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The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s return to live crowds has resulted in nothing but loaded events thus far, and UFC 263 on Saturday is no exception. The main event sees middleweight champion Israel Adesanya attempt to re-assert his dominance over the 185-pound division against Marvin Vettori. Coincidentally, this is a rematch of their 2018 fight that took place the last time the Octagon made its way to Glendale, Arizona. The co-headliner sees Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno run back their flyweight title fight draw that was one of the best bouts of 2020; and while there are only two title fights, there are three five-round matchups on this main card, as Nate Diaz makes a surprising return for a 25-minute affair against Leon Edwards. Add in some fun stylistic pairings to round out the card, and this is yet another strong pay-per-view offering from the UFC.
Now to the preview for the UFC 263 “Adesanya vs. Vettori 2” main card:
UFC Middleweight ChampionshipC | Israel Adesanya (20-1, 9-1 UFC) vs. #3 MW | Marvin Vettori (17-4-1, 7-2-1 UFC)
ODDS: Adesanya (-255), Vettori (+215)
Through 2019, Adesanya’s move to mixed martial arts had gone as swimmingly as possible. Splitting his time between kickboxing and MMA through early 2017, “The Last Stylebender” got the UFC call shortly thereafter and figured to have some growing pains inside the Octagon. Adesanya’s takedown defense, in particular, looked to be a hugely exploitable gap, but he proved to be a quick study. Wins over Vettori and Rob Wilkinson had their rocky moments, but by the time he reached his first headlining affair against Brad Tavares, Adesanya had closed the major holes in his MMA game and looked ready to be a contender. After a win over Derek Brunson to cap his 2018 campaign, 2019 became the year when Adesanya rocketed to the top of the middleweight division. After a bit of a strange win over Anderson Silva, Adesanya won a five-round “Fight of the Year” contender against Kelvin Gastelum to become interim champion at 185 pounds, which set up a title unification fight against Robert Whittaker six months later. In front of a sold-out crowd in Melbourne, Australia, Adesanya made beating Whittaker look easy, taking complete control of the fight and scoring a second-round knockout to complete one of the fastest rises in UFC history. However, the time since has been rather weird. While Adesanya has remained one of the sport’s top personalities and a burgeoning draw, his performances inside the cage have been wildly inconsistent. Without an obvious top contender available for his first title defense, Adesanya called for a bout against Yoel Romero, seemingly with the promise that he would find a way to add to his legend against one of the toughest tests available. Instead, Adesanya did not really meet the moment. He appeared thrown off by Romero’s power and ability to counter, and the result was 25 minutes of interminable inaction that Adesanya did not even convincingly win. Up next came Paulo Costa in a bout that, in hindsight, was more notable for the buildup than anything else. Adesanya showed out and recaptured his form with a one-sided win, but a large part of that was a shockingly tentative and unimpressive performance from Costa. At any rate, Adesanya’s next move was to jump to light heavyweight and challenge new champion Jan Blachowicz; most expected Adesanya’s skill would outweigh Blachowicz’s size. Instead, it wound up being a similar tale as the Romero bout, albeit in a much better fight with a much stronger performance from his opponent. Adesanya seemed cowed by an opponent who was willing to stay patient and throw powerful counters, and once Blachowicz got his wrestling going in the later rounds, it turned into a somewhat one-sided rout. None of it figures to damage Adesanya much, as he remains an electric talent who is set up to be one of the sport’s stars of the next few years. However, he set such a high bar early that it is difficult not to want him to recapture some of his old magic. He will get a chance here against a familiar opponent, as he rematches Vettori three years and change after their first encounter.
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Vettori’s performance against Adesanya in 2018 gave some hope—much of it false—to his opponents going forward. After a tentative first two rounds, Vettori easily took over the third with a wrestling-heavy performance. However, that wound up being a pivot point for both fighters. It was the last time Adesanya’s wrestling defense was easily exploitable and almost marked the last fight before Vettori’s pressure stylings fully clicked. In his five-fight undefeated streak since the first Adesanya encounter, Vettori’s performances have been marked by constant aggression and an unwavering commitment to moving forward and throwing volume. Strong wins over Cezar Ferreira and Andrew Sanchez set up Vettori as a prospect to watch heading into the coronavirus pandemic, but it was a quick win over Karl Roberson roughly a year ago that seemed to truly put him on the map as a future contender. “The Italian Dream” still seemed a few wins away from top-shelf status, but that shot came sooner than anyone would have figured. Vettori stepped in on late notice to earn a main event win against Jack Hermansson in December, then dominated Kevin Holland just two months ago. Between the one-sided win and some fortuitous timing, Vettori is now in a position to give Italy its first UFC champion.
There is a chance this becomes a fun war in the vein of Adesanya’s fight with Gastelum, but this generally looks like a chance for the middleweight champion to rebound with a strong performance. Romero and Blachowicz brought out the worst in Adesanya by refusing to give him much to work with and instilling some fear in the Kiwi whenever he tried to lead the dance. Vettori’s approach is just about the exact opposite. Vettori’s wrestling—and Adesanya’s takedown defense—is the first obvious question about this fight, as the Italian figures to force that issue from the jump much more than in their first fight. At this point, Adesanya has shown solid enough defense—against middleweights, at any rate—that it is hard to see that as a consistent path to victory, whether it is the challenger being unable to get the champion to the mat or unable to hold him there. Vettori will not get quite as wild with his form as he did in their first fight, but the volume he throws should provide enough for Adesanya to counter and hit back with the harder shots. For as much strength and power as he seems to have behind everything, the elephant in the room is that Vettori simply has not been a striker with finishing power, which should give Adesanya more than enough confidence to implement and flow with his preferred style. Even if Vettori has some success, his one-sided win over Holland came with its own concerns, as he looked uncharacteristically gassed by the end of five rounds; while it was atypical, it also does raise the worry about how his gas tank will fare on just a two-month turnaround. Vettori seems inhumanly durable, so there is a solid chance he survives 25 minutes of abuse, but he will probably wind up taking a lot of it particularly in the championship rounds. The pick is Adesanya via clear decision.
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