U.F.C. 263: Adesanya and Vettori Get Their Rematch

PHOENIX — A shirtless, chiseled Israel Adesanya held the gold Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight belt above his head as his opponent, Marvin Vettori, sneered and hurled vulgarities at the champion during a news conference. U.F.C. President Dana White separated them with his outstretched arms.

The two will fight on Saturday night at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., the same site where they brawled in 2018 in a three-round contest with a disputed outcome. Adesanya won via split decision, with two of the three judges declaring him victorious. Since then, the kickboxer has soared to the height of the sport, winning seven consecutive fights in the 185-pound division, including capturing the title in 2019 via a second-round knockout.

But Vettori ascended too, winning five consecutive fights, all the while claiming he had defeated the champion three years ago. Adesanya said he listened, and is happy the two can finally settle the debate.

“He holds on to that fight like it is the biggest win in his career,” Adesanya said.

Adesanya and Vettori’s clash at Saturday’s U.F.C. 263 card is one of two rematches from tightly contested fights. The other is among flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo and the challenger, Brandon Moreno, a repeat of a December 2020 battle that ended in a draw.

Nate Diaz, a fan favorite and U.F.C. veteran, also returns from a nearly two-year absence to fight Leon Edwards, a strong welterweight contender, in a five-round 170-pound bout. Normally, Edwards and Diaz would fight three rounds as an undercard fight without a title on the line. But both fighters wanted to fight five rounds, and for the first time in U.F.C. history, White allowed it.

U.F.C. 263 is the second recent event the company plans to operate in the United States without any coronavirus-related restrictions, such as masks, social distancing or capacity limits. Nearly two months ago, in Jacksonville, Fla., about 15,000 spectators watched Kamaru Usman defend his welterweight belt via knockout against Jorge Masvidal. For much of the pandemic, the championship has hosted events with limited or no fans at its complex in Las Vegas, where the U.F.C. is headquartered, as well as in Florida and in the United Arab Emirates.

“It was always super important because it is so close to Vegas,” White said about hosting an event in Phoenix. “We did the last one here and then this pandemic hit. You have Florida, you have Texas and you have Arizona. Thank God for those three states.”

Adesanya, who signed with the U.F.C. in 2017, quickly catapulted to one of the company’s most marketable stars shortly after his fight with Vettori.

The fighter was born in Nigeria and relocated to New Zealand with his family at age 12. He began practicing mixed martial arts because he was bullied during childhood, he said.

Adesanya, currently ranked the No. 4 pound-for-pound fighter in the U.F.C., boasts 15 knockout finishes and is respected for his length and precise striking.

Three months ago, he challenged Jan Blachowicz for the light heavyweight title, trying to join Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier, Amanda Nunes and Henry Cejudo as the only fighters to hold belts simultaneously in multiple weight classes.

But he weighed in five pounds under the 205-pound limit, and Blachowicz utilized the stark difference (which likely grew after he rehydrated from cutting weight) by wrestling against Adesanya, winning via unanimous decision. It was the first defeat in Adesanya’s professional career. After the fight, he said he would return to middleweight and defend the belt with his “iron Black fists.”

Adesanya defended well against most of Vettori’s takedown attempts in 2018, and Vettori will most likely try to bring Adesanya to the ground in the rematch. Since the loss, he has won five consecutive fights, and is trying to become the first Italian U.F.C. champion. Their sore feelings have only intensified since the first meeting.

After Adesanya insulted Vettori during the news conference, he rose from his seat to approach him, stopped by security guards.

Figueiredo and Moreno also share a feud. At the news conference, Figueiredo pushed Moreno, prompting security to step in. In December, both men fought in Las Vegas in a five-round battle, a clash so close that judges did not declare a winner.

Figueiredo still retained the 125-pound belt, but the inconclusive result necessitated a rematch. The fast-paced fight stopped momentarily in the third round when Figueiredo unintentionally kicked Moreno near the groin, which is illegal. The point deducted from Figueiredo by the referee may have been the difference on the score cards.

But the most anticipated fight among fans may be Diaz against Edwards. Though Diaz is based in Stockton, Calif., his support from the crowd was the loudest during their news conference, and it became even noisier when he lowered his head, lit a lighter and began smoking marijuana at his seat.

Diaz entered the U.F.C. in 2007 and had always been respected among the dedicated faithful. But he rose to mainstream prominence in 2016, when he fought McGregor on short notice as an injury replacement, submitting the brash Irish star in a chokehold in the second round. They completed a thrilling rematch a few months later, which Diaz lost in a decision.

He fought twice in 2019, beating Anthony Pettis but losing to Masvidal. Despite his inactivity, his support among the fans and on social media showed that his standing had not diminished. He said he chose to fight Edwards because of his stout record.

Edwards has won eight consecutive fights since 2015, when he lost via decision to Usman. His last fight, against Belal Muhammad in March, was ruled a no contest after Edwards unintentionally poked the fighter in the eye.

“I wanted to fight a worthy opponent and that’s what I’m here for,” Diaz said. “I’m coming to win.”

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