Israel Adesanya got his wish for a title fight in Sydney, now he has to deal with the consequences.
The consequences being having to defend the middleweight belt against a man few expected to ever challenge for UFC gold, Sean Strickland. A man that has little to lose and everything to gain.
In the main event of UFC 293 on Saturday, Adesanya looks to continue his second reign as UFC champion, and the assumption is that he takes another step in building a legacy that rivals that of 185-pound GOAT Anderson Silva. Make the walk in front of a supportive Australian crowd, dispose of Strickland with ease as expected, and then move on to marquee matchups with Dricus Du Plessis, Khamzat Chimaev, and, farther down the road, Bo Nickal.
Combat sports is rarely so neat — even Sean O’Malley’s rocket took a few detours on its way to superstardom — so dismissing the threat of Strickland would be foolish. Since moving up to middleweight, he’s been completely outclassed just once and that was at the hands of Adesanya foil Alex Pereira. Other than that, Strickland is always in the fight, and as long as he’s hanging around, anything can happen.
Anything. Can. Happen.
In other main card action, jovial heavyweight Tai Tuivasa hopes to knock out Alexander Volkov and then down a shoey, flyweight contender Manel Kape faces short-notice replacement Felipe dos Santos, heavyweights Justin Tafa and Austen Lane run it back after their first meeting ended in an unfortunate eye poke, and Tyson Pedro meets “The Pleasure Man” Anton Turkalj in a light heavyweight bout.
What: UFC 293
Where: Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney, Australia
When: Saturday, Sept. 9. The card begins with a three-fight early prelims portion on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m. ET, with continuing coverage of the four-fight prelim card on ESPNews and ESPN+ beginning at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Israel Adesanya (1) vs. Sean Strickland (9)
I can’t possibly frame this better than Sean Strickland’s coach Eric Nicksick, who plainly told MMA Fighting’s Damon Martin that Israel Adesanya is “a f****** horrible matchup” for his guy.
We’ve had plenty of time to chew on this matchup, with Adesanya and Strickland having had words for each well before they were booked for this unlikely title fight; and, speaking for myself, there has been no point that I’ve ever been comfortable picking a Strickland upset win. The breakdown is so simple: Adesanya is one of the best strikers in all of MMA, Strickland only wins fights standing. Strickland cannot beat Adesanya standing. That’s the accepted logic, anyway.
When it comes to mixing the martial arts, Strickland has a reputation as a strong grappler, though it’s a skill that we rarely see him utilize offensively. If he were ever to wrestle, it should have been against Alex Pereira. He didn’t and he was put down hard. This is his chance to show off his all-around game, and he should if he wants to stand a chance. Adesanya has elite takedown defense, but not testing it at all would be an odd strategic decision.
If I wrack my brain, I can also talk myself into Strickland going the Julianna Peña route and just coming forward for 25 minutes with the hope that, 1) he breaks Adesanya’s resolve, and, 2) Adesanya doesn’t just shut his lights off with a trademark counter. Seriously though, if Strickland’s chin holds up, and he can stay in Adesanya’s face, it’s not impossible for him to win this way, just highly improbable.
OK, I’ve covered the “Strickland wins” bases. The actual pick has to be Adesanya. All the tape we have tells us that Adesanya’s striking is on another level from Strickland’s. He’s bigger and faster, his chances of landing a one-shot KO are greater, especially if Strickland tees one up for him, and he’s coming off of a cathartic win over his nemesis, Alex Pereira. Barring a letdown, he’s got this.
Tai Tuivasa (7) vs. Alexander Volkov (8)
Tai Tuivasa’s stock has taken a hit recently, as evidenced by “Bam Bam” currently hovering around +200 as an underdog according to DraftKings. That’s what happens when you drop two straight in the unpredictable heavyweight division.
When you consider that those two losses have come against top-five fighters Ciryl Gane and Sergei Pavlovich, the picture seems less discouraging for Tuivasa, but losses are still losses and it’s not like they came in unexpected fashion. Tuivasa ran into a pair of big men who are more athletic and hit harder than him.
Seemingly, this makes the lumbering Alexander Volkov an ideal opponent for a comeback fight, but I get the feeling that Volkov is going to break some hearts on Saturday. His reach advantage should be a real concern for Tuivasa fans, as should his technical striking ability, which has led to a lot of success throughout his 46-fight career. He’s not a point fighter either; he’ll press forward and take Tuivasa out if the opportunity presents itself.
Maybe I’m biting way too hard on the favorite here and not giving enough credit to Tuivasa’s explosive punching power, but I like Volkov to finish him with strikes in Round 2.
Manel Kape (11) vs. Felipe dos Santos
Just 22 years old, Felipe dos Santos has a bright future ahead of him, but this is an enormously tall order for his first UFC fight. He recently missed out on a Contender Series opportunity when his opponent missed weight for the fight, and now he’s been fast-tracked into the octagon as a late replacement for Kai Kara-France.
Keep in mind, “Lipe Detona” hasn’t exactly been shredding the competition on the regional scene, and now he’s supposed to go toe-to-toe with Manel Kape? Yikes! It’s not a bad thing that dos Santos has been tested on the regional scene, and he’s shown marked improvement in every outing, which is expected with such a young prospect, but he is jumping up several levels for this Kape matchup.
The good news for dos Santos is that he won’t have to worry about Kape stifling his striking with a wrestling-heavy attack. The bad news is that he’s likely going to engage Kape in a standup battle and that won’t end well for him. Kape hits so much harder and moves with much more fluidity than any of dos Santos’ previous opponents. As fun as it is to watch dos Santos scrap, once he takes a few Kape punches, he’s going to learn fast what it means to be in the cage with a top-15 flyweight.
This will be fun as long as it lasts, which won’t be long at all. Kape by knockout.
Justin Tafa vs. Austen Lane
If this one goes to the cards, it will be the frontrunner for the most surprising 15-minute fight of the year. Austen Lane has never gone to the scorecards; Tafa has, but is more well-known for fights lasting less than two minutes. Take the under.
Technically, I wasn’t wrong? Twenty-nine seconds into their fight, Austen Lane poked Justin Tafa in the eye and the bout was waved off when Tafa was unable to continue. I’m standing by this prediction though. Someone is getting cracked and not getting back up in the first 120 seconds.
Lane is an odd duck at heavyweight, a former NFL player who spends more time working off of his back after getting taken down than actually tackling others. At 6-foot-6, he wants to be utilizing his range as much as possible and combined with solid cardio for such a big guy, it’s led to positive results.
He’s waited a while to actually make his UFC debut, which is a shame because I expect Tafa to end this one early. Tafa has the gift of generating instant explosion in his punches seemingly out of nowhere. So Lane might think he’s leading the dance early only to eat a bomb that ruins his day.
Everything here still checks out, but now New Zealand’s Tafa has the added bonus of fighting in front of a crowd that is likely to be full of supporters eager to see him catch a body. That body just so happens to be Lane, unfortunately for him.
My prediction then and my prediction now:
Should be fun for as long as it lasts, but Tafa scores a KO in Round 1.
Tyson Pedro vs. Anton Turkalj
I’m worried for “The Pleasure Man.”
It’s all fun and games when you have one of the best nicknames ever, but at some point Anton Turkalj has to actually, you know, start winning fights, and it feels like he’s being set up to take a fall here. Tyson Pedro is fighting on home soil and this is a favorable style matchup for the Australian. Turkalj’s defense is questionable, to put it nicely, so a slugger like Pedro will be licking his lips when he sees his opponent either standing in the pocket or lunging in with telegraphed attacks.
There is an wild man quality to Turkalj’s game that could make this fun, especially if he can fight Pedro on the ground for any extended stretch. But he’s not exactly throwing “GSP” double legs in there, and it’s more likely that he shoots into a Pedro knee than takes him down at will. I want to be wrong about this!
If another loss makes this the last time we see Turkalj in the octagon, let me be the first to say, “It’s been a pleasure, man.”