Saturday marks the UFC's return to Fight Island on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi with its UFC 253 pay-per-view event. The fight card is headlined by massive title fights in the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions while also featuring some interesting battles up and down the slate.
The main focus of the 11-fight card remains on Israel Adesanya defending his middleweight championship against Paulo Costa as well as the battle for the vacant light heavyweight championship between Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz. The clash between Costa and Adesanya has been a long time coming, seeing both men throw around a lot of trash talk and lofty promises for the violence they will inflict upon one another. In the light heavyweight title tilt, Reyes and Blachowicz will be fighting to see who will lead the 205-pound division into a new era after the departure of longtime division king Jon Jones.
Let's take a look at five big storylines ahead of Saturday's UFC 253 card on Fight Island.
1. Israel Adesanya's star power in danger?
After starting his career 18-0, including seven UFC victories -- six of which earned him performance bonuses -- Adesanya had a dud of a performance in the first defense of his middleweight championship. Adesanya's UFC 248 bout with Yoel Romero saw him unwilling to engage, seemingly afraid of entering into any sort of firefight with the dangerous challenger. It was a far cry from the flashy striker who had gone to war with Kelvin Gastelum and Anderson Silva in Fight of the Night performances, or the man who fans saw melt Robert Whittaker and Derek Brunson. After seeming like a sure-fire superstar, another gun-shy performance could damage Adesanya's standing with fans, win or lose.
2. Can Paulo Costa impose his will?
Costa has won 12 of his 13 career fights by stoppage, nine of those wins coming in the first round. The only man to take Costa into the third round -- and ultimately to a decision -- was Romero. Costa showed good cardio in the Romero fight, remaining active and dangerous through the final round despite the fight being a fast-paced war. Costa thrives on a brute-force approach (8.43 significant strikes landed per minute) while Adesanya (3.96) is more of a sniper. Adesanya's aforementioned issues dealing with Romero open the door for Costa to follow a similar approach, pushing forward and imposing his will while making Adesanya uncomfortable en route to potentially bringing the middleweight title back to Brazil where it spent so long in the hands of Anderson Silva.
3. Dominick Reyes fighting to right a wrong
To most observers, it seemed Reyes had done enough at UFC 247 to defeat Jon Jones and win the UFC light heavyweight championship. Unfortunately, the opinions of the ringside judges were the only ones that mattered, and none of them saw him winning the fight. Reyes now gets another chance to claim the gold, though it comes against Blachowicz rather than in a rematch with Jones. Reyes has insisted he isn't worried about the judging should he not be able to finish Blachowicz. That's all well and good, but the most important lesson to take from his fight with Jones may be pacing. Reyes fought excellently in the opening rounds against Jones but faded in the championship rounds. Blachowicz has only been stopped by strikes once in his career, losing via TKO to Thiago Santos in February 2019. In order to right the wrong of the loss to Jones, Reyes will have to strike the fine balance between fighting at his standard pace and conserving energy for the later rounds.
4. New image for the light heavyweight division
It might not be fair to Reyes and Blachowicz, but whoever wins the fight will still have a struggle to convince many fans that they deserve to be considered the top light heavyweight in the world. Aside from being stripped of the title multiple times for issues outside the cage, Jones has run the division since 2011. Now here we are again, with Jones is no longer champion without losing the belt inside the Octagon, though this time as a product of a decision to vacate the title for a move to heavyweight. Reyes or Blachowicz will walk away with the championship, but will likely not also be claiming the title of "best light heavyweight fighter in the world" with Jones able to return at any point in the future. It will take time for the winner at UFC 253 to reshape the division in their image.
5. Return to Fight Island
While there was some small sense of disappointment when the UFC's Fight Island was confirmed to simply be Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, a location the promotion had visited multiple times in the past, the first series of events mostly delivered. For the sequel, the UFC has again lined up a mix of fun and meaningful battles, starting with the two headliners on an admittedly top-heavy UFC 253 card before the much-anticipated clash between lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champion Justin Gaethje at UFC 254. Given the stresses the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on the UFC, they've done an admirable job of trying to create a sense of consistency and excitement with the trips to Fight Island standing out as innovative and unique. Whether the second set of events goes as smoothly as the first will be something worth following for the next five weeks.