UFC 253 takeaways: Give Adesanya and Blachowicz their due


Israel Adesanya and Jan Blachowicz entered UFC 253 on Saturday with their share of doubters, which made what happened in the Octagon even sweeter for both men.

Adesanya had a “boring” tag hung on him by critics after a lackluster win over Yoel Romero in March. But that label didn’t fit on Fight Island as Adesanya pieced up top contender Paulo Costa to retain his middleweight belt. He made it look easy.

Blachowicz, meanwhile, was a sizable betting underdog, despite coming off a knockout of Corey Anderson and having won seven of his past eight. But Las Vegas, and many fans, believed Dominick Reyes would claim the crown vacated by Jon Jones. After all, many thought Reyes beat Jones in February. But after UFC 253, Blachowicz might not be overlooked again as he scored a second-round TKO.

So what happens to the two men who lost their title shots? Who will have the fastest track back to a title shot?

Speaking of titles, the undercard featured a fighter making his case as a future contender. Brandon Royval and Kai Kara-France were awarded Fight of the Night bonuses for a thrilling back-and-forth bout that ended with Royval cinching a guillotine in the second round.

ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Phil Murphy break down the key storylines from a big night of fights.

What’s the biggest takeaway from Adesanya-Costa?

Helwani: If you’ve listened to me speak about MMA long enough, chances are very strong you’ve heard me quote Roy Jones Jr.’s legendary rap song, “Y’all must’ve forgot,” at least 10 times a month.

I mean, if I’m being honest, I probably quote it too much. But, man, do I love it. It’s the perfect fight game song. Heck, it’s the perfect sports song.

For some reason, sports fans and media love building people up and then breaking them down as soon as possible. We love firing up the hype train and then jumping off as fast as can be.

Why? I have no idea. But it happens in all sports, not just MMA.

And it happened to Israel Adesanya in March. He entered his title defense against Yoel Romero a perfect 7-0 in the UFC. Not a single one of those fights was a dud. Sure, the Marvin Vettori fight was close, but it was not boring.

And yet, against one of the most dangerous fighters this sport has ever seen, Romero, Adesanya was blasted for not going all out in an important title fight. And then, hilariously, despite the win, people called him a fraud. A phony. Overhyped. It was amazing and baffling to see at the same time.

Did they forget he dismantled Robert Whittaker five months prior?

Did they forget he was involved in the 2019 fight of the year just six months before that?

Yes and yes. Incredible.

And while he never outright said it, I could tell the criticism bothered Adesanya. He internalized it, but it no doubt bothered him. He wanted to shut everyone up. He wanted to remind them who he really was.

And wouldn’t you know it, he did just that against Paulo Costa.

That fight was a master class. It was never in doubt. There’s levels to this game, and Adesanya showed us — again — that when it comes to the middleweight division right now in the UFC, he is levels above the rest.

I never make predictions. There’s a long story as to why, but I don’t. However, I was on ESPN Radio before the event Saturday and the first question they asked me was my main event prediction. I was in a good mood, so I broke my personal rule and said Adesanya via second-round TKO. Didn’t hesitate for a second. This was never in doubt.

Y’all must’ve forgot? I sure didn’t. But I’m glad Adesanya reminded the doubters once again just how special he is.

Co-main event takeaway: Too many people overlooked Jan Blachowicz

Raimondi: Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill had Jan Blachowicz as a +220 underdog going into the light heavyweight title co-main event against Dominick Reyes. It seems that the only memory people had of the two fighters coming for the vacant belt was Reyes’ extremely close loss to Jon Jones at UFC 247 in February. Reyes had a great performance that night — no doubt. Many people still feel as if he should have won three rounds, giving him the decision. But Jones won by unanimous decision and took home the belt.

Last month, Jones relinquished that title to move up to heavyweight, setting up Reyes and Blachowicz for the gold. The storyline coming in was Reyes as almost the uncrowned champion attempting to take what was rightfully his.

Blachowicz, a soft-spoken Poland native who does not talk trash, was almost forgotten. But people forgot that Blachowicz has one thing Jones really does not: big-time power. “Legendary Polish power,” in fact, as Blachowicz called it. In the end, Reyes got hit too much, and when Blachowicz hits people, they usually go down. Reyes went down. He’s not out forever — Reyes is still supremely talented and still young. But Blachowicz caught everyone by surprise when maybe he should not have.

Just ask Corey Anderson and Luke Rockhold, whom Blachowicz knocked out on the way here. You can now add Reyes to that list.

Who had the best performance in a non-title fight?

Okamoto: I got the gimmie question of the night. Brandon Royval delivered one of the most standout, non-title performances of the year.

Just the way he carried himself in this fight was super impressive. I have to admit, I found myself wondering about a few of the comments Royval made during the week. He basically said he was still pinching himself that he was in the UFC, and admitted wanting to take a picture with Israel Adesanya. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, part of me wondered if it was the best mindset to be taking into a fight.

But once the fight started, Royval showed nothing but confidence. He showed no respect for Kai Kara-France‘s power, even though Kara-France badly hurt him in the opening 10 seconds. Royval is entertaining, a finisher and he obviously believes in his chin (worth noting, he has never been knocked out).

He moves up the 125-pound rankings with this win and, probably more importantly, he earned himself some good, old-fashioned street cred. I can guarantee you there will be plenty of people excited to see his next performance, based on what they saw Saturday.

Which title-fight loser has the shortest path back?

Murphy: Both Dominick Reyes and Paulo Costa were on the wrong end of second-round knockouts in the UFC’s return to Abu Dhabi. With no two losses created equally, it seems Reyes’ route back to title contention is more direct than Costa’s.

Ahead on the cards, Jan Blachowicz connected with a counter left that spelled the beginning of the end for Reyes. Whether it was Reyes’ nerves or conservation of energy, the 30-year-old never really got going. Blachowicz definitively won, but Reyes never gave the impression he was outclassed.

That was not the case, however, for Costa. The Brazilian had no answer for Adesanya’s leg kicks early. With his opponent’s base compromised, Adesanya went upstairs and felled the tree. Paul Felder said postfight, “Costa has to really go and earn the way back to that title shot, because Izzy picked him apart and made it look easy.”

With a more robust list of immediate title challengers at middleweight and a stylistic overhaul needed in the hypothetical rematch, Costa’s road back to the belt is decisively longer than the one for Reyes.

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