Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is set to put the finishing touches on its first venture on “Fight Island,” as UFC on ESPN 14 concludes the promotion’s trip to Yas Isand in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The event is set to be headlined by a crucial Middleweight showdown as former division champion, Robert Whittaker, takes on Darren Till. In the co-headlining act, Mauricio Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira throw down for the third and final time at Light Heavyweight.
It’s been a long road for Robert Whittaker’s return to action, as “The Reaper” hasn’t competed since losing his Middleweight title to Israel Adesanya at UFC 243 via knockout last October (see it again here). Whittaker was set to make his return a lot sooner before he hit the pause button to tend to some issues that he kept private initially, only to reveal that mental health issues, stress and burnout were the root of his problems. Now that he’s back, “Bobby Knuckles” is eager to remind everyone why he was once king of the hill, and to prove to the combat world that he isn’t going anywhere despite his recent setback. After all, his loss to Adesanya was his first in five years, winning nine straight fights before that. Thankfully, Robert didn’t tuck tail and go back down to Welterweight, as his true home is at 185 pounds. Since he never defended his title, Whittaker will have to string together at least two good wins before he gets back into a championship fight, and taking out Darren Till is a great place to start.
For Till, his move up to 185 pounds was almost a disastrous one as he narrowly escaped UFC 244 last November with a split decision win over Kelvin Gastelum. And it was a good thing, too, as “The Gorilla” was coming off two straight losses at Welterweight, so starting off his Middleweight experiment with a loss would have been catastrophic for his combat career. But just like that Till has himself a huge fight in just his second bout in his new division against the former champ. With a win Darren can solidify himself as a legit title contender and could very well find himself in the big dance sooner rather than later, depending on when Jared Cannonier comes back. If not, the winner here could be facing Jack Hermansson in a title eliminator fight down the road. Till will enjoy a size and strength advantage, but that has never seemed to bother Whittaker, as he has taken on the best the sport has to offer which includes back-to-back wars against Yoel Romero, a man Till jokingly (we think) says he fears like no other. That being said, there isn’t a whole lot Till can throw Whittaker’s way that he hasn’t already seen before. What he will bring is an aggressive style that will be 50/50 against Robert since he has a great counter attack, especially his wicked straight left.
This fight can obviously go either way, though I am giving Whittaker the edge here based on championship experience. He’s had a tougher strength of schedule when compared to Till but that shouldn’t negate what Darren can bring to the table. He’s eager to prove he’s a force to be reckoned with at 185 pounds and taking out “The Reaper” will definitely put everyone on notice. For Whittaker, defeating Till in impressive fashion could be his short cut back to trying to reclaim his strap.
There isn’t a whole lot to complain about here since the card is pretty well-rounded and features a total of 15 bouts to fulfill your combat hunger. The matchmakers did a good job putting this card together as its farewell to “Fight Island.”
Original Card vs Actual Card:
Umar Nurmagomedov was set face Nathaniel Wood in a highly-intriguing Bantamweight bout before he pulled out after Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov — his uncle and father to UFC Lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov — died as a result from COVID-19 complications. In turn, he was replaced by UFC newcomer John Castaneda.
A fight between former women’s Strawweight champion, Carla Esparza, and Marina Rodriguez was added to this event just last week after the bout was scratched from UFC Fight Island 2 after one of Marina’s cornermen tested positive for COVID-19. Also, Justin Tafa pulled out of his Heavyweight bout against Raphael Pessoaon just 10 days ago for undisclosed reasons. The promotion then called on Tanner Boser to fill in.
Shavkat Rakhmonov was expected to face Ramazan Emeev on this card but was forced to withdraw due to injury earlier this month. He was ultimately replaced by Niklas Stolze.
Several combatants received the chance to fight for UFC on short notice due to plenty of withdrawals. Among them is John Castaneda, the former ‘Contender Series’ alum who didn’t get a straight shot to UFC despite getting a win on the show. John is well-traveled, having competed for King of the Cage (KOTC) as well as for Combate Americas. He is coming off a huge win over Marcelo Rojo, one of Combates’ biggest stars. He’ll be facing Nathaniel Wood, who saw his seven-fight win streak go down the drain at the hands of John Dodson in his last outing.
Winner of five straight, Cage Warriors veteran Jai Herbert will look to keep his win streak going when he takes on longtime UFC veteran Francisco Trinaldo. It’s a tough draw for the UFC rookie, but when the opportunity presents itself turning it down simply isn’t an option. He’ll enjoy a size advantage over the Brazilian bomber, who is currently on a two-fight win streak and hungry for more.
Tom Aspinall will finally get to showcase his talents inside the Octagon after his original debut back in March was postponed due to COVID-19. All seven of Aspinall’s wins have come by way of stoppage — five knockouts and two submissions — so the man knows how to get the job done. He’ll have a nice challenge in front of him in the form of Jake Collier who is an even 3-3 so far in his young UFC career.
Niklas Stolze will bring his four-fight win streak to the Octagon for the first time as he clashes with Ramazan Emeev in Welterweight action. Emeev will come out hungry as ever after suffering a tough loss to Anthony Rocco Martin last November, which snapped his seven fight win streak.
And finally, 24-year-old Rhys McKee will go for his fourth straight win — first inside the Octagon — after spending the majority of his career fighting for BAMMA and Cage Warriors. McKee is another finisher, with all 10 of his bouts coming via stoppage, so to say he’s an aggressive fighter would be an understatement. He’ll be facing Khamzat Chimaev who competed just last week, defeating John Phillips at UFC on ESPN 13.
Eat your heart out, “Cowboy.”
How The ‘Prelims’ Look:
The underbelly of this event will feature several newcomers (whom we discussed in the previous segment) looking to make a splash and a lot of veterans who are looking to turn things around. Nicolas Dalby will look to score consecutive win number five in order to get some much-needed respect in the Welterweight division. But that’s just how the ball rolls since the 170-pound weight class is as stacked as ever at the moment. He’ll be taking on Jesse Ronson, who got an invite back to UFC six years removed from his loss to Kevin Lee.
Mike Grundy will look to keep his hot streak going by collecting consecutive win number 10 against Movsar Evloev. Movsar has yet to taste defeat in his career, going 12-0 since 2015, including making good on his first two UFC fights in 2019. This is a sneaky-good contest between two streaking combatants who are looking for a big break through.
Former women’s Bantamweight title contender Bethe Correia hasn’t enjoyed the spotlight she once had thanks to her fights against Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm. She did bounce back nicely from two straight defeats by taking out Sijara Eubanks last September, so she would love nothing more than to pick up consecutive wins for the first time since 2014 when she takes on Pianne Kianzad.
Who Needs A Win Badly:
Fabricio Werdum has already gone on record saying that he will not look to re-sign with UFC once his contract is over. And that just so happens to be this Saturday when he faces off against former three-time Light Heavyweight title contender, Alexander Gustafsson. “Vai Cavalo” has dropped two straight so if he wants to get some leverage when he hits the free agent market, he needs to spoil “Mauler’s” debut at Heavyweight.
As for Gustafsson, he also needs a win pretty badly here after ending his retirement to try his hand in a new division. He lost his last two against Anthony Smith and Jon Jones at 205 pounds, so losing again might send him back into retirement. By the way, is it just me or has this fight been flying way under the radar? I am liking this matchup very much, but it seems it hasn’t been able to create that much of a buzz. Still, it will be interesting to see how Gustafsson looks at Heavyweight, and whether or not he still has what it takes to hang with the best of them. Both men have a lot riding on this fight.
Interest Level: 8.5 out of 10
UFC put together a solid offering for its final event on “Fight Island,” which will be its last in Abu Dhabi until at least September. In the co-main event, Mauricio Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira will throw down for the third and final time. “Shogun” has two wins over “Lil Nog,” one under the PRIDE FC banner in 2005, and another inside the Octagon in 2015. Nogueira has stated he will retire after this fight win, lose or draw, so he would love nothing more than to go out on a high note. But it will be a tough task to say the least, as Rua seemingly has his number. Plus, “Shogun” is also nearing the end of his career so he wants to get his fifth win in his last eight tries in an attempt to perhaps make one last run at the strap.
Also, former women’s Strawwight champion Carla Esparza will look to earn her fourth straight win in order to insert herself into the championship picture. She’ll be taking on Marina Rodriguez, who has yet to taste defeat at 12-0-2 (3-0-2 UFC). A win benefits both women greatly as it shoots them up the rankings and closer to a shot at the title. And some new faces are much-needed in the title picture at 115 pounds since you can only have Joanna Jedrzejzcyk fight for the title so many times before it really gets nauseating.
Alex Oliveira is still chugging along, though it seems he will forever be one of those UFC fighters that was good and entertaining, just not great. He’s failed to get close to sniffing a title shot in his five years with the promotion, but he puts it all on the line night in and night out. He’ll have a tough fight on his hands in Peter Sobatta, who is 9-2 in his last 11 fights with his most recent loss coming to Leon Edwards.
Gadzhimurad Antigulov will look to keep his boat from sinking by avoiding a three-fight skid as he gets set to face Paul Craig in 205-pound action. Antigulov looked like a legit contender early on, winning 14 straight fights before dropping his previous two inside the Octagon. “Bearjew,” meanwhile, is coming off a split-draw against Mauricio Rua so he is looking for a big win here to help him climb out of the shadows of the Top 15 after four years with the promotion.
Enjoy the fights!
Full Fight Card:
UFC On ESPN 14 Main Event On ESPN/ESPN+:
185 lbs.: Robert Whittaker vs. Darren Till
UFC On ESPN 14 Main Card On ESPN/ESPN+ (8 p.m. ET):
205 lbs.: Mauricio Rua vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira
265 lbs.: Fabricio Werdum vs. Alexander Gustafsson
115 lbs.: Carla Esparza vs. Marina Rodriguez
205 lbs.: Paul Craig vs. Gadzhimurad Antigulov
170 lbs.: Alex Oliveira vs. Peter Sobotta
170 lbs.: Khamzat Chimaev vs. Rhys McKee
UFC On ESPN 14 Prelims Card On ESPN/ESPN+ (5 p.m. ET):
155 lbs.: Jai Herbert vs. Francisco Trinaldo
170 lbs.: Nicolas Dalby vs. Jesse Ronson
265 lbs.: Tom Aspinall vs. Jake Collier
145 lbs.: Movsar Evloev vs. Mike Grundy
265 lbs.: Tanner Boser vs. Raphael Pessoa
135 lbs.: Bethe Correia vs. Pannie Kianzad
170 lbs.: Ramazan Emeev vs. Niklas Stolze
135 lbs.: Nathaniel Wood vs. John Castaneda
***Fight card, bout order and the amount of matches subject to drastic change because of the various global quarantine restrictions.***
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on ESPN 14 fight card below, starting with the ESPN/ESPN+ “Prelims” undercard bouts at 5 p.m. ET, followed by the ESPN/ESPN+ main card start time at 8 p.m. ET.
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