UFC 253 preview, fight card: Adesanya-Costa, Reyes-Blachowicz - Sports Illustrated

Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa Put Undefeated Streaks on the Line at UFC 253

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All eyes return to “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi this Saturday for UFC 253. The success of the card is entirely dependent on its co-main event, an exciting prospect with Dominick Reyes matched up against Jan Blachowicz to decide the new light heavyweight champion, as well as a potential classic pitting middleweight champion Israel Adesanya against Paulo Costa.

Both Adesanya and Costa are undefeated, which will no longer be the case by Sunday morning. These are two of the most elite fighters in the world, regardless of weight division, and this is one of the biggest possible fights the UFC can currently offer among its marquee talent. With both fighters coming from opposite ends of the globe to meet in the middle, their bout at UFC 253 will provide a definitive answer as to who is the top middleweight fighter in the world.

The undercard does not particularly stand out, but there is potential for a very fast start with the featherweight fight pitting Hakeem Dawodu against Zubaira Tukhugov. The fight has additional meaning because of Tukhugov’s connection to Khabib Nurmagomedov. Following the Conor McGregor-Nurmagomedov fight in October 2018, Tukhugov was one of the two Nurmagomedov cornermen to attack McGregor. UFC President Dana White vowed that Tukhugov would never again fight for the UFC. But Nurmagomedov made it clear that he wanted Tukhugov to return to the Octagon, which he already has, and he looks to build off an impressive win from this past February. And with the women’s bantamweight division desperately in search of opponents for Amanda Nunes, the Ketlen Vieira-Sijara Eubanks fight suddenly has much more significance.

The story of UFC 253 is the title fights. Here are the top questions surrounding this Saturday’s card.

Who is going to leave UFC 253 undefeated—Izzy Adesanya or Paulo Costa?

Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya faces his toughest challenge at UFC 253 against Paulo Costa. Adesanya (19-0) and Costa (13-0) each enter the fight without a blemish on their record, and both are coming off victories against Yoel Romero. Adesanya defeated Romero far more recently at UFC 248 in March, which was a five-round fight that ended in a unanimous decision, while Costa has not stepped into the Octagon since he dominated Romero in a three-round unanimous decision in August 2019.

Despite Costa’s massive build, cardio has never been an issue, so it would be a major surprise if his gas tank were to hurt him in the fourth or fifth round. Costa needs to put on nonstop pressure and use his body to bully his way inside of Adesanya.

A key for the champion will be keeping range. If Adesanya can keep his distance while still in range, he’ll be able to lay in a vicious array of kicks, giving him a distinct advantage.

This fight is a coin flip, though I am leaning slightly toward Costa. It will be a chess match to start and feature a lot of hesitation, but the championship rounds will highlight this positional battle in a fight destined to go the distance.

Want expert betting picks for UFC 253? SI Gambling MMA insider Casey Olson has gone 135-52-4 (72%) with his picks given to SI Fantasy PRO members.

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Who will be the next light heavyweight champion?

Not only will Dominick Reyes be the next light heavyweight champion, he should also be entering this fight as the reigning champ.

A closer viewing of the Reyes-Jon Jones title fight from this past February shows that the bout should have been scored in favor of Reyes. Jones winning the fight should have been even more controversial than the Henry Cejudo split-decision win against Demetrious Johnson for the Flyweight Championship in the summer of 2018, but Reyes has no choice but to live with the decision. This fight, however, will not end with a judges’ decision.

Reyes (12-1) lost his undefeated streak against Jones, but now has another shot at the title. Standing in his way is the dangerous Jan Blachowicz (26-8), who is a great competitor and boxer. Blachowicz brings knockout power and will be seeking that walkoff punch, but Reyes is too skilled a fighter and presents too many problems for Blachowicz. After winning this bout, Reyes is primed for a long title reign.

This fight will have a finish. Blachowicz is going to box, but Reyes is a difficult matchup due to his length and versatility. A new light heavyweight champion will be crowned when Blachowicz leans in and takes a head kick from Reyes, and the fight will end in the manner that it should have for Reyes this past February against Jones—as the champ.

Can Ketlen Vieira use this win to catapult herself into a title match against Amanda Nunes?

The women’s bantamweight division is shallow on contenders for its dominant champion Amanda Nunes, which gives additional meaning to this bout.

Ketlen Vieira (10-1) appeared to be knocking on Nunes’ door, rattling off four straight wins to open her UFC career. Then she ran into a roadblock when Irene Aldana knocked her out just before the end of the first round in their fight last December. Vieira has the chance to get back on track with a victory against Sijara Eubanks (6-4).

Eubanks needs this win to elevate herself into the top ten of the division, but she has yet to meet anyone with Vieira’s skill. On paper, this is a set-up bout to get Vieira back in the win column and return to an upward trajectory in the rankings. This is a fight Vieira should win, and a victory puts her back in the top five, staring down a shot at Nunes.

Which fight will make the card worth watching?

The card is built around the co-main event, but there is significance elsewhere on the card. A flyweight fight pitting Kai Kara-France (21-8, 1 NC) against Brandon Royval (11-4) has the potential to be a very fun scrap.

UFC has been very high on Kara-France, and this fight represents a real test for Royval. And the timing of this bout is not coincidental, as Kara-France is a training partner of Adesanya, so he’s next to his teammate on a big card. There is hope that he can be a force in the division, and he will enter this fight with the advantage against Royval. The flyweight division remains crowded, especially with the arrival of Cody Garbrandt, so nothing immediate should come out of this fight unless Kara-France has a dominant finish to elevate himself into the top five.

Another bout that should make an impression is the meeting of featherweights

Hakeem Dawodu and Zubaira Tukhugov. Dawodu (11-1-1) offers an extremely compelling style, but he is facing an aggressive, relentless fighter in Tukhugov (19-4-1). The pace of UFC 253 is going to be slow in the middle fights, but the card will open with a fast, entertaining bout that favors Tukhugov. Best known for his place in Khabib Nurmagomedov’s inner circle, this is a chance for Tukhugov to have a big moment in the opening fight.

What comes next for either Adesanya or Costa?

If Costa wins, the likelihood is high that Adesanya gets a shot to run it back with a title rematch. But the title picture is far more complicated if Adesanya retains the championship.

It was not that long ago when there was legitimate speculation that a fight against Jon Jones was on the horizon for Adesanya if he defeated Costa. That is obviously no longer on the table with Jones moving to heavyweight. After Costa, there is no definitive top contender for Adesanya.

Adesanya has not cleared out the division, but presently, there are not many contenders for his belt. The middleweight rankings are full of people that have either lost to Adesanya or fighters that do not have the credibility for a title fight. Robert Whittaker was knocked out by Adesanya last October, severely limiting the potential of a rematch. Both Jared Cannonier and Jack Hermansson want title shots, but neither has the star power or the major win necessary to put themselves into the cage against Adesanya.

Most likely, if Adesanya is victorious, his next challenger will emerge from the welterweight division, which is overflowing with talent but with a long line in place before reaching champion Kamaru Usman. But someone like Tyron Woodley, who has dropped three consecutive fights, would be in immediate title contention if he moved to light heavyweight. At this point, Woodley’s days at welterweight in the UFC are numbered, so moving up would make sense. If “Wonderboy” Stephen Thompson were to make the move to light heavyweight, he and Adesanya would be a phenomenal stylistic matchup.

As for the winner of Reyes and Blachowicz, the next challenger should be Thiago Santos. He shredded his leg after the first round of his July 2019 title fight against Jon Jones, yet still gave problems—on one leg—to Jones, while somehow still enduring those outrageous oblique kicks. He has more than earned another title shot, regardless of who walks away the new light heavyweight champion at UFC 253.

The main card of 253 is built around its champions, and the fight world will be watching to see if Reyes can start his first reign and whether Adesanya can extend his run as champ.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.