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One thing we know for sure is that there will be at least one new champion crowned at UFC 253.
Could it be Paulo Costa? The unbeaten Brazilian looks to become the first man to defeat Israel Adesanya and in doing so claim the UFC middleweight championship; Adesanya, in his second straight headlining bout, has some rehabilitation to due in the eyes of the fans after a successful title defense against Yoel Romero failed to deliver from an entertainment standpoint.
Adesanya’s championship triumphs against Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum outweigh whatever shortcomings he showed against Romero and he’ll quickly find himself back in the good graces of the MMA collective if he can find a way to stop a rampaging Costa. Regardless of your rooting interests, the intrigue couldn’t be higher as this is just the second time in UFC history that two men have entered a title fight without a loss on their records.
The co-main event features two fighters who would be king as Dominick Reyes—fresh off of a close unanimous decision loss to Jon Jones in February—takes on Jan Blachowicz for the light heavyweight belt that Jones vacated last month. Many thought Reyes already did enough to win the title, but now he gets five more rounds to prove it against a veteran who has thrived as an underdog.
In other main card action, Kai Kara-France fights Brandon Royval in a battle of flyweight contenders, Ketlen Vieira tries to get back on the winning track against surging bantamweight Sijara Eubanks, and Hakeem Dawodu looks to make Zubaira Tukhugov pay for coming in heavy for their featherweight bout.
What: UFC 253
Where: Yas Island in Abu Dhabi
When: Saturday, Sept. 26. The six-fight preliminary card begins at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and ESPN+. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available for purchase exclusively through ESPN+.
Let’s just get the negativity out of the way: There’s an outside chance that this fight plays out similar to how Adesanya vs. Romero did, as awful as that sounds. Anytime you’ve got two high-level strikers who can finish in a flash in a contest with such high stakes, caution has to be a consideration.
Fortunately for fight fans, this matchup has more similarities to Israel Adesanya’s classic war with Kelvin Gastelum than it does the regrettable Romero contest. Paulo Costa is not the counter-striker that Adesanya or Romero is, so his best path to victory is to put the pressure on Adesanya early and either finish in the first two rounds or get far ahead enough on the scorecards that he can get away with slowing down in the later frames.
That may sound like a risky strategy, but “Borrachinha” is perfectly capable of forcing his opponents outside of their comfort zone. The key to his success isn’t just his phenomenal punching power. He works the body more than most MMA fighters, a talent that will serve him well if he can get inside on the rangy Adesanya. He should also have the advantage in the grappling department, which shouldn’t be discounted even if this will primarily be a standup affair.
Having the larger octagon on Fight Island will be to Adesanya’s benefit. He can be maddeningly evasive and if he’s given time to get into a rhythm, it will be a wrap for Costa. The champion is a sniper with his strikes and has the kind of next-level reflexes that allows him to capitalize on the slightest mistake.
As impressive as Costa has been, I do expect him to make a fatal mistake at some point as there are few fighters in the UFC who can match Adesanya’s striking prowess. Until proven otherwise, Adesanya has to be favored to beat any middleweight in a standup duel.
Adesanya by knockout.
Even if you think Dominick Reyes is the UFC light heavyweight champion in all but name, you can’t count out Jan Blachowicz.
The 37-year-old has become the division’s supreme spoiler, tripping up almost every contender that has tried to use him as a stepping stone over the past few years. He has won seven of his last eight fights and was the underdog in five of those wins. This winning stretch began with Blachowicz being an underdog to Devin Clark! The man finds a way.
Reyes has the speed and athleticism to consistently beat Blachowicz to the punch, but it’s completely in the realm of possibility that Blachowicz catches him. The Polish veteran has deceivingly fast hands and his chin is durable enough to stand and bang with Reyes should the fight devolve into a brawl. This fight will require Reyes to be at his most disciplined.
That loss to Jones is the kind of fight that pushes a fighter to another level and now that Reyes has been in the crucible, I expect to see the strongest version of him yet on Saturday. He’s going to stay light on his feet, forcing Blachowicz to step into his range before pummeling him with speedy strikes. It’s a pace I don’t think Blachowicz can maintain for five rounds and I see Reyes sealing the deal this time.
Brandon Royval’s scrambling ability makes him a fun pick against anyone, but you have to favor the fundamentals of Kai Kara-France here. He also has a massive experience advantage and it feels like he’s peaking skill-wise at just the right time. Kara-France is poised to get a fight with a top-5 opponent and he’s not going to let a relative octagon newcomer stop him.
A younger Kara-France may have been more susceptible to the kinds of tricks that Royval is going to have to utilize to get this fight where he wants it to go, but at this stage, Kara-France has seen everything that an opponent like Royval has to offer. He’ll stick-and-move to stay out of Royval’s reach while busting him up with combinations. Look for Kara-France to make a statement by scoring his first UFC finish.
After an impressive run on The Ultimate Fighter followed by a shaky start at 125 pounds, Sijara Eubanks is finally hitting her stride as a bantamweight contender. She’s taking on a stiff challenge here by stepping in on short-notice to fight Ketlen Vieira, a woman that was one fight away from a title shot before having her shine stolen by Irene Aldana.
One thing to watch here is how willing Eubanks is to go to the ground with Vieira. She’s always been confident in her jiu-jitsu and it’s possible her team trusts her to put her black belt skills up against Vieira’s. Whether she decides to use her evolving wrestling to challenge Vieira, or to keep this one on the feet, is a key factor to how this fight will unfold.
Should they spend the majority of the bout on the ground, I still lean towards Vieira who is just a notch above the rest at 135 pounds when it comes to jiu-jitsu. Eubanks has the grappling chops to surprise though.
Wherever this fight goes, it will be a close one, but I’ll go with Vieira eking out a decision to get back in the win column.
Finger of shame to Zubaira Tukhugov for missing weight by a truly egregious four pounds. He showed up early for weigh-ins too, an indication that he and his team made a calculated decision to forego the potentially draining final stage of his weight cut knowing that he was likely to miss anyway. That shouldn’t be the deciding factor in his fight with Hakeem Dawodu, but it’s hard to ignore.
Tukhugov is already one of the toughest outs in the featherweight division. Add in a size advantage and you have to hope that Dawodu at least got his fair share of Tukhugov’s purse. What we’re going to have to pay attention to in this fight is the striking accuracy and versatility of Dawodu versus Tukhugov’s raw power.
Dawodu’s agility will help him to avoid Tukhugov’s winging hooks and a wrestling contest that he can’t possibly win. His leg kicks are an important weapon that will prevent Tukhugov from exploding for takedowns should this go to the later rounds.
As much as Tukhugov’s weight miss may have shifted the odds, I still like Dawodu to outwork him and find a late finish.