We’re only in the early days of March, but it’s difficult to imagine the UFC putting together a better card than this one by the end of the year.
Three title fights are set to take place Saturday night, with four champions in action. That discrepancy is due to light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz defending his belt against middleweight champion Israel Adesanya in the UFC 259 main event. It is just the sixth-ever matchup between two active titleholders in UFC history.
Blachowicz became champion in September with an impressive TKO victory over Dominick Reyes to claim the title vacated by longtime light heavyweight king Jon Jones. While Adesanya isn’t Jones, if Blachowicz can hand Adesanya his first loss it will cement his reputation as not only one of the best fighters in the world, but as one of MMA’s premier spoilers.
For Adesanya, he can continue blazing his path to superstardom and possibly capture a prize that could possibly lure Jones back to 205 pounds for a grudge match of epic proportions.
The penultimate bout of UFC 259 sees two-division champion Amanda Nunes putting her featherweight title on the line against Megan Anderson, while Petr Yan looks for his first defense of the bantamweight title when he fights Aljamain Sterling.
In other main card action, Islam Makhachev meets Drew Dober in a battle of budding lightweight contenders and Thiago Santos fights Aleksandar Rakic in a pivotal light heavyweight bout. The stacked lineup also features two-time UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, four-time flyweight title challenger Joseph Benavidez, and unbeaten welterweight Sean Brady on the preliminary portion of the card.
What: UFC 259
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, March 6. The early prelims begin with a six fights on ESPN+ and ESPN2 at 5:15 p.m. ET. A four-fight preliminary card follows at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+. The pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available to watch through ESPN+.
I’ve probably written some iteration of this statement before and probably will again: As long as a fight is contested primarily on the feet, there’s nobody in the UFC right now that can beat Israel Adesanya.
With respect to Jan Blachowicz’s trademark “Legendary Polish Power,” his best route to victory in the main event will probably be to use his size advantage to bully Adesanya. Punch his way in, stick Adesanya to the cage wall, and grind for takedowns. There will be opportunities for Blachowicz to do damage in the clinch too, so it’s not as if he’s being asked to just lay-and-pray. Blachowicz could impose his will on Adesanya while also implementing an offensive game plan what “Just Bleed” fans can appreciate.
So even though Adesanya is the favorite going in, the pressure is on him to show that he’s not making a mistake by jumping up 20 pounds (or in his case, about 15) and stepping in there with a heavier man who presumably also has greater punching power. One of Adesanya’s gifts is that he can dictate the pace of a striking battle like no other, which he’s shown in all of his championship fights, even the deplorable Yoel Romero bout. He’s not going to rush into anything and he has the skills to frustrate Blachowicz and pick him apart from long range.
At some point, this chess match will break down into a proper scrap, and I favor the speed of Adesanya to get the job done. “The Last Stylebender” will stun Blachowicz with a sniper shot, then flurry for a championship-winning, history-making TKO.
Megan Anderson has more than a puncher’s chance here.
On reputation alone, Amanda Nunes deserves to be the biggest favorite on this card by a wide margin, but Anderson presents some unique challenges. She’s taller and longer than almost any woman at 145 pounds, including Nunes, and those extra inches will be essential to her keeping “The Lioness” at bay. If she can do that for five rounds, it’s not inconceivable that she could out-strike Nunes. For all of Nunes’ strengths—and they are many—she still isn’t an elite technical striker. That was evident in her rematch with Germaine de Randamie, in which Nunes had to resort to her grappling to neutralize her opponent.
But it’s that adaptability that is key to Nunes retaining her title. Should she decide to focus solely on her wrestling and jiu-jitsu, Anderson will struggle to defend herself. She has to fight the perfect fight on the ground just to survive against Nunes much less win and the chances of her avoiding a submission or a devastating burst of ground-and-pound for 25 minutes are slim.
I’d love to be brave here and pick Anderson to be the Holly Holm to Nunes’ Ronda Rousey, but even in a worst-case scenario the path to victory is clear for Nunes and you can be sure she’ll be smart enough to take it if she has to.
Nunes by submission.
We’re going to hear our first “and new” early in the evening.
That’s right, it’s time for Aljamain Sterling to finally complete his rise to the top of the bantamweight division after experiencing the kinds of stops and starts that have molded many a UFC champion. Disappointing decision losses to more experienced opponents in Raphael Assuncao and Bryan Caraway, a shocking knockout loss to Marlon Moraes that was just the case of Sterling changing levels at the worst possible time, these setbacks have hardened Sterling and pushed him to become the undisputed No. 1 contender at 135 pounds.
Now getting past Petr Yan, that’s another story. Yan has been a terror in the octagon, facing top competition since his third UFC outing and convincingly beating all of them. However, wins over the legendary Jose Aldo and Urijah Faber have both helped and hurt Yan’s reputation, as the name power has benefited his resume while the competitiveness of those contests (in both instances, Yan finished in the final round) has allowed some room for scrutiny when analyzing his strength of schedule.
Should any of that matter against Sterling? Theoretically, no. On the feet, Yan is faster and hits harder, and he has tricky grappling defense that makes him difficult to take down and keep down. I’m not in agreement with Sterling’s assessment that this fight is over once it hits the mat. Yan might lose a round early if he’s taken down, but he’s not instantly doomed.
Sterling will have to wear Yan down before a submission opportunity presents itself and I believe he can do it. He’s improved his striking to the point that he can compete with Yan up there and create just enough openings for him to not have to generate wrestling opportunities out of thin air. If he can keep Yan guessing on the feet, it will make it that much easier for Sterling to time a double leg.
I expect the belt will change hands due to a submission, but possibly as a result of Sterling catching Yan by surprise with his striking and then finishing with his lethal jiu-jitsu.
Sorry Islam Makhachev, the Khabib Nurmagomedov comparisons are here to stay.
Perhaps no apologies are necessary, as Makhachev will have Nurmagomedov in his corner Saturday night and he’d likely be thrilled if his career turns out half as successful as the greatest lightweight champion in UFC history. He’ll certainly settle for a win over Drew Dober, which is Makhachev’s first fight since September 2019.
Like Nurmagomedov (last time we’ll bring that up, promise), Makhachev is an explosive wrestler who chains together techniques beautifully to put his opponents in bad positions. Dober is a strong and agile athlete, but he doesn’t have the wrestling defense to stop Makhachev from putting him on his back.
That’s a shame too because Dober is currently one of the most exciting standup fighters at 155 pounds (and considering his peers, that’s saying something). As much as this will be a test of Dober’s wrestling defense, it should also serve as a test of Makhachev’s striking defense. He can’t be careless closing the distance, otherwise Dober will crack him with a combination and leave him staring at the lights before he realizes what’s happened.
There are lightweights that will be able to sprawl-and-brawl their way to a win against Makhachev, I just don’t think Dober is one of them. Makhachev grounds him for three rounds and wins a hard-fought decision.
Thiago Santos and Aleksandar Rakic will bring out the best in each other.
Rakic made a strong statement in his last win over Anthony Smith, showing that he could outwork a top contender in multiple facets of MMA. We knew that he was a sharp striker with developing grappling skills, but to see him put it all together in that fight was a welcome sight. The title opportunity he called for afterwards was a long shot and instead he finds himself facing another recent light heavyweight championship challenger.
Win or lose, this will be good for Rakic’s development. Santos has been one of the most difficult outs at 205 and 185 pounds in recent years with only a few odd losses to journeymen blemishing what is otherwise a sterling record. Despite being primarily known for his fearsome striking, Santos has rarely been dominated on the ground, so this will be another test of Rakic’s all-around game.
I think Rakic is close to being a true contender, but a motivated “Marreta” might be too much for him right now. I’m confident this one will be a banger though and that when the dust clears, it’s Santos who leaves with a decision win.
Dominick Cruz def. Casey Kenney
Joseph Benavidez def. Askar Askarov
Sean Brady def. Jake Matthews