“Fight Island” sets the scene for UFC 253: Adesanya v Costa, and it looks to be a pretty good card for MMA overall. But how does it rate on the Groundwatch scale? Is the card just a bunch of bros looking to stand and bang, or will we get some intelligent grappling – maybe even some submissions?
Before I delve into UFC 253, let’s review last week’s ground action. I previewed it before the fights, highlighting veteran grappler Darrick Minner, BJJ phenom Mackenzie Dern, and human blitzkrieg Khamzat Chimaev.
Minner added another submission victory to his long list of wins (22 total) as he upset TJ Laramie with an arm-in guillotine:
Easy money tonight! 🤑@DarrickMinner with the RD 1 upset from Las Vegas.
— UFC (@ufc) September 19, 2020
Mackenzie Dern also got another submission win, finishing Randa Markos with an armbar:
Never, ever go to the ground with @MackenzieDern 🇧🇷
— UFC (@ufc) September 20, 2020
As for Chimaev, after hinting he wanted to challenge BJJ black belt Gerald Meerschaert’s grappling skills, he didn’t get a chance. Instead, he knocked Meerschaert out in 17 seconds. Exciting, but a bit of a bummer for the jiu-jitsu fanatics.
With UFC Vegas 11 in the rear view, let’s move on to UFC 253: Adesanya v Costa. I will present each fight with my own “Groundwatch Rating” for the event; essentially an overall score of how likely we will see groundwork. To clarify, “groundwork” means things like takedowns, passes, submissions, and so on – the stuff that grappling and jiu-jitsu nerds watch for in UFC events. With that stated, let’s start evaluating the card.
UFC 253 Prelims
Khadis Ibragimov v Danilo Marques – Light Heavyweight (205lb)
Ibragimov is yet another Dagestani-born fighter, currently training out of St. Petersburg. He has a history as a wrestler and won a few pro fights with submissions before he joined the UFC. He hasn’t shown much of that style recently though – in fact Ibragimov has struggled in the UFC. In three fights, he has not won and is likely fighting to remain in the promotion.
Marques fights under Demian Maia Jiu-Jitsu which definitely causes me to raise an eyebrow. He also has 4 pro wins from submission in his fight history. Marques hasn’t fought since 2018 however, and it’s really hard to determine if he can match up with Ibragimov (for his struggles, Ibragimov has at least shown he’s at a basic UFC level). Even with their backgrounds, there are many questions with these guys, yet I’d guess it’s more likely than not we see some grappling: 3/5.
Juan Espino v Jeff Hughes – Heavyweight (265lb)
Juan Espino is a rarity in the UFC – a Spaniard (technically, Canary Islander) heavyweight who wins with grappling. The 39 year old winner of TUF 28 has been sidelined with surgeries to his hand but should be ready to go this Saturday, looking to add to his list of six submission victories. “El Guapo” won his last fight with a straight armlock from side control (see the video below).
Jeff Hughes is much more typical heavyweight. He has a size disadvantage here, has struggled recently and is a fairly large underdog. Hughes’ only path to victory is probably knocking out Espino, and I think “El Guapo” is going be too much for him. I’m rating this a 4/5 because I think Espino controls the fight with his grappling and maybe finishes with a submission.
— UFC (@ufc) December 1, 2018
William Knight v Aleksa Camur – Light Heavyweight (205lb)
A couple of bangers square off in this fight. All 8 of Knight’s wins have come from TKO, and 5 of 6 wins for Camur have come from TKO. Expect this fight to end early without any grappling: 0/5.
Shane Young v Ludovit Klein – Featherweight (145lb)
Young trains at City Kickboxing in Auckland, and like his teammate Israel Adesanya is a primary kickboxer, relying on heavy striking volume for stoppages or decisions. Klein is new to the UFC, and though he began his fighting career with a string of submission wins, he has used a kickboxing style more recently (winning his last two fights using head kicks).
This is a matchup of two kickboxers, which could be fun but not for jiu-jitsu: 0/5.
Diego Sanchez v Jake Matthews – Welterweight (170lb)
Diego Sanchez is not what he used to be. Though he’s still able to sneak out wins in the UFC, he no longer can rely on his chin and outbrawl his opponents. The path to victory is somewhat muddy for “Nightmare” – use his wrestling to limit damage and grind out takedowns, pick his spots and perhaps catch the opposing fighter with a TKO. In his past 4 UFC fights (throwing out the win by DQ), Sanchez has won when winning the takedown battle.
Matthews will not necessarily be susceptible to this plan of attack. “The Celtic Kid” holds a black belt in BJJ and used a grappling-first approach to get many of his early victories. In more recent fight camps, he has worked to improve his striking, still relying on his grappling base to score takedowns and superior positions.
This could be a fight for Matthews to showcase more of his striking skills, with a seemingly massive athletic advantage over the senior Sanchez. Oddsmakers don’t give Sanchez much of a chance (+500 or 5:1 as I’m writing). Still, I expect this fight to go long and I think there will be some grappling at some point: 3/5.
Brad Riddell v Alex da Silva Coelho – Lightweight (155lb)
Riddell is another City Kickboxing fighter out of Auckland, and also uses a similar style to his teammates: high volume kickboxing. Though has shown himself susceptible to takedowns in his UFC fights (taken down 11 times in two fights), he does a good job of escaping once down and returning to his feet.
Though da Silva has a lot of victories (21 wins) for his age (24 years old), it’s not clear that he was facing high level opponents. (Note: there are a few high level BJJ athletes named Alex da Silva or Alex Silva, this guy is not any of them.) The Brazilian started martial arts as a Muay Thai fighter and does have some submission victories in his history, but has mostly been a wrestler in his UFC fights, working for takedowns and barely allowing his opponents any chance to strike back.
The question for this fight is whether da Silva’s wrestling and ground control is good enough to hold down Riddell. Oddmakers don’t think so, as Riddell is a -300 favorite. So expect some takedowns but Riddell likely squirms out and outstrikes da Silva: 2/5 because there might be something with the wrestling.
UFC 253 Main Card
Hakeem Dawodu v Zubaira Tukhugov – Featherweight (145lb)
Another subtle contrast of styles here. Hakeem Dawodu will push the pace with a lot of striking, while Tukhugov is much more methodical. Tukhugov is less dynamic as a striker but will mix in wrestling to supplant his counterstriking. Both have the power to end the fight early. The only chance for grappling in this fight is probably a Tukhugov takedown or two. If he does get Dawodu down, Tukhugov doesn’t have the control like his friend Khabib Nurmagomedov, so Dawodu might be able to simply get up again. So, a small chance for grappling overall: 1/5.
Ketlen Vieira v Sijara Eubanks – Women’s Banamweight (135lb)
Sijara Eubanks surprised everyone with her win over Julia Avila two weeks ago. In a match that I expected very little grappling, Eubanks worked her wrestling game, dominating Avila with takedowns and control.
Vieira has some ground skills herself with 4 submission victories under her belt. She has used a smothering, grinding style to tire out and either submit her opponents, or get the decision.
This will be interesting with Eubanks fighting two weeks ago, and looking much better than ever before. It’s hard to predict this one – but it does seem likely that the fight goes to the ground. This might be the best chance to see a submission on the Main Card: 4/5.
Kai Kara-France v Brandon Royval – Flyweight (125lb)
Kara-France is the next City Kickboxing fighter on the card (but not the last, of course). Like his teammates, he’s a technical striker who outputs a high volume, and he uses that approach to get decision victories.
Royval is a wild and scrambling submission artist, with 7 of his 11 wins coming this way. The weird thing about him though is that he can’t wrestle well to initiate the takedown, and doesn’t seem to ever work to get the fight to the mat. It’s as if he doesn’t ever favor his “A” game to start with, and only works on the ground once his opponents take him down. This was the story in May, when Royval submitted Tim Elliot with an arm triangle (see the video below).
So even though Kara-France is outmatched on the ground, he can probably win this fight via volume striking and avoiding the mat. So, that lowers the Groundwatch rating for this fight to a 2/5.
WELCOME TO THE UFC @BrandonRoyval 👏
— UFC (@ufc) May 30, 2020
Dominick Reyes v Jan Blachowicz – Light Heavyweight Championship Fight (205lb)
Both fighters are striker-first, though Blachowicz has some submission wins (he finished Nikita Krylov with an arm triangle in 2018, for example). As he moves into veteran status, Blachowicz has a more well rounded game. But he is not the better volume striker here – though he has a chance for a TKO/KO, the fight will largely depend on Reyes’ ability to pace and counter on his feet. Blachowicz has scored some takedowns in the past but not recently, and Reyes has great takedown defense anyway (82%). It looks like an exciting fight, but only a very slight chance this goes to the ground: 1/5
Israel Adesanya v Paulo Costa – Middleweight Championship Fight (170lb)
Adesanya is a kickboxer and Costa is an aggressive striker (11 out of 13 wins coming from TKO/KO). Though Costa is a BJJ black belt, he has not used much of that skill in his MMA career. There was some recent trash talk delving into grappling credentials – Costa earlier this week tweeted:
I can’t believe a BJJ blue Belt arguing about Brazilian Jiujitsu with me. He must to be crazy.
It went a bit further than that, with Adensanya threatening to berimbolo Costa, stating his grappling “sucks”, among other things. Then at the stare down, Costa brandished his black belt while throwing a white belt at Adesanya.
But all of this posturing probably doesn’t mean much. These two have shown no interest in grappling in the octagon. In fact between the two of these fighters, there are zero takedowns in 13 combined fights. I really think the grappling will remain theoretical for this one.
There are lots of words written about this fight elsewhere – if you are really interested, go find them because I’m definitely not doing it any justice. This fight is very exciting for striking but there is absolutely zero chance of jiu-jitsu: 0/5.
UFC 253 Overall Card Rating
UFC 253: Adesanya v Costa actually looks like a good card for MMA overall, but it’s heavy on the strikers, with four City Kickboxing fighters featured overall. Just to be clear, a low Groundwatch rating does not mean it’s a boring card, it just means we likely don’t see much jiu-jitsu. Personally, I’m interested in a lot of these fights as an MMA fan. However, the potential for interesting grappling is quite low overall. Grappling fans may want to skip the PPV and just watch the UFC 253 prelims, if that is available to them.
If you’re really craving some grappling this weekend, you may want to check out the Polaris Squads event featuring Ffion Davies on UFC FightPass.