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UFC 290 predictions, preview, and analysis

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will cap off International Fight Week with the UFC 290 pay-per-view (PPV) extravaganza, booked for this Sat. night (July 8, 2023) at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Headlining the ESPN+ card will be the featherweight title fight pitting reigning division champion and No. 2-ranked pound-for-pound “Great” Alexander Volkanovski opposite newly-crowned interim titleholder and highlight-reel machine Yair Rodriguez. Before that five-round main event gets underway, flyweight champion Brandon Moreno returns to defend his 125-pound strap against longtime nemesis Alexandre Pantoja. Robert Whittaker, Bo Nickal, and Dan Hooker will also compete this weekend in “Sin City.”

LIVE! Watch UFC 293 PPV On ESPN+ Here!

MASSIVE MIDDLEWEIGHT MATCH! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) makes its highly anticipated return to Sydney, Australia, for the first time in five years on Sat., Sept. 9, 2023, with a 185-pound world title fight inside Qudos Bank Arena. In the ESPN+-streamed pay-per-view (PPV) main event, Middleweight roost-ruler, Israel Adesanya, plans to silence No. 5-seeded contender, Sean Strickland. In UFC 293’s hard-hitting Heavyweight co-main event, No-6-ranked fan favorite, Tai Tuivasa, locks horns with towering Russian, Alexander Volkov (No. 8).

Don’t miss a single second of EPIC face-punching action!

Before we break down the five-fight PPV main card, be sure to take a closer look at our comprehensive preview and predictions for all the UFC 290 preliminary undercard action on ESPN and ESPN+ by clicking here and here. The latest UFC 290 odds and a complete betting guide for the entire “Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez” PPV event can be located here. Remember, you’ll need a subscription to ESPN+ to order this weekend’s fight card (get one here), but it comes with complete access to all the subsequent UFC “Fight Night” events in 2023 and beyond (or until you cancel your subscription).

Let’s get down to business.

145 lbs.: Featherweight Champion Alexander “The Great” Volkanovski (25-2) vs. Interim Featherweight Champion Yair “El Pantera” Rodriguez (15-3)

Alexander Volkanovski been virtually unstoppable at featherweight (depending on how you scored the Max Holloway fight at UFC 251) and nearly beat lightweight champion Islam Makhachev at UFC 284 in Perth. His run over the last seven years was good enough to land “The Great” at No. 2 on the promotion’s pound-for-pound list, second only to current heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who has an edge over the Aussie after holding titles in two separate weight classes. Volkanovski controls the wrestling in a majority of his fights and in most cases, only gets outwrestled by elite wrestlers like Chad Mendes and the aforementioned Makhachev. That has to be considered a huge advantage for the defending champion when you consider his challenger, interim featherweight champion Yair Rodriguez, has been taken down eight times across his last four fights. That’s a great Plan B if things start to get dicey on the feet (and they might) but I’m not going to parrot the UFC preview videos and laud Rodriguez for his flashy striking because fundamentals win fights. I know that might not seem applicable to a fighter like “El Pantera,” who scored a Hail Mary finish against “The Korean Zombie” at UFC Denver, but Rodriguez was outstruck in that fight — just as he was outstruck (and outwrestled) by Holloway at UFC Vegas 42.

I think in order to build a case for the upset, we have to make an argument for Rodriguez doing something against Volkanovski that he could not do against opponents who are not as good as “The Great.” That said, I would expect Rodriguez to find success early as the champ tries to acclimate himself to the taller challenger’s unorthodox attack, particularly his kicks. Against an opponent with a lesser beard, I would probably sound the alarm, but Volkanovski has a granite chin and knows how to protect it. I’m also concerned that “El Pantera” may waste too much time looking for the big shot, even though it may be his best chance at winning, because it allows Volkanovski to rack up points with his volume. Look for Rodriguez to start strong and even draw a few oohs and ahhs from the crowd, but Volkanovski is going to settle in by the second stanza and take control of this fight, which means a championship blend of takedowns and striking.

Prediction: Volkanovski def. Rodriguez by unanimous decision

125 lbs.: Flyweight champion Brandon “The Assassin Baby” Moreno (21-6-2) vs. Alexandre “The Cannibal” Pantoja (25-5)

Brandon Moreno is still only 29 years old but already has more than a decade of pro MMA experience under his belt. UFC fans got their first look at the “Assassin Baby” when he joined the cast of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 24, also known as the “Tournament of Champions” because it featured 16 flyweight champions all competing for a spot on the newly-created 125-pound roster. At the time, Moreno was the reigning World Fighting Federation titleholder and got submitted in the first episode — by Alexandre Pantoja. If you’re going to put stock in that exhibition bout then you also have to include Pantoja’s loss to Hiromasa Ogikubo in Episode 11. Despite his early defeat, Moreno would sign with UFC anyway because the promotion needed as many flyweight as it could get and the “Assassin Baby” was a promising young prospect. Since coming on board in late 2016, Moreno is 10-3-2 and has really blossomed in the second half of his career, showing vastly improved boxing and the kind of championship grit to lead him to stoppages over Deiveson Figueiredo and Kai Kara-France. The Mexican bruiser also halted No. 4-ranked Brandon Royval, giving Moreno finishes over three fighters currently ranked in the Top 5 of his division.

That’s an impressive statistic, any way you slice it.

Also impressive is the fact that Pantoja defeated Moreno when they rematched at UFC Fight Night 129 back in May 2018. “The Cannibal” also made the jump to UFC after TUF 24 and like his longtime rival, has performed consistently well at a high level. Pantoja is 9-3 with decision losses to Figueiredo and Askar Askarov, who was ranked No. 4 in the division before requesting (and getting) his release back in 2022. Pantoja is coming off three straight wins including back-to-back finishes over Royval and Alex Perez, pushing him into double digits in submission wins. Not much has changed for the 33 year-old Brazilian, stylistically speaking, he was and remains aggressive on offense with a suffocating style that is hard to defend. He also has the luxury of training with other world-class flyweights at American Top Team, including Jussier Formiga, Adriano Moraes, Kyoji Horiguchi and Victor Dias. At the same time, he’s dealing with a far more evolved version of Moreno who can neutralize reckless aggression with a punishing jab. We also have to factor in the wrestling since Moreno scored two takedowns in their 2018 meeting; though to be fair, Pantoja didn’t bother shooting for the duration of the fight. There’s a lot to like about “The Cannibal” heading into this fight, including his volume, it’s just very hard to pick against the champion when he’s firing on all cylinders. Neither fighter has ever been finished and I don’t expect that to change at UFC 290, and I also think we’re going to have a super close fight. Be prepared to argue about the deciding round on Sunday morning.

Prediction: Moreno def. Pantoja by decision

185 lbs.: Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker (24-6) vs. Dricus “Stillknocks” Du Plessis (19-2)

This fight reminds me of the matchup between Max Holloway and Arnold Allen at UFC Kansas City last April. The battle-tested ex-champion who is undefeated against everyone in the division outside of the champion taking on the talented young up-and-comer who looks to be a future title contender. Since moving up to middleweight at UFC Fight Night 55 back in late 2014, Whittaker has compiled a 12-2 record. Those two losses? Reigning 185-pound titleholder Israel Adesanya. The only knock on “The Reaper” is that he no longer finishes fights, having gone to the judges’ scorecards in his last six wins. Whittaker seems content to outbox his opponents, occasionally working in takedowns when they suit his needs. In fact, the Aussie has only been outwrestled by two fighters at middleweight: Olympic medalist Yoel Romero and ADCC champion Ronaldo Souza, two of the best in the world in their respective disciplines. In addition, Whittaker has championship cardio and a chin good enough to withstand the bludgeoning power from “Soldier of God.” Simply put, this is going to be a very difficult test for Dricus Du Plessis.

The South African slugger, who spent far too much time arguing with Adesanya over the right to represent the motherland, launched himself into the division Top 5 with a second-round finish over longtime contender Derek Brunson at UFC 285 last March. Prior to that, “Stillknocks” submitted the routinely awful Darren Till at UFC 282 after capturing a decision victory over the durable but unspectacular Brad Tavares at UFC 276. Those names sound great on paper because they are recognizable, I just don’t think they represent the level of competition needed to make a case for beating Whittaker. I’m of the opinion that a fight against Marvin Vettori or Jared Cannonier — or even Paulo Costa — would have gone a long way in proving what “DDP” is capable of in the upper half of the weight class. Without those names, all we have is an exciting young fighter with a bright future and a ton of potential. Unfortunately, Whittaker has already seen that before, and beaten it, so I don’t expect anything to change this weekend in “Sin City.”

Prediction: Whittaker def. Du Plessis by decision

155 lbs.: Dan “The Hangman” Hooker (22-12) vs. Jalin “The Tarantula” Turner (13-6)

Dan Hooker said he was “offended” when matchmakers offered him a fight against fading veteran Tony Ferguson, insisting he was still in the championship mix. I guess someone should remind “The Hangman” he’s got double digit losses and dropped four of his last six, which is why he’s no longer ranked in the division Top 10. Hooker is coming off a win over submission specialist Claudio Puelles at UFC 281 last November but I don’t think anyone is breaking out the bubbly for that performance, which had the crowd booing in the opening frame. Hooker can do everything good but nothing great and if you want to talk about his future as a title contender; first ask, what is his biggest win at lightweight? The hard-hitting Kiwi doesn’t hold any victories over a fighter currently ranked in the Top 15 so I guess the best win of his career heading into UFC 290 was his knockout finish over Gilbert Burns in summer 2018, back when “Durinho” was still cutting to 155 pounds.

That was right around the same time Jalin Turner made his first appearance on UFC programming, notching a first-round stoppage over Max Mustaki on Season 2 of Dana White’s “Contender Series” at APEX. “The Tarantula” scored an immediate UFC contract but stumbled out of the gate, falling to Vicente Luque in a short-notice fight at UFC 229. Since then, Turner is 6-2 with all six wins coming by way of knockout or submission — three in the first round. You can make the same argument against Turner that we made against Hooker in terms of beating ranked competition, though I would suggest his performance against Mateusz Gamrot — resulting in a split decision loss at UFC 285 last March — is why Turner sits one spot above “The Hangman” at No. 11. I think the big question for this matchup is whether or not Turner will be able to defend the takedown, something that cost him a decision in the Matt Frevola fight at UFC 236. My gut tells me Hooker will try to keep this standing because he’s more of a fighter than a tactician, and if that’s the case, expect the 33 year-old “Hangman” to hang himself against a younger, more dynamic opponent.

Popped, dropped, and tapped.

Prediction: Turner def. Hooker by submission

185 lbs.: Bo Nickal (4-0) vs. Valentine “The Animal” Woodburn (4-2)

Bo Nickal is a three-time NCAA Division I National Champion and a three-time Big Ten Conference Champion out of Penn State University and widely-recognized as one of the most fearsome collegiate wrestlers to ever suit up for the Nittany Lions. If Nickal wants to take you down, you’re going down, and I’m not sure there’s a middleweight on the current UFC roster who can stop him. Does that mean he’ll beat every opponent? Not necessarily, but I’m not sure Valentine Woodburn is the guy to give him problems at this stage of his combat sports career. Nickal needed two fights on Dana White’s “Contender Series” to earn a spot on the UFC roster, partly because it builds additional hype but mostly because it’s a lot cheaper than paying for a fight inside the Octagon. As expected, Nickal steamrolled both of those competitors en route to his demolition of veteran middleweight Jamie Pickett at UFC 285 last March. No disrespect to those athletes, but I don’t think Nickal even broke a sweat in any of those fights, finishing all three in less than five minutes combined.

Woodburn was previously scheduled to compete against Marco Tulio next month on Dana White’s “Contender Series” but will instead capitalize on the opportunity to jump right into the UFC middleweight division. I’m not sure what carrots matchmakers had to dangle in front of “The Animal” but I would almost guarantee one of them included multiple fights after UFC 290, win or lose. Normally I would make a big deal out of fighting on short notice but I don’t think a full training camp would have made a lick of difference. I watched one fight from Woodburn, a unanimous decision win over Wesley Almeida at Combat Night 28 in Orlando and I saw a short, muscled-up middleweight who huffed-and-puffed his way to the scorecards, probably belongs he belongs at welterweight. That kind of performance means something when paired against an elite athlete like Nickal who can push, pull, and grind for all three rounds without pause. He probably won’t need to because I’m expecting him to measure the distance, shoot like a battering ram, and send Woodburn to Tapsville in less than a minute.

Prediction: Nickal def. Woodburn by submission

Remember to check out our UFC 290 “Prelims” preview and predictions here and here.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 290 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard bouts on ABC/ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 290: “Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here. For the updated and finalized UFC 290 fight card and PPV lineup click here.

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