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Will a title or two change hands? Is Sean O’Malley ready for the next step?

With two title fights and a slew of rising stars on the main card, UFC 276 could be the biggest event of the year. And since the stakes are what they are, there’s a good chance it will live up to the hype.

Israel Adesanya will defend his middleweight title for the sixth straight year when he faces Jared Cannonier in the main event. The co-main event sees two featherweight legends meet for the third time in the Octagon when Alexander Volkanovski gambles his title against Max Holloway. Will the champions still hold the belt after Saturday night?

Ahead of the two title bouts, two intriguing contenders have a chance to keep the momentum going as Alex Pereira looks to cement his place as middleweight contender in a bout with Sean Strickland. Also, Sean O’Malley opens the main card against Pedro Munhoz. Will O’Malley and Pereira Deliver Fight of the Night Performances in Vegas?

Two of the sport’s most experienced fighters go head-to-head when Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone fights Jim Miller. With both fighters nearing the end of their careers, who will win the rematch from a fight nearly eight years ago?

Our panel with Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Sam Bruce answers these questions and more ahead of Saturday’s must-see card.


Which fight are you looking forward to the most?

Okamoto: The trilogy, without question. Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway 3. You can 100% argue that Volkanovski is currently the #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. That distinction, in my opinion, is a three-horse race between Volkanovski, Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya. Volkanovski’s closest fights in the UFC were against Holloway, a top 10 pound-for-pound talent. So, from a competitive standpoint, this is not only the best fight at UFC 276, but also one of the most elite UFC fights of the last decade.

On top of that, there are real bets! Volkanovski has undoubtedly held his own as the No. 1 featherweight division, but there’s still that “Holloway” thorn in his side because the first two bouts were so close. Assuming he can finally pin Holloway in the rearview mirror, he’ll go down as the biggest featherweight any times. Additionally, UFC President Dana White has previously stated that he would support Volkanovski in gaining weight and fighting for a second belt.

As for Holloway, he can’t lose to the same opponent three times if he wants to achieve the legacy he wants. That can’t happen. This is the biggest fight of both of their careers.


Will Sean O’Malley prove he’s ready for the next step on Saturday?

Okamoto: I believe in O’Malley. I think it’s fair to say he didn’t Yes, really has already been tested to become a legitimate title contender. But that was on purpose. There was never a rush. He’s the kind of prospect you want to slowly advance—put into positions to be successful. And in those cases, see how that prospect is performing. Does it meet or exceed expectations?

So far, O’Malley has exceeded expectations. I think its upper limit has yet to be determined. But if we’re speculating on whether or not he’s the real deal, I’m in. His skill is legitimate. Contrary to what some think, I don’t think he bought into his hype. He is confident but not delusional in his abilities. He’s a smart guy with a real work ethic. It’s flashy and some might take that as a substitute for substance – but not in my eyes. Pedro Munhoz is good and if he upsets O’Malley this weekend it won’t come as a shock. But whatever happens, I don’t think we’re going to say from this weekend that O’Malley can’t be a real player in this division.


Will there be a title change on Saturday?

Raimondi: If there’s one thing we’ve learned about MMA, especially in the last few months, it’s to expect the unexpected. So I’m going to say at UFC 276 there will be a title change.

Last December, no one would have guessed that Julianna Peña could beat the dominant Amanda Nunes to win the UFC women’s bantamweight title. Nunes is the greatest MMA fighter of all time and few have been competitive with her during this run. However, Peña not only hit her, but finished off Nunes with a choke to take the belt. Fast forward to earlier this month. Valentina Shevchenko, who looked almost invulnerable as the UFC women’s flyweight champion of the world, looked very human against Taila Santos. Shevchenko squeezed out a win to retain her title, but Santos gave her everything she could take and then some.

On Saturday we have a similar case of a standout champion in Israel Adesanya, who is a 4-to-1 favorite against middleweight challenger Jared Cannonier according to Caesars Sportsbook. Adesanya is one of the best pound for pound fighters in the world. Cannonier is solid, has considerable strength in his hands, and is durable. Few give him a chance to win, but stranger things have happened.

Then in the co-main event, Volkanovski defends his featherweight title in a trilogy bout against Holloway. The first two bouts were razor sharp, with Volkanovski picking up decision victories in both. Many thought Holloway won the second fight; Some thought he won the first. As good as Volkanovski looked at UFC 273 against “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung in April, Holloway, the former champion, is still one of the best fighters alive. Volkanovski is a -190 favorite, but that’s a coin toss.


Is this Sean Strickland fight too soon for Alex Pereira?

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Alex Pereira wins his UFC debut with an incredible flying knee in the featured prelim of UFC 268.

Raimondi: Pereira has looked like a dominant prospect, one of the best at UFC middleweight in a while. But he’s not treated as your average prospect for three reasons. First, while Pereira only has six MMA fights (only two in the UFC), he has been a professional kickboxer since 2012. And not just any pro kickboxer – Pereira is an absolute stallion in the sport, having won the Glory Kickboxing Championship at both middleweight and light heavyweight divisions. He also owns two wins over UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, including a knockout. More on that in a moment. Second, Pereira is not young. The Brazilian fighter is 34 years old and his window to climb the UFC rankings is small.

Third, a rematch between Adesanya and Pereira in the UFC for a title is a powerful story that the UFC — and both Adesanya and Pereira — want to tell. In addition, Pereira is accelerated in the division. Saturday will see him up against a buzzsaw in Strickland, who has picked up six straight wins and has looked fantastic since moving to middleweight in 2020.

The winner of Strickland vs. Pereira will likely get the next title fight and that’s great matchmaking. If Strickland wins, Adesanya will have a fresh opponent who isn’t afraid to verbally promote a fight. If Pereira wins, the history between him and Adesanya will be at the forefront of promotion. Also, the battle takes place on a map titled Adesanya. It’s perfect. So to answer the actual question, no. It’s not too early for Pereira. Timing is always a tough nut to crack in MMA, but it seems like the UFC and other parties involved have it all figured out.


Should this be Cowboy’s last fight?

Wagenheim: I know the point of this is that we are definitive and not wishy-washy, but I will never tell a fighter it’s time to retire. This is one of the most personal decisions of a fighter’s life and no one outside of the family or the fight team has the right to have a say.

What I will weighing if I’m still interested in seeing this fighter in the cage. Cerrone has been a thrill throughout his career — up until 2019. It’s not just that he’s six fights without a win and four eliminations. Even when standing upright, “Cowboy” seemed sluggish. It was hard to watch, especially for those who remember Cerrone wide-eyed some nights, all the way back to the WEC days.

Saturday’s fight with Jim Miller is appropriate matchmaking. Both have been around forever, and both still seem to enjoy every trip to the Octagon. They give the fans a good, honest fight every time. Miller seems to have more profile left while Cerrone seems stuck in the mud. So if this is the night that Cowboy rides into the sunset, he gets the most honorable goodbye of all.


Will Alexander Volkanovski, the GOAT at featherweight, enter this trilogy bout?

Bruce: Not yet, but if he can defeat Max Holloway for a third time, even his harshest critics will not be able to deny the Australian his place at the top of the division’s all-time charts.

Volkanovski has defended his featherweight belt three times, but it’s the 2020 rematch with Holloway that currently tarnishes his GOAT status. That fight was incredibly close, and many pundits had it for Holloway, giving fight fans something to debate to this day.

However, what Volkanovski has done since then has been masterful, as he has demonstrated the qualities of someone deserving of the GOAT mantle. His escape and counter-attack on Brian Ortega made for some of the best rounds of 2021, while Volkanovski left Chan Sung Jung looking completely overwhelmed. The Aussie is on a 21-fight win streak, a streak that includes victories over fellow featherweight stars Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes.

A third win over Holloway would remove any doubt about Volkanovski’s 145-pound GOAT status and could open up an opportunity to challenge for gold at lightweight in the future.

https://www.espn.com/mma/story/_/id/34152077/ufc-276-title-two-change-hands-sean-omalley-ready-next-step Will a title or two change hands? Is Sean O’Malley ready for the next step?

Emma Bowman

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