Two undefeated men meet for a UFC championship for just the second time in modern UFC history this Saturday - this is one you don't want to miss
UFC 253 may not have the depth of UFC 249 or 251, but what it lacks in the earlier portion of the card it more than makes up for thanks to its incredibly exciting main event match-up.
This is a fight fans have been looking forward to for quite some time and is just the second bout in modern UFC history where two undefeated fighters have duked it out for an undisputed championship belt in a men's division.
The preliminary action is light on the thrilling match-ups that have made some of the UFC's recent cards so entertaining (such as last week's stellar ESPN+ event), but there are still a few earlier fights that stick out.
Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series' standout William Knight (8-1) will be making his UFC debut on Saturday after having won bouts on both season three and four of the popular series. Knight is a physical specimen who has had all nine of his fights end in knockout and will be taking on fellow DWTNCS season three alum Aleksa Camur (6-0) who has had five of his six bouts end via form of knockout as well, making it a fight sure to deliver action for as long as it lasts.
Of course it's also notable any time the original The Ultimate Fighter winner Diego Sanchez makes an appearance, if not for his clearly faded skills and cognitive decline then for his bizarre interviews and criminally incompetent "coach". He'll be taking on Jake Matthews who will clearly have a massive edge against the former lightweight title challenger - if you're looking for a guaranteed pick to add a tiny bit of value to your parlays then Matthews is a given.
The main card is an interesting mix of up-and-coming prospects, solid mid-carders and of course the night's two title fights - check out the full breakdown of each PPV match-up below.
Hakeem Dawodu (11-1) vs. Zubaira Tukhugov (19-4-1)
Featherweight Bout (145 pounds)
When the 29-year-old Canadian prospect Hakeem Dawodu made his way to the UFC after cutting his teeth in the WSOF, he carried a solid amount of hype with him as a talented knockout artist. Unfortunately he failed to live up to his initial expectations as he got dropped and submitted in just 39 seconds in London at the hands of Danny Henry.
Following the disappointing debut, Dawodu has since gotten back on the right track and has won four straight, including a decision over the highly entertaining Julio Arce. Though his finishing rate has fallen off after taking a step up in competition, he has still shown flashes of violence in the Octagon, particularly in his brutal dismantling of the highly outgunned Yoshinori Horie.
He has however been a somewhat frustrating fighter to watch at times - while his offense is regularly impressive when he lets his hands and feet fly, his fights often feature extended periods where Dawodu is overly conservative even when he appears to be fresh, making some of his fights incredibly close on the scorecards when they don't always have to be (two of his four wins in the UFC are by split decision).
Standing across from Dawodu will be his 29-year-old Russian counterpart, Zubaira Tukhogov.
Tukhugov is most well-known for being the man that jumped into the Octagon and punched Conor McGregor in the infamous post-fight scuffle at UFC 229 after Khabib Nurmagomedov attacked McGregor's corner following his domination of the Irishman.
He is however an extremely talented fighter in his own right and after coming back from his suspension to pick up a draw late in 2019, Tukhugov bounced back in a big way by smashing former LFA champ Kevin Aguilar back in February.
The Russian hasn't had the luckiest UFC stint since making his successful debut back in 2014 however - in addition to the afforementioned time off he received for the McGregor incident, Tukhugov was previously suspended for two years by USADA for the use of ostarine, which has since caused plenty of athletes to test positive thanks to its prevalence in supplements and as a result suspensions now typically only last for a few months, yet in this case the young prospect was forced out of action for two years.
Prior to his suspension Tukhugov had posted a solid 3-1 record with his only loss coming in an extremely close split decision against future top-fiver Renato Moicano, who had also landed two heavy groin strikes during their fight with no penalty.
Before his loss to Moicano, Zubaira was riding a nine fight winning streak over rather varied competition; his win over Douglas Silva de Andrade looks great in retrospect, but squeaking by Phillipe Nover with a split decision win does not.
Consistency would be a godsend for the Russian prospect and with any luck we'll see Zubaira back in the Octagon in short time regardless of the outcome at UFC 253; when he's on he's a heavy handed slugger that goes for the kill and with a more steady schedule he could easily become a fan favourite.
As for how this fight will play out, both aspiring contenders have shown a lot of promise but have been found lacking at times in their performances.
Should the fight play out on the feet, it should be a fun one between two strikers that aren't afraid to throw leather - Zubaira should have the edge in the boxing range with Hakeem similarly holding the upper hand in the kicking department - but for Zubaira the smartest approach would be to mix in some takedowns (even if unsuccessful) just to keep Dawodu thinking and thus his output low.
The fight is certainly a tough one to call as is reflected in the even-money betting odds; prior to weigh-ins I was leaning toward Zubaira, but the Russian missed weight by four pounds leading me to believe we're going to see one of Tukhugov's less inspiring performances, thus Dawodu is the solid pick here.
Pick: Hakeem Dawodu by decision
Ketlen Vieira (10-1) vs. Sijara Eubanks (6-4)
Women's Bantamweight Bout (135 pounds)
The lone women's fight of the night is a rather interesting one in that neither woman has really solidified where they stand in the division after five and six fights apiece with the promotion.
Starting with Eubanks who is coming off a big upset win over Julia Avila earlier this month, the former flyweight was most well-known for having hospitalized herself after cutting too much weight for her shot at the 125 pound title.
Eubanks had earned a spot in the finals of the 26th installment of The Ultimate Fighter opposite Nicco Montano in a season that was looking to crown the inaugural women's flyweight champion, but her failure to make weight safely cost her the opportunity and much goodwill with the fans.
Adamant that she could make the weight, she successfully returned to the division and won a decision before missing weight in her next bout; though she won the catchweight contest as well, her weight issues forced her up to bantamweight in 2019 where she went winless in two bouts, one against Aspen Ladd and the other against the rather terrible Bethe Correira.
Though certainly a powerful athlete with heavy hands and an impressive competitive BJJ background, Eubanks appeared to have a pretty low ceiling in the bantamweight division after her 0-2 start but has since turned things around in 2020, beating up Sarah Moras before pulling off an impressive upset over Julia Avila earlier this month.
Eubanks clearly has the skills and physicality to get herself to the upper echelon of the division, but time will tell if the 35-year-old can find consistency in her performances and continue to put the pieces together inside the Octagon.
On the other side of the cage will be fellow Brazilian Ketlen Vieira, whose 10-0 record with victories over Ashlee Evans-Smith, Sara McMann and Cat Zingano saw the prospect eying a shot at the title back in 2018. Injuries however kept her out of action until late last year when she took on surging Mexican prospect Irene Aldana - it didn't go so well for Vieira.
The problem with Vieira and her high ranking is that we really haven't seen her against current top competition (aside from her loss to Aldana) - her two biggest and most recent wins in McMann and Zingano were both against former top contenders, sure, but both had clearly declined by the time she fought them.
Ketlen has shown to be a long and slick striker that should have a clear edge on the feet especially given her four inch height advantage, but she'll have to watch out for Eubank's power and avoid the inevitable takedown attempts to get back in the win column.
It's a fight that should see Vieira get back on track and work herself back into relevance in the bantamweight division, but don't be too surprised if you see Eubanks grind out a decision and pull off another upset.
Pick: Ketlen Vieira by decision
Kai Kara-France (21-8) vs. Brandon Royval (11-4)
Flyweight Bout (125 pounds)
It may be short on name value, but this flyweight match-up more than makes up for it thanks to its high probability of delivering an entertaining scrap between two highly skilled fighters.
Kai Kara-France has earned himself a top ten ranking thanks to his superb muay thai-focused attack and slick scrambling ability. His 4-1 record with the UFC is quite impressive given his only loss was in an exciting back-and-forth war with top contender Brandon Moreno, and earlier this year he took home a decision over the extremely dangerous Tyson Nam (who just picked up another nice knockout last weekend).
The New Zealand kickboxer and Israel Adesanya teammate over at City Kickboxing has really come into his own over the last few years and like his teammate always keeps busy, winning nine of his last ten and 14 of his last 16 over the last five years, though he's still searching for his first finish inside the Octagon.
His opponent Brandon Royval has been competing in MMA for nearly as long as Kai but sports only half as many fights with an almost identical win rate and just one UFC fight under his belt, an impressive second round submission of former flyweight title challenger Tim Elliott.
The LFA transplant is a much more grappling-focused fighter with seven of his eleven wins coming by submission, but an additional three knockouts show his versatility.
Though he's shown he can handle himself well on the feet, the much more seasoned striker Kara-France should hold a sizable edge over Royval should the fight stay standing.
This is a classic striker-versus-grappler match-up but thanks to his impressive takedown defense the edge goes to Kai Kara-France in what is sure to be an exciting flyweight scrap.
Pick: Kai Kara-France by decision
Dominick Reyes (12-1) vs. Jan Blachowicz (26-8)
Light Heavyweight Title Bout (205 pounds)
The first title fight of the night is unfortunately being almost completely overlooked - in spite of the fact most fans feel that Dominick Reyes beat Jon Jones at UFC 247, a light heavyweight title fight that isn't against the longtime champ has many looking at the newly vacant title fight as the battle for second place.
It's quite unfortunate given that Reyes arguably defeated Jones, and that Jones opted to vacate his title to move up to heavyweight as soon as more top-tier athletes joined the 205 pound weight class - it isn't a coincidence that Jones has struggled and looked rather mediocre in his last few fights.
But since the champion chose to avoid a rematch and move up in weight, the vacant title will now go to one of the two top contenders - the afforementioned Reyes and Polish powerhouse Jan Blachowicz.
Now some fans have expressed disappointment that it's Blachowicz receiving the title shot and not Thiago Santos, who in fact knocked out Blachowicz early in 2019 and, like Reyes, arguably beat Jones in his title shot despite completely blowing out his knee early in the fight.
It is however likely a good thing that Santos wasn't immediately thrust into a title fight following his devastating knee injuries and instead gets a slightly less difficult challenge upon his return in the form of Glover Teixeira. That fight will determine the next title challenger for UFC 253's new light heavyweight champion, whenever it does take place (their fight was originally set for earlier this month but after both men tested positive for COVID-19, it has been delayed).
Instead, Blachowicz will receive his first crack at a UFC title coming off the most impressive streak in his UFC career.
The Polish striker entered the UFC back in 2014 sporting an impressive 17-3 record while fighting in his native country for KSW and immediately made an impact, demolishing Ilir Latifi in under two minutes in front of a hostile crowd in his debut.
Jan quickly saw his momentum go down the tubes however as he lost four of his next five outings and faced being cut by the promotion, the slick kickboxer with a strong submission game simply unable to put things together in order to take home a win on the scorecards.
After a disappointing decision loss to Patrick Cummins, Jan went back to the drawing board and emerged a new man, winning four straight which included a redeeming victory over Jimi Manuwa in a thrilling Fight of the Night contest, a win over current middleweight contender Jared Cannonier, and a submission over Nikita Krylov.
It was then that Blachowicz had his run in with the streaking Thiago Santos. Although he was previously known for being a reckless (and wildly entertaining as a result) brawler, he surprised many (including Jan) by showing that he was more than capable of implementing and sticking to a gameplan against a top-tier opponent.
Rather than fighting like a wild berserker as was his M.O., Santos instead stayed mobile and attacked Jan at range, varying up his attacks and refusing to overextend himself thus leaving no openings for a good counterpuncher like Jan to capitalize on. Realizing he was being outpointed and growing frustrated by his faster opponent, it was Jan who lost his patience and recklessly charged at his foe, a cracking left hook from Santos sending him sprawling to the canvas in the third round of their headlining bout.
Undeterred, Jan went back to work and placed a larger emphasis on his powerful hands - he has since won three straight bouts, including vicious knockouts of Luke Rockhold and Corey Anderson (who had previously beaten Blachowicz). We'll just pretend the five round decision victory over Jacare Souza in the midst of his ascent to a title shot didn't happen; it's best nobody remember that terrible staring contest ever occurred.
Standing opposite the Polish standout will be Dominick Reyes, one of the more gifted athletes in the division with the lone defeat of his career coming in a fight most argue he won.
A tall and mobile fighter that likes to fight at range, Reyes likes to employ a classic southpaw double attack - the left high kick paired with the straight left.
When a fighter blocks one of the two, they leave themselves open for the other, with the attacking fighter varying the two strikes and attempting to catch their victim off guard. It's the exact same strategy legendary heavyweight Mirko Cro Cop saw so much success using, though Reyes uses a much more mobile version of the tactic.
While Cro Cop loved to stalk his prey and be the aggressor, Reyes prefers his opponents to come to him so he can counter them instead. Though he is certainly strong on offense, the two biggest knockouts he's scored in the UFC, against Jared Cannonier and Chris Weidman, both started off when his opponents ran onto one of his counters.
Objectively, Blachowicz likely holds an edge in pure punching power - after all, both of Reyes' big knockouts came against fighters that are normally middleweights and their own momentum contributed to their downfall as much as Reyes' power did - but Reyes will certainly hold an edge in speed and agility.
Jan will also likely hold an advantage on the ground should the fight ever wind up there, but given Reyes' stellar takedown defense it's unlikely Jan will be able to take him down unless he rocks him first.
Where the fight gets interesting is in the long game - both men have shown a tendency to fade as fights wear on. Reyes most recently faded badly in the last two rounds of his title fight with Jones, though one would hope the experience gained in that fight would help him address those concerns; Jan on the other hand has only went past round three on one occasion and that was in the dreadfully slow Jacare fight everyone is supposed to forget.
Though both men are counterpunchers, Jan is the much less mobile man in this match-up and as such he finds himself in a very difficult position - Reyes will undoubtedly be sticking and moving, picking up points and avoiding prolonged exchanges, and without having significantly improved his ringcraft he's going to be a step behind his quicker opponent.
Over time, this will only serve to frustrate the heavy-handed contender and make him chase his opponent, and that's when he tends to rush in recklessly as he did against Santos last year.
Barring clipping Reyes in an exchange or being able to smother him against the cage, Blachowicz likely comes up short in his first title bid and Reyes will finally be given the crown he earned back in February.
Pick: Dominick Reyes by third round (T)KO
Israel Adesanya (19-0) vs. Paulo Costa (13-0)
Middleweight Title Bout (185 pounds)
And now for the fight everyone has been waiting for - the Last Stylebender versus Borrachinha.
To say that the MMA community is looking forward to this fight would be an understatement and to some, a feeling of deja vu may be taking hold - after all, Adesanya's last fight at UFC 248 made the top five on the most disappointing fights in UFC history list - but luckily for fans this time, the challenger is a fighter who will not simply let Adesanya run away or avoid a fight.
Israel Adesanya of course is one of the most well-known names in the UFC and has one of the most impressive records in the game today with eight of his victories being inside the UFC.
The extremely active kickboxer was amongst the top fighters in the world with an incredible 75-5 record in his first sport, making a name for himself thanks to his unique brand of striking and colourful personality along with his obvious talent and precision. After dabbling in MMA during his kickboxing career, Adesanya transitioned in earnest to mixed martial arts late in 2015, quickly racking up wins to improve his record to a sterling 11-0 by the end of 2017, with all of his fights ending in a knockout.
Adesanya made his impressive UFC debut early in 2018 by shellacking the completely overmatched Rob Wilkinson before he experienced some growing pains in a close fight with Marvin Vettori; though he won the fight by decision, his grappling looked rather suspect and it was far from the kind of performances he had previously put on.
Regardless, the UFC booked him in a main event match-up against versatile veteran Brad Tavares and it was here that Adesanya's true potential shone through.
A one-sided beatdown of Derek Brunson capped off Adesanya's impressive year and prepped him for a massive 2019.
Israel faced off against his idol Anderson Silva at UFC 234 in what many leading up to it thought was a sanctioned hit, but fortunately for fight fans Silva showed he could still put on a show and hang with the top talent, even if he did come out on the wrong side of a decision.
From there Adesanya would take on Kelvin Gastelum for the interim middleweight title following another unfortunate layoff for champion Robert Whittaker; the two contenders put on a war for the ages, with Adesanya showing off his surprising grappling game and landing hard counters on the feet while Kelvin surprised many with his ability to land heavy shots throughout against the experienced and far larger kickboxer, even rocking Adesanya in the fourth with a head kick.
The fight was tied at two rounds a piece heading into the final round when an exhausted Adesanya dug deep and turned the momentum back in his favour, smashing Gastelum for much of the round and nearly finishing him at multiple points to seal the deal on his championship bid.
After capturing the title in 2019's Fight of the Year, Adesanya finally got his crack at the undisputed belt opposite Robert Whittaker. With fans expecting another back-and-forth war, Adesanya shocked many by putting in a near-perfect performance, avoiding Whittaker's blitzes and dropping him at the end of the first before finishing him in the second with a nasty left hook in a wild exchange to capture the undisputed crown.
Fast forward to earlier this year and Adesanya received top billing against Yoel Romero for their massive middleweight clash at UFC 248, only for the fight to end up being an absolute dud.
After some early shenanigans from both fighters and a big right hand counter from Romero instilled the fear of God in the champion, fans quickly lost their patience as the two men refused to engage throughout their 25-minute sparring match. Adesanya was content to peck away with long leg kicks on occasion while Romero attempted his signature blitzes only for Adesanya to turn tail and run from him repeatedly, to which he had no answer.
The incredibly disappointing match-up soured many fans' views on the UFC's budding star, particularly given all of his pre-fight trash talk, but on Saturday he has his chance to get back in their good books against a fighter that will force Adesanya to fight whether he wants to or not.
After starting his career 3-0 in Brazil, "Borrachinha" Costa was cast on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil, where the young physical specimen impressed with his aggression and power but exhibited problems with his cardio and in the technical aspects of his game.
After losing a split decision in the quarter-finals (TUF fights are exhibition matches and therefore don't count on a fighter's pro record), Paulo returned to the regional circuit in Brazil where he would evolve into the absolute beast that we know today.
Costa ran his record up to 8-0 with every single one of his victims finished in the opening round before making his official UFC debut, erasing Garreth McLellan in just 77 seconds.
His next victim, the highly explosive Oluwale Bamgbose, would extend Costa into the second round for the first time in his pro career, finally succumbing to Costa's relentless onslaught 66 seconds into the second frame.
His next two opponents would also survive into the second stanza before getting brutally finished - former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks and Uriah Hall - before the UFC finally found someone who could survive Costa's assault.
That someone? One Yoel Romero.
In a clash of superhuman athletes, Costa and Romero put on an absolute show for the fans and delivered three rounds of insane action. Costa showed off ridiculous takedown defense against a silver medalist Olympian wrestler and dropped Romero in the opening frame with a left hook, only for the Cuban missile to point away to the crowd to try and distract his attacker before dropping him with a counter of his own.
Costa showed off a granite chin by absorbing massive strikes from one of the most prolific knockout artists in the UFC, while Romero showed off his own ridiculous chin by eating a head kick to the face and remaining on his feet.
The back-and-forth war was one for the ages, and when the three rounds concluded, fans were split on who they thought won the explosive affair - despite fans and media members being divided, the judges returned a unanimous score in favour of Costa to keep his record unblemished.
Fortunately for Romero, Costa would tear his bicep (an injury commonly associated with steroid users) and be unable to take his earned shot at the title earlier this year, leading to the incredibly exciting Adesanya-Romero match-up (that ended up being an absolute dud).
Now that he is healthy, it's Costa's turn to take on the champion, and one thing is for certain - Adesanya won't be able to employ the same avoidance strategy against his latest challenger.
While his power and physicality certainly capture headlines, Costa is one of the most effective pressure fighters MMA has ever seen not only because of his physical attributes or his willingness to wade into firefights, but for his ability to cut off the cage and his deep offensive playbook.
It's rare to see a fighter in MMA know how to cut down the cage and effectively apply pressure to a mobile opponent (at least one that doesn't back themselves onto the cage without proper pressure being applied, like Junior Dos Santos or Edson Barboza) but taking a look at Costa's recent fights will show you the man knows how to corner his victims with aplomb.
Though his underappreciated footwork gets him into position, it's his relentless output and varied attack that becomes absolutely overwhelming to his opponents. Constant body shots, thunderous hooks, uppercuts between the guard, heavy kicks to herd his prey into the side he wants to attack; Costa's offensive output is truly a sight to behold.
Thanks in large part to his footwork and smart shot choices, his accuracy also remains staggeringly high for his ridiculous output (in fact he currently holds the record for most significant strikes landed per minute on average in the UFC, and has a higher striking accuracy than Adesanya).
He is an all-offense fighter and is more than willing (and capable) of taking damage on his way in in exchange for landing his own. A pressure fighter like Costa is quite literally the scariest kind of fighter to face in combat - a man that never lets off the gas, is constantly on you, never letting you breathe, always battering every part of your body until you or your body quit.
Costa has however gotten a little too aggressive at times and has shown little regard for his opponent's power, as was on full display at times in the fight with Romero. Though his chin held up remarkably well and his willingness to wade into exchanges is part of what makes his style so devastating, he's got to avoid running into a big counter from Adesanya if he wants to stick around long enough for that pressure to pay off.
Adesanya on the other hand has his work cut out for him against "The Eraser".
A swarmer the likes of Borrachinha is kryptonite for a traditional outfighter, though Adesanya's countering ability at least means he won't be rendered helpless. A similar outfighter (when he's on at least) Uriah Hall showed success in pockets by sticking Costa with the jab and running around the outside, but Costa's pressure and tenacity simply broke him down as Paulo was more than willing to walk through the jab and chip away at his body.
Instead, Adesanya is going to have to stay mobile and land something early that makes Costa wary of coming in - something that nearly all of his opponents have tried and even a one-strike knockout artist the caliber of Yoel Romero have failed. Barring that, Israel's best chances for victory come in making Costa work and outlasting the muscle-bound demolisher, something that will take a ton of toughness and heart alongside an iron jaw.
Adesanya's reliance on head movement for defense however may actually hinder him here against Costa given Borrachinha's dedication to body shots - though he may be able to get his head out of the way, the body is a much easier target to hit and Costa's assault on his victim's midsections has regularly paid dividends. Against a taller opponent like Adesanya, the body work becomes even more crucial to his success, and Israel is going to have to use his sizable reach advantage to great effect if he wants to avoid getting systematically overloaded.
If he can't hurt Costa badly with a counter early, Adesanya is going to have to take the fight to Costa in order to wear him out before his own body succumbs to the unrelenting pressure - a smart tactic may actually be to grapple with the Brazilian (so long as he doesn't find himself underneath Costa for long, which will likely result in a short night for the champion) and dedicate himself to tying Paulo up in the clinch.
Though primarily an outfighter and at a disadvantage in strength, his striking in the clinch is excellent and the more he can force Costa to work early and muscle his way out of things without taking too much damage himself, the better his chances are of victory.
Unfortunately for the champion, Costa's style is tailor-made to give him problems; that isn't to say that Adesanya isn't going to be in this fight as it is sure to be a war and he very well could catch Costa on the way in, but Borrachinha and his remarkable offensive prowess have the edge in this fantastic match-up.
Either way, tune in to see one of the biggest fights of the year and just the second undefeated versus undefeated men's bout in modern UFC history.
Pick: Paulo Costa by second round (T)KO