The second stint in Fight Island is upon us. The UFC packed up the flagship the moment Tyron Woodley was unable to continue in the fifth in his grudge match with Colby Covington. Wheels were up and the Las Vegas home was uprooted, set once again for the Abu Dhabi bubble. Amid the wealth, aloft the sand dunes, to appease their hosts the UFC brought jammed the convoy with some incredible fights.
The proceedings begin with an ANZAC invasion, a familiar sight to UFC 243 in Australia, and the City Kickboxing team are once again out in force. Coach Eugene Bareman will have his work cut out come fight night. Reminiscent of UFC Dublin when Coach John Kavanagh was running (literally) back and forth for fighter warmups, walkouts, and then cornering.
Topping the bill for the first card back in the Middle East is the big one, the most anticipated, the fighter the Sheikhs specifically requested. Two undefeated records on the line for all the glory. Adesanya is looking for the 2nd defence of his Middleweight title, after winning the Interim Championship in Fight of The Year against Kelvin Gastelum. Later unifying the belt against Robert Whittaker in the aforementioned UFC 243.
The adversary Paulo Costa looking to cement his name in the history books, to give Nigerian born Adesanya his first loss and to begin his own legacy as 185lb King.
Israel Adesanya (19-0) vs Paulo Costa (13-0)
Israel Adesanya is the stand-in face of the UFC right now, whilst Conor McGregor is engaging in a charade of retirement, and a litany of extracurricular activities outside of fighting. The vacuum for stardom has been filled by The Last Stylebender.
Israel brings something fresh to the UFC. He brings himself, unapologetically. He brings his unique style, displays of vulnerability, confidence, humanity and beautiful mix of New Zealand and Nigerian culture presented in a way that only elevates his star. Stylebender has connected with a new set of fans, his love of video games, of Anime, of music, of fashion, of culture shines through to a subset of people that you may not usually associate with two humans being locked in a cage throwing bones at one another.
Not to mention his actual fighting. Adesanya has a history of elite level kickboxing, therefore his striking as is expected. What is so vastly impressive however about Israel is his fight IQ, and his movement. His control of range, and distance, ensuring the fight is contested in an arena of his choosing, at the pace of his choosing is often breath-taking.
Paulo Costa is on the surface a seemingly much simpler equation. This man lives up to his “The Eraser” moniker in every way when the soles of his feet meet the octagon canvas. 5 UFC fights have seen 4 vicious stoppages. Costa is marketed as a destroyer, a finisher, a giant of a man, and rightly so. The only man to take Paulo to a decision is similar genetic monolith: Yoel Romero, and if you believe Luke Rockhold, that man is made of metal.
The run-ins to this fight have been quite drastically different for both men. Adesanya caused quite a stir upon his entry in the UFC. Any man that gets MMA legend @Grabaka_Hitman to have his Twitter profile picture of you, is probably a big deal. Caposa spoke highly of Adesanya’s style and kickboxing record. When Israel stepped into the cage against Rob Wilkinson at UFC 221 and dispatched of him expertly in round 2, the signs of an uber prospect became apparent. A split decision win over Marvin Vettori rolled into a domination of gatekeeper Brad Tavares.
For many, it truly began with Derek Brunson, Brunson is a man with wins over some of the sports best on his resume, and Israel ran through him in a round. Izzy wanted Anderson Silva as a legacy match and was given it. That lead us to the fight that lifted this man into the stratosphere. His fight with Kelvin Gastelum. There may need to be a future article on that fight alone. The twists and turns, to culminate in the fifth round the way it did was outstanding.
Izzy then had his homecoming at UFC 243, Australia. In front of the biggest UFC crowd ever, he wowed with the entrance, and then the finish over Rob Whittaker. A dull affair against Yoel Romero, brings us to The Eraser.
For Costa, his path to the title shot was carved by concussions, broken bones and ferocity. In his fights his best work comes when he can pressure his opponents up against the fence, and land shots with a wild, almost reckless abandon. Coupled with a gigantic frame for the weight class, Costa uses the size to cut the cage off when his opponents attempt to escape what must feel like imminent slaughter, and they are the animal, desperately attempting to flee.
This was shown best in his fight against Uriah Hall and in parts against Yoel Romero, the main difference being that Yoel, a rhino in his own right had the power to hurt Costa by countering with big shots when backed up against the fence. That made Costa weary of investing all his coal into the engine of his steam train when faced with that position. Hall however, did not manage to gain that same respect and was finished there, against the cage, in a similar fashion to Johnny Hendricks.
Costa’s striking whilst very linear has improved. His head movement against Romero in the first couple of rounds looked far better than in previous outings. The right sided kicks also looked phenomenal. However footwork is where he lacks the most, lateral movement is also a big problem, and his ability to create angles instead of follow will likely cause him issues in this fight.
Adesanya, has been vocal on a plethora of occasions that this fight is a simple one for him. He believes he has spent his kickboxing career fighting guys like Costa, in a much smaller venue of the squared circle. Adesanya admittedly is a master of footwork, of feints, of the sultry and finer details of the striking game. This was most apparent in the chess match he had with Anderson Silva.
Where Israel struggles is when he must lead the dance, like with Yoel Romero, and that I just do not see being a problem for him, in this match-up. Costa is a forward moving, pressure fighter and that is something Izzy loves. The unique thing about Costa, is that when he is coming forward, and pressuring you, anything can turn your lights off, from a clean shot to a grazing hook, he is dangerous.
The UFC has marketed this fight with an air of David and Goliath. A misty, hazy mixture of archetypes. The promotional machine is painting Costa to be Goliath, and the Champion to be the slighter image of David. I suspect that come Saturday, if David can keep a cerebral focus at 100%, we will once again see that size, doesn’t always equal dominance.
Does Costa erase the Last Stylebender, or do we see another name added to Israel’s Death Note?
Dominick Reyes (12-1) vs Jan Blachowicz (26-8)
When Jon Jones announced on Twitter that he was relinquishing his UFC LHW title, in pursuit of moving up to Heavyweight, a gargantuan power vacuum was created in his wake. Jones reigned supreme in the 205lb division for almost 9 years, in blissfully dominant fashion. When the news came – the natural order, the natural hierarchy was disrupted.
However, on the back of an awfully close decision loss to the former champion in February, California native Dominick Reyes was the front runner for a crack at the vacant title. The only question was who should stand across from him. That was decided to be the holder of “Legendary Polish Power”, Jan Blachowicz. Jan, has been a perennial contender in the division for 3 years, riding a 4 fight winning streak into his fight with Thiago Santos before rebounding to that loss with a 3 fight win streak over Jacare, Corey Anderson and former 185lb champion, Luke Rockhold.
This is a battle for the flag bearer of the new era, the new king, the new regime at LHW. Youth vs Experience is the tale of this fight. Jan standing at 26-8-0, has all the experience you could ask for. He has fought a who’s who of the division, seen all the styles you can expect to see, and works from a solid kickboxing base with hands that have earnt him the right to be branded as “Legendary Polish Power”.
On the other hand, you have Dominick Reyes, at 12-1 this is a man that although only have 13 fights to his name, 7 of those have been under the UFC banner. His only loss coming in that controversial decision loss to Bones Jones. Reyes speaks affluently about his fight IQ, and his athleticism, and that certainly can be seen in his fights. Crisp boxing, solid footwork and an underrated grappling game are the chips that Dom will look to bring to the table come Saturday night.
The fight will likely stay on the fight for the majority. The book is written on the way Jan Blachowicz wants to handle his fights, he wants to hurt you on the feet, and if you fall he can follow up and submit you, or in the case of Devin Clark, he can submit you standing. However, having landed just under half of the takedowns that he has attempted, to Dom Reyes’ having a takedown defence record of 82%, it would be unlikely to see Jan try to implement a wrestle heavy approach here.
Reyes’ game plan is simple, allow Jan to come inside, and time the counters. We saw him countered well by Thiago Santos, and by Alexander Gustafsson and it would be surprising to see Dominick adopt a grappling heavy style, with an average fight time of only 9:07 minutes and a 58% KO/TKO record, The Devastator will look to once again live up to his moniker.
Do we see the title finally grace the hard-working, toiled hands of European Blachowicz, or do we see America triumph and the new era be brought in by the new generation at 205?
Hakeem Dawodu (11-1-1) vs Zubaira Tukhugov (19-4-1)
This fight to me has a strange placing on the card. With City Kickboxing having four fighters on the card, and Kai Kara-France being a ranked Flyweight I would have expected to see him in this slot, however, Zubaira’s links with Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and his involvement in the events post UFC 229 has garnered him a certain level of attention.
Hakeem is looking to continue his rise in the featherweight picture, a highly touted prospect upon his debut to the UFC at UFC Fight Night 127, but he fell to the arms of Danny Henry who secured a brutal guillotine choke. To his credit, Dawodu bounced back with 4 wins on the bounce, with names like Kyle Bochniak (you might remember him for his war against Zabit Magomedsharipov), Austin Arnett and Julio Arce.
Whilst on paper this fight looks like a battle between wrestler and striker, this will likely look more like a battle for range. Hakeem looking to enter his striking range early and often, whereas Zubaira often sets up his takedowns from striking blitzes into the pocket whilst circling off around the edge of the cage. Tukhugov looked impressive in his fight against Renato Moicano and Kevin Aguilar, and will want to take that into this one, Dawodu will want to continue his streak of 4, and try to push for a fight that could take him into the rankings.
Kai Kara-France (21-8) vs Brandon Royval (11-4)
As odd as this may seem, this might well be a fight that decides the next fighter in title contention. With Deiveson Figueiredo fighting Cody Garbrandt, the first thing that tells you is the petri dish of contenders is slim to begin with. Looking at the rankings, it is unlikely that Joe Benavidez will get a third crack at Deiveson, Moreno is for sure in line, Askar Askarov and Alex Perez feel like they are a few fights away, Formiga and Pantoja the same.
In Kai Kara-France and Brandon Royval we have names, and we have notability. Royval has burst onto the scene and in one fight has taken the #9 spot in the rankings, with a submission win over Tim Elliot. Another statement win here, and you could well be looking in this ESPN era at the hype jumping to the front of the line.
Kara-France could also stake his claim at a title shot 4 wins in his 5 UFC outings, and a win over now hot prospect in Tyson Nam, a smooth striker with excellent footwork and good takedown defence. The New Zealand native holds the City Kickboxing style very well into his game, and at times is a joy to watch.
This fight, in some ways is a fire and ice type of situation, Royval with hectic scrambles and submission attempts, to Kara-Frances cool, methodical and logical approach to fighting. Whoever wins this, in my mind has a good shout for a #1 contenders’ matchup, so keep your eyes peeled.
Ketlen Vieira (10-1) vs Sijara Eubanks (6-4)
A late replacement here for Ketlen Vieira, Marion Reneau being forced from the fight due to injury gives way to “Sarj” Sijara Eubanks. Eubanks seems to have turned a corner in her UFC tenure, after a great performance on the Ultimate Fighter and then taking wins from Lauren Murphy and veteran Roxanne Modafferi, she dropped two decision losses. Rebounding from those with another two wins, Sijara is keen to keep the momentum rolling in a huge fight against Ketlen Vieira.
Vieira for me, is one of the prospects of this Bantamweight division, whilst suffering as loss in her last outing to heavy handed, and fellow prospect Irene Aldana, Vieria in her short tenure has wins over Ashlee Evans-Smith, a finish over Sara McMann, and a win over Cat Zingano, those are some big, big names in female MMA.
Both fighters are action fighters, both push the pace, both have finishing power, crisp striking, and a solid ground game. As far as late replacements go, this is a great one.
Diego Sanchez (30-12) vs Jake Matthew (16-4)
The typical archetype matchup from the UFC. Diego Sanchez, a veteran. Jake Matthews, a prospect that has not, yet reached the potential expected from him. One fighter attempting to clutch onto the last throngs of his career as he meanders down the slope toward retirement. The other, attempting to take the shine from a name forged from hard fought battles, and enigmatic behaviours.
Sanchez, with 42 fights more than double that of Matthews should be looking to implement his grappling against the Australian, in a similar fashion to his fights against Craig White and fellow prospect, Mikey Gall. However, the worry signs are there for Diego, in his fight against Michel Pereira, for large portions of that he was taking damage, without a real game plan to return fire. The fight was eventually stopped due to an illegal knee from the Brazilian, and we all remember the fallout in the media from Diego’s new “coach”.
Matthews, as the bigger, fresher man will look to implement his game on Sanchez. A solid, well rounded fighter, that will be looking to up his finish rate in the UFC, and with 5 rear naked chokes on his record, could it be possible we see Matthews hand Diego his first ever submission loss?
Brad Riddell (8-1) vs Alex da Silva (21-2)
This has Fight of The Night written all over it. Brad Riddell is a relentless striker, a vastly technical fighter that having transitioned over from Kickboxing is beginning to find his groove in MMA. His takedown defence is vastly impressive for a man that had no need to learn such skills until his debut in 2013. Riddell is famed for being able to fight backwards as well as forwards, Coach Eugene Bareman has long sung the praises of the capacity of Brad.
On the other side, Alex da Silva is an all action fighter. Outside of the UFC he had strung together a solid amount of wins, all coming by strikes, and yet in the UFC nearly all of his fights have shown his solid grappling style, a heavy top game, scrambles from the bottom, and his array of takedowns. Even in his eventual loss to submission artist Alexander Yakovlev, his grappling looked good until a momentary lapse got him caught. There are questions about the gas tank of da Silva, and it would not be surprising for Riddell to work the body here early. This should be a super exciting matchup, one certainly not to miss.
L’udovit Klein (16-2) vs Shane Young (13-4)
A late replacement for Shane Young in Croat L’udovit Klein. Klein comes into the UFC on the back of a 7-fight win streak, 6 stoppages. Nate Landwehr has been forced from the card due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Young will be looking to start the party for City Kickboxing with a win over the debutant, and get his UFC tenure underway properly, with only 3 fights in 3 years under the banner, his own UFC debut coming to the hands of Champion Alexander Volkanovski, no easy beginning. With only 3 of Young’s 13 wins going to a decision, there is a high chance this does not either. Klein, in his 16 wins has only gone to decision once. The Croatian will be wanting to make good on his late call up, and there is not better way than going out and winning your debut in emphatic style.
William Knight (8-1) vs Aleska Camur (6-0)
This has fireworks all over it. William Knight stormed into Dana White’s Contender Series with a vicious finish. In his short career, he has never gone to a decision. Similar can be said of Aleska Camur in that he has only been too a decision once, and that was on his UFC debut against Texan Justin Ledet.
The Light Heavyweight division is incredibly sparse at the moment, this, in the most part is because of the dominance of Jon Jones, but some fresh blood injected into this division will do it the world of good.
These men will throw down and will look for the finish.
Jeff Hughes (10-3) vs Juan Espino (9-1)
Two heavyweights looking to make good in the UFC.
Jeff Hughes has had three outings under the UFC banner and has turned up short in two of those, his fight with Todd Duffee ending via an accidental eye poke.
On the other hand, you might remember the run of Juan Espino in the Ultimate Fighter 2018. Espino however has not competed since in any organisation since. The layoff came after a well-documented hand injury, and after several unsuccessful surgeries on his hand to fix that, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and forced his return to be pushed back even further. In a recent interview he spoke of his fire to compete as often as possible, and that can only be a positive sign.
Espino’s only loss comes at the hands of Vitaly Minakov who now boasts an incredible record of 22-1, absolutely no shame in that.
Juan Epsino should have enough here, but this is the UFC Heavyweight division, and really anything can happen.
Khadis Ibragimov (8-3) vs Danilo Marques (9-2)
Another debutant on the card comes in the form of natural Middleweight Brazilian Danilo Marques, after amassing a record of -2 on the regional scene, he is thrust into the big show, in Yas Island against struggling LHW fighter Ibragimov. Khadis has picked up 3 losses on the bounce, the same 3 fights he has contested under the UFC banner.
This fight does feel like one that pre-pandemic would not have had an interest in putting on, as the three strike rule would have likely been enacted, but the times we are in gives rise to an opportunity for fighters to go out and make a name for themselves, this is an unprecedented time, so why not seek an unprecedented results? Both of these gentlemen will be looking for just that on Saturday.