5 Questions That Need to Be Answered Heading into UFC 253
After a long string of events out of the Apex facility in Las Vegas, the UFC is now taking its show back on the road with five straight events on "Fight Island"—that's Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, if you didn't already know.
The first of these five events on Fight Island will be UFC 253, which goes down Saturday.
UFC 253 is generating massive amounts of hype, but that's due primarily to the main and co-main events. The card's headlining honors will go to a middleweight title fight between undefeated champion Israel Adesanya and his fiercest challenger to date, Paulo Costa—also undefeated. The co-main event, meanwhile, will see Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz battle for the UFC light heavyweight throne, which has been unoccupied since Jon Jones cast his crown aside and set off for the heavyweight division.
While the lineup is a bit top-heavy, there are plenty of meaningful matchups beyond the two title fights, including a clash of ranked men's flyweight contenders in Kai Kara-France and Brandon Royval and the collision between top-15 women's bantamweights Ketlen Vieira and Sijara Eubanks. The undercard also features some interesting bouts, including the latest appearance from the first-ever Ultimate Fighter winner Diego Sanchez.
This card should have some significant implications for multiple UFC weight classes and for the fighters who populate them. It should, in other words, answer a lot of questions.
Without further ado, here are five questions we hope will be answered by the time the event concludes.
Who Is the Best Middleweight in the World?
Not all title fights are created equal.
While championship matchups are almost always appealing, there's a special class of title fight that stands above the rest.
We're talking about those special showdowns between two fighters who are clearly on a different level than almost every other fighter in their division—like when Chris Weidman defended the UFC middleweight title against Luke Rockhold in 2015, when Cody Garbrandt defended the bantamweight title against TJ Dillashaw in 2017, or when Kamaru Usman defended the welterweight title against Colby Covington late last year.
When these fights conclude, we have irrefutable proof—however fleeting—that the victor is the best fighter in their weight class.
That's the kind of title fight we have in the UFC 253 main event, which will see the promotion's middleweight champ, Israel Adesanya, an undefeated sharpshooter with dozens of kickboxing bouts on his resume, attempt to defend his title against Paulo Costa, an unbeaten juggernaut who seems incapable of taking a backward step.
On paper, it's the kind of fight that makes bookmakers sweat and fans drool.
It's anybody's guess who will win. It's almost certain that it will be exciting, and when it's all over, we'll know with absolute certainty who the best middleweight on Earth is.
Will Fans Accept a New Light Heavyweight Champion?
The winner of the UFC 253 co-main event, which will pit once-beaten American Dominick Reyes against Polish knockout artist Jan Blachowicz, will be crowned the new UFC light heavyweight champion—but there will be an asterisk attached to that title.
The light heavyweight division has long been ruled by Jon Jones—barring a few periods when he was punished for his indiscretions outside the cage. The longtime champ, however, recently relinquished his strap and set off in search of new challenges in the heavyweight division.
Jones' departure from the division was exciting news for its many dangerous contenders, few of whom seemed to have a shot at championship glory while he was on the throne. However, those light heavyweight contenders might soon run into a problem: the skepticism of the fans.
Jones, of course, never lost the light heavyweight title. He abandoned it seemingly out of sheer boredom with the lack of credible challenges on his horizon. As such, many fans are unlikely to buy Reyes, Blachowicz or any other contender as the true light heavyweight champion, let alone the best light heavyweight on Earth.
This is particularly true in Blachowicz's case.
Reyes challenged Jones for the light heavyweight title in February. He lost that fight by unanimous decision, but many viewers felt he did enough to earn the victory and the belt. So if he wins, there's at least a pre-existing pocket of fans who already considered him the true light heavyweight champion and will have an easy time accepting him as the official owner of that title.
Blachowicz, however, never fought Jones and would have been a huge underdog heading into the matchup if he'd ever received the opportunity.
While there's no denying that Reyes and Blachowicz are two of the best light heavyweights around, it's possible that neither will truly be viewed as the division's undisputed champion until they find a way to defeat Jones.
Time will tell how the fans react to their new light heavyweight king.
Can Kai Kara-France or Brandon Royval Skip the Line at Flyweight?
The men's flyweight division certainly isn't the UFC's most popular weight class, but it's looking better than it has in a long time.
The division has a brand new champion in Deiveson Figueiredo, who seems to have earned the respect of MMA's finicky fans with his predilection for violent finishes. He's set to defend his title against former UFC bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt—one the biggest stars the lighter weight classes have produced in recent years—at UFC 255. Beyond that, there's a surprisingly long list of viable contenders awaiting a shot at the champ.
Kai Kara-France and Brandon Royval, who will meet on the UFC 253 main card, are two of those contenders.
At present, it looks like the winner of an upcoming fight between Brandon Moreno and Alex Perez, also scheduled for UFC 255, will be matched up with the Figueiredo-Garbrandt winner.
Make no mistake about it, though: If Kara-France or Royval can produce a statement victory on a card as hyped as UFC 253, it's very possible they'll be able to jump to the front of the line.
Kara-France is one of the more popular fighters in the division and is riding a big win over Tyson Nam. Royval, meanwhile, is riding three straight stoppage wins, including a submission victory over former title-challenger Tim Elliott in his UFC return.
It's by no means a certainty, but if either man can pull of a slick submission or big knockout, they could be offered a title shot in the near future—perhaps even before Moreno or Perez.
Is Ketlen Vieira a Future Foe for Amanda Nunes?
Ketlen Vieira got knocked silly by Irene Aldana in her last fight. There's no two ways about it: it was a tough, tough L.
Prior to that setback, though, Vieira had never been beaten as a pro mixed martial artist. Her undefeated run wasn't the product of a padded record, either. She's beaten some legitimately dangerous women in Cat Zingano and Sara McMann—both of whom have previously contended for the bantamweight title.
At the height of her unbeaten run, Vieira was often mentioned as an imminent title challenger for UFC bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes who, as most fans know, has absolutely cleaned out her entire division and is starving for new foes.
It's going to take some work for Vieira to reassert herself as a legit contender for Nunes' throne, but beating short-notice opponent Sijara Eubanks—a potential title challenger in her own right—on the UFC 253 main card would be a huge step in the right direction.
Can Vieira recapture some of the hype that was starting to develop before she got flatlined by Aldana while beating Eubanks? Time will tell.
Some new blood in the bantamweight division would be nice, though.
How Much Longer Will Diego Sanchez Continue Fighting?
Diego Sanchez, who won the very first season of The Ultimate Fighter, made his pro MMA debut way back in 2002. He's still fighting in the UFC today.
One can't help but be impressed by his longevity, but it's also hard not to worry about his health.
Sanchez is 5-5 in his last 10 fights. Three of those losses came via knockout or TKO. One of the wins came by way of disqualification after he was nuked by an illegal knee from Michel Pereira in his last outing. While Sanchez has always absorbed a lot of punishment, relying on his chin to survive some brutal wars in his heyday, that's particularly true of late.
It's possible he'll endure even more punishment when he battles Jake Matthews on the UFC 253 undercard.
Matthews is not exactly a knockout artist. The Australian has just four wins by way of KO or TKO among his 16 career triumphs. That said, he's 12 years Sanchez's junior and seemingly has all the tools to thump his aging rival this weekend.
And if Sanchez does sustain another tough loss, what then?
UFC President Dana White recently suggested retirement for both Tyron Woodley and Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone. If he's willing to shepherd those two fighters, who have only been losing to top-level talent, toward retirement, then surely Sanchez can expect a similar push with a loss at UFC 253?
Of course, all Sanchez needs to do to delay that conversation with White is win again, but extending his career with another win might just open the door to more punishment down the road.
Sanchez is a legend of the sport, but heading into UFC 253, it's impossible not to wonder how much longer he can keep this train on the rails. Actually, the more fitting question is how much longer he should be allowed to.