International Fight Week culminates with a stacked UFC 276 card headlined by two title fights at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The blockbuster card is built around Nigerian-born superstar Israel Adesanya, who puts his middleweight championship on the line against the dangerous Jared Cannonier.
The two greatest featherweights of all time conclude their trilogy in the co-headliner as champion Alexander Volkanovski and challenger Max Holloway settle the score once and for all.
The featured bout is a likely title eliminator as the surging Sean Strickland meets Alex Pereira in what promises to be a middleweight fire-fight. Plus, the uber-popular and charismatic Sean O’Malley seeks to break into the bantamweight top-10 at the expense of Pedro Munhoz and ex-welterweight champion Robbie Lawler battles Bryan Barberena.
Be sure not to miss the prelims as South African standout Dricus du Plessis will square off against 12th-ranked Brad Tavares in a crunch middleweight clash.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Israel Adesanya (1.23) v Jared Cannonier (4.10) (Middleweight Championship)
A striking savant unlike any other in UFC history, Adesanya has been an unstoppable force at middleweight. Undefeated in 22 fights at 185 pounds with half of those wins coming inside the Octagon, the all-conquering king is lapping the division.
Now, after most recently retaining his championship in a pair of rematches against Marvin Vettori and the man he took the title from, Robert Whittaker, Adesanya’s wish for a fresh challenger has been granted. Enter Cannonier (15-5), a one-man bomb squad who’s blasted his way into title contention in devastating fashion.
A rare breed of beast, “The Killa Gorilla” boasts knockouts at heavyweight, where he started his career, light heavyweight and middleweight. He’s won five of his last six bouts, all but one by knockout, and made the requisite statement to put himself next in line for a shot at the belt when he bounced Derek Brunson’s head off the floor with brutal elbows at UFC 271 in February, the same card on which Adesanya defeated Whittaker for the second time.
That scary power means Cannonier’s one punch away from putting an opponent’s lights out at any given moment and will make for a tense showdown however long the title tilt goes. However, as he’s primarily a striker, all his eggs are in one basket and no one has been able to stop or outpoint Adesanya on the feet in the UFC.
“The Last Stylebender” doesn’t have the one-punch knockout power Cannonier does, but he doesn’t need it, as his multi-dimensional kickboxing prowess has seen him cut down and KO 15 foes, the last being another herculean big hitter in Paulo Costa, who’d been unbeaten before he was outclassed by the champion in 2020.
Adesanya’s a genius in terms of his striking IQ and has tons more weapons in his arsenal than Cannonier. At 6’4″, he’s a tall and rangy Rubik’s cube and will have a five-inch height and two-and-a-half-inch reach advantage. His footwork and distance control are unrivalled to begin with but will be amplified even more by Cannonier’s age, with the challenger being 38.
If Cannonier is overaggressive, he’ll probably be finished as the 32-year-old champion’s a sensational counter-striker. Having said that, it’s more likely that he’ll look to pace himself and explode in spurts, similar to Yoel Romero, and much like how Adesanya out-struck Romero in their 2020 bout, I see him outpointing Cannonier to pick up a third consecutive decision win.
Alexander Volkanovski (1.51) v Max Holloway (2.55) (Featherweight Championship):
After their back-and-forth battles in 2019 and 2020, the two best 145-pound fighters in UFC history collide for the third time with the same goal in mind – to put an emphatic end to the rivalry.
Volkanovski (24-1) won both meetings, dethroning “Blessed” by unanimous decision and edging the rematch by split decision, but with many experts believing Holloway (23-6) had done enough to regain the belt, a third clash seemed inevitable and after a pair of victories over top contenders apiece, the time has come to prove, once and for all, who the better man is.
Volkanovski, who beat Brian Ortega by decision and stopped the notoriously tough “Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung last time out in April, continues to improve despite already being close to the perfect package. A short and stocky shark, “The Great” is a relentless predator who overwhelms opponents with his non-stop pressure and complete skillset. The win over Jung was his 12th by KO/TKO, extended his UFC record to a perfect 11-0 and his remarkable winning streak to 21.
Holloway is the only man who can keep up with the Australian’s tireless pace and is in many ways the taller and leaner version of Volkanovski. The fighting pride of Hawaii’s not blessed with heavy hands like the champion but throws a higher volume of strikes than anyone in UFC history. He, too, keeps getting better and absolutely pieced up Calvin Kattar and Yair Rodriguez in lopsided decision wins in 2021 to set up this trilogy fight.
As there was nothing in it in the first two fights, this should be a pick ‘em. There’s, thus, great value in Holloway. I do, however, feel that Volkanovski will get his hand raised again. While every fight should be its own battle and has different judges, a precedent has been set and there is such a thing as the champion’s advantage – a belief that the challenger has to definitively beat the champion to seize the belt – which is why I’m backing Volkanovski.
Sean Strickland (1.90) v Alex Pereira (1.90) (Middleweight)
Violent theatre. That’s what this mouth-watering middleweight banger promises to be. A veteran who’s caught fire, Strickland (25-3) has strung together a six-fight win streak to rocket up to fourth in the rankings. He has 10 knockouts to his credit but his last three wins all came by decision, the last two in five-round main events against Uriah Hall and Jack Hermansson.
We have the wild “Tarzan” to thank for this fight as few ranked contenders, let alone those in the top five, would risk their hard-earned spot against someone outside of the top 15. His reasoning is solid, though, as Pereira (-130) is no ordinary member of the roster.
The man known as “Poatan” is a kickboxing killer, a former Glory middleweight and light heavyweight champion who despite only having six mixed martial arts fights, is being positioned as Adesanya’s next challenger, provided they both prevail on the night, of course.
That’s because the 6’4″ savage brutally knocked out Adesanya in a kickboxing bout in 2017. Given that history, and Strickland’s hot streak, the winner of this war will likely fight for the title next. In MMA terms, Strickland’s a massive step up for Pereira, who’s won five in a row and all but one by KO.
Strickland has the wrestling and jiu-jitsu to take Pereira to the ground and either control or submit him, but he likes nothing more than to stand and trade and talk trash while doing so. He won’t be able to resist throwing down and that bravado will see Pereira, with his sensational striking and three-inch reach advantage, starch him.
Pedro Munhoz (3.30) v Sean O’Malley (1.32) (Bantamweight)
The latest instalment of “The Suga Show” is the most important yet as 13th-ranked O’Malley (15-1) aims to break into the elite. A colourful character and lethal showman, the 27-year-old has put together one hell of a highlight-reel featuring 11 knockouts.
Bursting with confidence, he fires off audacious attacks like a real-life video game character and knows exactly how to maximise his natural gifts as a skyscraper of a bantamweight. The taller man by five inches, the 5’11” rising star will tower over Munhoz (19-7) and will have a massive seven-and-a-half-inch reach advantage.
It’s still unclear if he’s a good fighter or a great one as he’s yet to compete against the elite. Marlon Vera is the only high-profile opponent he’s faced and he lost that fight. That setback in 2020 remains his only blemish and if he could’ve had his pick of anyone in the top 10, he would’ve probably picked Munhoz.
With eight submission wins and five knockouts, ninth-ranked Munhoz is dangerous but he’s only won one of his last five fights and is extremely hittable, absorbing just about seven significant strikes per minute, which is double or in some cases triple that of other top fighters.
Thanks to his iron chin, Munhoz has never been knocked out, so the rangy O’Malley should take it on the scorecards.
Robbie Lawler (1.86) v Bryan Barberena (1.95) (Welterweight)
A true MMA legend, Lawler (29-15-1NC) returns for his 46th professional fight. Had this been in his heyday, the former welterweight champion would’ve walked through Barberena (17-8), but at 40, Lawler’s lost the explosiveness that took him to the top and made him one of the most feared 170 pounders in MMA history.
“Ruthless” snapped a four-fight losing streak with a win over fellow legend Nick Diaz last September, his 21st by KO/TKO. Barberena, meanwhile, has won two in a row and is coming off the biggest win of his career over Matt Brown, a grizzled gun-slinging great similar to Lawler, in what was an all-out war in March.
As he showed against Brown, “Bam Bam” loves to stand and bang and is tough-as-nails. He has 10 knockout wins and at 33, he’ll have a significant speed advantage. He opened as the favourite but the odds have flipped with money coming in on big-name fan favourite Lawler this week.
Essentially a pick ‘em, I’m backing Barberena as he has more in the tank and far more tread on the tyres than Lawler. The legend still has a great chin – he hasn’t been stopped since his title loss to Tyron Woodley in 2016 – so it should go the distance.
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