Keep an eye on TUF’s Mitch Raposo; Nate Diaz may be on verge of title shot

UFC 263 kicks off a busy summer Saturday with a pair of title fights between familiar foes. Three years ago, Israel Adesanya squeezed out the only split decision win of his career against Marvin Vettori. Adesanya went on to win the UFC middleweight championship, and Vettori has won five straight fights. Could the three rounds Vettori spent inside the Octagon with Adesanya be the deciding factor in flipping the result the second time around?

Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno fought more recently, as they squared off for the UFC flyweight championship in December. It was one of the most memorable fights of 2020 and ended in an even tighter result, a majority draw. Figueiredo has asserted that his illness and prefight hospitalization were responsible for the fight being so close. Will a healthy Figueiredo produce a different outcome?

Outside the title fights at the top of the card, a high-profile welterweight clash pits Leon Edwards against Nate Diaz. With discussions about a rematch between Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington moving slowly, could the winner potentially jump the line?

Tuesday brings the second episode of The Ultimate Fighter and a first look at Mitch Raposo, who is one of the more intriguing fighters this season. He’s only 22, but he works with the New England Cartel and could be someone to watch in years to come regardless of how he does on the show.

Our expert panel of Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim break down the biggest questions surrounding UFC 263, and separate what’s real from what’s not.

Mitch Raposo is someone to keep an eye on, regardless of his TUF outcome

Okamoto: Real. Whether Raposo wins TUF 29 or not, he is definitely a fighter to keep an eye on moving forward. Raposo is only 22, but he was the No. 1 overall pick of this season, made by coach Alexander Volkanovski. What he lacks in experience, he makes up for in confidence and pedigree. Raposo is from Massachusetts and has been training MMA four to five times per week since he was 12.

Raposo has worked with Massachusetts native and UFC veteran Joe Lauzon in the past, but he joined the famed New England Cartel in 2018. That group includes bantamweight contender Rob Font and featherweight contender Calvin Kattar. Raposo is coached and managed by NEC’s leader, Tyson Chartier. Raposo was part of Font’s camp for his fights against Thomas Almeida and current Bellator MMA champion Sergio Pettis in 2018.

Speaking to ESPN before the season, Raposo said his age should actually be an advantage for him this season. He is treating this opportunity as a potential career-changer, but he’s also aware that at age 22, he has a long way to go before reaching his potential. That had him loose going into a season that featured other contestants in his weight class who have a higher sense of urgency to make the UFC right now.

The winner of Leon Edwards vs. Nate Diaz will get a title shot

Okamoto: This one’s real, friends. I know UFC president Dana White has said he wants to do Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington 2 next. And frankly, that has been the fight to make for a while. It’s a fight that I, personally, very much want to see … but it’s not signed yet, is it? And Usman has been vocal about the fact he doesn’t believe Covington deserves to fight him, as he’s fought only once since they met in late 2019. And on top of that, we know that Usman and the UFC have a positive relationship right now. The promotion has a lot of respect for what Usman is doing, and it is open to him having a strong say in where his career goes.

As of now, it sounds preposterous to suggest a fight between Usman and Edwards could do as well as a fight between Usman and Covington. But this is MMA. Things change in an instant. And if Edwards goes out there and hammers a superstar in Diaz, on a card that is headlined by another star in Israel Adesanya, that’s a lot of positive press. If he performs, and then handles himself well on the mic — do you really think he couldn’t skip ahead of Covington? Especially if that’s what the champ wants? Absolutely, he could.

And if Diaz pulls the upset? Usman is on record saying he doesn’t think Diaz would even accept a title shot if offered one. Well, I think we’d find out if he’s right. Because if Diaz were to win this fight, I do think the UFC would be open to him fighting Usman. And I know Usman would push for it.

Figueiredo is odds-on favorite against Moreno because of illness before first bout

Raimondi: Deiveson Figueiredo’s title defense against Brandon Moreno last December at UFC 256 was one of the best fights of 2020. The flyweight championship bout ended up going to a majority draw when Figueiredo had a point taken from him due to a shot below the belt of Moreno in the third round. Figueiredo kept his title, but the result — and just how good the fight was — made an instant rematch the desired scenario for the UFC.

After that fight, Figueiredo did several interviews and talked about how he was hospitalized the night before UFC 256 with a stomach illness. He said that had he not been sick just hours before stepping in the Octagon, he would have finished Moreno. I believe Figueiredo when he says he wasn’t feeling well and needed to go to the hospital. The other part? Does Figueiredo really make it look easy against Moreno if he’s 100 percent healthy? It’s impossible to say, but we’ll get a little clearer picture of that Saturday.

Figueiredo is the -240 favorite, according to Caesars by William Hill, and rightfully so. He’s unbeaten in six straight and has looked dynamic and at times dominant. But his status as the favorite has little to do with him getting sick before UFC 256. I’m saying not real on this statement.

Let’s look a little deeper here. Figueiredo falling ill between the weigh-ins and the fight isn’t a huge surprise. The flyweight champ cut a ton of weight to get to 125 pounds. He missed weight in February 2020 in what was supposed to be a title opportunity for him against Joseph Benavidez. When a fighter cuts that much weight, and then attempts to rehydrate and renourish following weigh-ins, there is always the chance of messing up your stomach.

It’s impossible to know if that was the case last December for UFC 256. But consider this: Figueiredo had fought just three weeks prior, a successful title defense against Alex Perez via first-round submission. Fighting twice in a short span isn’t so much of a big deal. But cutting weight, rehydrating and then doing it all over three weeks later? That’s a potential recipe for disaster. The body is not meant to yo-yo weight up and down in a small period of time.

If the question is, why is Figueiredo such a heavy favorite I’d argue it has little to do with the prefight illness last time. This time, Figueiredo is fresh, having not cut weight in six months. To me, that’s the variable at play here, different from the first fight that makes the biggest difference.


What Vettori learned in his first fight with Adesanya will be the difference between winning and losing

Wagenheim: I wish I had majored in psychology back in college, because there’s so much to dissect in the mental game surrounding this fight. The 15 minutes that Marvin Vettori spent inside the Octagon with Israel Adesanya in 2018 might or might not pay off for the challenger from a technical standpoint. Fighters evolve, so who knows how their skills will match up this time? But his time in with the champ definitely will affect his mental approach. Vettori knows what it feels like to stand across from a dynamic fighter whom opponents take a while to figure out. And the fact that the first fight ended in a split decision tells Vettori that one of the three judges saw it his way. That’s got to boost his confidence.

Adesanya is coming off his first defeat, and that can weigh on a fighter’s mind. By all appearances in the aftermath, he took the loss in stride. But you never know. The memory could make him hesitate in a key moment for a split second, and that could be the difference. Or the champ will view that loss to light heavyweight titlist Jan Blachowicz as nothing more than a bump in a whole different road than the one he travels as a dominant middleweight king. And, of course, just as Vettori knows him well from the three rounds they shared, Adesanya also is more familiar with the game of this challenger than he has been with any other he’s faced.

How will it all play out? We might learn that even though neither has lost at 185 pounds since the 2018 meeting, one has evolved more than the other. We might see the familiarity backfire on one of these guys in the form of a miscalculation based on old evidence.

Ultimately, I’m going to say not real, because while I do believe Vettori will benefit from his familiarity with Adesanya’s game, I don’t envision it being the determining factor. I think the champ will find a way. Still, based on what we saw three years ago, I expect this fight to have more twists and turns than Adesanya’s other two title defenses. And that’s enough to stir up my interest.

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