ISRAEL ADESANYA VS. YOEL ROMERO
The closer the fight has gotten and the more defending champ Israel Adesanya has discussed why he has singled out Yoel Romero as the man he wanted to face in his first title defense, the more intriguing this fight has become.
In less than two years, Adesanya went from making his promotional debut (UFC 221) to unifying the middleweight titles (UFC 243), posting seven wins in total and putting a stamp on the two performances that mattered most — his interim title win over Kelvin Gastelum and his “Champion vs. Champion” bout with Robert Whittaker in Melbourne last fall.
Now he’s sought out Romero because (a) he’s the scariest contender in the division, regardless of his recent results, (b) he wants to test himself against the very best available opposition, and (c) he’s motivated to one-up Whittaker (and to a lesser extent Paulo Costa) by going out there and finishing the ageless Cuban contender.
No one has ever questioned Adesanya’s moxie, but still, you have to admit that calling out Romero with designs on instantly cementing your legacy in your first title defense is a gutsy venture that has the potential to go horribly awry on Saturday night.
And that’s what ratchets the intrigue surrounding this fight up to 10.
In terms of recent results and straight wins and losses, maybe Romero isn’t the guy who should be standing across the cage from Adesanya this weekend at T-Mobile Arena; but all three of his setbacks were close decisions and with Costa sidelined and Whittaker having been beaten in October, Romero is clearly the most established, most dangerous opponent Adesanya could face in his first title defense.
There are few guys in the sport who possess the kind of quick twitch, explosive athleticism that the former Olympic wrestler brings with him to the cage and while he’s landed on the wrong side of the cards in three of his last four fights, does anyone really feel comfortable suggesting that Romero is incapable of beating Adesanya this weekend?
This one is destined to have a lasting impact on the legacies of both men and should be an electric ending to Saturday night’s festivities.
ZHANG WEILI VS. JOANNA JEDRZEJCZYK
It has been a game of musical chairs atop the strawweight division over the last couple of years, with four different women spending time seated upon the throne dating back to November 2017. Two of those women clash here to decide the direction the division will take going forward, with reigning champ Zhang Weili looking to blaze her own trail and establish her dominance, while former titleholder Joanna Jedrzejczyk aims to reclaim what was once hers in hopes of beginning a second extended reign over the strawweight ranks.
Zhang entered her title fight against Jessica Andrade having won all three of her previous UFC appearances and 19 straight fights overall, but not yet having the breakthrough performance that established her as a truly dangerous title threat.
She delivered that performance against Andrade, steamrolling the Brazilian titleholder in just 42 seconds, burying her under a tidal wave of intense pressure and powerful, accurate strikes. The victory made her the first Chinese champion in UFC history and transformed how people viewed the 30-year-old fighter, immediately prompting talk of an extended reign atop the division and potential superfights with current flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko.
Following her twin losses to Rose Namajunas, Jedrzejczyk bounced back with a good win over Tecia Torres, then dropped a unanimous decision to Shevchenko in their bout to crown the new flyweight champion at UFC 231. She took a longer break than usually following the contest, publicly addressed some of the issues that had been plaguing her camps in recent years and promised a return to the “Joanna Champion” of old.
In mid-October, she outworked Michelle Waterson over five rounds to reaffirm her standing as one of the top contenders in the division. Now she gets the opportunity to prove she’s all the way back in her highly anticipated showdown with Zhang on Saturday night.
How this one plays out should help chart a path for where the division is headed the rest of this year and beyond.
BENEIL DARIUSH VS. DRAKKAR KLOSE
This is one of those pairings that reminds you how freakishly deep and competitive the lightweight division is at the moment, as both men enter on three-fight winning streaks.
After a three-fight run without a win, Beneil Dariush has gotten healthy and gotten back to putting up victories, using his superior grappling to collect wins over Thiago Moises, Drew Dober, and Frank Camacho, the latter two falling via first-round submission. The 30-year-old has fought an incredibly tough slate in his six years on the UFC roster and has been a Top 10 fighter in the past, so it’s not difficult to forecast a return to the rankings with a couple more quality wins.
Drakkar Klose is one of those guys who no one wants to fight, and I say that with the utmost respect and admiration for the 31-year-old Michigan native. Where some fighters want to stray from their strengths and put entertainment above results, Klose is a straightforward, no flash competitor who knows who he is inside the cage and sticks to what works. He’s trained with great teams throughout the years, has a very good gas tank, and is the type of fighter who is going to make you work for every inch when you’re in there with him.
Thus far, that approach has yielded five wins in six trips into the Octagon for Klose, but this weekend’s bout with Dariush represents a step up in competition and a chance for him to show that he too is capable of adding to his current run of success and making a push to crack the rankings before the year is out.
NEIL MAGNY VS. LI JINGLIANG
Welterweights looking to begin their 2020 campaigns with a meaningful victory meet in this one as Neil Magny returns from an extended absence to face the streaking Li Jingliang.
A fixture in the Top 15 since he embarked on a three-year, 13-fight, 11-2 run inside the Octagon, Magny has split his last four appearances since climbing into the top tier of talent in the 170-pound weight class, sandwiching wins over Carlos Condit and Craig White between losses to Rafael Dos Anjos and Santiago Ponzinibbio. Injuries and an anti-doping violation — where he was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing — have kept the 32-year-old Magny out of action since the end of 2018, but if anyone can hit the ground running after such a lengthy layoff, it’s the long, rangy cardio machine representing the Elevation Fight Team.
Li has been in the UFC for six years now, but it’s only over the last three that “The Leech” has really hit his stride. After alternating wins and losses through his first four appearances, Li has gone 7-1 over his last eight appearances, including back-to-back finishes of David Zawada and Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos.
His fight last year with dos Santos was a major test and he passed with flying colors, now Li gets the chance to punch his ticket into the Top 15 by spoiling the return of someone who has called the welterweight rankings home for the last several years.
ALEX OLIVEIRA VS. MAX GRIFFIN
While it doesn’t carry the divisional significance of the Magny-Li clash that will follow it into the Octagon, Saturday’s main card opener between Alex Oliveira and Max Griffin is almost guaranteed to kick off the pay-per-view in exhilarating fashion.
Both men are allergic to being in boring fights, with Oliveira remaining one of the most consistently entertaining and active fighters in the division over the last four years, and Griffin taking part in a host of back-and-forth battles during his first eight appearances inside the Octagon. Each man has landed on the wrong side of the results more often than they would prefer in recent years, but several of those contests where either close, sometimes debatable decisions, or bouts where the action shifted on a dime, altering the outcome.
This is the kind of matchup designed to be a jolt of electricity to get the main card started and it would be surprising if these two veterans didn’t deliver this weekend in Las Vegas.
SEAN O’MALLEY VS. JOSE QUINONEZ
Outside of the twin championship fights atop the marquee, this might be the fight people are most looking forward to on Saturday night, as after a two-year hiatus, “Sugar” Sean O’Malley makes his return to action against durable veteran Jose Quinonez in the final bout of the televised prelims on ESPN.
The breakout star on the first season of the Contender Series, O’Malley garnered more hype and momentum by posting consecutive victories over Terrion Ware and Andre Soukhamthath in his first two UFC appearances while being a charismatic, engaging personality. Since then, the 25-year-old has been on the shelf, yet this has actually elevated his profile and made this comeback fight an even bigger deal.
Quinonez has quietly won five of his last six, with his lone setback coming against British prospect Nathaniel Wood. The former TUF Latin America finalist was initially slated to face O’Malley all the way back at UFC 229, and jumped at the opportunity to once again be lined up opposite the high-profile prospect this weekend.
This is a surprisingly high-pressure fight for O’Malley even though it’s just his third appearance inside the Octagon. His initial success had him poised for a major push and projected to do big things in the bantamweight division, which has only gotten stronger during his hiatus. He’s always been one to court the spotlight, but now that it’s trained on him, how will the promising Montana native respond this weekend?
MARK O. MADSEN VS. AUSTIN HUBBARD
Exhibit 8 in the ongoing case to show that lightweight is tremendously deep and competitive at the moment comes in the form of this clash between emerging talents Mark O. Madsen and Austin Hubbard.
The 35-year-old Madsen is a four-time Olympian who won a silver medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2016 games. He committed to MMA full time in 2018, won six fights in 18 months to push his record to 8-0 and then ran through Danilo Belluardo like a chainsaw through a giant oak in his UFC debut last fall at home in Denmark.
Hubbard also made his Octagon debut last year, entering on a three-fight winning streak and exiting on the wrong side of a decision loss to Davi Ramos. A shade under four months later, the Elevation Fight Team representative rebounded by collecting 29-28 scores across the board in a bout with Canadian Kyle Prepolec in Vancouver.
Madsen has flashed “fast track” potential and Hubbard has been tabbed as a long-range prospect who could develop into a guy to watch in the division, similar to his teammate Curtis Blaydes, who needed a few years to find his footing, but is now a Top 5 fixture at heavyweight. Getting them in the cage against one another is great way to get a more detailed read on where each one stands at the moment and should produce an entertaining scrap in the middle of Saturday’s televised prelims.
RODOLFO VIEIRA VS. SAPARBEG SAFAROV
One of two middleweight contests slated for the preliminary portion of this weekend’s card, this one offers an opportunity to get a second look at Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Rodolfo Vieira as he squares off with former light heavyweight Saparbeg Safarov.
Vieira was an absolute stud on the mats, winning four world championships and standing as one of the top competitors of his time. Now, the 30-year-old “Black Belt Hunter” has shifted his focus to MMA and hit the ground running, amassing six stoppage victories to begin his career. Though he struggled at times in his initial Octagon appearance last summer against Oscar Piechota, Vieira fought through the fatigue and inexperience to secure a second-round submission victory and should be more comfortable this time around.
The 33-year-old Safarov arrived in the UFC with an undefeated record, dropped his first two appearances to Gian Villante and Tyson Pedro, and then rebounded with a victory last March in London. Now he’s moving 20 pounds south to compete in the 185-pound weight class, where his size, reach, and power should make him a better fit.
This is a quality matchup for both men as they look to take another step forward in their respective UFC careers. For Safarov, it’s an opportunity to knock off a respected, intriguing newcomer, and for Vieira, it’s a chance to show he’s made improvements since his win over Piechota and build a little more momentum.
Which one will capitalize on the opportunity before them this weekend?
GERALD MEERSCHAERT VS. DERON WINN
The UFC 248 televised prelims begin with a middleweight contest between Gerald Meerschaert and Deron Winn, two fighters looking to bounce back from losses and solidify their place in the division to begin 2020.
A pro for more than a dozen years, Meerschaert is one of the most experienced fighters in the division, carrying a 29-12 record to Saturday’s contest, his 10th appearance inside the Octagon. The Roufusport product is unflappable in the cage and ultra-confident in his grappling abilities, with good reason, as 21 of his wins have come by way of submission. He’s landed on the wrong side of split decision verdicts in each of his last two losses, so don’t be surprised if “GM3” pushes a little harder to avoid the scorecards this weekend.
The protégé of former “Double Champ” Daniel Cormier, Winn earned a victory over Eric Spicely in his promotional debut last June, but came out on the wrong side of the cards in his sophomore showdown with Darren Stewart four months later. On the heels of his first professional loss, it will be interesting to see how the undersized wrestler responds when he steps into the Octagon against the most seasoned, accomplished fighter he’s faced to date.
EMILY WHITMIRE VS. POLYANA VIANA
Long before the strawweight title is defended on the main card, hopefuls in the 115-pound weight clash collide, as Emily Whitmire and Polyana Viana look to get back into the win column.
A cast member on Season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter, Whitmire had her tidy two-fight winning streak snapped last summer by Amanda Ribas, the streaking Brazilian slated to face Randa Markos next weekend in Brasilia. Now 2-2 in the Octagon and 4-3 overall, the Las Vegas resident has shown glimpses of potential and enters 2020 looking for the kind of consistency needed to make meaningful headway in the competitive strawweight division.
Viana earned a first-round submission victory in her promotional debut two years ago, but arrives in Las Vegas on a three-fight slide and was finished for the first time in her career last time out, making this a crucial contest for the 27-year-old.
JAMALL EMMERS VS. GIGA CHIKADZE
Contender Series alums Jamall Emmers and Giga Chikadze square off in a featherweight bout at T-Mobile Arena.
Emmers, who landed on the wrong side of the results in his Contender Series appearance, was tabbed to replace Douglas Silva de Andrade opposite Movsar Evloev on Saturday night before the promising Russian prospect was involved in a motorcycle accident late last week and forced to withdraw from the bout. He’s earned four straight stoppage wins since his June 2018 audition, including a first-round finish of former TUF finalist Jay Cucciniello, and also holds a victory over current bantamweight rising star Cory Sandhagen.
A former kickboxer who dropped his Las Vegas audition during Season 2 of the Contender Series, Chikadze bounced back with a pair of rapid finishes under the Gladiator Challenge banner, then earned a split decision nod over Brandon Davis in his promotional debut last fall in Denmark. Initially slated to face Mike Davis last weekend in Norfolk, Chikadze was pulled from the card when Davis was felled with an injury, but was quickly reshuffled to this weekend’s card once Evloev went down.
DANAA BATGEREL VS. GUIDO CANNETTI
Bantamweights searching for a positive start to the year meet in this one as Danaa Batgerel makes his second foray into the Octagon for a date with Argentinian veteran Guido Cannetti.
A member of Team Werdum on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, Cannetti has alternated losses and wins over his first five UFC appearances, while also facing a pair of extended absences, including a 16-month hiatus prior to this one. He’s faced significantly stiffer competition throughout his career than his opponent this weekend, and for the superstitious types, it should be noted that the 40-year-old veteran is coming off a loss in his last appearance.
Danaa made his UFC debut last summer, dropping a unanimous decision to AlatengHeili at the end of August, which snapped his mild two-fight winning streak. Though he’s only fought thrice since returning from a two-year sabbatical, Danaa does hold a prior victory over current flyweight contender Kai Kara-France and should be far more comfortable now that he’s already competed in the Octagon before and isn’t fighting close to home.
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