Israel Adesanya and Zhang Weili have been so impressive in their runs to undisputed championship status that it’s easy to forget they will both be defending their titles for the first time Saturday.
“The Last Stylebender” did bring an interim title into his fight with Robert Whittaker, but it wasn’t until he knocked Whittaker out to unify their belts that it became abundantly clear he truly was the man to beat at 185 pounds.
Zhang was even more of an unknown property when she challenged Jessica Andrade for the strawweight title last August. A 19-fight win streak and victories over veterans Tecia Torres and Jessica Aguilar gave her some credibility. Smoking Andrade in just 42 seconds gave her an aura of invincibility.
They now have the chance to boost their credibility even more, with Adesanya taking on the feared Yoel Romero in the UFC 248 headliner and Zhang defending against the 115-pound division’s longest reigning champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. A win likely opens the door for Adesanya and Zhang to face fresher challengers; a loss could send them tumbling back into a pack of hungry contenders.
In other main card action, Beneil Dariush fights Drakkar Klose in a battle of lightweight sleepers, Neil Magny returns from a long layoff to face welterweight KO artist Li Jingliang, and welterweight openers Alex Oliveira and Max Griffin look to steal the show.
What: UFC 248
Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
When: Saturday, March 7. The three-fight early preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET and will air on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, followed by a four-fight preliminary card on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available for purchase exclusively through ESPN+.
Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero
Call me crazy, but I’m picking Israel Adesanya to put on a dominant, virtuoso performance here.
There are several reasons why Adesanya named Yoel Romero as a preferred opponent, including the fact that Romero has an excellent resume and a name that would theoretically sell more pay-per-views than the likes of Paulo Costa and Jared Cannonier (both of whom are dealing with injuries anyway). Putting all that aside, from an in-cage standpoint, Adesanya matches up well with “Soldier of God.”
Adesanya is great at both controlling distance and counter-striking, two skills that are essential when a superhuman Cuban is breathing down your neck. He should go up on the scorecards early with Romero well aware that he has five rounds with which to hunt for a knockout blow. It’s important for Adesanya to do his homework in rounds one and two so as to slow Romero down in the championship frames. If he plays around too much, he could be added to Romero’s list of third-round victims.
The bad news for Adesanya is none of Romero’s opponents ever escape the cage without damage. Costa and Robert Whittaker, the two men to defeat Romero, both looked like they’d been attacked by a wild animal after going the distance with him. At some point, Adesanya’s resilience will be tested. He showed in the win over Kelvin Gastelum that that shouldn’t be an issue (though few would argue that Gastelum is a more dangerous striker than Romero.)
Even if Adesanya is forced to be on the defensive for brief stretches of this fight, I still expect him to make Romero miss more often than not and once he finds his groove he’ll finish with surgical timing much like middleweight great Anderson Silva.
Adesanya finishes Romero in the third.
Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk
It’s going to take a vintage performance for Joanna Jedrzejczyk to become #AndAgain on Saturday night.
The former strawweight queen has all the tools needed to defeat Zhang Weili. She’s experienced, she’s tough as hell to finish, and she’s still arguably the best striker in the world at 115 pounds. There’s a reason that Jedrzejczyk by decision is both reasonable and a trendy pick in recent weeks.
My argument for Zhang is that her power advantage will make the difference as will the fact that she is two years younger than Jedrzejczyk with less high-level mileage. That doesn’t mean she’ll blow through Jedrzejczyk like she did Andrade, just that she has a combination of speed and finishing ability that Jedrzejczyk hasn’t seen yet. Even if Jedrzejczyk pulls ahead on the cards by sheer volume, I expect Zhang to land a knockdown or two to turn the scores in her favor. Zhang’s stinging combinations will also prevent Jedrzejczyk from finding a rhythm and imposing her will as she has in so many of her past title fights.
A knockout is a definite possibility for the new champion, but it’s also possible she impresses in another way: By going five rounds with a legend and outlasting her.
Beneil Dariush vs. Drakkar Klose
This is a matchup of two strong grapplers who use that strength in different ways.
Beneil Dariush is an assassin on the ground when he can get the fight there, and he’s made some good fighters look foolish with his jiu-jitsu. He could do the same with Drakkar Klose, whose grappling defense hasn’t been tested in the UFC. The two will likely mix it up on the feet for a short time before this turns into a battle of clinch work and takedown acumen.
I like how dirty Klose can make a fight in close quarters and how much he’s grown since debuting with the UFC three years ago. A highlight-reel finish still eludes him, but he’s shown that he’s both capable of neutralizing an opponent and also battling through adversity when Plan A goes out the window. Fighting Dariush will definitely require a Plan B.
Even if Klose and his team can adapt to Dariush, there’s only so much you can do against a submission specialist of Dariush’s caliber. Add in the fact that Dariush has some pop in the standup too and the avenue for victory becomes even narrower for Klose. This should be a decision win for Dariush.
Neil Magny vs. Li Jingliang
Heading into his 21st UFC appearance, you can be sure that Neil Magny knows better than to stand and bang with Li Jingliang.
Magny has a reputation for fan-friendly fights, but having not competed since November 2018, he’ll be conservative in pursuing a win here to get back on track as opposed to standing in the pocket and taking his chances. He’s always had an uncanny reach advantage and he should use it here against the hard-hitting Li. What makes this tricky is that Li is confident in his ability to wade through traffic and absorb punches so long as he can get in with his own. With so many UFC fights under his belt, Magny’s chin is suspect.
One way Magny can minimize risk is by taking Li down and using his long limbs to threaten with submissions or keep Li from scrambling out. Magny has always had effective ground-and-pound. Look for him to avoid trouble early in this one before using timely takedowns to control the action. With Li tiring, Magny finishes him with strikes on the mat in the final round.
Alex Oliveira vs. Max Griffin
Fast hands and a hard chin, that’s what Max Griffin has to offer and they’ve kept him from ending up on the wrong end of a highlight even if he hasn’t always won over the judges. If he’s looking to break his streak of decisions, he has the right dance partner in Alex Oliveira.
This is the kind of matchup the UFC loves: Two willing strikers who will likely be bonus hunting and also doing everything in their power to keep their jobs (Oliveira has lost three straight, Griffin three of his last four). In Oliveira’s case, he’s also a lethal submission threat and it’s that added dimension that will make the difference here.
Griffin will surely want to keep this standing, which suits Oliveira fine given his excellent Muay Thai. But if the fire gets too hot, Oliveira won’t hesitate to get a hold of Griffin and take him down. Then he can go to work with punches from top position or chokes, his preferred method of submission.
It’s not as if Griffin is helpless on the ground. In fact, he’s never been submitted in 22 pro appearances. There’s a first time for everything though, and I think his luck runs out against Oliveira.
Sean O’Malley def. Jose Quinonez
Mark O. Madsen def. Austin Hubbard
Rodolfo Vieira def. Saparbek Safarov
Deron Winn def. Gerald Meerschaert
Emily Whitmire def. Polyana Viana
Giga Chikadze def. Jamall Emmers