Insiders debate Conor McGregor’s hurdle, Israel Adesanya regaining form

MMA

Just in case the chatter about Justin Gaethje being considered the front-runner to fight Conor McGregor next wasn’t sinking in, Ali Abdelaziz — the manager of Gaethje and Khabib Nurmagomedovemphasized over the weekend that there would be no McGregor-Nurmagomedov rematch unless McGregor fights someone like Gaethje first.

UFC president Dana White, who wants the McGregor-Nurmagomedov rematch, simply smiled and said, “We’ll see.”

So what happens if Nurmagomedov, who has also said he believes McGregor needs to earn his way to a rematch with more victories, refuses to fight his arch rival?

Of course, Tony Ferguson could simplify things on April 18 if the dangerous top contender beats Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title and then opts for the big payday vs. McGregor.

Meanwhile, Israel Adesanya will try to regain his form against top challenger Paulo Costa. Adesanya is trying to move past the bitter taste of his lackluster win Saturday over Yoel Romero, who was so inactive he made White wish he hadn’t booked him as the challenger.

Nobody expects Adesanya-Costa to be as uneventful as the UFC 248 main event, not with Costa’s style and the bad blood between him and Adesanya.

ESPN’s panelists Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim address those topics, as well as what they’re looking forward to the most Saturday when the UFC heads to Brasilia, Brazil, for a main event of Kevin Lee vs. Charles Oliveira.

Khabib’s manager says no Conor rematch until Conor fights Gaethje. What happens?

Okamoto: It’s really hard to predict anything regarding the lightweight division until after April 18. That is the date we will finally see Nurmagomedov fight Ferguson — and the result will have a massive impact on what happens next. If Ferguson pulls it off, I believe the UFC will immediately book him against McGregor. If Nurmagomedov wins and takes the summer off for Ramadan, well, then we’ve got some things to figure out. At the end of the day, if McGregor waits for Nurmagomedov, the UFC is going to try to book that rematch, and the UFC usually gets what it wants. I like Abdelaziz’s statement, though. Right now, the man who is potentially left out in all of this is Gaethje. So, it’s Gaethje who is most in need of representation right now, and Abdelaziz, through this statement, seems to be trying to do that.

Raimondi: This is going to get really interesting. There’s no reason not to believe Nurmagomedov when he says things. He has been a man of his word throughout his career. But on the other hand, I can’t imagine a future without Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor 2 at some point. Let’s first see what happens with Nurmagomedov and Ferguson. Let’s say Nurmagomedov beats Ferguson and won’t fight again until most likely September, late August the earliest. He has been adamant that he needs to take time off after Ramadan — which ends in late May — to readjust before getting into training camp. McGregor wants to fight sooner than that, such as July. The schedules don’t seem to match up. So maybe McGregor faces Gaethje in July, Nurmagomedov fights someone else in September, and we reassess after that to see about Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor 2 at the end of the year or first quarter of 2021.

Wagenheim: If Ferguson wins the belt, that would give White options. He could go ahead and hand McGregor his unearned title shot, because Ferguson surely would welcome the payday, or he could book Nurmagomedov-McGregor 2, because without a belt on the line, it would no longer be an illegitimate money grab. Problem solved either way.

If Nurmagomedov remains champ, though, I don’t envision the rematch happening until McGregor has earned it. Gaethje is the legitimate gateway to a title shot, but as I suggested in a previous panel — based on no insider knowledge, just a grasp of logic and human emotion — perhaps McGregor, after being blocked from a title shot by Abdelaziz, won’t allow another of the manager’s clients to win the lottery. Maybe he’ll opt to earn his title shot against someone else. That Jorge Masvidal title challenge at welterweight isn’t set in stone yet, is it?

How do you see an Adesanya-Costa fight unfolding?

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Dana White says he expects Paulo Costa to bring a fighting style that’s the polar opposite of Yoel Romero’s when he fights Israel Adesanya next. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

Okamoto: I mean, much, much different than what we saw Saturday. Unless Costa has been hiding something from us, this man only knows one way to fight, and that is to come forward and throw with power. It’s all he does. Even when Costa was getting jabbed to death by Uriah Hall two fights back, he just kept coming for more and eventually knocked him out in the second round. When I look at this fight, I see a tough matchup for Costa — he might able to walk through Hall’s jab, but I don’t think he’ll be able to walk through the offensive weapons Adesanya will put on him. But that said, no one has survived Costa’s pressure yet. He’s 13-0. I don’t see this one going the full five rounds when it happens.

Raimondi: Costa is not a counter-striker like Romero. He comes forward. He’s aggressive. On paper, he’s the kind of opponent Adesanya would be able to pick apart. But fights don’t happen on paper. No one saw Adesanya vs. Romero going like that. I’d argue despite his inactivity, Romero did more damage than Adesanya with the few strikes he threw. He made Adesanya uncomfortable the whole way.

Costa beat Romero in a very close fight. I could see Adesanya vs. Costa being similar to Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum — back and forth, both guys taking damage. A war to the end. Costa is an absolute tank with a steel chin and big power. Very, very much looking forward to that one.

Wagenheim: Judging by Costa’s aggressive past, plus the venom that’s been spat back and forth between him and Adesanya, this fight would seem destined for all-out war. But when there’s dark animosity leading into a bout, sometimes the combatants take a cautious approach, because neither can stand the thought of being reckless and getting caught by such a hated foe.

So I expect this clash to have moments of full-on combat — what the fans are salivating for — but also tricky, offbeat spells in which each fighter aims to get the other guy off his game. Both men have made it to where they are by fighting with skills and smarts. They’re not bare-knuckle barroom brawlers. This is going to be a high-energy and high-level fight.

How much do you blame Adesanya for what happened against Romero?

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Israel Adesanya calls his fight vs. Yoel Romero boring and explains how Romero was loading up to hit Adesanya with counter punches.

Okamoto: None. I blame Adesanya zero percent. After the fight, Romero was talking about Adesanya running and how that’s not what “the people want to see,” and that’s not what “the people in Rome” wanted to see, presumably referring to the gladiator days. What Romero was really saying was, “Hey man, how come you didn’t fight my fight?” Adesanya is the taller, longer fighter, and he held an advantage on the outside. So, the onus is on Romero to close the distance. He was unwilling to do so, and he’ll have to live with the consequences. This is the same guy, by the way, who has previously missed weight before a title shot, twice, and had really no legitimate claim to get this title shot anyway, having lost three of his past four coming in. To then fight in the manner in which he did, and blame Adesanya for not foolishly meeting in him in the center of the Octagon? Stop.

Raimondi: We have seen Adesanya in classic fights. His bout against Gastelum last April was the best fight of 2019 and one of the best UFC title fights I have ever seen. It was incredible. The way the UFC 248 main event went was mostly due to Romero’s strategy. People are criticizing Romero for that, too. I think he was actually pretty effective. Outside of leg kicks, Romero didn’t take much damage. Adesanya is extremely dangerous. He can knock an opponent out at any time. Romero was very careful and deliberate, and when he had the chance to counter, he threw hard. Of course, that didn’t happen all that often. His output was historically low. But that was obviously the strategy Romero and his team thought would be best against a sniper like Adesanya.

Wagenheim: I don’t blame Adesanya and don’t even blame Romero. They collaborated in choreographing a dud of a dance, and what a buzzkill it was following such a soul-stirring co-main event. But sometimes MMA isn’t as much about the spectators as it is about the championship and what that means, financially and otherwise, to the fighters. Romero apparently believed his best chance to go home with the gold was to draw Adesanya to him rather than giving the champ a counter-striker’s field day. Adesanya fought the cautious fight he thought was smartest, retaining the title by scoring points from the outside.

Which fights are you most excited to see this weekend?

Okamoto: Unsurprisingly, the main event is No. 1. Easy. Oliveira has looked like a killer lately at 155 pounds. Like, legitimate title challenger. But this is a tough style matchup for him in Lee, and it’s also a spot in which you’d really expect Lee to come in motivated. He really needs to win this one. Beyond that, light heavyweight prospect Johnny Walker‘s first appearance since moving his training to Tristar MMA is very intriguing, and I also really like the flyweight matchup between Jussier Formiga and Brandon Moreno. The UFC has said it’s going to run Joseph Benavidez vs. Deiveson Figueiredo back for the vacant 125-pound championship. The winner of this fight between Formiga and Moreno could easily be the first in line for a title shot once that’s settled.

Raimondi: Johnny Walker vs. Nikita Krylov. This is Walker’s first fight after getting knocked out by Corey Anderson at UFC 244 last November. Can the very promising light heavyweight rebound and get back on track toward a title opportunity? It’s funny how things work out. If Walker had beaten Anderson, he might have been next for champion Jon Jones. Now, four months later, there are three contenders ahead of him: Dominick Reyes, Thiago Santos and Jan Blachowicz. Meanwhile, Krylov, like Walker, is always exciting. This matchup should bring the action from start to finish. And it might not last long. Both men have a ton of finishing ability. Consider this: Until his last fight, a split-decision loss to Glover Teixeira last September, Krylov had never been to decision in his 31-fight career. That is absurd. Walker has gone to decision just once, as well, in 21 fights. This one should tear the house down.

Wagenheim: Demian Maia vs. Gilbert Burns. Maia is always a treat to watch when someone is willing to roll with him; his submission of onetime Olympic wrestler Ben Askren last October was sublime. And Burns, a three-time jiu-jitsu world champion, will be up to the challenge Saturday in Brasilia.

But let’s not forget that another Brazilian star, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, will be in action on Friday, defending his Bellator featherweight title against Pedro Carvalho. In addition to being a title fight, it’s also a quarterfinal in the promotion’s Grand Prix. Freire is in his second run as 145-pound champ and also reigns at lightweight. His opponent, Carvalho, has won six in a row and draws extra luster from his association with SBG Dublin, training home of McGregor. This one won’t be boring.

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