UFC 276: Will a title or two change hands? Is Sean O’Malley ready for the next step?

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

Israel Adesanya will defend his middleweight title for a sixth consecutive time as he takes on Jared Cannonier in the main event. In the co-main event, two legends in the featherweight division will meet in the Octagon for a third time, as Alexander Volkanovski puts his title on the line against Max Holloway. Will the champs still be holding their belts after Saturday night?

Prior to the two title bouts, a pair of intriguing contenders get a chance to keep the momentum going, as Alex Pereira looks to solidify his place as a contender in the middleweight division 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 most tenured fighters in the sport square off as 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 of Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Sam Bruce answer these questions and more ahead of Saturday’s must-see card.


What fight are you most excited about?

Okamoto: The trilogy, without question. Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway 3. You can 100% make the argument that Volkanovski is the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world right now. That distinction is a three-horse race, in my opinion, between Volkanovski, Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya. Volkanovski’s closest two fights in the UFC have been against Holloway, a top 10 pound-for-pound talent. So, from a competitive standpoint, not only is this the best fight at UFC 276, it’s one of the most elite UFC fights of the last decade.

On top of that, there are real stakes! Volkanovski has undoubtedly asserted himself as the No. 1 featherweight, but there is still that “Holloway” thorn in his side because of how close the first two fights were. Suppose he can put Holloway in the rearview mirror for good, he will go down as the greatest featherweight of all time. Plus, UFC president Dana White has already stated he’d support Volkanovski moving up in weight and challenging for a second belt.

As for Holloway, he can’t lose to the same opponent three times if he is to achieve the legacy he wants to have. It 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’m a believer in O’Malley. I think it is fair to say he has not really been tested in the way of becoming a legitimate title contender yet. But that’s been by design. There was never a rush. He’s been the kind of prospect you want to move slow — that you want to put into positions to succeed. And in those cases, you look to see how that prospect performs. Does he meet or exceed expectations?

Thus far, O’Malley has exceeded expectations. I think his ceiling is yet to be determined. But if we’re speculating on whether he’s the real deal or not, I’m in. His skill level is legit. Despite what some think, I don’t think he’s bought into his hype. He’s confident but not delusional in his abilities. He’s a smart guy, with a real work ethic. He’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 be a shock. But whatever happens, I don’t think we’re going to come out of this weekend saying 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 after the last several months, it’s to expect the unexpected. So, I’ll say there will be a title change at UFC 276.

Last December, no one thought Julianna Peña could beat the dominant Amanda Nunes to win the UFC women’s bantamweight title. Nunes is the greatest women’s MMA fighter of all time, and few had been competitive against her during this run. Yet, Peña not only beat her, but she finished Nunes with a choke to take the belt. Fast forward to earlier this month. Valentina Shevchenko, who has looked borderline invulnerable as UFC women’s flyweight champion, looked very human against Taila Santos. Shevchenko edged out a win to retain her title, but Santos gave her all she could handle 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, per Caesars Sportsbook. Adesanya is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on Earth. Cannonier is solid, has considerable power in his hands and is durable. Few are giving him a chance to win, but stranger things have happened.

Then in the co-main event, Volkanovski defends his featherweight title against Holloway in a trilogy bout. The first two fights were razor close, with Volkanovski picking up decision victories in both. Many thought Holloway won the second bout; some thought he won the first. As good as Volkanovski looked against “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung at UFC 273 in April, Holloway, the former champ, is still one of the best fighters in the world. Volkanovski is a -190 favorite, but this is a coin flip.


Is this fight against Sean Strickland coming too soon for Alex Pereira?

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

Third, a rematch between Adesanya and Pereira in the UFC for a title is a tremendous story that the UFC — and both Adesanya and Pereira — want to tell. To do that, Pereira is being fast-tracked in the division. It’ll be sink or swim for him Saturday against a buzzsaw in Strickland, who has won six straight and has looked fantastic since moving back up to middleweight in 2020.

The Strickland vs. Pereira winner will likely get the next title shot, and this is sublime matchmaking. If Strickland wins, Adesanya gets a fresh opponent who isn’t afraid to promote a fight verbally. If Pereira wins, the history between him and Adesanya will be at the forefront of the promotion. Plus, the fight is happening on a card headlined by Adesanya. It’s perfect. So, to answer the actual question, no. It’s not too soon for Pereira. Timing is always a tough nut to crack in MMA, but it seems like the UFC and other parties involved have this one all laid out precisely.


Should this be the last fight for Cowboy?

Wagenheim: I know the point of this is for us to make definitive statements and not be wishy-washy, but I will never tell a fighter it’s time to retire. That’s among the most personal decisions in the fighter’s life, and no one outside the family or the fight team has the right to have a say.

What I will weigh in on is whether I still feel interested in watching that fighter compete inside the cage. Cerrone was a thrill ride for his whole career — until 2019. It’s not just that he’s winless in six fights and has been knocked out four times. Even while he’s still been upright, “Cowboy” has looked sluggish. It’s been tough to watch, especially for those who remember being rendered wide-eyed by Cerrone on many a night, going all the way back to the WEC days.

Saturday’s fight with Jim Miller is appropriate matchmaking. Both have been around forever, and both seem to still relish every walk into the Octagon. They give the fans a good, honest fight every time out. Miller appears to have more tread left, while Cerrone seems stuck in the mud. So if this is the night Cowboy rides off into the sunset, he will have been given the most honorable of sendoffs.


Is Alexander Volkanovski the featherweight GOAT entering this trilogy fight?

Bruce: Not yet, but if he can defeat Max Holloway for the third time, even his sternest critics won’t be able to deny the Australian his place atop the division’s all-time chart.

Volkanovski has defended his featherweight strap three times, but it is the rematch with Holloway from 2020 that currently clouds his GOAT status. That fight was incredibly close, with many pundits having it for Holloway, giving fight fans something to debate to this day.

However, what Volkanovski has done since then has been masterful, as he’s demonstrated the traits of someone deserving of the GOAT mantle. His escape act and counterattack on Brian Ortega provided some of the best rounds of 2021, while Volkanovski then made Chan Sung Jung look completely out of his depth. The Aussie is riding a 21-fight win streak, a run that includes victories over other featherweight stars Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes.

A third victory over Holloway would shake off any lingering doubt towards Volkanovski’s 145-pound GOAT status and could open up an opportunity to fight for gold at lightweight in the future.

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