The hunted becomes the hunter as former champion Israel Adesanya runs it back against Alex Pereira, the man who dethroned him for the middleweight title at UFC 287 in Miami on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Miami-Dade Arena will come unglued when Miami’s favourite son Jorge Masvidal returns to battle Gilbert Burns in a pivotal welterweight bout in the co-main event.
A second showdown in the 170-pound division will see Kevin Holland square off against Santiago Ponzinibbio while there are two bantamweight bangers on deck as Rob Font faces Adrian Yanez and prodigy Raul Rosas Jr collides with Christian Rodriguez.
MAIN CARD (from 5 AM Sunday SA time):
Alex Pereira (2.10) v Israel Adesanya (1.76) (Middleweight Championship)
Adesanya’s been in massive fights throughout his decorated career. He captured the middleweight championship with a knockout of Robert Whittaker in front of the biggest crowd in UFC history (57,127) in Melbourne in 2019 and successfully defended his title five times.
However, this is unquestionably the most important fight of his life as he can’t afford to lose to his arch-rival again. Pereira has been his boogeyman, a monster incarnate who’s followed him to every corner of the globe to inflict pain, both physical and mental.
Their years-long rivalry started in the kickboxing realm, where Pereira prevailed on points in their first fight in 2016 and brutally knocked out Adesanya in the rematch the following year. Not content, “Poatan” followed Adesanya into the mixed martial arts world, where “The Last Stylebender” ruled the UFC’s middleweight division with an iron fist.
Unbeaten at 185 pounds, the Nigerian-born and New Zealand-bred champion welcomed the challenge of his arch-rival. They met in the Octagon last November with Adesanya moments away from winning a decision before Pereira produced a come-from-behind knockout in the fifth round to win the title in just his eighth MMA fight.
Adesanya’s main struggle against Pereira is mental. He was up on the scorecards in all three fights, with the first being a controversial decision. Pereira is a huge welterweight – he towers over most middleweights and light heavyweights. That size and range combined with his kickboxing brilliance set him apart from the rest but again, Adesanya largely has himself to blame for getting caught twice.
Being the challenger will aid Adesanya in this all-important department. As champion, he’d become overly methodical. He’d gone from an exciting and aggressive rising star to a low-risk, defensive-minded fighter more concerned with not losing instead of winning decisively.
As challenger, the onus is on him to dethrone the king. That should light the fire in him again and give him the singular, aggressive focus required rather than being pulled in all directions by the media and commercial demands of being the champion.
As long as Pereira’s standing, he has the ability to knockout anyone in the world. The former Glory middleweight and light heavyweight champion is that good and that explosive. He has the one thing Adesanya doesn’t, namely one-punch knockout power, and surprised by scoring a takedown on “Izzy” in their last fight, so he’s working on his overall skillset.
With a record of 23-2 with 15 knockouts, though, Adesanya is vastly more experienced in MMA than the imposing Brazilian, who’s 7-1 with six knockouts, and he’s more well-rounded, which is why he remains the favourite going into their fourth battle.
Add the mental sharpness and uptick in aggression that being the challenger inspires and Adesanya should finally exorcize his demon.
Gilbert Burns (1.21) v Jorge Masvidal (4.80) (Welterweight)
Former title challengers determined to earn another championship opportunity face off in the co-main event.
Burns (21-5) can do it all at the highest level. He has power and heart as he showed in his classic three-round war with Khamzat Chimaev, and he’s a grappling wizard.
A multi-time jiu-jitsu world champion, fifth-ranked “Durinho” made it look easy in his last fight against Neil Magny in his native Brazil, sustaining no damage and securing his ninth submission win in the first round.
Miami’s own Masvidal (35-16) is a fighter’s fighter. Part of Kimbo Slice’s infamous street fighting crew back in the day, “Gamebred” reached superstar status with his record-setting five-second knockout of Ben Askren in 2019, one of his 16 career KOs.
A brawler with good combinations, the UFC’s BMF loves a scrap but has lost his last three fights, twice unsuccessfully challenging Kamaru Usman for the title before dropping a decision to rival Colby Covington last March to fall to 11th in the rankings.
Both Usman and Covington are world-class wrestlers and it’s the grappling of Burns that’ll be Masvidal’s undoing again. The Brazilian won’t mind exchanging on the feet but has a clear path to victory on the ground, where I see him forcing Masvidal to tap.
Rob Font (2.55) v Adrian Yanez (1.55) (Bantamweight)
Top-15 bantamweight strikers will put on a show for the sold-out crowd as they look to climb the ladder.
A veteran with a solid resume, sixth-ranked Font (19-6 with eight knockouts and four submissions) won four in a row before his current two-fight skid. Those losses, though, came to elite opposition in former featherweight champion Jose Aldo and Marlon Vera.
Dynamic, exciting and equipped with one-punch knockout power, he serves as the litmus test for one of the division’s brightest rising stars.
Yanez (16-3) is on a nine-fight win streak and has been mightily impressive in the UFC, with four of his five victories inside the Octagon coming by knockout to move his KO tally up to 10 and his ranking to 12th.
A high-volume striker with excellent hand speed and footwork, the 29-year-old is on the up and will have a significant speed advantage, which should see him beat Font to the punch throughout to score the biggest win of his career.
Kevin Holland (1.40) v Santiago Ponzinibbio (3.05) (Welterweight)
This promises to be another exciting striking duel for as long as it lasts as both men do most of their work on the feet.
Holland (23-9) has fought and beaten some of the best at welterweight and middleweight before that. A long, athletic showman with 13 knockouts, “Trailblazer” is more comfortable than most inside the Octagon and loves talking to his opponent in the heat of battle.
Ponzinibbio (29-6) hasn’t fought the calibre of opponents Holland has and is past his prime at 36, six years older than his American adversary. “The Argentine Dagger”, who boasts 16 knockouts, isn’t done just yet, though, and remains dangerous with his power and veteran savviness.
That said, Holland’s not only younger and more athletic but also has a massive eight-inch reach advantage, which will prove decisive.
Raul Rosas Jr (1.40) v Christian Rodriguez (3.05) (Bantamweight)
Bantamweight finishers will ensure the main card starts with a bang. Both men have won all but one of their bouts by stoppage and have five first-round finishes, so the judges should be mere spectators.
Rosas Jr is a prodigy unlike any other. The younger fighter ever signed by the UFC at just 17 last September, the Mexican-American fights with maturity well beyond his years and is a perfect 7-0.
“El Nino Problema” has solid striking but grappling’s where he shines, with the teenager already having five career submission wins to his name.
Slightly more experienced, 23-year-old Rodriguez (8-1) is well-rounded with three knockouts and four wins by submission.
“CeeRod” is also at the start of his UFC career and a victory over his much-hyped opponent would put him on the map.
Rodriguez, who’ll have to be crafty in order to put Rosas Jr in uncomfortable positions, is a good test for the teen sensation but one the 18-year-old should pass based on his exuberance and superior grappling.