Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa have a rare opportunity ahead of them as the headliners of UFC 253 on Saturday night.
The list of championship fights in which both fighters were undefeated going into the fight is incredibly short. The first came in 2009, when an undefeated Lyoto Machida fought Rashad Evans for the light heavyweight championship. The second came when Ronda Rousey was upset by an undefeated Holly Holm in 2015.
So when someone says the Adesanya vs. Costa fight has the potential to be an all-timer, it's not just promotional fluff.
The two knockout artists have been the most exciting prospects in the middleweight division for a while. Adesanya has completed his ascension to titleholder; now it's time for him to establish a rivalry with a contemporary.
The epic middleweight title matchup isn't the only reason to tune in, though. The light heavyweight division will have a champion other than Jon Jones or Daniel Cormier for the first time since 2011. Bones vacated his title in August to pursue a run in the heavyweight division, so Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz will battle for the right to lead a new era in the division.
Here's a look at the whole card along with the latest odds and predictions for the biggest fights.
Main Card (ESPN+ PPV at 10 p.m. ET)
- Israel Adesanya -182 ($182 bet wins $100) vs. Paulo Costa +150 ($100 bet wins $150)—middleweight championship fight
- Jan Blachowicz +230 vs. Dominick Reyes -286—light heavyweight championship fight
- Kai Kara-France -230 vs. Brandon Royval +179
- Sijara Eubanks +134 vs. Ketlen Vieira -167
- Hakeem Dawodu +101 vs. Zubaira Tukhugov -125
Prelims (ESPN2/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET)
- Alex da Silva +250 vs. Brad Riddell -335
- Jake Matthews -670 vs. Diego Sanchez +445
- Ludovit Klein +101 vs. Shane Young -125
- Aleksa Camur -167 vs. William Knight +134
Early Prelims (ESPN2/ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET)
- Juan Espino -305 vs. Jeff Hughes +233
- Khadis Ibragimov -155 vs. Danilo Marques +124
Odds via DraftKings Sportsbook.
Costa Wants to Bring Smart Pressure to Adesanya
The stylistic clash between Costa and Adesanya is a tale as old as time.
The challenger plays the role of pressure-fighting maniac. He pushes one of the highest paces of any fighter with 8.43 significant strikes per minute, even if it means taking a few on the chin (6.84 per minute).
In the other corner is a calculating striker and, thanks to his professional kickboxing background, finely tuned sniper. Adesanya is a more aggressive version of Anderson Silva, generating his knockout power from well-timed, accurate shots with devastating results.
The dynamic that will determine the course of this fight is just how well Costa can pressure Adesanya without exposing himself to counters. It's something he seems to understand as the fight day approaches.
"If I just went there and stood in front of Adesanya the way [Yoel] Romero did, it would be the exact same fight, and who would want to see that?" he told Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports. "I'm a guy who you know is going to bring the fight, but I'm not going to do it like a dumb man and just go run at him. No. That's not going to happen."
The specific use of "dumb" is significant here, as it is a rebuttal to one of Adesanya's criticisms of him. It's part of the long history between the fighters that will make Saturday's clash even more interesting.
Ultimately, distance and pace will be the two deciding factors in the fight. If Adesanya can use his mobility and footwork to cut good angles, slow down the fight and turn it into a chess match, he will prevail. If Costa can push his usual pace and turn this into a brawl, then things favor the Brazilian.
The likely outcome is we get a little bit of both in a fight that lives up to the hype.
Prediction: Adesanya via decision.
Reyes Focused on Long Light Heavyweight Title Reign
After a razor-thin decision loss to Jon Jones in February, it would be understandable if Dominick Reyes had a hard time letting go of the fact that he isn't likely to get a rematch. After all, he's come as close as anyone to handing Jones his first legitimate loss.
But that doesn't appear to be the case. He insists he's preparing to not only win the vacant championship Saturday but also hold on to his new belt for a long time.
"I'm going to be the baddest light heavyweight on the planet when I perform," Reyes said, per Damon Martin of MMA Fighting. "My next performance is going to speak for itself. It won't matter. I'm at the point where I don't give a flying 'F' about what anybody says about anything. I love performing."
Reyes moving on from his loss to Jones will be important. In that fight, he showed he's the most skilled fighter in the division now that Jones is gone. But Blachowicz is a dangerous opponent and a live underdog.
We last saw him in the cage with Corey Anderson, whom he knocked out in the first round at Fight Night 167 in February. His lone loss in the past three years came against Thiago Santos, who has some of the best power in the division.
Blachowicz is also a dangerous fighter on the ground. He holds nine submission wins in his career. While he's only had two under the UFC banner, it represents an advantage over Reyes, although his takedown defense could nullify that aspect of the fight.
The Polish contender has serious power, so this fight could turn at any minute. However, it's hard not to like what Reyes brings to the table after his fight with Jones. This could be another tightly contested battle, and the fact that Reyes has been through the fire with the best to do it in the weight class bodes well.
Prediction: Reyes via decision.