ISRAEL ADESANYA VS. PAULO COSTA
The middleweight title is on the line in Saturday night’s main event as undefeated, undisputed reigning champion Israel Adesanya puts the belt on the line against unbeaten Brazilian contender Paulo Costa in a highly anticipated grudge match carrying all the elements needed to be a Fight of the Year contender.
In his first 25 months on the UFC roster, Adesanya went 8-0 inside the Octagon, winning the interim middleweight title in one of 2019’s best fights opposite Kelvin Gastelum before unifying the belts with a second-round finish of Robert Whittaker last October. In his first title defense, “The Last Stylebender” edged out Yoel Romero in a tactical chess match that allowed the Nigerian-born New Zealander to maintain his place atop the division.
Costa is a perfect 5-0 inside the Octagon and 13-0 overall, with his Fight of the Night-winning victory over Romero at UFC 241 last summer standing as the lone time he’s gone the distance in his career. The aggressive contender earned stoppage victories over Johny Hendricks and Uriah Hall prior to his clash with Romero but has been sidelined ever since after dealing with a torn biceps and various additional injuries and ailments.
Any time two undefeated fighters clash with championship gold hanging in the balance, you know you’re getting a matchup between two elite competitors and this one is no different. What ups the ante, however, is the genuine contempt and animosity that exists between these two, who have been trading barbs and boastful predictions on social media since Adesanya dispatched Whittaker to stand alone as the one true ruler of the middleweight ranks.
Stylistically, this has the potential to be electric as Costa is an aggressive striker who will look to pressure the champion, which should give the sublime counter-striker Adesanya an opportunity to utilize his complete offensive arsenal on Saturday night.
This one could end suddenly in the first round, be a protracted battle like Adesanya’s fight against Gastelum and Costa’s war with Romero, or land somewhere in between. The only thing that is certain is that everyone is already counting down the hours until these two hit the Octagon and will be on the edge of their seats from the moment the challenger starts to make his walk to the UFC cage on Saturday evening.
DOMINICK REYES VS. JAN BLACHOWICZ
A new era in the light heavyweight division begins this weekend as Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz do battle over the vacant title in a quest to become the next man to reign over the 205-pound ranks.
Some would argue that Reyes should be heading into this contest as the defending champion after the 30-year-old Californian landed on the wrong side of a debated decision loss to Jon Jones in February, which snapped his run of a dozen consecutive victories to begin his career. A former NFL hopeful with sneaky athleticism, long limbs, and proven finishing abilities, Reyes did a good job of picking his spots throughout the first three rounds of his clash with Jones before his pace slowed down the stretch.
Prior to his UFC 247 encounter with Jones, Reyes lit up Chris Weidman and posted quality performances against former title challengers Volkan Oezdemir and Ovince Saint Preux to solidify his standing as one of the top contenders in the division. Now, seven months after nearly dethroning one of the most dominant champions in UFC history, Reyes ventures back into the Octagon, focused on walking out with the light heavyweight title around his waist.
Blachowicz’ UFC career has been a tale of two halves, as he went just 2-4 over his first six starts, but has responded by posting a 7-1 record since, a run that includes stoppage wins over Nikita Krylov, Luke Rockhold, and Corey Anderson. The Polish veteran is fundamentally sound and well rounded, brandishing obvious power and a sneaky good submission game, which could be a factor on Saturday night if he looks to wrestle.
Make no mistake about it: Reyes and Blachowicz are phenomenal talents and the two men most deserving of this opportunity right now, and the winner will be the deserving ruler of the UFC light heavyweight division going forward.
Will Reyes claim the belt he nearly won earlier this year or will Blachowicz once again flash his Polish power and earn UFC gold in the process?
HAKEEM DAWODU VS. ZUBAIRA TUKHUGOV
Featherweights looking to take another step forward in the ultra-competitive division clash in the middle of the main card as Hakeem Dawodu squares off with Zubaira Tukhugov.
Dawodu arrived in the UFC sporting a 7-0-1 record and carrying a great deal of hype following an impressive run under the World Series of Fighting banner which was capped by a victory over UFC vet Steven Siler. He was rocked and submitted by Danny Henry just 39 seconds into his debut, raising questions about his potential, but the Calgary native has responded with four straight victories to affirm his standing as one of the top emerging talents in the deep 145-pound weight class.
Still just 29 years old, Tukhugov made his UFC debut all the way back in February 2014 and, like Dawodu, he too was once heralded as a future contender. He’s been limited to just five appearances since his successful debut, but heads into Saturday’s contest off a first-round stoppage win over Kevin Aguilar and is unbeaten in two bouts since he ended a more than three-year absence last fall.
This is the kind of quality matchup you get when divisions are flush with talent — a clash between two impressive, emerging fighters south of 30 who are each angling for greater opportunities going forward. Both have shown flashes of top-end potential in the past and are in the early stages of their athletic primes, meaning the time for each to start putting it all together and making a run at earning a place in the rankings is now, which should make for an entertaining clash when these two step into the cage this weekend in Abu Dhabi.
KETLEN VIEIRA VS. SIJARA EUBANKS
Bantamweights looking to climbing further up the division ranks clash in this one as Ketlen Vieira looks to rebound from her first professional loss when she takes on surging former TUF standout Sijara Eubanks on Saturday night.
Vieira was on the cusp of challenging for championship gold after posting back-to-back wins over former title challengers Sara McMann and Cat Zingano to push her record to 10-0, but a serious knee injury forced her to the sidelines for well over a year. When she finally returned last December at UFC 245, the Brazilian contender was felled by a blistering right hand from Irene Aldana late in the first round that ended her unbeaten run and knocked her out of the championship chase for the time being.
Eubanks suffered back-to-back losses upon arriving in the 135-pound weight class, losing a Fight of the Night-winning gem to Aspen Ladd before getting edged out by Brazilian veteran Bethe Correia last fall. “SarJ” got back in the win column with a victory over Sarah Moras this spring, and followed it up with a unanimous decision triumph over Julia Avila two weeks ago before tagging into this matchup as a replacement for Marion Reneau.
Both women are currently stationed inside the Top 15, which means a couple quality victories would put each of them in the thick of the title chase in the wide open 135-pound weight class. Only one of them will begin that climb back to title contention with a victory on Saturday, but the process of determining who that is should be all kinds of entertaining to watch this weekend.
KAI KARA-FRANCE VS. BRANDON ROYVAL
Ranked flyweights looking to improve their position in the quest for title contention open the main card on Saturday evening as Kai Kara-France takes on Brandon Royval.
Kara-France didn’t initially get called to the Octagon following his turn on Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter, where he lost to top-ranked Brazilian and current UFC contender Alexandre Pantoja in the quarterfinals. A five-fight winning streak eventually brought him to the UFC and he’s gone 4-1 since, most recently posting a unanimous decision win over Tyson Nam to push his record to 9-1 over his last 10 appearances.
A highly regarded prospect during his days competing under the LFA banner, Royval debuted in the Octagon earlier this spring with a second-round submission win over Tim Elliott in an entertaining bout that earned the duo Fight of the Night honors. The Factory X Muay Thai product has gone 8-2 over his last 10 bouts, posting wins over recent UFC debutant Jerome Rivera and veteran Joby Sanchez, and carries a three-fight finishing streak into his weekend’s clash with Kara-France.
The flyweight rankings are extremely fluid at the moment as the division is being re-established and re-populated, creating an abundance of opportunity for ascendent hopefuls like Kara-France and Royval. Both operate at a break-neck pace inside the Octagon and pitting them opposite one another should produce an electric start to this weekend’s pay-per-view main card.
BRAD RIDDELL VS. ALEX DA SILVA
Lightweights looking to step into the spotlight and continue working their way up the talent-rich ranks clash here as New Zealand’s Brad Riddell takes on Brazilian Alex da Silva.
A teammate of fellow UFC 253 combatants Israel Adesanya, Shane Young and Kai Kara-France, Riddell has thus far remained under the radar compared to many of his fellow City Kickboxing standouts, though he’s working to change that. “Quake” has won each of his first two appearances inside the Octagon, following up his debut win over Jamie Mullarkey with a split decision nod over Magomed Mustafaev in February, and aims to run his overall winning streak to six when he steps in with “Leko” this weekend.
The 24-year-old da Silva has already amassed a 21-2 record to this point in his career, with his latest victory coming last summer in his sophomore appearance in the Octagon against Kazula Vargas. He began his career at a young age and put together an 18-fight winning streak out of the gate, including a victory over recent Contender Series combatant Daniel Swain, and now looks to find his footing and cement his standing as someone to watch in the deep 155-pound weight class.
I mention it week after week in this space, but this fight once again underscores just how flush with talent the lightweight division is at the moment, as these two twenty-somethings are the legitimate up-and-coming competitors to keep an eye on going forward, yet still a handful of victories away from challenging for a place in the rankings. Both are athletic and talented and eager to earn greater opportunities, so their meeting on Saturday night should be an explosive affair from the outset.
DIEGO SANCHEZ VS. JAKE MATTHEWS
The original Ultimate Fighter Diego Sanchez steps into the Octagon for the 32nd time in his career in this clash with Australian upstart Jake Matthews.
The longest continually active fighter on the UFC roster, the 38-year-old Sanchez enters the cage this weekend in search of his 20th UFC win, a mark only six other competitors have reached in the past. Last time out, Sanchez collected a victory over Michel Pereira when the Brazilian was disqualified for blasting the Albuquerque native with an illegal knee late in the third round.
A dozen years Sanchez’ junior, Matthews has already logged 13 trips into the Octagon himself after starting his UFC career before turning 20, and he enters Saturday’s clash on a two-fight winning streak. The emerging Australian, who spent some time training at Jackson-Wink MMA back in the day, has really begun to find a rhythm since moving to welterweight, posting five wins in six starts as he heads into his prime years as a professional mixed martial artist.
Sanchez has been in this fight many times over during his lengthy career — positioned against a promising talent in need of a name-brand victory —and lately, he’s come out on the happy side of things. He’s fought five times since moving back to welterweight, beating three fighters with significantly less UFC experience, and falling to a pair of seasoned veterans. Matthews falls somewhere ahead of Pereira and Mickey Gall in the experience department, but behind Matt Brown and Michael Chiesa, so it will be interesting to see how things play out between he and Sanchez this weekend in Abu Dhabi.
SHANE YOUNG VS. LUDOVIT KLEIN
Another rising star of the City Kickboxing crew, Shane Young returns for the first time in over 18 months, squaring off with newcomer Ludovit Klein in this interesting featherweight pairing.
The hard-hitting, hard-headed Young was originally scheduled to face Tennessee-based wild man Nate Landwehr, but “The Train” got derailed before getting to Fight Island, leading to the 27-year-old putting his tidy two-fight winning streak on the line against Klein. Young hasn’t fought since earning a unanimous decision win over Austin Arnett in February 2019, causing him to slide under the radar in the deep and talented 145-pound weight class, but he’s won seven of his last eight with his only loss coming to reigning champ (and occasional training partner) Alexander Volkanovski, making him a dark horse with a solid chance to climb the featherweight ranks in the coming 12-18 months.
Klein has established himself as one of the top unsigned talents in the Europe over the last several years, as he’s put together a seven-fight winning streak with six finishes since losing to Aiden Lee in his lone Cage Warriors appearance in the fall of 2017. The 25-year-old Slovakian is coming off a first-round stoppage win over three-time UFC vet Lukasz Sajewski at the start of the year and has the potential to make an instant impact in the division this weekend.
Both of these men are action fighters who prefer to not get the judges involved in things, so if you’re looking for a preliminary card pairing with Fight of the Night potential or the possibility of producing a bonus, look no further than this one. It should be a fast-paced, back-and-forth affair for as long as it lasts, and the victor will be one to keep tabs on going forward.
ALEKSA CAMUR VS. WILLIAM KNIGHT
Light heavyweight graduates of the Contender Series face one another on Saturday night as Aleksa Camur returns for his sophomore appearance inside the Octagon against Season 3 developmental contract winner and recent contract recipient William Knight.
Camur, a long-time training partner of reigning heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic, earned his place on the UFC roster with a second-round stoppage win over Fabio Cherant last summer, then followed it up with a hard-fought split decision nod over veteran Justin Ledet in his debut on the opening event of the year. Knight rallied to beat Herdem Alacabek last summer to earn his developmental deal, then went 2-1 on the regional circuit before returning to the UFC Apex a couple weeks back, where he rallied to beat Cody Brundage and secure his contract.
Both Camur and Knight are still in the formative stages of their professional MMA careers, where there is a greater reliance on athleticism and natural talent as they look to gain experience and add polish to their skills in the cage. Each man has shown flashes of intriguing potential and obvious power, which means this one could very well come down to who makes a mistake or who wants it more in the latter stages of the fight.
The light heavyweight division is always in need of fresh names and an influx of talent, and both Camur and Knight could eventually become quality additions to the weight class, but on Saturday night, only one of them will take the next step forward in their career.
JUAN ESPINO VS. JEFF HUGHES
Heavyweights looking to establish themselves in the big boy division as the year rounds to a close meet in this one as Ultimate Fighter winner Juan Espino makes his official UFC debut against Contender Series alum Jeff Hughes this weekend inside the Flash Forum.
It has been nearly two years since Espino tapped out Justin Frazier in the first round of their clash at The Ultimate Fighter 28 Finale. Since then, he’s helped various friends and teammates prepare to make the walk into the Octagon and posted a number of breathtaking photos from around the world on his Instagram, but he’s yet to make the trek into the UFC cage himself, sending him into Saturday’s pairing with Hughes as a bit of an enigma.
Another member of the Strong Style Fight Team alongside Camur, the 32-year-old Hughes turned a three-fight winning streak into an invite to the Contender Series, where a first-round stoppage win garnered him a UFC contract. Since then, however, the Ohio native has suffered a pair of losses and a no contest verdict in three trips into the Octagon.
Hughes earned some quality wins on the regional circuit, including a victory over UFC heavyweight Maurice Greene, but hasn’t been able to find his footing since graduating to the big leagues, while Espino is an excellent grappler who has faced limited competition since the very early days of his career. Each man has a great deal to prove this weekend and it should be an interesting chess match as they battle to determine who will have his hand raised in Abu Dhabi.
KHADIS IBRAGIMOV VS. DANILO MARQUES
Former unbeaten prospect Khadis Ibragimov looks to right the ship as he makes his second appearance on Fight Island in this clash with UFC newcomer Danilo Marques.
The 25-year-old Ibragimov arrived in the UFC with an 8-0 record and five consecutive finishes, but it has been tough sledding for the young Russian inside the Octagon. After tiring and getting tapped out in his debut, Ibragimov dropped a decision to resurgent veteran Ed Herman towards the end of last year and walked into a nasty knee in his July encounter with Roman Dolidze. Now, he gets another chance to stop his slide and get back into the win column as he welcomes Marques to the Octagon for the first time.
The 34-year-old Marques is a part of the Kings MMA crew, having served as a corner for UFC veterans Fabricio Werdum and “Shogun” Rua in the past. He arrives in Abu Dhabi having won his last two outings to push his record to 9-2 overall, but the Brazilian hasn’t competed since February 2018 after having an appearance in Brazil cancelled earlier this year.
Training with elite partners under the watchful eye of Master Rafael Cordeiro will likely have Marques ready to step into the Octagon on Saturday, but there is always a difference between getting in rounds in the gym and going live in the cage, so it will be interesting to see how things play out between these 205ers this weekend.
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