UFC 293 is Saturday in Sydney, and Israel Adesanya is the star of the show. This will be his first fight Down Under for the flamboyant New Zealander since he became UFC middleweight champion four years ago.
Adesanya is more than just the weekend’s top attraction. He figures into several of the storylines that will be circulating Qudos Bank Arena leading up to his title defense against Sean Strickland in the main event (ESPN+ PPV at 10 p.m. ET, prelims on ESPN News and ESPN+ at 8 p.m., early prelims on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m.).
Here are five intriguing matters that could be settled at UFC 293:
1. Will Adesanya be Mr. Entertainment again?
Adesanya is a showman, there’s no denying that. But the middleweight champion doesn’t always put on a show.
The night in 2019 when Adesanya won the belt for the first time, he did it in the swashbuckling style he’d become known for, attacking Robert Whittaker from impossible angles and dodging everything thrown back in his direction like a rubber action figure. Hands down at his side and chin stuck out as a “try to hit me” invitation, Adesanya made Whittaker look feeble before dropping him in the final seconds of Round 1 and knocking him out with a fancy flurry in the second. This appeared to be the dawning of an age of flash and flair.
But in his next five 185-pound fights, Adesanya managed just one knockout. He won every one of those bouts, but sometimes he appeared to be coasting, serving up vanilla performances. His reputation among the loudest and crankiest of the MMA fan base slipped from bodacious to boring. Adesanya rightfully refused to absorb the criticism all by himself, though, noting that on many nights, he was saddled with opponents too timid to bring a fight to him.
That will not be the case Saturday. Strickland is an aggressor and unafraid of engagement, sometimes to his detriment. He’s also basic in his skills, which might sound like ridicule but is not. Strickland is solid, tough and straightforward, and he will give Adesanya a fight — and an opportunity to pile up crowd-pleasing style points.
2. How early will the ‘Stylebender’ performance begin?
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) October 6, 2019
The last time Adesanya headlined a fight card in Australia, at UFC 243 in 2019 in Melbourne, he put on a spectacular show. And that was even before he stepped inside the cage and knocked out Whittaker.
On the biggest night of his fighting career, with the grandest stakes staring him coldly in the face, “The Last Stylebender” dared to bend his stylishness, stretching it beyond the confines of the Octagon. Adesanya’s memorable prefight performance, a choreographed dance routine during his walk to the cage, was the greatest walkout in UFC history.
It also was the riskiest. Had Adesanya used up so much energy doing cartwheels during the walkout that he looked drained in the fight, that would have been a twist even Chubby Checker couldn’t explain. Had Adesanya lost the fight in any fashion, his playfully creative walkout would have backfired. He would have been deemed undisciplined and unfocused, a laughingstock instead of the man of the night.
This Saturday, making his first Down Under appearance in years, Adesanya is practically obligated to show something special again. Maybe he won’t go to the same extremes, but he’ll surely find a way to make the fans in Sydney are entertained even before the main event begins.
3. Could we be in store for another major upset?
Strickland enters the fight as a near 5-1 underdog. A win for the first-time title challenger would earn him a place in the UFC record books if he can pull off one of the biggest title fight upsets in the promotion’s history.
Obviously, as such a large underdog, getting a win will be difficult. But it’s not impossible.
While Adesanya is one of the very best fighters in the sport, ranked No. 4 in ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings, over the last two years he has shown that he can be beaten. In 2021, he lost to former light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz in a move up to 205 pounds to challenge for a second title. Adesanya also lost to former division champion Alex Pereira by knockout during their first fight inside the Octagon at UFC 281 last November.
Although Blachowicz’s path to victory over the 185-pound champ may not be viable for Strickland, there is a chance that Strickland, with his tough stand-up game, could walk down Adesanya and land the punch to put the champion away, similar to Pereira.
4. Which beer and footwear marketing departments will recognize a synergy opportunity?
Tuivasa does his signature shoey after knocking Hardy out
Tai Tuivasa performs his signature shoey and celebrates after knocking out Greg Hardy early.
A public service announcement for those fans seated at cageside or along the aisle leading from the Octagon to backstage: Buy an extra beer so you’ll still have one for yourself, and bring along a shoe you never want to wear again.
Yes, Tai Tuivasa is fighting.
The thick-set heavyweight with the larger-than-life personality has lost two fights in a row, so he badly needs to find something to celebrate. To do that, he’ll be typing “chin” into a search engine. What else would a fighter with 13 knockouts among his 14 pro wins be searching for? And if Tuivasa does find the chin of Alexander Volkov in the co-main event, everyone knows how the big lug will celebrate.
The shoey is uncouth and unsanitary, a total gross-out. And it is the most beloved UFC celebration among fans.
Considering that Tuivasa will be fighting in his hometown for the first time since his UFC debut in 2017, wouldn’t this night serve up a frosty opportunity for some marketing pro? Advertising messages cover practically every inch of the Octagon and all corners of the arena in which the cage resides. Would a “This shoey is brought to you by [insert beer company] and [insert sneaker company]” promotion cheapen the fun or fit right in?
5. What else is there to say except ‘Aussie! Aussie! Kiwi! Kiwi!’?
Carlos Ulberg wastes no time finishing fight
Carlos Ulberg sends Nicolae Negumereanu to the mat and finishes him off with a flurry of punches.
Tuivasa aside, there are four other Australian fighters in the UFC 293 lineup. None will do shoeys (just a guess). All will get the Sydney crowd riled up (a sure thing).
In addition to Adesanya, the night will showcase three other fighters based in New Zealand. All are his teammates at City Kickboxing in Auckland. Every one of them will benefit from the shine reflecting off their main event star like a prism.
The Adesanya teammate primed to draw the most attention to himself is light heavyweight Carlos Ulberg. He’s 8-1 and enters his prelim with Da Woon Jung on a four-fight winning streak since dropping his UFC debut in 2021. Ulberg’s last three results: first-round TKO, first-round KO, first-round TKO. This will be his first fight in Australia since before his Octagon days.
Down Under, stand up.