The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 248 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
While this event may not be as stacked with relevance as the truly elite Ultimate Fighting Championship cards, it features two particularly interesting title bouts. UFC 248 on Saturday in Las Vegas builds in a way that has become uncommon in the ESPN era, which provides a welcome surprise. The deep prelims are mostly skippable, but ESPN gets four fights featuring top prospects before the main card ushers in fringe contenders to set the table for the headliners. Add in the global angle—the two champions involved, Israel Adesanya and Weili Zhang, are regarded by some as the two best fighters the Eastern Hemisphere has to offer—and this should be entertaining from start to finish.
Now to the UFC 248 “Adesanya vs. Romero” preview:
UFC Middleweight ChampionshipC | Israel Adesanya (18-0) vs. #3 MW | Yoel Romero (13-4)
ODDS: Adesanya (-280), Romero (+240)
Adesanya has only been in the UFC for a shade over two years. That is worth noting since the New Zealand-based Nigerian has seemingly been entrenched as one of the brightest lights in the sport for some time. However, “The Last Stylebender” ran up the middleweight ladder in record time, which is even more impressive since his success was not necessarily guaranteed. Adesanya was an excellent kickboxer, which certainly crossed over when he focused more on mixed martial arts, but there were questions about his ancillary skills. A lot of his pre-UFC fights saw him rely on his athleticism to get out of bad situations on the ground, and early fights in the Octagon against Rob Wilkinson and Marvin Vettori saw Adesanya get controlled before earning victories. However, by the end of his first year inside the UFC, Adesanya had already shored up his flaws and become a legitimate contender. He mostly played with his food in a main event assignment against Brad Tavares and stayed calm against Derek Brunson before eventually earning an impressive finish. His 2019 campaign saw Adesanya continue to ascend with each fight. First came an impromptu headliner against Anderson Silva, which served as a clear passing of the torch. Adesanya then won a five-round war in a “Fight of the Year” contender against Kelvin Gastelum, battling through some tough offense to affirm his place among the middleweight elite. The crowning achievement of Adesanya’s career thus far came in October, as he put a one-sided beating on Robert Whittaker in front of the largest crowd in the UFC’s history and established himself as the face of Anzac MMA. The performance was a masterpiece. After a frustrating first round that saw the champion connect with little, Whittaker was forced to open up, at which point Adesanya went to work with beautiful parries and counters that eventually left “The Reaper” out on the mat. Adesanya might be the most exciting fighter in the sport at the moment, along with being the next man up for superstardom; and with obvious top contender Paulo Henrique Costa injured, he has already earned the right to call his own shot for his next challenger. As a result, Adesanya set out to take on one of the most dangerous opponents in the sport in Romero.
Romero was a difficult fighter to peg for a few years. A former Olympic silver medalist for Cuba, he cut an impressive physical figure but did not look to wrestle all that much, instead relying on knockouts that seemingly came at random. However, as Romero fought stronger competition, it became apparent that he was something of a fighting genius; his string of late knockouts was not the product of luck but spoke more to how the “Soldier of God” could keep a slow pace and gather more information on his opponents until he felt comfortable enough to strike and often end the fight. It is a bizarre style that has proven absolutely terrible for contemporaries like Lyoto Machida, Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold. They were all winning until they were suddenly staring at the lights, as Romero eventually blasted them with bursts of violence that felt a hair short of a murder. Romero is the highest-ranked contender who is currently healthy, but this latest title shot comes at a strange point in his career, as he has lost three of his last four bouts. With that said, he nearly annihilated Whittaker in two fights that easily could have gone either way on the scorecards, and he also could have won his last bout against Costa—an all-out war that lasted all 15 minutes. As part of a larger trend of the UFC awarding title shots off losses, this is a bit worrying, but frankly, Romero is probably still the best fighter available and makes for an extremely interesting title fight, so it is hard to complain all that much.
How does Adesanya approach this? The champion is not quite as extreme as Romero when it comes to taking off rounds, but Adesanya’s style has functioned in much the same way, starting off slow and feeling out his opponent’s offense before finding his reads and pouring on the punishment in the subsequent rounds. Will that strategy work here? Romero’s ponderous approach just will not give Adesanya much with which to work, and with Adesanya throwing out more offense basically by default, it is possible that the Cuban wrestler gets the better reads and causes more damage, particularly since Adesanya can play things a bit loose defensively and focus on shifting out of the way, which may be tough against Romero’s uniquely violent bursts of offense. Of course, Romero also has not fought someone as uniquely suited to avoid that damage as much as Adesanya, thanks to the champion’s long reach, elite kicking game and own ability to read opponents as well as anyone in the sport. Romero’s bout against Costa does show a path to victory for Adesanya that, while risky, might be his best way to go in the aggregate. Costa simply showed no fear and constantly brought the offense to Romero, and while the Brazilian got walloped a bunch of times in wild exchanges, it also clearly made Romero uncomfortable, forcing him to react hastily rather than throw the precise homing missiles that have scored him his most impressive finishes. It also left Romero quite exhausted after a three-round fight. Given 10 extra minutes with which to work, that is probably the best approach for Adesanya to ensure he can win the championship rounds if he is confident in his own durability. It is always difficult to pick Romero, in general, unless he faces someone with obvious defensive or durability issues, so Adesanya almost has to be the choice by default. However, if the champion comes into this fight looking to make it a showcase performance, it seems likely that he can turn on the pressure and make Romero wilt eventually. The tension will be palpable until this one is over, but the pick is Adesanya via third-round stoppage.
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