Four champions in action. Three titles on the line. It’s a championship tripleheader at UFC 259.
In the evening’s main event, middleweight kingpin Israel Adesanya puts his undefeated record on the line when he moves up a weight class to challenge Jan Błachowicz for the light-heavyweight belt. The 38-year-old Polish champion claimed the vacant title with a second-round TKO over Dominick Reyes at UFC 253.
The co-headliner pits consensus women’s GOAT Amanda Nunes against Australian challenger Megan Anderson for the women’s featherweight crown. Nunes last saw action in June when she outclassed Felicia Spencer and earned a unanimous-decision victory. Anderson has had a couple stumbles on her way to this title fight. She dropped a decision to Holly Holm and fell to Spencer via submission, but she rebounded impressively over her last two outings. Her recent wins have come before the final bell, one by knockout and one by submission. Anderson will need to have her best performance to date if she hopes to unseat the dominant two-division champion.
The first title bout of the evening, though, comes when bantamweight champion Petr Yan meets Aljamain Sterling. This will be Yan’s first title defense of the belt he won over former featherweight kingpin José Aldo at UFC 251 after the previous reigning champ, Henry Cejudo, retired. Yan has put together quite the winning streak en route to the title by rattling off 11 victories. Sterling has won five straight, including a first-round submission of Cory Sandhagen that earned him this title shot.
A pair of standout lightweight prospects look to cement themselves as contenders when Islam Makhachev, a longtime stablemate and close friend of Khabib Nurmagomedov, meets Drew Dober. Makhachev was marked as the heir apparent to the lightweight title by Nurmagomedov upon his retirement. He faces a stiff test against Dober, who is 6-1 over his last seven contests, including three finishes in a row.
The main card opens in the light-heavyweight division, where former title challenger Thiago Santos looks to get back to his winning ways against Aleksander Rakić. For the first time since 2016, Santos is coming into a fight after dropping back-to-back contests. The Brazilian fell short in his title bid against Jon Jones and then succumbed to a rear-naked choke at the hands of Glover Teixeira. Rakić recovered from his first promotional loss in his last outing by defeating Anthony Smith via unanimous decision.
As with most pay-per-view cards, there are notable preliminary contests, too. Longtime bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz faces off against Casey Kenney in the evening’s featured prelim bout. Additionally, four-time flyweight title challenger Joseph Benavidez takes on Askar Askarov.
UFC 259 takes place inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas without fans in attendance in compliance with COVID-19 regulations. Action will commence on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET with the early portion of the prelims. The televised prelims can be found on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The main card follows immediately thereafter at 10 p.m. ET and is available via ESPN+ pay-per-view. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview this week’s action as they go Toe-to-Toe.
Israel Adesanya tries to become a two-division champ when he challenges Jan Błachowicz for the light-heavyweight strap in the evening’s main event. Will the middleweight kingpin succeed?
Sumian: This epic clash is unarguably the most anticipated MMA bout of the last few years. For Adesanya, it represents the opportunity to solidify himself as a rightful entry into the discussion of the GOAT, as he continues building a resume worthy of challenging the likes of Anderson Silva, George St-Pierre and other dominant champions of the past. For Błachowicz, it presents the opportunity to solidify his hold on the division by taking down the UFC’s biggest star in the making while proving to the world that his dominant win over Dominick Reyes was the first step to a legacy in the making and not just a fluke.
Adesanya is the biggest star in the UFC, period. The undefeated New Zealander has effectively cleaned out the middleweight division in impressive fashion while continuously evolving into a more complete mixed martial artist. His wins over Derek Brunson, Robert Whittaker and Paulo Costa were masterful performances. Contender after contender fell to the precision and speed that has come to define “The Last Stylebender’s” domination and aura of invincibility.
Besides a back-and-forth epic clash with Kelvin Gastelum for the interim middleweight belt, nobody has effectively tested Adesanya, who possesses unmatched striking capability and defensive maneuvering. The undefeated champ averages a clean 4.10 significant strikes per minute and a 1.21 knockdown ratio. However, it’s his accuracy that makes him so deadly. This has been on full display in numerous bouts, including his stoppages of Brunson and Whittaker. Adesanya knows he is better than his opponents and truly believes it is only a matter of time before he clips them with a precision strike that staggers and breaks their confidence. Now, he makes a historic play as he moves up to the light-heavyweight division to challenge a man whose power is frightening.
For those who have followed Błachowicz’s career, the term “roller coaster” seems very appropriate. After compiling an impressive 17-3 mark while competing primarily in KSW, Poland’s Błachowicz joined the UFC in 2014. He made an impressive debut against Ili Latifi that resulted in a first-round stoppage. Unfortunately, the “Prince of Cieszyn” followed it up with a disappointing 1-4 run between 2015 and 2017. Błachowicz bounced back strongly between October 2017 and September 2018 to rattle off four straight wins at the expense of Devin Clark, Jared Cannonier, Jimi Manuwa and Nikita Krylov. He landed in a title eliminator with Thiago Santos, but he suffered a third-round knockout defeat. The Polish fighter was undeterred. He went on another impressive winning streak by defeating Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Corey Anderson. This run led to a title bout with Dominick Reyes where Błachowicz displayed his full power with a second-round knockout victory to claim the vacant gold.
This fight will end in one of two ways.
The first possible outcome is an early stoppage for Błachowicz as he blitzes the smaller challenger with the full force of his notorious power and pummels his way to a title defense. He will need to cut Adesanya’s movement off almost immediately and throw calculated power shots to continuously back the New Zealander up and negate the middleweight champ’s ability to establish a groove.
The second potential outcome is a masterful performance in which Adesanya consistently sticks and moves as he avoids the power of the heavy puncher while constantly attacking the legs and body to tire out Błachowicz. It will take several rounds before Błachowicz begins to slow and become more susceptible to Adesanya’s long punches and kicks.
As cheesy as it may sound, this fight is truly similar to the second bout between Adonis Creed and Ivan Drago from Creed 2. Both men will have vastly different game plans, and it will ultimately come down to who is able to dig deeper and claim what they believe is rightfully theirs. When it is all said and done, that man will be Adesanya.
Petela: This will not be the beginning of a new reign as a double champ for Adesanya. Sure, he will be the quicker and more advanced striker in this clash. However, fans will be surprised that he is not that much faster than the bigger Błachowicz.
This fight will start out slowly, with Adesanya wisely not wanting to be overly aggressive and running the risk of getting caught with one of Błachowicz’s heavy hands. While the fight might have an opening moment or two in which it resembles the snoozefest between Adesanya and Yoel Romero, it won’t stay that way for too long.
The win that earned Błachowicz his title was largely fueled by the body kicks that he used to batter the midsection of the aforementioned Reyes. This will also be his key to victory against Adesanya. The Polish fighter will be hesitant to throw the kick too frequently early on, as it could create the type of opening Adesanya needs to land a flashy combination. However, this will change once Błachowicz gets enough of a feel for Adesanya’s timing that he can mitigate the risk. These body kicks will slow down the City Kickboxing standout ever so slightly.
That is when the legendary Polish Power comes into play. Whether it is a left hook like the one that dropped Rockhold or a monstrous right like the one that knocked out Anderson, Błachowicz will land the fight-changing punch he needs to close the show before the midway point of the fight. Adesanya will have a long reign as king of the middleweights, but he’s about to run into a buzzsaw this weekend.
There are two other title bouts on the card: Amanda Nunes defends her women’s featherweight title against Megan Anderson, while Petr Yan clashes with Aljamain Sterling for the bantamweight gold. Which two fighters emerge with the belts?
Petela: Nunes will walk out of the cage with both of her belts intact. She is leaps and bounds better than anyone else in the shallow women’s featherweight division. This is not a knock on Anderson, who is perhaps the second-best featherweight under contract with the promotion, but every one of Nunes’ bouts feels like the MMA equivalent of a “stay busy” fight in boxing. This affair won’t go more than two rounds before it ends with an emphatic knockout for the Brazilian, who will add another name to her resume and continue to separate herself from the pack as the greatest female fighter on the planet.
The one title that will change hands this weekend is the men’s bantamweight strap. Sterling will pick up a sixth-straight victory and a second consecutive submission win as he takes the title away from Yan. There is no question that Yan has superior technical boxing skills, but the unorthodox striking of Sterling will allow him to find unconventional takedown entries that catch Yan by surprise. Sterling has one of those styles that no matter how much you try to prepare for it by replicating it in practice, it is only once you are in the cage with him that you realize that he is a truly unique fighter. Yan might be able to stuff the first few takedown attempts, but eventually Sterling will get him to the ground and take over with his grappling abilities.
Sumian: Nunes will indeed score another impressive knockout when she clashes with Anderson. In all likelihood, she’ll then retire to start her family. The double champ truly has nothing left to prove, and the UFC has been unable to manufacture an opponent since Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino to truly test the greatest female mixed martial artist of all time.
In addition, Sterling will finally claim what he believes is rightfully his when he scores a unanimous-decision victory over Yan. Sterling has undoubtedly fought the superior talent in his path towards the title, and the New Yorker’s championship mindset and will to win will be on full display. A rematch with Cory Sandhagen is on the horizon for him.
Carlos Ulberg — do we need to know this name?
Sumian: It’s difficult to take notice of any UFC newcomer when the card includes three title fights and an impressive preliminary set to begin the evening. However, even on a regular fight night, it would be hard to justify giving any attention to Ulberg just yet.
“Mr. Marvelous” makes his UFC debut after compiling a 3-0 record outside of the promotion. His most recent win came by way of first-round knockout over Bruno Oliveira on Dana White’s Contender Series. Despite an impressive finish and an undefeated record, Ulberg is still very new to the professional mix and will certainly need a few more wins to gain any momentum.
Ulberg makes his debut against Kennedy Nzechukwu, who is coming off a unanimous-decision victory over Darko Stošić in his sophomore UFC appearance. Ulberg will need a highlight-reel win if he hopes to gain any recognition on a card that could very well go down as the most loaded pay-per-view of the year.
Petela: It won’t be an easy road to success at light heavyweight for the 30-year-old Ulberg, but he has the advantage of fighting in a heavier weight class where fighters typically mature later. He doesn’t have a ton of MMA miles on his body, either. In a few years, the New Zealander could seemingly come out of nowhere and emerge as a contender, but not without taking his fair share of lumps along the way. His rocky road to success starts this weekend, likely on the wrong end of the judges’ scorecards.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 259?
Petela: Jan Błachowicz. It would be a noteworthy accomplishment to become the first person to defeat Israel Adesanya, but that won’t be the only reason for Błachowicz to celebrate. He picked up the title by defeating Dominick Reyes after Jon Jones vacated the belt in his pursuit of heavyweight gold. By adding his first defense of the title, Błachowicz will solidify his rightful place at the top of the division and not go down in history as an “accidental champion.”
Sumian: Casey Kenney. The 16-2 UFC bantamweight is starting to look like a viable future contender after compiling an impressive 5-1 mark since joining the UFC. He is currently on a three-fight winning streak at the expense of Louis Smolka, Heili Alateng and Nathaniel Wood. The Indiana native will score the biggest win of his career when he tops Dominick Cruz by unanimous decision. Kenney will have a top-10 ranking next to his name come next week.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 259?
Sumian: Thiago Santos. The former title challenger, who many believed to have been wrongfully robbed of a win over Jon Jones, will suffer his third straight loss to a hungrier and younger contender in Aleksander Rakić. The Brazilian will yet again find it difficult to keep up with Rakić. This will result in his expulsion from the top five of the division.
Petela: Dominick Cruz. Despite saying otherwise, it has to be a tough pill to swallow to be on the prelims after over a decade as a main-card staple. Combine this with his first loss that doesn’t come in a title fight, and it is going to be a rough night for the Alliance MMA product. Cruz will have one of the quickest drops from champion to contender to gatekeeper that fans have seen over the promotion’s almost 28 years in existence.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Joseph Benavidez. A loss to Askar Askarov would make it three setbacks in a row for the four-time title challenger. With an 0-4 record in title fights and an 0-2 mark against the current champion, Benavidez is highly unlikely to ever make his way back to a title fight. He’s also 36 years old. That’s relatively old for a smaller fighter. With his best days behind him, it would come as no surprise if the UFC cut ties with Benavidez if he is unsuccessful this weekend. How awkward would that make things for his wife, UFC reporter Megan Olivi? Fortunately for Benavidez and Olivi, “Joe Jitsu” will not suffer such a fate. Instead, he will pick up a much-needed win and add a few more entertaining fights before he calls it a career.
Sumian: Dominick Cruz. The former UFC bantamweight champion is undoubtedly one of the most impressive 135-pounders in UFC history and will eventually find himself in the UFC Hall of Fame. However, his best days are well behind him. This was apparent in his lackluster performance against Henry Cejudo in their title fight that took place in April of last year. Cruz’s numerous injuries have resulted in significant layoffs that have unfortunately plagued his career. He has compiled an 0-2 record since December 2016. Frankly, there is truly little to no point in continuing to compete if Cruz suffers another setback. He is a fantastic analyst who is capable of building a long career with the UFC as a broadcaster.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Sean Brady and Jake Matthews. Their early prelim bout will fly under the radar for the majority of the week. Come Saturday, though, these two men will be one of the main topics of discussion. They’ll put on what I believe is a top-three candidate for “Fight of the Night.” These guys are riding impressive winning streaks and have combined for 17 finishes. They will give it their all, and the winner will likely receive a top-15 welterweight for their next UFC appearance.
Petela: Tim Elliott and Jordan Espinosa. Sure, both men have lost three out of their last four fights, but that puts them with their backs against the wall. When you add that to the already frenetic pace that Elliott likes to keep and the sneaky submission skills of Espinoza, it is a recipe for a can’t-miss fight.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Jan Błachowicz. The only thing people will remember from UFC 259 will be the legendary Polish Power of the light-heavyweight champ. A big knockout victory over the previously undefeated and seemingly invincible Israel Adesanya will be more than enough to earn him an extra $50,000.
Sumian: Amanda Nunes. The Brazilian will score another knockout victory and receive her final bonus before retiring soon after. The GOAT has done it all and will further strengthen her hold on the title rightfully earned with another highlight-reel performance.
Pair this card with…
Sumian: Legacy. Despite a loaded card from top to bottom that features fights friendly to the casual viewer all the way up to hardcore fight fan, the night will be defined by the last three bouts of the evening. Amanda Nunes will further secure her legacy as the best female mixed martial artist of all time, Israel Adesanya will become the UFC’s latest double champion and launch his career into further stardom, and Sterling will put on a masterful performance to begin the forging of his own legacy. Meanwhile, future contenders Aleksander Rakić and Drew Dober will quietly establish themselves as threats to their respective division. This will be an evening not soon forgotten, so don’t be timid in bringing out whatever high-end choice of drink you might have.
Petela: Belvedere. Be prepared for the incumbent to keep his title in the main event. Celebrate the Polish fighter’s victory in style as they will be doing all the way from Gdańsk to Kraków. A nice glass of Belvedere on the rocks with perhaps a splash of soda is the way to go this weekend. Na Zdrowie!
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
LHW Championship: Jan Błachowicz vs. Israel Adesanya
Women’s FW Championship: Amanda Nunes vs. Megan Anderson
BW Championship: Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling
LW: Islam Makhachev vs. Drew Dober
LHW: Thiago Santos vs. Aleksandar Rakić
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Dominick Cruz vs. Casey Kenney
BW: Kyler Phillips vs. Song Yadong
FlyW: Joseph Benavidez vs. Askar Askarov
FlyW: Kai Kara-France vs. Rogério Bontorin
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Tim Elliott vs. Jordan Espinosa
LHW: Carlos Ulberg vs. Kennedy Nzechukwu
WW: Sean Brady vs. Jake Matthews
Women’s StrawW: Livinha Souza vs. Amanda Lemos
LW: Uros Medic vs. Aalon Cruz
BW: Trevin Jones vs. Mario Bautista
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