Insiders debate UFC 248: Adesanya’s risky move; bold predictions

MMA

Israel Adesanya didn’t have to pick Yoel Romero for his first title defense. The UFC middleweight champ could have waited until top contender Paulo Costa healed from his biceps surgery before putting his belt on the line.

But Adesanya wants to stay active and beat the toughest guys in the division, so he chose Romero for the main event of UFC 248 on Saturday in Las Vegas.

It was a risky decision. If Adesanya wins, he’ll have beaten a 42-year-old opponent coming off two losses. A win is a win, but that wouldn’t be as impressive as beating Costa, who is undefeated in 13 professional fights, including a 5-0 mark in the UFC with one of those wins coming against Romero.

And if Adesanya loses, the ascension of someone considered the UFC’s next superstar slows considerably. It’s possible if Romero wins, he’ll want to defend against Costa first, then Adesanya could fight the winner for another shot at the title.

There’s a lot at stake, as there is in the co-main event when Zhang Weili defends her strawweight title against top challenger Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Zhang’s training camp in China was thrown into turmoil by the coronavirus outbreak. She had to fly to Thailand to train for a week before being forced to move her camp to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, before flying to Las Vegas.

ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim weighs in on some of the biggest storylines surrounding UFC 248.

Is Adesanya taking too big of a risk with this fight?

Helwani: I don’t think so. Romero’s losing streak aside, he was the best option for Adesanya out there namewise. Adesanya wants to stay active and strongly feels a victory over Romero, while he is still relevant, is a nice feather in his cap. Once Costa was out, it pretty much came down to Romero, Jared Cannonier and Darren Till, right? Well, it looks like Adesanya made the right choice because Till has visa problems still and Cannonier just got injured. Of course, who knows if he gets injured if that fight is booked, but you get the point. Adesanya made the right call because he wants to be a fighting champion, and a win over Romero still means something.

Raimondi: Romero is arguably the toughest matchup in the division for Adesanya. OK, let’s be honest, Romero is the toughest matchup in the division for anyone. The man is a machine, like fighting a steel pillar who happens to have an Olympic wrestling silver medal. But who else would Adesanya have fought at this juncture? Perhaps he could have waited for Costa, the true top contender, to get healthy. Romero is the best option, though, if Adesanya didn’t want to be patient.

Adesanya has already beaten Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum. Cannonier is probably one win away. Romero makes sense — despite his losing streak — and Adesanya is right when he says beating Romero will add to his legacy. So, to answer the question, it certainly is a risk — any time anyone fights Romero, it is risky to his health — but it was a calculated one for Adesanya.

Wagenheim: Too big of a risk? There is no such thing for a champion. Every title defense should pose palpable danger. With the shiny belt comes the responsibility to compete against the toughest, scariest and most qualified challengers the UFC can put in front of you.

Romero certainly fulfills the “toughest” and “scariest” requirements. He has knockouts in 11 of his 13 career wins. As for “most qualified,” well, that’s where this becomes a dubious title fight. The 42-year-old Cuban has lost two fights in a row and three of his past four, which in a meritocratic system of matchmaking would render him unqualified for a go at the belt. For the UFC to put Romero in a championship fight at this point is about as dodgy as it would be to grant a title shot to someone like Jose Aldo, who has two losses in a row. Oh, wait …

If Izzy wins, should he try to move up to face Jon Jones next, or wait until after he fights Costa?

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Jon Jones explains why he doesn’t think Israel Adesanya would cause him any problems, claiming that Adesanya is scared of him now.

Helwani: No. Wait for Costa. That’s the fight. It would be just the second time in UFC history that two undefeated males fight for the belt (first time was Rashad Evans vs. Lyoto Machida at UFC 98). That’s a big deal, and their rivalry is a lot of fun, too. All of a sudden, Jones has business to attend to at 205, and I’d like to see him fight Dominick Reyes or Jan Blachowicz next. Let them fight their contenders this year and revisit in 2021, which is when Adesanya predicted it would happen anyway.

Raimondi: Adesanya has targeted Jones for next year. He’s been pretty clear about wanting to handle business down at middleweight before moving up, mentioning Costa and Cannonier (maybe even Till) as future opponents. That’s extremely respectable. But I’m not sure if that plan will hold. If Adesanya continues to win and emerge as one of the sport’s rising stars, there will certainly be pressure to fight Jones, perhaps the greatest UFC champion of all time and someone Adesanya has a legitimate beef with.

Meanwhile, Jones has readymade contenders at light heavyweight. Reyes and Thiago Santos can both make a case for a rematch after close losses. Blachowicz ran through Corey Anderson at UFC Rio Rancho with Jones in the front row. One thing the UFC will have to consider, though: Adesanya is a more marketable challenger for Jones than the rest.

And let’s say Reyes, Santos or Blachowicz fights Jones and beats him. Can any one of those three men be the anchor for a pay-per-view headliner? We know Adesanya can be. Those are things the UFC — which is a promotion, not a league — must consider.

Wagenheim: The thought of a Jones vs. Adesanya clash gets the heart beating, but let’s allow the thumping to go on for a while longer. Adesanya and Jones have business to do in the domains they rule.

A Costa fight — you know, a legitimate middleweight title defense — needs to happen before Adesanya moves up. And while Jones has had an upward move on his mind as well, it now appears that heavyweight has a heavy wait ahead while the longtime light heavy champ once again clears out his division. Blachowicz has earned his shot, and rematches with Reyes and Santos loom.

To the “strike while the iron is hot” legion, I say: If Jones vs. Adesanya is meant to be, the matchup will only be enhanced by an extended buildup during which each man’s legacy builds as well. A side benefit of waiting: It slows the roll of this sport-clogging champ-champ era.

Will Jedrzejczyk and a stressful training camp be too much for Zhang in her first title defense?

Helwani: Impossible to say. Zhang appears to be unflappable and supremely talented, but how could we predict something like this? From the outside, it does appear as though she has been through a lot this past month, and it would certainly be understandable if this affects her negatively. There was a thought in my mind that maybe they should have just postponed it for her benefit, but alas, they didn’t. But what about this perspective: We all know Zhang is very proud of her Chinese heritage. Maybe she will use this as motivation to represent her country on the biggest stage possible while it is going through this tumultuous time? Maybe this will galvanize her? I can see that happening as well.

Raimondi: Let’s get this out of the way from the jump: Jedrzejczyk is not the kind of fighter you want on the other side of the Octagon after going through a precarious training camp. Jedrzejczyk has done it all in combat sports, from winning titles in Muay Thai and kickboxing to being the greatest women’s strawweight champion in UFC history. Jedrzejczyk has 10 UFC 115-pound wins, the most ever in the division, and has been into the fifth round seven times in her UFC career. That’s an incredible amount of experience. Her fight IQ is also hard to match.

Zhang, meanwhile, comes in after having her training camp uprooted twice due to the coronavirus outbreak. Zhang had her team with her throughout, but it couldn’t have been easy on her. It’s almost unfair to have those experiences and then have to fight Jedrzejczyk. But here we are. Zhang is a slight favorite, but it would be silly to overlook Jedrzejczyk given the circumstances.

Wagenheim: Not being familiar with Zhang’s temperament, it’s hard to predict how her long and winding road to Las Vegas will affect her performance. But transitioning a training camp so often is fraught with the potential to mess with one’s timing, cardio and general preparedness. And for Zhang, concern over what’s going on back home in China only adds to her mental burden. This weekend, the culmination of an unthinkably challenging stretch of time, will tell us a lot about Zhang Weili.

My one bold prediction for UFC 248 is __

Helwani: I have two: Sean O’Malley and Deron Winn are going to make big statements. Both have something to prove for different reasons. As has been well documented, O’Malley has been out for two years dealing with a litany of drug testing issues. He maintains his innocence, but the facts are that this has derailed his career for the time being. Remember, when he most recently fought he was considered one of the brightest prospects in MMA. So, barring any unforeseen problems between now and fight night, I expect a big performance out of him against José Alberto Quiñónez. I also expect a big performance out of Winn. If you recall, the previous time we saw Winn, in October, he lost his first pro fight, to Darren Stewart, after failing to make weight. That’s a big no-no when you are a wrestler, not to mention a protégé of Daniel Cormier. He needs to remind me that he is worthy of all the hype he received upon signing with the UFC when he meets Gerald Meerschaert on Saturday night.

Raimondi: A future contender for the middleweight title will come out of the undercard. Rodolfo Vieira fights Saparbek Safarov on the prelims in a fight many people are sleeping on. Don’t. Vieira is the real deal. He is a seven-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt world champion and former ADCC champion. So far in MMA, Vieira is 6-0 with six finishes, five via submission. He won his UFC debut last August, a second-round arm-triangle choke victory over Oskar Piechota.

With his grappling pedigree, Vieira has a chance to be one of the best ground fighters in MMA history. In the middleweight division, there hasn’t been anyone like Vieira since the heyday of Demian Maia and Jacare Souza, with whom Vieira actually trains at Fusion X-cel Performance in Florida. Vieira is an absolute monster on the mat, and if he can get his wrestling and striking just to above-average levels, he could be a real problem for the 185-pound division.

Wagenheim: A performance of the night bonus check will go to a Chinese fighter, and it won’t be Zhang Weili. Her fellow Beijing-based competitor, welterweight Li Jingliang, put on an eye-opening show in his most recent fight, a third-round TKO of Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos back in August. Li won a performance of the night bonus for that one, just as he had for his previous fight.

So maybe this isn’t such a bold prediction after all, considering that all but one of Li’s past six showings have earned him postfight bonuses. Yet Li has continued to operate largely under the radar. Saturday’s fight with Neil Magny — Li’s biggest-name opponent to date — has the potential to change that.

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