As the MMA world prepares for two championship fights at UFC 253 on Saturday, another storyline developed when the promotion signed former Bellator champ Michael Chandler and immediately put him in position to possibly debut with a title shot at UFC 254.
Chandler will fill in if either champ Khabib Nurmagomedov or interim champ Justin Gaethje falls out of the Oct. 24 main event. Is that fair to longtime UFC lightweight contenders Tony Ferguson and Dustin Poirier, who have been competing against — and beating — the best lightweights in the world for years?
Poirier had been training for a Ferguson bout at UFC 254, but he left camp when negotiations broke down. Ferguson publicly supported Poirier’s efforts to get paid. Can their fight be salvaged?
But in the meantime, middleweight champ Israel Adesanya defends his belt against Paulo Costa on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, following the first UFC light heavyweight title fight since Jon Jones vacated the belt to pursue heavyweight goals. Dominick Reyes, who lost a controversial decision to Jones in February, will have his second straight shot at the title when he faces Jan Blachowicz. Will it be good to have a new champ in a division Jones has dominated for the better part of a decade?
As far as the main event, what can be expected from Adesanya, who heard the boos when he decisioned Yoel Romero in a lackluster bout in March? And if Costa is going to win, will he have to do it early?
ESPN’s MMA experts — Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy — break down what’s real and what’s not.
Real or not: Israel Adesanya will be more aggressive vs. Paulo Costa because of the criticism he faced after a lackluster win over Yoel Romero
Raimondi: I don’t see that. Costa will be the aggressor, as just about all of his past fights indicate. Pushing the pace, closing the distance and roughing up Adesanya in close quarters is Costa’s best path to victory. Adesanya, who has the range advantage and is very dangerous with his striking when he’s able to keep his range, will have to weather the storm — not be aggressive.
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Adesanya has said it himself. He doesn’t expect to have to bring the fight, because Costa will do it for him. Even if that were not the case, I don’t see the Romero fight lingering much in Adesanya’s mind. He’s a disciplined, technical striker, not to mention an excellent counter puncher. Adesanya’s background is high-level kickboxing. He has fought the best kickboxers in the world and has been competitive with them — even beating some. The one thing past opponents — in MMA and kickboxing — have mentioned over and over is Adesanya’s adaptability and patience. It’s unlikely he’d abandon all that just because fans booed his fight against Romero, which was a very unique stylistic matchup.
Another thing Adesanya is very good at is risk management. He takes risks in fights but usually in such a way that he protects himself from a big counter or ending up in a bad position. Adesanya will probably be more aggressive against Costa. Not because he has something to prove but because Romero, an Olympic wrestling silver medalist, was a constant threat to take him down. Costa, while a solid wrestler in his own right, isn’t nearly on that level. And this is likely to be a striking battle.
Real or not: If Paulo Costa doesn’t knock out Israel Adesanya early, the champ will retain his title
Wagenheim: Paulo Costa fights like he’s late for an appointment.
Prior to going the distance with Yoel Romero a year ago, Costa had finished his first 12 opponents, all by midway through the second round. His first nine went down in Round 1. So yes, if Costa is going to get the job done, he’s likely to do it early.
If the fight reaches the championship rounds, will Costa be a lost cause? Not necessarily. We don’t know how Costa would fare in a five-rounder because we’ve never seen him in a fight that lasts anywhere near as long. My sense is that Costa is the kind of guy who can bull rush you all day, not at all demoralized by miss after miss because he knows that for him, an author of 11 career knockouts, it takes only one punch.
For that reason, Adesanya cannot be satisfied to simply make the burly Brazilian miss on Saturday. He needs to make Costa pay for every incursion. Adesanya is a master counterpuncher, and he needs for those skills to be sharp in this fight. If the champion lands enough stinging counters to weaken or slow Costa after a couple of rounds, Adesanya will have things his way for the rest of the bout.
Real or not: Michael Chandler should have to fight his way into a UFC title bout
Helwani: Absolutely. If only because that’s what the UFC has been telling us for years. Look, Michael Chandler is a tremendous fighter. He is a former Bellator lightweight champion. I remember being at a UFC event in 2013 and someone calling me out for stating on my show that Chandler was one of the best lightweights in the world. Seven years later, without being champion, he’s the standby for a lightweight title fight involving arguably the best lightweight ever, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and a blazing-hot Justin Gaethje?
If Chandler ends up fighting for the belt in his debut, it will be supremely unique. Remember, the UFC has told us for years that you can’t just walk into the promotion and get a title shot — if you’re a male fighter, that is. Women’s MMA is a little different given the lack of depth and promotions out there putting on high-level women’s MMA fights.
Consider this: The last male fighter to fight for the belt in his UFC debut was Joe Soto at UFC 177 in August 2014. But, as you might recall, Soto wasn’t originally scheduled to fight then-bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw that night. He replaced challenger Renan Barao the night before the event after Barao failed to make weight. So, that one doesn’t really count. He was a prelim fighter.
Prior to that, we saw Gilbert Melendez, Dominick Cruz and Jose Aldo debut in title fights, but they fought for organizations owned by Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, prior to their debuts and the latter two were given the UFC title before their debuts. All three were also champions in either Strikeforce (Melendez) or WEC (Cruz, Aldo) right before entering the UFC.
So, you have to go all the way back to 2003, when then-WFA champion Frank Trigg made his debut against welterweight champ Matt Hughes at UFC 45. For the historians, this was three years before Zuffa purchased WFA. As for a non-champion debuting in a title fight? Well, you’d have to go back to UFC 36 in March 2002 for that. That’s when Hayato Sakurai fought then-welterweight champ Hughes for the belt. Eighteen years ago.
I’m not saying Chandler isn’t a top-ranked lightweight, because he is. Absolutely. But the UFC brass can no longer state with a straight face that Bellator is the minor leagues when it is giving a fighter who was TKO’d by the current Bellator champion a little over a year ago a shot like this. If he were still the reigning, defending champion, OK, then it makes more sense. But he’s not.
Does this have something to do with Tony Ferguson and Dustin Poirier taking hard-line stances this week in negotiations? I’d venture to guess yes. But, regardless, what I just laid out are simply the facts.
And if I’m the Fergusons and/or Poiriers of the world — you know, top UFC lightweights who have been swimming with the 155 sharks for years — I’d probably feel some kind of way about this right now.
In the end, I think I speak for everyone when I say I hope this doesn’t come to fruition because we all hope to see Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje next month. What a great matchup that is. And when it does happen, here’s hoping the UFC books Chandler against a Dan Hooker or Paul Felder.
Real or not: Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson will fight each other next
Okamoto: My first inclination is to say, “Of course they’ll fight each other next.” Poirier wants to fight Ferguson. Ferguson wants to fight Poirier. They’re sort of committed to each other now. Ferguson sympathized with Poirier’s request for more money, which Poirier obviously appreciates. Not to mention, it’s the fight that makes the most sense. Rankings-wise, these guys are right there for the next title shot after Justin Gaethje. And stylistically, it’s a ridiculously good fight. So, 100 percent they’ll be each other’s next opponent … right?
The only thing that gives me hesitation is that this was the perfect time for this one. It was such an obvious spot. The UFC wanted it as an insurance plan for the UFC 254 main event title fight. And I know plenty of people want to see it as a main event, so it can be five rounds, and trust me, I agree. But the point I’m making is … if this fight didn’t come together now, what makes it more likely to come together a month, two months, three months from now? What changes? What allows it to happen? I’m not saying it won’t, I just don’t see what the big change in negotiations or circumstances will be that results in this fight happening. And everything changes so fast in MMA. There’s a new player in the division now in Michael Chandler. I could definitely be wrong on this one, but my final answer is, “No, these two will not fight each other next.”
Real or not: It will be good to have new blood atop the light heavyweight division
Murphy: “New blood” sounds appealing. But this isn’t your favorite restaurant expanding the entrees and apps on its happy hour menu. The UFC sits atop the mixed martial arts promotional heap because it — mostly — hosts the absolute elite in each weight class. The question of “Who is the best fighter in this division on this planet?” finds its answer in the Octagon.
Jon Jones’ departure kicks wide open the door at light heavyweight. It’s great for Dominick Reyes, Jan Blachowicz, Thiago Santos and the like. But for us watching, until the king is forcibly dethroned — not by his own volition — those title fights will appear as competitions for the silver medal. And it’s far less compelling to watch a belt passed around like a hot potato than leaning forward during latter rounds as Jones is pushed by Reyes, for instance, wondering whether you’re witnessing greatness getting conquered.
Superstars sell pay-per-views and sell out arenas, not parity.
Best-case scenario: One of the rising contenders establishes himself as the new king of the hill — your guess is as good as any. It will take some time and some good fortune, but we generally don’t realize those things are happening until they’ve already arrived. If a new apex predator emerges at 205, there’s a compelling angle for Jones to return, looking to reclaim his place as the greatest light heavyweight ever. That would be a promotional dream: demand unaffected by Jones’ heavyweight pursuits should they fail. But it skyrockets if he storms back to his former home carrying another belt.
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