Israel Adesanya (Jason Burgos/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 253 Preview and Predictions

The UFC storms into fall like a hurricane with a championship doubleheader in the company’s return to Fight Island. In the headlining affair of UFC 253, we have one of the most anticipated fights of the year when middleweight champion Israel Adesanya squares off against Paulo Costa.

There is no love lost between these two undefeated fighters. They have engaged in a war of words over the past several months. Adesanya will attempt to make a mockery of Costa’s brute strength and power through the use of his precise striking and world-class footwork, while Costa tries to make it an early night for Adesanya with one punch to turn off the lights.

The light-heavyweight title is also on the line, with Dominick Reyes taking on Jan Błachowicz for the belt recently vacated by longtime king Jon Jones. Reyes most recently came up short for the first time in his career against the aforementioned Jones in a very close fight that many people thought Reyes actually won. Błachowicz made his case for a title shot by emphatically knocking out Corey Anderson while Jones sat in the front row and applauded. Reyes isn’t getting the title rematch he wanted, but Błachowicz isn’t getting to take on the man he impressed in person either. A shot at the vacant title is quite the consolation prize for both men.


Featherweights Hakeem Dawadu and Zubaira Tukhugov find themselves in the spot on the card that broadcast analyst Jon Anik refers to as the “feature bout of the evening.” It’s a clash between rising stars at 145 pounds. This really will be a statement win for the man who comes out on top, while it serves as only a minor setback for the loser, who will probably still find long-lasting success inside the UFC.

The main-card lineup also includes a flyweight clash between Kai Kara-France and Brandon Royval. Kara-France has proved he can compete with the elite in the division, with his lone setback inside the UFC coming by unanimous decision to Brandon Moreno. Royval burst onto the UFC scene in his most recent bout with an arm-triangle-choke submission over veteran ace Tim Elliott. This is another bout where the winner will jump immediately into title contention.

The UFC is back at Flash Forum on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where the early prelims will get underway at 5 p.m. ET on UFC Fight Pass, ESPN and ESPN+. The remainder of the preliminary card airs on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. At 10 p.m. ET, the action switches to ESPN+ pay-per-view for the main card. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

In arguably one of the most anticipated fights of the year, Israel Adesanya puts his middleweight title and perfect MMA record on the line against undefeated challenger Paulo Costa. What does each fighter need to do in order to gain the upper hand? Which man will succeed?

Sumian: Despite the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the UFC has effectively put on some of the most memorable bouts and events through 2020. The remainder of the year has even more anticipated bouts, including an epic lightweight showdown between Justin Gaethje and Khabib Nurmagomdeov, as well as the return of champ-champ Amanda Nunes. Despite the thrilling bouts scheduled to take place in the remainder of 2020, the championship middleweight showdown between Adesanya and Costa might just be the most exciting bout of the year due to the consistent trash talk, conflicting styles, and the undefeated status of both combatants.

I recently read an interesting post about this fight being compared to the fictional showdown between Adonis Creed and Viktor Drago that took place in the movie Creed 2. Adesanya, the cocky-yet-technical champion, is slated to defend his belt against a monster of a man and powerful puncher in Costa, who has brought nothing but sheer destruction in all of his bouts.

Derek Brunson, Anderson Silva, Brad Tavares and Robert Whittaker are just some of the notorious names that have fallen victim to the accuracy and superior technicality of Adesanya since his arrival to the UFC. The tall, long and calculated titleholder has distinctively established himself as the best middleweight champ in recent memory. He is quite possibly the biggest rising star on the UFC roster today. Adesanya averages 3.96 significant strikes per minute and 1.18 knockdowns on average per 15 minutes. At first glance, this may seem surprisingly low for someone like Adesanya, but his accuracy and precision allow him to perform just as effectively as any volume striker due to his ability to find his target at will in the Octagon. He will also enter the bout with an eight-inch reach advantage over the challenger, which will no doubt assist in his ability to keep Costa at bay while launching long strikes and staying out of Costa’s boxing range.

Costa is easily one of the most exciting fighters to watch in the UFC today. Despite only five wins in his UFC campaign, the Brazilian tank has compiled an impressive 13-0 professional record and has inarguably established himself as the top contender for the middleweight championship. He boasts a towering physique, thunderous punching power, and a forward pressure that is unmatched within the organization. He averages just under nine significant strikers per minute and a whopping 2.10 knockdown ratio per 15 minutes.

Costa’s keys to victory will be fairly straight forward: attack early and often with powerful punches in an effort to take the champ out in the early rounds. Besides an epic three-round war with Yoel Romero in August 2019, Costa has never gone the distance or fought a five-round fight. The Brazilian will likely begin to tire as the fight hits the championship rounds. He has to make this fight as uncomfortable as he can for Adesanya by applying pressure, going to the body, and negating the champ’s distinct reach disadvantage.

Both combatants have been nothing short of impressive in their UFC careers thus far. They will put on a performance to remember. The man who succeeds will be Adesanya. As entertaining as Costa has been, he has absolutely not fought the level of talent that Adesanya has seen in the UFC. Add in the reach advantage, an ability to execute a game plan to perfection, and the growing maturity of a champion, and Adesanya has the clear edge. Costa will make this fight entertaining and may even drop the champ in the early rounds. However, he will start to slow down as the fight goes on, leaving Adesanya able to pepper him with crafty strikes and powerful kicks. Adesanya will begin his fight-ending combination with a similar counter shot to the one that he landed on Whittaker before ending that fight via strikes in the championship rounds. A rematch with Whittaker is on the horizon for Adesanya.

Petela: When people look for a flaw in Adesanya’s skill set, they have to look far and wide. They still sometimes come up empty. The one time when “The Last Stylebender” actually looked human was in a kickboxing match against Alex Pereira, who hit him with a flush left hook that turned off Adesanya’s lights. The aspect of that fight most people fail to realize is that Adesanya was having his way with Pereira for the majority of the contest before that left hook landed. It was the proverbial case of a fighter winning until he wasn’t.

This fight will bear similarities to that contest from 2017, with Adesanya using his precision striking to get the better of the marauding Costa for the early portion of the fight. Costa will lumber forward as he always does and look to land fight-ending punches with every hurl of his fists. Adesanya will be the far faster fighter and avoid taking too much damage over the first couple rounds, remaining light on his feet to frustrate Costa while showing off some of his patented in-cage showmanship.

Eventually, as the fight heads toward the championship rounds, Adesanya will slow down slightly. At the end of a long exchange, Costa will land the one clean shot he had been searching for through the entire fight and drop Adesanya. Costa will follow the champ to the canvas and close the show with a couple of follow-up shots until the referee steps in. The belt will change hands, and just like in the Pereira fight, people will only focus on the knockout loss and fail to remember that Adesanya was winning… until he wasn’t.

With Jon Jones vacating his light-heavyweight crown, the belt is now up for grabs between Dominick Reyes and Jan Błachowicz. Which man walks away with the belt, and how do they achieve the victory here?

Petela: Two words: Polish Power. Błachowicz won’t need the full 25 minutes to claim the title. Two of his last three victories have been “Performance of the Night” knockouts, and he will certainly earn another bonus when he becomes the first person to stop Reyes.

Reyes will want to avoid the grappling realm with Błachowicz, who has nine submission victories on his record. While being wary of the takedown, Reyes will leave his hands down and his chin exposed. This will leave an opening for one of Błachowicz’s mighty fists to land flush and turn out the lights, just as they did to Corey Anderson and Luke Rockhold.

As satisfying as the victory and championship-winning performance will be for Błachowicz, there will be something slightly missing because of the absence of the long-reigning Jones. Luckily for Błachowicz, many fans and analysts felt that Reyes deserved the win over Jones anyway. They will see this victory as a totally legitimate beginning to the Polish fighter’s run as champion.

Sumian: Agreed.

As good as Reyes looked against Jones — he likely should have been awarded the win — he will have a more difficult time with Błachowicz. The Polish star will land something somewhere between rounds two and three to claim the belt with an impressive TKO.

William Knight, Danilo Marques and L’udovit Klein — do we need to know these names?

Sumian: Yes.

Knight and Marques join the UFC’s light-heavyweight division, which is in constant need of new talent as it prepares to move on without Jon Jones.

Knight enters the Octagon with an impressive 8-1 record and knockout finishes in all of his victories. The Hartford native, who stands 5-foot-10, is somewhat undersized for the weight class, but he boasts a powerful punch and holds a spectacular knockout victory over Cody Brundage on Dana White’s Contender Series. He faces a pretty stiff test in the young and hungry Aleksa Camur, but he will no doubt prove he is here to stay with a memorable debut showing.

Marques, who stands 6-foot-6, is a towering light heavyweight who enters the UFC with a 9-2 mark. He trains out of Demian Maia Jiu-Jitsu, but has proven he can get it done on both the feet and ground. He faces Khadis Ibragimov, who is winless through his three UFC appearances. Marques will get this fight to the ground and finish Ibragimov by way of submission to announce his presence to fight fans and fellow light heavyweights.

Klein is probably the most significant of the three newcomers. He makes his UFC featherweight debut after posting a 16-2 record outside the promotion. The Slovakian native has fought at both lightweight and featherweight throughout his career. He is currently riding an impressive seven-fight winning streak. He battles Shane Young, who is 2-1 in his UFC career with his only loss coming courtesy of current featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski. Expect Klein to capture the attention of the fans and UFC matchmakers with an impressive finish of Young.

Petela: I’ve seen the most recent fights of all three of these men. While I respect each and every one of them and the talents they bring to the cage, they will not excel inside the UFC. This crop of newcomers is fortunate to get a shot inside the promotion, but these opportunities were largely earned due to the chaotic nature of matchmaking during these strange times. I’m not saying that Knight, Marques and Klein won’t have any success, but they won’t last more than a couple of fights before getting bounced from the organization.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 253?

Petela: Paulo Costa. A title win would be enough to make him the biggest winner of the night, but there are the added rewards of being the man to take Israel Adesanya’s perfect record away and ending this chapter of their rivalry in dramatic, violent fashion. A shiny new belt, a knockout victory, and bragging rights over a fighter who has quickly become his biggest adversary is the trifecta of a perfect night for the heavy-handed Brazilian slugger.

Sumian: Brandon Royval. This flyweight newcomer had a crazy back-and-forth debut win over Tim Elliott earlier in the year. Now, he gets a chance to crack the top 10 of the division when he faces Kai Kara-France, who is currently ranked No. 7 in the division. Expect Royval to shine again with a convincing win and further elevate himself into the conversation of flyweight title mix.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 253?

Sumian: Diego Sanchez. As impressive as it is that he is still fighting after all these years, he will be dominated by rising contender Jake Matthews for three straight rounds in a fairly lopsided fight. Sanchez has been a UFC staple for numerous years and has provided fight fans with some of the most memorable moments in the Octagon. He may realize it is time to hang it up and celebrate a career that has been nothing short of a blast to witness.

Petela: Dominick Reyes. After his near title-winning performance against Jon Jones, he proved that he can compete with the best of the best at 205 pounds. Whether or not Jones had vacated the belt, it was likely that Reyes’ next fight would be for the title. A loss against Błachowicz will set back Reyes’ title hopes for a while in a suddenly rejuvenated division full of contenders. The road back to a championship won’t be easy.

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

Petela: Jeff Hughes. He has yet to record a victory inside the UFC since he earned his contract on the Contender Series. He dropped a split decision to Maurice Greene in his Octagon debut, a rematch of their fight for the Legacy Fighting Alliance heavyweight title that Hughes won. His subsequent fight with Todd Duffee ended in a no-contest after Hughes hit Duffee with an accidental eye poke. Then, Hughes was on the losing end of a unanimous decision in his most recent outing against Raphael Pessoa. Three defeats and a no-contest will be all she wrote for Hughes after he drops this fight, probably by clear-cut decision, to Juan Espino.

Sumian: It has to be Diego Sanchez. He will likely suffer another dominant unanimous-decision defeat on Saturday, which will likely corner him into retirement or send him to a lesser promotion.

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

Sumian: Shane Young and L’udovit Klein. Klein is making his UFC debut against Young, who is as tough as they come. These two featherweights will clash for every moment the fight goes on, with the victor coming down to who wants it more. They have combined for 24 finishes and aim to entertain.

Petela: Sijara Eubanks and Ketlen Vieira. Boy, how things can change quickly. Heading into her last fight, Eubanks appeared on the verge of a UFC release. Now, I am more excited than ever to see her fight. Her performance against Julia Avila showed that her striking has improved, and she is as sharp as ever on the ground. Contrary to what my friends and family may say, I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong, and I was wrong to think that Eubanks was done. She seems rejuvenated. Don’t be surprised to see the Springfield, Mass., native pull off another victory this weekend.

Pair this card with…

Petela: Beyond the two title fights, this card lacks a ton of name recognition. However, it should have some interesting and fun fights. In that spirit, go with LightSky Citrus Wheat from Blue Moon. It may not be the most popular beer around, but it will leave you feeling refreshed and satisfied, just like the early fights of UFC 253.

Sumian: The caliber and significance of the two title fights make this card equally as incredible as past cards loaded with fights from top to bottom. The lesser-known names in the prelims will make a splash and put on memorable performances as fans anxiously tune in to see the dawning title fights on the main card. As a result, let’s go with classic cocktails using something like Bulleit Bourbon or Grey Goose. Like Adesanya and Costa, these are “undefeated” brands in their own type of liquor that continue to deliver reliability and excitement every time they are used. Sit back, relax, make a martini or an Old Fashioned while tuning into the prelims and building up unwavering excitement for the main card.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
MW Championship: Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa Adesanya Costa
LHW Championship: Dominick Reyes vs. Jan Błachowicz Błachowicz Błachowicz
FlyW: Kai Kara-France vs. Brandon Royval Royval Kara-France
Women’s BW: Sijara Eubanks vs. Ketlen Vieira Viera Viera
FW: Hakeem Dawodu vs. Zubaira Tukhugov Dawodu Tukhugov
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Brad Riddell vs. Alex da Silva da Silva Riddell
WW: Diego Sanchez vs. Jake Matthews Matthews Matthews
FW: Shane Young vs. L’udovit Klein Klein Young
LHW: William Knight vs. Aleksa Camur Knight Knight
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass and ESPN/ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
HW: Jeff Hughes vs. Juan Espino Espino Espino
LHW: Khadis Ibragimov vs. Danilo Marques Marques Marques