UFC 287 – and Israel Adesanya’s chance to regain the middleweight throne – is upon us.
Middleweight champion Alex Pereira will defend his title for the first time against former champ Adesanya in Saturday’s main event after beating him with a come-from-behind finish in November. Also on the card is a highly anticipated welterweight bout between Gilbert Burns and Jorge Masvidal.
Here are three key storylines heading into the event – the UFC’s first in Miami since 2003.
Adesanya fighting for his legacy
We talk about legacy a lot in mixed martial arts. It was the main discussion point entering the most recent UFC pay-per-view headliner when Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman had their trilogy bout. Big or small, every fight plays a part in crafting a fighter’s legacy.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Saturday’s rematch against Pereira for Adesanya’s legacy. Just like Usman before he lost to Edwards a few months earlier, Adesanya was heading toward all-time status before running into Pereira. He had defended the middleweight title five times with wins over Paulo Costa, Marvin Vettori, Robert Whittaker, and Jared Cannonier – the who’s who of this generation of middleweights – as well as a top dog of yesteryear in Yoel Romero. He had moved up in weight to challenge for a second belt. He had talked about becoming a three-division champion.
But then Adesanya’s kickboxing boogeyman came back to haunt him – or knock him out, whatever language you prefer – in the UFC.
Up 3-1 entering the ill-fated fifth round against Pereira, Adesanya suffered his third career loss to the Brazilian and left the Octagon without a belt around his waist for the first time in years. Adesanya seemed destined to not just be a great UFC champion, but one of the best ever. Now, his back is against the wall. He’s at risk of going from the top five in the pound-for-pound rankings to outside the middleweight title conversation in just five months – and at risk of losing twice to the champ. It could be a quick, dramatic drop from glory.
This fight with Pereira is the most important of Adesanya’s life and a significant turning point in his career. But it isn’t necessarily his last chance to hold a UFC title. At 33, he should theoretically still have a few prime years left. If Pereira beats him and then Whittaker – whom Adesanya has defeated twice – regains the title, Adesanya will be right back in the mix. But another loss to Pereira would be quite harmful to his legacy. The story would be one of a great champion – and the one man he couldn’t beat.
MMA is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of sport, something Adesanya recognized at media day Wednesday, so it’s incredibly vital he gets back on track.
“(MMA fans) forgot what I’ve done in this game,” Adesanya said of the aftermath of his recent loss to Pereira. “It’s time to remind people how great I am.”
This sport moves quickly. One minute you’re the guy, and the next you’re not. If Adesanya doesn’t recapture the title, there’s a chance MMA will leave him behind.
Masvidal’s last shot at a title run
Masvidal should be well out of the title picture at this point; in a way, ranked at No. 11, he is. He lost to Usman twice in back-to-back title fights and then lost to Colby Covington in a grudge match last March. But because Masvidal remains one of the UFC’s most popular welterweights, he’s getting another opportunity to move up the ladder – and potentially earn a third title shot – with a huge fight against the No. 5-ranked contender in Burns.
The Covington fight was supposed to be Masvidal’s “final” chance to rejoin the title mix. He came up short in a big way. Masvidal hasn’t won a fight since his breakthrough 2019 campaign in which he scored a historic knockout against Ben Askren and earned the “BMF” title over Nate Diaz. But it feels like this fight against Burns really is his last opportunity. Masvidal himself has admitted he’s “pretty much calling it quits” if he loses in his hometown of Miami.
Burns is essentially an elite gatekeeper in the 170-pound division: The best of the best – like Usman and Khamzat Chimaev – beat him, but no one else stands a chance. Given their respective performances of late, it’s no surprise “Durinho” is a heavy favorite to beat Masvidal. If Masvidal can pull off the upset, it will be a glimmer of hope that the 38-year-old has one last title run left in him.
How quickly can Rosas climb?
Opening the pay-per-view main card is a talented 18-year-old from New Mexico: Raul Rosas Jr., a “Dana White’s Contender Series” alumnus and the youngest fighter in the UFC.
Rosas has quickly become one of the most talked-about prospects in the promotion, both in the lead-up to his debut this past December and then after a shining first-round submission win over Jay Perrin at UFC 282. Rosas, a 7-0 bantamweight, is a strong grappler. His striking is improving. He also has a captivating personality, which is why – if he continues to have success in the Octagon – he could be the UFC’s next star.
Of course, that’s the question: How good is Rosas, and how far – and how quickly – can he climb the loaded 135-pound division? No one can say for sure.
Rosas has done well as a pro so far, but as we’ve seen with other young prospects like Sage Northcutt and Chase Hooper, it’s not easy to compete in the big leagues at such a young age. It’s up to the UFC to decide how quickly it will push Rosas along. His next assignment comes against Christian Rodriguez, a 25-year-old with an 8-1 pro record and a 1-1 UFC record. By all accounts, this is indeed a step up in competition. But perhaps not so large that it’s throwing Rosas right into the deep end.
The UFC needs to learn from its past failures with Northcutt, Hooper, and even Paige VanZant. A fighter like Rosas needs time to grow, time to learn, and time to fill out his frame. He’s still a teenager, after all. There’s no rush.
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