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International Fight Week typically kicks off with a finale of The Ultimate Fighter, but this Friday’s could be the final iteration. The 27th season -- 27! -- has come to a close, and “Ultimate Fighters” will be crowned at featherweight and lightweight. With the Ultimate Fighting Championship moving to ESPN in 2019, the future of the show is in doubt. No formal announcement has been made about whether the new network will pick it up. Let us hope not.
The consensus among most fans and pundits has long been that the show is outdated and outmoded, a relic of a different time in both entertainment consumption and MMA, the UFC in particular. New gimmicks, rivalries, and coaches could not pull the show out of the steady ratings decline it has been in for a decade. Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series is a much better vehicle for both fans and fighters. It does a great job profiling the fighters -- better than the UFC proper, I daresay -- just as we’ve been getting on TUF, without all the unnecessary restrictions to their lifestyle, training, and coaching. And fans don’t need to grind out an entire season of television to prepare for one fight card.
As is typical by now, “The Ultimate Fighter 27” Finale is littered with TUF alumni past and present. This season’s gimmick is that all the fighters came in undefeated. What that means is that they have varying degrees of promise, but they are all inexperienced. After the final cut-glass trophies, six-figure contracts, and Harley Davidsons are handed out -- do they still do that? -- TUF 11 contestant turned bonafide Top-10 middleweight Brad Tavares will battle recently acquired kickboxing sensation Israel Adesanya.
Without further ado, let’s get to the analysis and picks.
FS1 Main Card
Tavares (17-4-0) vs. Israel
Odds: Adesanya (-130), Tavares (+110)
The UFC’s new flavor of the month is getting another big step up after passing his first two Octagon tests. In fact, Adesanya is being rocketed right into the Top 10 to take on Tavares, who has spent nearly his whole pro career with the organization, going 12-4.
The New Zealand native’s striking is impressive, from his ability to fight equally well out of either stance to his lightning-fast head kicks to his upper body movement. But Adesanya seems to need time still to find his footing at MMA’s highest level. Either that, or he is too preoccupied with looking cool. “The Last Stylebender” doesn’t throw at a very high rate, stalking forward and sniping with quick, straight punches and snappy kicks. He’ll go to the body or upstairs with his attacks, his ambidextrous kicks being his most devastating weapons. But Adesanya doesn’t often throw in combination unless his opponent has his back to the cage, feinting, prodding and pot-shotting. And the Nigerian-born Kiwi is not nearly as dangerous moving backwards, which he often does in straight lines. His exaggerated head and torso movement can look impressive as his opponents swing at air, but he isn’t in a position to counter with his own offense. In his last bout, Marvin Vettori had his best success in the final round when he bit down and came forward. Adesanya also holds his hands low, so Vettori was able to connect when he took his feet with him, reaching Adesanya’s chin even as the former kickboxer leaned back.
Since Adesanya comes from a kickboxing background, his first two UFC opponents have looked to take him down at one point or another. Because he moves straight back sometimes, he isn’t difficult to get near the fence. His lateral movement and feints once he gets close to the fence help him prevent his opponents from shooting, too. When they do get a hold of him, Adesanya’s defense has been solid, though he can get stalled out on the fence for stretches. When he is taken down, the City Kickboxing standout is adept at wall-walking back to his feet. But so far, that is the extent of his defensive grappling moves if he is planted flat on his back.
Tavares, if healthy, will be a very stiff test for Adesanya. The Hawaiian is a more-than-capable kickboxer in his own right, but he has gotten away from the combination striking that saw him out-strike Lorenz Larkin a few years back. Instead, Tavares mostly pot-shots, utilizing his jab and outside leg kicks liberally. Where the Xtreme Couture stalwart is most dangerous is in close quarters and off of clinch breaks, where he bombs with tight, powerful hooks. A trouble spot for him at times has been a lack of urgency, which manifests itself in him only landing 3.2 significant strikes per minute. All of this doesn’t bode well against Adesanya, who rarely hangs out in the pocket and will have the advantage at long range with his diverse array of kicks.
But Tavares can wrestle just as well as he strikes. The former TUF competitor only lands about one takedown per 15 minutes and is successful on just 31% of his attempts, but those numbers do not accurately reflect his ability. He has faced a class of wrestler -- and fighter -- far above what Adesanya has dealt with at this point, taking on guys like Krzysztof Jotko, Thales Leites, Elias Theodorou, Robert Whittaker, Nate Marquardt, Tim Boetsch and Yoel Romero in the recent past. Every one of them is a better wrestler than Vettori. Even if Tavares struggles to plant Adesanya flat on his back and beat him up for long periods, he should be able to pressure the New Zealander back to the cage, get work done inside, break to fire his vicious hooks, and push back inside, largely nullifying Adesanya’s offense.
The x-factor here is the severity of Tavares’ foot injury that nearly scrapped this fight. If his movement is compromised, closing Adesanya down becomes a much more difficult proposition. But we won’t know that until they start moving around in the cage. If the fight actually goes off, I’ll say his foot is good enough to get the job done. Tavares by decision is the pick.
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