Alex Pereira and Israel Adesanya’s rivalry might not be the most heated historically-speaking, but there is simply no other storyline like it.
When they first met in a kickboxing match in 2016, who could have guessed that their feud would extend across seven years and two different combat sports, with Pereira beating Adesanya twice in the kickboxing ring before chasing him into the world of MMA where Adesanya had established himself as one of its most indomitable stars.
Then Pereira took that from him too.
Pereira’s comeback stoppage and Adesanya’s excellent middleweight championship run were enough to merit an immediate rematch, which takes place in UFC 287 main event Saturday at the just re-named Kaseya Center in Miami. Regardless of the outcome, the 185-pound division could find itself in murky waters after with Pereira possibly moving up in weight win or lose, and it being unclear what Adesanya has left to do in this weight class once he’s settled his business with his nemesis.
One thing is for certain: Despite the divergent paths that both men took to get to this moment, their careers will forever be intertwined.
In the co-main event, Miami’s own Jorge Masvidal returns home to compete on the first UFC card in the 305 since 2003. Masvidal has a tough test in top 5 welterweight Gilbert Burns and “Gamebred” has hinted at retirement should he lose on Saturday, but if he pulls off the upset you have to think that he’s in play for a future fight with Leon Edwards no matter how insistent Dana White is that Colby Covington is the only name in play to challenge Edwards next.
The rest of the main card sees top 10 bantamweight Rob Font attempt to hold off the hard-charging Adrian Yanez, Kevin Holland looks to knock off welterweight veteran Santiago Ponzinibbio, and 18-year-old bantamweight Raul Rosas Jr. goes for his second UFC win when he faces Christian Rodriguez.
What: UFC 287
Where: Kaseya Center in Miami
When: Saturday, April 8. The card begins with a four-fight early prelims portion on ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET, with continuing coverage of the four-fight prelim card on ESPN 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)
Alex Pereira (1) vs. Israel Adesanya (2)
Here’s my breakdown for how Israel Adesanya can finally beat Alex Pereira: Hey, remember what you did at UFC 281 for the first four rounds? Just do that, but don’t get knocked out this time. Easy work.
Looking for a more substantial prediction? Fine.
For better or worse, Adesanya probably knows how Pereira fights better than anyone, and he’s done more than enough in their previous fights to believe that he can beat him. This isn’t just bravado and bluster, he was winning large portions of their previous fights. He knows he can get through Pereira’s defenses, he knows he can make Pereira miss (for the most part), and he knows he’s a more well-rounded martial artist.
None of that matters if the hulking Pereira does what he always does and that’s put his malevolent mitts on folks in the worst kind of way. As sure as Pereira is that he can dance circles around Adesanya, Pereira is equally sure that he can put the hurt on him. He’s done it twice now and there’s no reason at all to doubt that he can do it a third time.
If I’m leaning towards Adesanya, it’s because I’ve always thought that it’s harder for the winning fighter to make adjustments than it is for the losing fighter. Adesanya can point to that one exact moment in the fifth round of their fight at UFC 281 to see where everything went wrong for him. Pereira has more catching up to do, as counterintuitive as that sounds given how their past three fights actually ended.
As Jed Meshew put it in his Paths to Victory, you can’t ignore the Gambler’s Fallacy trap (Adesanya is due!), but it’s not as if each of their previous meetings were a coin flip. We have actual, substantive evidence that Adesanya is a better fighter than Pereira. It’s a testament to Pereira’s power that he’s been able to conclusively win their past two outings despite being outworked for the majority of those contests. Still, that’s a difficult feat to pull off once, much less twice, and picking him to put Adesanya down for the count a third time after falling behind on the scorecards is a bridge too far for me.
Give me Adesanya by decision or late knockout.
Gilbert Burns (5) vs. Jorge Masvidal
According to Draft Kings, this should be a walkover for Gilbert Burns, the favorite hovering around a healthy -450. I’m not convinced it’s so cut and dry.
The grappling is a problem, for sure, as I’d favor Burns in that department over the majority of the welterweight division, including Jorge Masvidal. Actually getting Masvidal to the ground is another story. The 51-fight veteran has literally seen it all in the cage and while he’s been taken down by the likes of Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman, who hasn’t? Masvidal has always been tough to take down and Burns isn’t the type to spam double legs, especially considering the toll that strategy can take on one’s gas tank.
Even on the mat, Masvidal isn’t a fish out of water. In his lengthy career, he’s been submitted just two times! There’s not a position that Burns can put him in that will make him panic. A ground fight is sub-optimal for Masvidal, but it’s not a situation he can’t work out of.
There’s a good chance this ends up being a standup battle, which makes the matchup much more interesting. Burns is a solid striker who has the slight edge in power, while Masvidal will look to pressure and pick Burns apart to set up a finishing blow. Masvidal has the edge in reach, which I expect him to use to full advantage. His disappointing efforts against Covington and Usman have made fans forget how effective he can be when he gets those hands going.
I’m probably overthinking this matchup, and Masvidal’s retirement chatter gives me the willies, but I think he has one last run left in him and it starts with a decision win over Burns in front of his hometown fans on Saturday.
Rob Font (7) vs. Adrian Yanez (T15)
I’m on record calling Adrian Yanez the best boxer in all of MMA and nothing he’s done in his five UFC fights has dissuaded me from that opinion. “The Algorithm” — as I’ve come to call him — has magic hands.
Rob Font is known for his standup skills too and if his strikes had just a little more juice behind them, you have to wonder if his fights against Marlon Vera and Jose Aldo would have gone differently. He was winning against both of them until he wasn’t and ending up on the receiving end of the most decisive hits of those fights cost him. Unfortunately for Font, I sense a similar narrative will play out Saturday.
Yanez will come out with a lot of respect for Font and might even find himself having to deal with a little mixing of the martial arts as Font may want to consider taking this one to the ground. There, Yanez has the jiu-jitsu skills to make things interesting, though I highly doubt either fighter snags a submission in this one.
No, like the co-main event, this should be an entertaining striking battle and until I see Yanez convincingly lose one of those, I’m picking him every time.
Yanez by decision.
Kevin Holland vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Kevin Holland vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio is another fight that has plenty of potential to be an exciting standup battle, but could also be spoiled by one of the fighters utilizing “strategy” (gross).
In this case, it’s Ponzinibbio who may want to consider mixing in some wrestling, as that has proven to be Holland’s kryptonite time and time again. Ponzinibbio isn’t exactly prime Matt Hughes, but he’s shown a willingness to occasionally mix in takedowns to compliment his exemplary striking. Holland is a dangerous fight finisher and if Ponzinibbio isn’t careful, he’ll end up flat on his back.
That’s why I think Ponzinibbio plays this one safe and shoots in once the firefights get too hot. And until Holland proves he can properly defend himself off of his back, I don’t like his chances of advancing in the welterweight division.
Ponzinibbio by decision.
Raul Rosas Jr. vs. Christian Rodriguez
Christian Rodriguez was already a sizable underdog when this fight was first announced and you can’t be encouraged by his weight miss on Friday. Whatever the reason for the gaffe, Rodriguez’s uphill climb just became steeper.
Your mileage may vary with Raul Rosas Jr., the UFC’s youngest-ever signing, but he’s bristling with confidence and has a strong grappling base to work from. Add in plus athleticism and you can see why Dana White and others are so high on Rosas. If Rodriguez is even slightly off of his game on fight night, Rosas is going to devour him.
Rodriguez is a good grappler so expect to see some fun exchanges in this one if it extends past the opening round. However, as game as Rodriguez can be, I’m picking the stronger and speedier Rosas to consistently win positions and eventually score the submission in the second round.
Chris Curtis def. Kelvin Gastelum
Luana Pinheiro def. Michelle Waterson-Gomez (13)
Joe Pyfer def. Gerald Meerschaert
Chase Sherman def. Karl Williams
Lupita Godinez def. Cynthia Calvillo
Ignacio Bahamondes def. Trey Ogden
Shayilan Nuerdanbieke def. Steve Garcia
Jaqueline Amorim def. Sam Hughes