Israel Adesanya (L) (Phil Lambert/GLORY)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 248 Preview and Predictions

Israel Adesanya burst into the UFC early in 2018. He has taken the middleweight division by storm, fighting four times in 2018 and three times in 2019. In his second fight of 2019, Adesanya captured the interim title in Combat Press’s pick for “Fight of the Year” in a five-round, back-and-forth thriller with Kelvin Gastelum. Then, at UFC 243, he stopped Robert Whittaker to become the undisputed champion in front of the largest arena audience in UFC history. This Saturday, at UFC 248, Adesanya puts the title on the line against Cuban destroyer Yoel “Soldier of God” Romero.

Romero is coming off back-to-back decision losses to the aforementioned Whittaker and Paulo Costa. In both instances, an argument could be made that Romero should have gotten his hand raised at the conclusion of the bout. It seemed as if Costa was next in line for a shot at the title, but the Brazilian powerhouse suffered an injury. “The Last Stylebender” called for Romero to be the new challenger, despite the Cuban’s 0-2 mark over his last two fights. Adesanya views Romero as an opponent that would serve to cement his legacy as an all-time great. Romero is an Olympic silver medalist wrestler and will undoubtedly be the toughest test of Adesanya’s takedown defense. Romero also has heavy hands that have knocked out notable middleweight stalwarts like Luke Rockhold and Tim Kennedy.

In the evening’s co-main event, former strawweight queen Joanna Jędrzejczyk looks to recapture the belt she once held for several years. The Polish star challenges reigning champion Weili Zhang, the first Chinese titleholder in UFC history. Zhang won the championship with a 42-second technical knockout over Jessica Andrade in front of fans in her home country in 2019. Zhang will make her first defense of the belt against Jędrzejczyk in the fight capital of the world, Las Vegas. Jędrzejczyk is coming off a dominant unanimous-decision victory over Michelle Waterson, but she faces a stiff test against a champion who is riding a 20-fight winning streak and has not lost an MMA contest since her professional debut in 2013.


The main card also features a lightweight clash between Beneil Dariush and Drakkar Klose, as well as a pair of showdowns in the welterweight division, where Neil Magny meets Li “The Leech” Jingliang and Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira tangles with Max “Pain” Griffin. Despite being short on ranked combatants outside of the title contests, UFC 248 is full of exciting fighters that should make for an entertaining event from start to finish.

The T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas serves as host to the event on Saturday, March 7. The early prelims get underway on UFC Fight Pass at 6:15 p.m. ET. The televised prelims follow on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET. The action culminates with the main card, available on ESPN+ pay-per-view, starting at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview this week’s action as they go Toe-to-Toe.

Does Yoel Romero’s only hope for dethroning middleweight kingpin Israel Adesanya rest with his Olympic-caliber wrestling game?

Sumian: Make no mistake, this is a very dangerous move by Adesanya in every shape and form. Yes, it’s true Romero is coming off two losses. Yes, it’s true that he is 42 years old. However, if you have any doubt that Romero has a chance in this fight, I implore you to watch what he has done to some of the best fighters on the planet in the second half of his MMA career. His impressive flying-knee knockout of Chris Weidman and thunderous looping left hook to finish Luke Rockhold that sent the former champ collapsing to the canvas are two prime examples of what this man has done to younger and better-conditioned fighters in the last few years. Let’s also not forget that he has fought former titleholder Robert Whittaker in two title fights that took place within 365 days with many fans and experts believing he won the second of those clashes.

The 42-year-old Romero’s time is obviously running out. Sooner or later, his cardio and strength will take a hit and he simply will not be able to compete with the best in the world anymore. However, that time is not now. Romero is coming off a very close split-decision loss to Paulo Costa in which both men had moments of success in an all-out slugfest that resulted in multiple knockdowns, haymakers and striking flurries landing at will. Romero yet again proved he was able to hang with the younger and possibly stronger contender in an epic “Fight of the Year” candidate.

Now, Romero is in a similar situation against a young, confident and newly throned UFC middleweight kingpin who specifically called for a fight with the Cuban superstar. After Costa suffered a bicep injury that left him unable to challenge for the belt, Adesanya made it clear to the UFC and fans around the world that he had no intention to wait around for the top contender to heal. Instead, he opted to remain active by fighting the man that so-called “casual fans” believe would be able to solve the mystery that it is Adesanya. As the kickboxer famously said, “The casuals believe Romero is the guy. So I said, OK. Let’s see if this guy can do it.” Ladies and gentleman, we now get to find out.

Adesanya is 18-0 in his MMA career and 7-0 inside the Octagon. After winning the interim strap against Kelvin Gastelum, the New Zealander went on to make quick work of Whittaker in a title-unification bout that resulted in a rather easy knockout for Adesanya. Hence, the Adesanya Era has begun. Adesanya, who stands 6-foot-4 and boasts an 80-inch reach, has all the physical capabilities to be a long-lasting and dominant champion. His extensive background in kickboxing, great coaching staff, and solid takedown defense make him a force to be reckoned with. He averages 4.5 significant strikes per minute and possesses above-average striking and takedown defense. It’s apparent that Adesanya will be around for years to come and provide fans with exciting and memorable performances.

That all being said, I am picking Romero to upset the champion by TKO. The Cuban fighter was able to prove that he can get in close against Rockhold, who was similarly tall and lengthy, and do significant damage. Romero will turn in a repeat performance against the bigger and taller Adesanya. On March 7, Romero will finally get the title that has eluded him for the last few years.

Petela: Romero’s Olympic wrestling pedigree can’t be understated. An Olympic silver medal is no small feat, nor is beating the legendary Cael Sanderson twice. While it is his best hope for picking up a victory, it isn’t his only hope. Romero has hammers for fists, with power that would make Thor jealous. It is those heavy hands that will ultimately be the difference in this fight.

Romero is not a better kickboxer than Adesanya. Rather, he will connect solidly on one of his patented blitz attacks and evade the more technical striking of the champion on his way into close quarters. After stunning Adesanya, Romero will only need one or two follow-up shots to close the show.

When all is said and done, Adesanya will go down in history as one of the greatest fighters of all time. He will eventually regain the middleweight title and defend it several times before his career is over. However, UFC 248 will be the first time MMA fans see “The Last Stylebender” face defeat inside the cage. It will likely be the last time for the foreseeable future, too.

Joanna Jędrzejczyk is gunning to get the women’s strawweight title back, but does she have what it takes to get through current titleholder Weili Zhang?

Petela: Yes, UFC fans will be re-introduced to “Joanna Champion” in the co-main event.

This match-up has the makings of a five-round technical thriller. Unlike in her rematch with Rose Namajunas, Jędrzejczyk won’t come up short this time. The Polish striking ace seems reinvigorated as of late. She appeared to be at the top of her game when she gave Michelle Waterson a 25-minute thumping in her return to the strawweight division. Jędrzejczyk has a two-inch height advantage and two and a half inch reach advantage over Zhang, and she will use her technical striking to keep the champion at bay, starting her offense with a crisp jab or a push kick, and punctuating her combinations with straight right hands and low kicks.

There is no question that Zhang is dangerous. The heavy-handed Chinese titleholder needed just 42 seconds to put away Jessica Andrade and capture the title. Seventeen of her 20 pro wins have come by stoppage, including 10 via some form of knockout and seven by way of submission. If Zhang is able to close the distance and get inside the range of Jędrzejczyk, then she could change the course of the fight quickly. She should have a strength advantage in the grappling department, too. However, expect Jędrzejczyk to successfully keep her head off the center line as Zhang tries to close the distance. The Polish fighter will cut sharp angles to reset her position and avoid being drawn into a firefight with the champ.

This will be a frustrating fight for Zhang, who will become the second consecutive strawweight champion to lose the belt in her first attempt at a defense. Additionally, this won’t be the beginning of another long title reign for Jędrzejczyk, who will eventually have to face wrestling phenom Tatiana Suarez. The revolving door of 115-pound champions will continue.

Sumian: Agreed.

Jędrzejczyk will take this one. Although only 2-5 in her last five UFC bouts, Jędrzejczyk has without a doubt fought the best of the best since her arrival in the UFC. She continues to look impressive after every bout, too. Her robust striking arsenal, viscous pace, and seemingly endless cardio make her dangerous for any fighter out there. Jędrzejczyk averages an impressive 6.07 significant strikes per minute, an 81 percent takedown-defense rate, and an average fight time just over 18 minutes. She is used to long, technical battles where she is able to dictate the pace and use her stellar jab and kicks to frustrate her opponent and break their confidence round after round.

It was well done by Zhang to become the first-ever Chinese UFC champion. Her 20-fight winning streak is certainly impressive and no easy task, no matter the division. However, simply put, she has never fought anyone close to the caliber of Jędrzejczyk in regards to experience and technicality. Zhang is currently averaging 5.50 significant strikes per minute, a 100 percent takedown-defense rate, and almost two takedowns per bout. She certainly boasts strong stats and will continue to get better. Her win against Andrade was definitely impressive, but one can argue that Andrade would never have been the champion in the first place had it not been for a lucky slam of Namajunas.

Jędrzejczyk will reclaim the throne and more than likely rematch Namajunas for a trilogy fight after Namajunas exacts her revenge on Andrade in April.

Jamall Emmers — do we need to know this name?

Sumian: Emmers is an experienced, tall and physically imposing featherweight. He’s riding a four-fight winning streak and has compiled a 17-4 record outside the UFC. He seems to have the experience and background to be successful inside the Octagon.

Emmers has fought and defeated former UFC fighters Julian Erosa and Chris Avila, as well as current UFC bantamweight contender Cory Sandhagen. He’s set to meet Giga Chikadze, who most recently made his UFC debut in a split-decision victory over Brandon Davis. As long as the UFC jitters don’t come into play, expect the more experienced and well-rounded Emmers to defeat Chikadze and introduce himself to fight fans and fellow UFC featherweights.

Petela: Emmers is a veteran whose resume isn’t amazing, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either. As my colleague pointed out, he has wins over some former and current UFC fighters. Emmers will be a tough out for many folks inside the organization. With that said, I don’t see a sustained run inside the Octagon for the newcomer. He’s a guy who will deliver exciting fights on some of the smaller stages for the remainder of his career.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 248?

Petela: The obvious choice would be to go with one of the winners of the evening’s two championship bouts, but UFC 248 will also mark the return of “Sugar” Sean O’Malley after a two-year absense.

The undefeated product of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series was first supposed to face Jose Alberto Quiñonez in October 2018, but he was forced out of the fight after testing positive for ostarine. O’Malley was suspended for six months and during that time had hip surgery. He was scheduled to square off against Marlon Vera upon his return, but his problems persisted. Additional tests came back positive for ostarine, and the Vera bout was subsequently scratched. O’Malley accepted another six-month suspension after the USADA ruled that the reason for the positive tests was a tainted supplement.

With the USADA issues seemingly behind him, O’Malley now gets back to action against Quiñonez as the headlining bout of the prelim card. The “Sugar Show” will be on display, and fans will be firmly reminded why he was such a highly touted prospect coming off the Contender Series.

Sumian: Yoel Romero. The “Soldier of God” will finally get the title that has eluded him twice before. The third time’s the charm. Romero will use the patience and calmness that led to the brutal knockout of Luke Rockhold and once again rise to the occasion. The 42-year-old middleweight staple finally gets his moment on Saturday.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 248?

Sumian: Neil Magny. He is coming off a brutal knockout loss to Santiago Ponzinibbio and has not fought since November 2018. We can expect more of the same in his bout with Li Jingliang, who is riding a three-fight winning streak. Jingliang most recently knocked out Elizeu Zaleksi dos Santos, who was riding a seven-fight winning streak prior to the bout. Jingliang is a heavy, durable brawler who is averaging five significant strikes per minute. He’ll land early and often on Magny, eventually putting the lights out and sending the former top-15 welterweight tumbling further down the UFC rankings.

Petela: Israel Adesanya. This is a fight that he asked for personally, despite Romero’s two-fight skid. Nothing against the other top contenders at middleweight, but this is stylistically the most dangerous fight for the newly crowned undisputed champ. When he gets the first L on his record in devastating fashion, his stock will drop substantially. Now, I fully expect him to rebuild himself and reclaim the belt before too long, but he suffers the most in the short term.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Petela: Polyana Viana. She is on a three-fight skid, and had it not been for her stepping in on short notice for a flyweight bout against Veronica Macedo to replace Rachael Ostovich, she very likely would have gotten her pink slip after Macedo locked in an armbar just over a minute into the first round of their contest.

Viana is back at strawweight, where she’s set to take on Emily “Spitfire” Whitmire. Whitmire is 2-2 inside the UFC. She is also coming off a submission loss, which came courtesy of Amanda Ribas.

Both women need to make a statement in this fight to prove that they belong in the UFC, but it is clearly Viana who is closer to the end of her rope.

Sumian: Alex Oliveira. The welterweight veteran has 16 fights in the Octagon since his debut. However, the former top-15 Brazilian has unfortunately gone just 2-4 in the last six bouts. He is currently on a three-fight skid. With the UFC welterweight division only growing and getting more competitive, Oliveira certainly needs to show something that he hasn’t demonstrated in his last few bouts for the UFC to keep him around.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Sumian: Beneil Dariush and Drakkar Klose.

This contest is not getting anywhere near the hype it should be. It will most certainly deliver a “Fight of the Night” candidate, with both men doing their absolute best to entertain. Both combatants are currently riding three-fight winning streaks and have never ceased to provide fight fans with memorable bouts. These guys will enter the Octagon full of confidence and ready to go to war.

Petela: Guido Cannetti and Danaa Batgerel.

Bantamweight fights are fun. These guys both finish fights, and the odds are this one doesn’t make it to the final bell. Six of the eight wins for Cannetti have come by finish. Five of seven wins for Batgerel have rendered the judges’ scorecards useless. Expect early fireworks.

Pair this card with…

Petela: Cigars. With Yoel Romero, one of Cuba’s finest exports, headlining the event, you should pair this card with another one of the Caribbean island’s most notable exports. Whether you decide to enjoy a stick during the event in anticipation of the crowning moment of Romero’s career or post-fight in celebration of the 42-year-old Olympian finally getting the title wrapped around his waist, kick back your feet and enjoy your favorite cigar on Saturday evening. If you’re a novice, I suggest going with the Punch Clasico. It has a good flavor and shouldn’t be too intense for the infrequent smoker.

Sumian: Let’s continue the Cuban trend and get some Diplomatico Reserve in the mix. At $40 a bottle, this fine, yet affordable rum is tasty and will complement another great Saturday night of fights while giving a nod to Romero.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
MW Championship: Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero Romero Romero
Women’s StrawW Championship: Weili Zhang vs. Joanna Jędrzejczyk Jędrzejczyk Jędrzejczyk
LW: Beneil Dariush vs. Drakkar Klose Dariush Dariush
WW: Neil Magny vs. Li Jingliang Jingliang Jingliang
WW: Alex Oliveira vs. Max Griffin Oliveira Oliveira
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Jose Alberto Quiñonez vs. Sean O’Malley O’Malley O’Malley
LW: Mark Madsen vs. Austin Hubbard Hubbard Madsen
MW: Rodolfo Vieira vs. Saparbeg Safarov Vieira Safarov
MW: Deron Winn vs. Gerald Meerschaert Meerschaert Meerschaert
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:15 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Emily Whitmire vs. Polyana Viana Whitmire Whitmire
FW: Jamall Emmers vs. Giga Chikadze Emmers Chikadze
BW: Guido Cannetti vs. Danaa Batgerel Cannetti Cannetti