bout LAST WEDNESDAY, while McKee won three straight on the regional scene prior to his short-notice signing
X-Factor: Fighting twice in 10 days is rough on the body
How these two match up: Prospect fight!

Chimaev promised a “Khabib 2.0”-type performance in his debut, and he delivered! The Swede showed brutalizing wrestling and ground work, and on the regional scene, he has sat opponents down with his kickboxing too.

Ireland’s Rhys McKee is a Cage Warriors veteran with a solid mix of knockouts and submissions on his record. He’s a definite finisher, an aggressive fighter who stalks opponents and tries to head them off with big power shots.

Chimaev was lobbed something of a stylistic softball in his debut, so there are still reasons to be skeptical about his sudden hype. However, “Skeletor” does not really seem the man to challenge him. It wasn’t all that long ago that McKee was competing at 155 pounds, which is a bad sign against a Swede who just tossed around a Middleweight with ease. Plus, while McKee does have power, he’s not the type of athletic big hitter that typically can trouble a grinder like Chimaev.

“Borz” picks up his second win of July with a handful of takedowns and dominant top control.

Prediction: Chimaev via submission

Remember that 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.

‘X-Factor’ Picks for 2020: 26-11