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Grading the Card: UFC 253

UFC 253 from Abu Dhabi features two ultra compelling title fights on the apex of the marquee. Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa has been one of the most anticipated title fights of 2020, and is considered by many to be the most highly anticipated middleweight title fight since Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva 2 given their respective undefeated records and the heat that follows each as they head into their headlining affair. The co-main event also features a title fight, this one in the light heavyweight division that will crown the first champion at 205 pounds not named Jon Jones or Daniel Cormier since 2011. Two surging contenders, Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz, will meet to determine the immediate fate of the UFC’s formermost glamour division.

As I do prior to every UFC pay-per-view event, I will hand out some grades for UFC 253, its two title fights as well as its somewhat under-the-radar main card. And so kids, get ready to pray you got the requisite 72 on that math test so you can get that C and go off to Florida with your buddies next week, because it’s time to hand out the report card for UFC 253 in this edition of “Grading the Card.”

Main Event: Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa (UFC Middleweight Championship)

A post shared by Paulo Costa (@borrachinhamma) on Sep 25, 2020 at 9:35am PDT

There are, by far, not enough amazing things I can say about this fight. This fight, in my opinion, rivals that of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson in terms of how unpredictable it truly is. The seemingly common thread of knowledge is that this fight will be a case of either Costa blitzing and smashing Adesanya early, or Adesanya using his range advantage to keep Costa from landing one of those devastating bombs and in turn landing some significant shots on the counter. I’ll proudly stand alone in saying that I think it’s far harder to envision that being the case. The flaws in that argument is the implication that Adesanya carries no power (which he does, and can finish it early if he catches Costa), as well as implying that Costa is devoid of technique (which he isn’t, and by my estimation is the most technical striker Adesanya will have faced yet). I have no clue what will happen in this fight. Will ether guy shoot for a takedown, which neither has done yet in the UFC? What happens to Adesanya if he gets rocked, will he attempt to lure the fight into his surprisingly underrated guard? What if Adesanya knocks Costa down? I honestly believe we’re on pace for an encore of Adesanya vs. Gastelum, except I have a hard time believing that Costa will shoot for unwarranted takedowns if he staggers Adesanya. Get ready, the roof is coming off the Flash Forum.

Grade: A+

Co-Main Event: Dominick Reyes vs. Jan Blachowicz (UFC Light Heavyweight Championship)

A post shared by Dominick Reyes (@domreyes24) on Sep 25, 2020 at 9:51am PDT

Do I love it as much as the main event? No, but it’s damn near impossible to match a fight that good. It’s being rightfully overshadowed by its main event counterpart, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that this title fight is no good, though. Quite the opposite. This one is incredibly compelling because it’s a stylistic jigsaw puzzle for both fighters. Dominick Reyes gave Jon Jones the fight of his life at UFC 247 in Houston (back when times were, ahhh, normal) and exited the Octagon in the Toyota Center as the champion in the eyes of many who lie witness (myself included, I literally have a video on my phone of the decision being read because I was that certain we had just seen Jon Jones lose). It is for that reason, I speculate, that Dominick Reyes sits as about a 3-to-1 favorite entering this fight. I don’t see Reyes as having that much of an edge, though. Jan Blachowicz sits on a three-fight winning streak that has seen him knock out Luke Rockhold and Corey Anderson- both of whom were on the shortlist of getting an opportunity for a light heavyweight title shot- and grinding out a close decision against Jacare Souza where he exhibited that his gas tank is more than capable of lasting five rounds. This is a competitive fight that, similar to the main event, could go a million different ways. It could end early on either side, it could go to a decision where we could get another controversial split, it could become a grappling affair if Blachowicz decides to utilize his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, who the hell knows what could happen. Great fight. Truly a great, underrated fight in the co-main event.

Grade: A

Kai Kara-France vs. Brandon Royval (Flyweight Bout)

A post shared by Kai "Dontblink" Kara France (@kaikarafrance) on Aug 25, 2020 at 2:19pm PDT

A step back from the two headliners, but a criminally underrated fight in its own respect. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for the flyweights, and I’m always in the mode of rooting for a war whenever two 125ers get in that eight-sided Octagon where no lies can be hidden. Kara-France is another City Kickboxing sweetheart who has shown in only five UFC fights that he belongs among the elite at 125, with his only loss in the Octagon coming in the form of a close decision dropped to prohibitive top contender Brandon Moreno. Brandon Royval has only had a singular UFC appearance to date, but he looked damn impressive as he tapped perennial flyweight contender Tim Elliott in under two rounds. Perhaps, more than anything, this shows the proverbial lack of depth at flyweight but any time the little guys get exposure, I’m all for it. Even, in rare instances, as a pay-per-view feature fight. I’ll give them some leniency here.

Grade: B+

Ketlen Vieira vs. Sijara Eubanks (Women’s Bantamweight Bout)

A post shared by Ketlen "Fenomeno" Vieira – UFC (@ketlenvieiraufc) on Aug 24, 2020 at 8:40am PDT

Did you like the friendly comments above about leniency and how I’ll give a break in some rare scenarios? Hope so, because I’m doing the exact opposite here. Not saying this fight shouldn’t happen (although it is a short notice fight for Eubanks), but it does speak to the lack of depth of the overall card that it’s on the main card when it feels much more akin to an ESPN prelim. This fight definitely… stands out, let’s say, from the rest of the main card. It’s the only one that doesn’t really carry a fighter with a ton of momentum (although Eubanks has looked good in her last two against fellow prospects), and it feels as if it’s a placeholder on a main card that also has two amazing title fights and two above-average non-title affairs around it. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not anticipating this one to be a show stealer.

Grade: D

Hakeem Dawodu vs. Zubaira Tukhugov (Featherweight Bout)

A post shared by "Mean" Hakeem 🇯🇲🇳🇬🇨🇦 (@meanhakeem) on Sep 25, 2020 at 5:58am PDT

Opening the main card is a featherweight bout that is lauded by many as the best non-title affair on the entirety of UFC 253. Both are fast rising contenders with a real likelihood of a ranking following the winner come next week. Dawodu has won four in a row after dropping his debut unceremoniously to Danny Henry back in 2018, and has clearly grown in his skill since. Tukhugov is in a similar position, having won all but two of his UFC appearances thus far, a split decision loss to the extremely impressive Renato Moicano at UFC 198 and a split draw to the highly touted prospect Lerone Murphy at UFC 242. This fight will likely spell the addition of even more new blood in the already absolutely bombed featherweight division. On a stacked pay-per-view this is likely a featured prelim, but I won’t split hairs and complain about it’s placement introducing us to the main card, it’s a fun one.

Grade: A-

Prelim Fighters to Watch

A post shared by BradQuakeCity (@bradquakeriddell) on Sep 6, 2020 at 12:00am PDT

To give attention to some of the unheralded stars of pay-per-view cards, I’ve decided to add this new snippet to “Grading the Card.” Short summaries of prelim fighters I deem important to keep an eye on.

Brad Riddell – featured prelim vs. Alex Da Silva. The striking coach at City Kickboxing (!) is also one of the most highly touted lightweight prospects in the sport. Just another addition to an already absolutely unbelievably strong division.

Ludovit Klein – debut fight, prelim vs. Shane Young. One of Eastern Europe’s brightest prospects makes his debut on short notice against the nifty New Zealander Shane Young as the second fight on the ESPN preliminary portion. A win from him would be a massive statement in the featherweight division.

Juan Espino – debut fight, early prelim vs. Jeff Hughes. If you’re like me, you probably thought the TUF 28 winner just retired after his big tournament win. Actually, he was just injured, so he’ll be making his official UFC debut just before his 40th birthday in a division that desperately needs names and new faces. Look for Espino to make easy work of the regional-caliber Jeff Hughes and a short run into the heavyweight top 15.

So, the D will hurt the average here, but our quality points are 4.0, 4.0, 3.5, 1.0, and 3.7. Mathematically, the overall grade of the UFC 253 main card comes out to a 3.24, essentially a solid B.

UFC 253 is a fun card, albeit a bit top heavy as some of the prelims don’t exactly strike the oil vain in terms of hype. Nonetheless, barring underwhelming performances, the unforgettable main and co-main events make UFC 253 a very solid return to Fight Island for the company.■

Follow Johann on Twitter: @thejohanncastro

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