UFC 253 Predictions: Bleacher Report Staff Main Card Picks
This month's UFC pay-per-view card can't be missed.
UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya faces unbeaten contender Paulo Costa in what should be one of the best title fights of the year.
Both fighters have yet to taste defeat, and someone's life will forever change after UFC 253.
But there are several other high quality matchups, too.
Most notably, the UFC's vacant light heavyweight championship will be awarded when Dominick Reyes takes on Jan Blachowicz in the co-main event.
UFC 253: Adesanya vs. Costa takes place live on Saturday, September 26, at Flash Forum on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
Click through to read Bleacher Report's main card staff predictions, and be sure to leave your own in the comments.
Hakeem Dawodu vs. Zubaira Tukhugov
This is a really competitive looking matchup and one that I wish I didn't have to make a prediction for. Given that it is my job to make a prediction, though, I'll go with Tukhugov. He's got a bit more experience, and he's only been knocked out once in 24 pro fights, which tells me he should be able to withstand Dawodu's heavy artillery as he puts together his own attacks.
It's also really hard to pick against fighters from The Caucasus these days...
Tukhugov via unanimous decision.
Building on Tom's point, given the astonishing success of fighters from that region it feels intuitive to default to guys from Russia's North Caucasus region. I'm not saying Tukhugov can't win, but he hasn't been as consistent as Dawodu to date. People remember the spinning stuff, but most of his fights are conservative split decisions—and those get forgotten pretty quickly. So give me Dawodu, an aggressive Muay Thai striker who will make Tukhugov work and trade. To put it another way, Dawodu is going to win because the fight will unfold on his terms.
Dawodu via unanimous decision.
Just like Tom said, this is a competitive fight on paper. But just like Scott, I'm rolling with Dawodu to score the win. Maybe it's just because I've seen Zubaira struggle more? The 29-year-old seems serviceable but beatable to me. Meanwhile, Dawodu looks to me like he has yet to display his full potential. I like Dawodu to make things easy on the judges with his higher volume and greater accuracy.
Dawodu via unanimous decision.
Each PPV show provides a chance for a fighter on the card to have a breakout night and ensure that his or her name will be on a few more people’s lips going forward. For me at this event, that fighter is Dawodu. He’s got the sort of high-skill style of aggression that lends itself to highlight reel possibilities. His opponent will be there in front of him and openings will present themselves. And when the shot comes–a la Alexander Hamilton–he won’t throw it away.
Dawodu, KO, Rd 1.
Ketlen Vieira vs. Sijara Eubanks
Eubanks looked really good in her last fight when she thumped the highly regarded Julia Avila to an impressive decision win. Vieira, on the other hand, looked pretty bad in her last fight, as she was flat-lined by her opponent, Irene Aldana.
Having said that, Vieira was being talked about as a potential opponent for UFC bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes before she got snuffed by Aldana, and I still think she's a fighter to watch in the bantamweight division. Eubanks is tough, but I think Vieira reasserts herself as a future title contender in this fight.
Vieira via unanimous decision.
Eubanks' UFC career is a checkerboard of mixed results: two wins to start it, then two losses, then two wins again. She's the underdog here against Vieira, who has faced better competition than Eubanks, but injuries and visa issues have limited her activity—this will only be her third contest in the last three years. That Aldana loss adds another layer of uncertainty. So sound the upset alarms. Eubanks wins a slow-paced, ground-based battle of attrition.
Eubanks via split decision.
Being that I was so high on "Raging Panda'' Avila as a rising women's bantamweight prospect, and still am to a point, I have to assume Eubanks putting that performance together last time out means she's on her way up the ladder, too. Besides, I just saw Vieira get wrecked by Aldana. That's a hard image to look past. Maybe that was just one bad night, but Eubanks put everything together enough in her last fight for me to back her for the win.
Eubanks via unanimous decision.
This is hardly a slam-dunk pick for me. Either woman could win simply by doing what she does and thereby dictating the tempo and look of the fight. Because the go-to strategies aren’t the same, it becomes a compelling watch. To beat Vieira, Eubanks would be best served by an approach that includes technique and movement. But that’s not her game. Instead, expect Vieira to push the pace, keep it rough and eventually beat her opponent down in a grinding scrap.
Vieira by unanimous decision.
Kai Kara-France vs. Brandon Royval
Royval is a fighter to watch in the rapidly-improving men's flyweight division, but he's only had one fight in the UFC. Yes, that was a win over former title challenger Tim Elliott, and yes, that's impressive, but Kara-France is on another level. He's extremely experienced, he's beaten almost everybody the UFC has put in front of him, and he'll be hard-pressed to win so as not to throw off his friend and training partner Israel Adesanya, who is of course one half of the UFC 253 main event.
Kara-France via unanimous decision.
This is a showcase fight for Kara-France, the dynamic New Zealander who trains with Adesanya, Dan Hooker and others in Auckland. France is not just well-connected; he has one of those brash, bubbly, Conoresque personalities that fight fans eat with a spoon. Oh, and he's a darn good fighter too. He can finish anywhere but has yet to notch a stoppage in the UFC Octagon. He'll cash in on Saturday.
Kara-France, TKO, Rd. 1.
Royval is a submission ace who is all-in on his professional MMA career in a way that I haven't seen before. Last time I saw this guy he was crying about his first UFC win over a longtime divisional contender because he wasn't sure it was good enough to earn a performance bonus. Maybe that's just anecdotal evidence, but what isn't is how impressive Royval's win was over Elliot and how the American might be a whole lot better than even he knows at this point.
Royval, submission, Rd. 2.
Royval was looking for a career-defining year in 2020 and he got off to a good start by defeating Elliott on short notice. Having this fight in the middle of a significant pay-per-view card is another step, so winning it is vital. Getting it to the ground is the best path toward doing that. It’s easier said than done against a quality striker, but it says here he’ll do it and put himself into a finishing position late.
Royval, submission, Rd. 3
Dominick Reyes vs. Jan Blachowicz
Reyes might not achieve the kind of historic title reign that the former light heavyweight champ Jon Jones did, but I can definitely picture him sitting on the division’s throne for quite some time. Barring a tepid split decision win over Volkan Oezdemir in early 2019, he's looked incredible since joining the UFC.
His opponent Blachowicz, meanwhile, has looked great—but not incredible. He's had some excellent wins, but also a few losses, including a fairly recent knockout at the hands of Thiago Santos. Blachowicz's trademark "Polish power" should never be slept on, but this time around, I do think he'll be the one doing the sleeping.
Reyes, KO, Rd. 2.
Blachowicz is a grizzled veteran of MMA. Reyes is a breath of fresh air in the light heavyweight division. After the toughness, smarts, power and skill he showed recently when he almost toppled Jon Jones, I'm hard-pressed to pick against him. Blachowicz doesn't appear to have the athleticism or dynamism to keep up with Reyes, who can pick him apart with kicks from range.
Reyes via unanimous decision.
Reyes is a savvy fighter with crazy power. He's super fast and seemingly just reaching his prime. Blachowicz is also one of the division's top contenders but it seems like the only reason he's facing Reyes here to crown the next 205-pound champ is because he's the highest ranked fighter and previous champ Jones hadn't yet handled.
Regardless, Reyes, 30, is seven years younger than his opponent and is a well-balanced and aggressive force. Blachowicz makes him work for it, but at the end of the night, the American will finally be able to wear the championship crown he thought he already won at UFC 247 in February.
Reyes, TKO, Rd. 3.
Count me in as one of the people who thought Reyes beat Jon Jones and ought to be fighting a high-profile rematch with Jonny Bones, or at the very least defending his own title. But it is what it is, so we’ll give him his title win this time and get on with the defenses at a later date. Bottom line, I think everything he does is better than anything Blachowicz does, so call it a third-round stop for me.
Reyes, TKO, Rd 3.
Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa
This is another really tough fight to make a prediction for. It's easy to envision Adesanya putting on a striking clinic, deftly avoiding Costa's frenetic assault to land counterattacks of his own. It's also easy to imagine Costa doing what he usually does: charging forward and winging punches until his foe falls.
As I attempt to make a prediction for this fight, though, I keep picturing Costa getting stung—however slightly—in the early phases of his 2018 win over Uriah Hall. That was only two fights ago for the Brazilian, and I think if Hall can land on him, Adesanya can too.
I've seen some people compare this fight to the 2011 middleweight title fight between Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort. I like that comparison. Adesanya might not win this one with a front-kick to the mouthpiece, but I think he'll eventually let loose a fight-ender.
Adesanya, TKO, Rd. 4.
You're gonna want to do two things before watching this. The first thing you need to do is find all your hatches. Did you find them? Now go ahead and batten them down. It's fine, just follow the directions in the owner's manual. Second, make some popcorn, and make it so that it's ready when the fight starts. Because this is going to be fun, and you won't want to miss a second. Costa will barrel forward because that's what he likes to do, and he might very well pull the knockout. But Adesanya is so smooth and so smart and so hard to hit that he'll be able to again play the matador to his opponent's bull. Then, when it comes time to take up the sword, the champ will be ready.
Adesanya, TKO, Rd. 4.
I've been beating the drum for Costa since this fight was announced so there's no turning back for me now. While I appreciate the finely-tuned craft of the savvy ex-kickboxing champ Adesanya, sometimes a fight just comes down to who the bigger and badder dude is.
Adesanya showed in his last fight that he wasn't too keen on getting caught by someone like that in Yoel Romero. But Costa is younger and stronger than Romero and a more well-rounded fighter with a way bigger and better gas tank.
I think it will be a back and forth battle, but the end result will see Costa shocking the world in a fun firefight that judges ultimately score for the aggressive and powerful challenger.
Costa via unanimous decision.
In boxing or MMA, I like the skilled guys. The come-forward menaces are a good watch and rarely fail to titillate, but when push comes to shove it often turns out that excellence trumps excitement. That’s what I’ll go with here. Adesanya is a special talent. He can do damage in any number of ways in a stand-up fight, and though Costa has grappling talent it’s not as if it’s a go-to weapon. I think the challenger pushes the pace, makes it compelling and ultimately falls short when the things that vanquish other fighters simply don’t get it done here.
Adesanya, TKO, Rd. 3.