Robert Whittaker and Darren Till are set to headline the final Fight Island card for July in an important bout for the future of the middleweight division.
The former champion Whittaker will be looking to get back in the win column after dropping his title to Israel Adesanya. Till is hoping to continue his winning ways since moving back to the middleweight division and picking up a split-decision win over Kelvin Gastelum in his last bout.
The unusually large main card has a co-main event that could just as easily be taking place in 2005. That is, after all, the first time Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira fought each other. Now they will complete their trilogy at a combined 82 years old.
Elsewhere on the card, Alexander Gustafsson makes his heavyweight debut against Fabricio Werdum, and Khamzat Chimaev makes a 10-day turnaround for his second UFC appearance. Here's what the entire card looks like along with predictions for the biggest fights of the night.
Main Card (ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET)
- Robert Whittaker (-135; bet $135 to win $100) vs. Darren Till (+115; $100 bet wins $115)
- Mauricio Rua (-185) vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (+165)
- Fabricio Werdum (+270) vs. Alexander Gustafsson (-330)
- Carla Esparza (+160) vs. Marina Rodriguez (-180)
- Paul Craig (-130) vs. Gadzhimurad Antigulov (+110)
- Alex Oliveira (-165) vs. Peter Sobotta (+145)
- Khamzat Chimaev (-1400) vs. Rhys McKee (+800)
Preliminary Card (ESPN/ESPN+ at 5 p.m. ET)
- Francisco Trinaldo (-135) vs. Jai Herbert (+115)
- Nicolas Dalby (-250) vs. Jesse Ronson (+210)
- Tom Aspinall (-280) vs. Jake Collier (+240)
- Movsar Evloev (-190) vs. Mike Grundy (+170)
- Tanner Boser (-250) vs. Raphael Pessoa (+210)
- Bethe Correia (+130) vs. Pannie Kianzad (-150)
- Ramazan Emeev (-400) vs. Niklas Stolze (+320)
- Nathaniel Wood (-440) vs. John Castaneda (+350)
Odds via Caesars Palace
Whittaker vs. Till
On a card marked by either strange fights or prospect showcases, the main event stands out as an honest-to-goodness legitimate fight between two high-level fighters with real stakes.
The odds would indicate this is expected to be a close matchup, but there's a lot to like about The Reaper in this spot. When the Australian has been healthy, he has proved himself an elite middleweight. His only loss in the division came against Adesanya.
Whittaker's reign as champion was marked by 10 tough rounds against Yoel Romero after winning six consecutive fights to earn his title. Whittaker is a well-rounded fighter with the ability to handle a high-level wrestler like Romero and the ability to threaten any striker with his power.
Whittaker's defense has left a little to be desired, but the good news for him is the same can be said for Till. He moved back up to middleweight after back-to-back losses against Jorge Masvidal and Tyron Woodley where his suspect defense was exposed.
Till is a capable striker in his own right. He isn't a complex counter-striker by any means, but he can kickbox and should have an advantage in terms of volume. It's hard to count out Whittaker at this point because Adesanya is the only one who holds a win over this version of Bobby Knuckles, and Till certainly isn't Adesanya.
This should be a fun one and a main event worth watching.
Prediction: Whittaker via third-round TKO
Alexander Gustafsson vs. Fabricio Werdum
Chalk this matchup under the classification of "strange." Heavyweight is a division where any fighter is a few wins away from title relevance, so to say this fight doesn't matter would be too harsh, but the likelihood either emerges at the top of the division seems unlikely.
Werdum is now 42 years old, hasn't won a fight since 2017 and is consistently a fighter who produces weird fights. He's obviously still cagey on the ground and has always been an unpredictable striker, but his decision loss to Aleksei Oleinik was a ho-hum performance, and he's never been the type of grappler to bring the fight to someone else.
Gustafsson is the latest in a string of light heavyweights who have made the jump to heavyweight during the coronavirus pandemic. Most of them who have put on the extra weight give off serious "Thor in Avengers: Endgame" vibes.
Gian Villante, Ilir Latifi and Ovince Saint Preux have recently made the move, and the three of them were all unsuccessful.
Gustafsson is a more skilled fighter than anyone in that trio, so this could be different. The Mauler had a good fight with Daniel Cormier, who is a legitimate heavyweight, when he was in the light heavyweight division.
He's being given a bit of a softball matchup in this one. At this stage of his career, Werdum isn't really a threat in the standup. If it goes to the clinch, things get dicey for the new heavyweight, but he should hold the advantage as long as he can keep his distance.
Prediction: Gustafsson via decision
Esparza vs. Rodriguez
Carla Esparza and Marina Rodriguez both find themselves in the lower half of the top 10 in the women's strawweight division. A win on Saturday night would start to give either of them a case to get moved to the top five.
For Rodriguez, it's about maintaining an unbeaten record. She goes into this fight 12-0 with two draws to her name. Her ability to set a frenetic pace and drown her opponents in volume has served her well, but her draws against Cynthia Calvillo and Randa Markos exposed a weakness for opponents who were willing to commit to the takedown.
Her hard-charging style is fine with opponents she can overwhelm, but Esparza will present a similar challenge to Calvillo and Markos. She averages 3.28 takedowns per 15 minutes and has no problem spending the majority of the round hunting for it if she has to.
That stubborn focus can come at a cost. Rodriguez could catch Esparza coming in with a knee or other counter and things could be over. Rodriguez has yet to finish a fight in the UFC. Instead, this seems destined to go the distance, and it isn't the best matchup for the unbeaten fighter.
Prediction: Esparza via decision