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UFC 253 predictions, preview, and analysis

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El Flaco Victorioso!

After a lengthy stint at the APEX facility in Las Vegas, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to “Fight Island” this Sat. evening (Sept. 26, 2020) for a championship doubleheader featuring some of the highest-level striking in mixed martial arts (MMA).

The main event sees undisputed 185-pound champion Israel Adesanya lock horns with fellow unbeaten middleweight Paulo Costa, who’s scored four knockouts in five UFC appearances. 20 pounds north, former title challenger Dominick Reyes attempts to remove the “uncrowned” portion of his championship status against Polish veteran Jan Blachowicz.

The pay-per-view (PPV) main card will also feature a flyweight attraction between Kai Kara-France and Brandon Royval, a bantamweight clash pitting contender Ketlen Vieira against the resurgent Sijara Eubanks, and a featherweight opener between prospects Hakeem Dawodu and Zubaira Tukhugov.

Our usual main card guy is still in traction after getting run over by the Khamzat Chimaev hype train, so you’ll have to deal with me once again. As always, we’ve got UFC 253 “Prelims” analysis here and here, plus some “Adesanya vs. Costa” gambling advice here.

Let’s get to it.

185 lb. Championship: Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya (c) vs. Paulo “The Eraser” Costa

I had the vaguest memories of watching a young Costa gas out against natural welterweight Marcio “Lyoto” on TUF Brazil 3, so you can imagine my surprise at seeing him join the UFC three years later and immediately start wrecking shop. He’s developed into a veritable force of nature, marching forward with a blend of implacability and raw power that makes me nostalgic for John Lineker’s UFC days.

That said, it’s worth looking beyond his physique at what he’s actually accomplished in the Octagon, and outside of that impressive split decision over Yoel Romero last year, his résumé is worryingly thin. His other four UFC victories came, in chronological order, against:

  • Garreth McLellan. Left the UFC after going 1-4 and got knocked out in his return to the South African circuit.
  • Oluwale Bamgbose. Left the UFC after going 1-4.
  • Johny Hendricks. An over-the-hill welterweight who’d lost four of five coming in.
  • Uriah Hall. Had lost three of four coming in.

Of those four, only Hall could be considered a technical striker, and he managed to land practically every jab he threw before his infamously poor cage awareness succumbed to Costa’s pressure. Not exactly adequate preparation for Adesanya, who sports virtually unmatched kickboxing credentials and a ridiculous eight-inch reach advantage.

Costa absolutely needs to get his pressure going and invest in the body shots early, but he actually has to catch Adesanya to do that. While the much smaller Kelvin Gastelum found the mark on Adesanya on more than one occasion, he posed a wrestling threat that Costa does not. In a pure striking match set in an Octagon far bigger and more movement-friendly than the sort of kickboxing rings Adesanya’s spent his whole adult life dancing in, Costa will be the Coyote to Adesanya’s Roadrunner, always just out of reach of his prey.

The counterargument would be that Costa, who relies on consistent forward motion instead of technical entries, could just tank Adesanya’s return fire until opportunities for close-range slugging arise. That one’s not likely to pay dividends; sure, Costa successfully traded heat with Romero for 15 minutes, but Robert Whittaker spent 50 minutes in the cage with “Soldier of God” and still got knocked stupid by Adesanya’s counters.

Adesanya’s just too elusive and too destructive off the back foot for Costa to get his game going, and it won’t be long before the Brazilian’s face-first approach gets him erased.

Prediction: Adesanya via second-round technical knockout

205 lb. Championship: Dominick “The Devastator” Reyes vs. Jan Blachowicz

Speaking of impressive improvement, how about Jan Blachowicz? He went from losing to Soukoudjou and gassing with clockwork regularity to winning seven of his last eight. Dramatic upgrades to his gas tank and defensive wrestling have finally made him what we thought he was when he kicked Ilir Latifi’s liver into the Stockholm skyline.

But is that enough to carry him past a genuine uncrowned king? Well, maybe.

Dominick Reyes definitely has the edge in speed and tends to throw tighter, straighter punches than Blachowicz alongside his signature kicks. So long as both of them are operating at or near full capacity, Reyes should handily control the fight at a distance, using his footwork to run circles around the powerful-but-lumbering Pole.

The question, then, is how long Reyes can keep that up.

The one constant throughout Blachowicz’s roller coaster of a UFC career has been his durability. Aside from Thiago Santos, who could probably punch through an armored car if given reason to do so and who caught Blachowicz rushing in, nobody’s been able to make him flinch; not Jimi Manuwa, not Alexander Gustafsson, not Jared Cannonier, not Nikita Krylov. Reyes isn’t putting him down with anything short of a flush shin to the dome, and that means he’s got 25 minutes of work ahead of him. He only managed 15 good ones against Jon Jones.

Then again, Blachowicz’s style is far less attrition-based than Jones’, and Reyes now has experience going five rounds. We can almost certainly expect better pacing from “The Devastator”, if nothing else, and that’s bad news for Blachowicz. Reyes isn’t going to charge headlong into a counter or fruitlessly spend energy trying to take him down against the fence like some of Blachowicz’s recent opponents, and I don’t trust Blachowicz’s ability to force the issue after Santos debacle. Reyes picks his spots, stays mobile, and takes Blachowicz at range to claim the UFC Light Heavyweight title.

Prediction: Reyes via unanimous decision

125 lbs.: Kai “Don’t Blink” Kara-France vs. Brandon “Raw Dawg” Royval

A non-title flyweight fight on a PPV main card? Between two highly entertaining contenders? Not sure when Dana had his change of heart, but sign me up.

While he hasn’t managed to put anyone to sleep in the Octagon yet, Kara-France has been consistently successful and consistently entertaining, winning four of five while showing off some solid grappling chops to complement his signature power striking. Royval, meanwhile, showed off his ridiculous submission prowess in his Fight of the Night with Tim Elliott back in May. However this ends up playing out, odds are we’re going to have a great time watching it.

And Kara-France will have an even better time winning it.

Royval’s key weakness is his nonexistent wrestling, which forces him to try and provoke opponents into takedown attempts wit aggressive striking. So long as Kara-France doesn’t willingly initiate a ground battle, he should be able to dominate the striking despite being the shorter man by a fair margin. Royval needs a knockdown or fortunate scramble for his jiu-jitsu to play any sort of factor, and considering Kara-France is durable and hasn’t been tapped since 2015, that doesn’t seem terribly likely.

“Raw Dawg” only needs one moment of vulnerability to turn any fight around, but he’s not likely to find one without having to walk through a world of hurt. Kara-France batters him with overhand rights for either his first UFC knockout or a wide decision.

Prediction: Kara-France via unanimous decision

135 lbs.: Ketlen “Fenomeno” Vieira vs. Sijara “Sarj” Eubanks

I think I can be forgiven for dismissing Eubanks’ chances against Julia Avila a couple weeks back; losing to Bethe Correia in this day and age tends to reflect badly on a fighter. I assure you that I’m not picking her here in an attempt to save face.

As effective as Vieira is on the mat, this looks like a terrible stylistic matchup. Eubanks has her beat on the feet, has significantly improved her wrestling, and has a world-class BJJ pedigree with which to neutralize Vieira’s ground attack. So long as her gas tank holds up, Eubanks can dominate no matter where the fight takes place, and Vieira doesn’t have the sort of exhausting pressure attack that Correia and Aspen Ladd used to great effect against “Sarj.”

Vieira’s significantly taller than her, admittedly, but lacks the technical striking prowess to make use of that advantage

Simply put, Eubanks has the skills to set her preferred pace and either chew Vieira up on the feet or grind her out from top position. Apologies for the rather short breakdown, but sometimes things are just straightforward. Eubanks cruises to a comfortable victory.

Prediction: Eubanks via unanimous decision

145 lbs.: “Mean” Hakeem Dawodu vs. Zubaira “Warrior” Tukhugov

My “New Blood” article on Dawodu was full of praise, touting him as a prospect on the level of Calvin Kattar or Alexander Volkanovski while confidently proclaiming that he’d be “in the Top 15 before long.” Then Danny Henry choked him out in 39 seconds.

Not my finest hour.

He’s since won four straight and generally looked good doing so, but he’s yet to face anyone more notable than Julio Arce or make any significant progress up the rankings. He’ll get finally get the chance to prove his mettle against a genuine name in Tukhugov.

While Tukhugov’s UFC 226 debacle, subsequent three-year layoff, and flat performance against Lerone Murphy upon his return made him something of an afterthought, his recent knockout of Kevin Aguilar reminded us why he was once such a touted prospect. He’s still not elite, mind, but he boasts genuine power in his hands and a highly effective wrestling game, both of which have troubled Dawodu in the past.

If Dawodu is what I think he is, though, he has the tools to make this a coming-out party. He massively improved his takedown defense after drawing with Marat Magomedov in 2015, leading to a knockout victory in their rematch, and his nasty body attack could pay serious dividends if Tukhugov’s cardio issues against Murphy weren’t exclusively a product of cage rust. In addition, Dawodu is quite a bit busier and more rounded on the feet; dangerous as Tukhugov is, he’s more volatile than versatile, relying on those wide swings and the occasional spinning sh*t rather than a cohesive striking strategy.

Tukhugov could end up leveling Dawodu in the first few minutes the way Henry did, but I like the Canadian to steadily outwork and break Tukhugov down en route to a late finish.

Prediction: Dawodu via third-round technical knockout

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 253 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the early ESPN 2/ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance (also on ESPN 2/ESPN+) at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 253: “Adesanya vs. Costa” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.