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UFC 290 preview

For the 11th consecutive year to kick off the summer, UFC will open up its doors in Las Vegas to International Fight Week festivities that are highlighted by a pay-per-view fight card inside T-Mobile Arena. 

A pair of title fights appear atop the marquee for Saturday’s UFC 290 event, which is headlined by a featherweight title unification pairing dominant champion Alexander Volkanovski versus upstart interim titleholder Yair Rodriguez. In the co-feature, Brandon Moreno defends his 125-pound title versus the dangerous Alexandre Pantoja.

Volkanovski, the sport’s reigning pound-for-pound king, is running out of major challenges at 145 pounds. And given how close he came to unseating lightweight king Islam Makhachev in their disputed February superfight, there’s reason to believe Saturday’s fifth title defense, this time against interim beltholder Yair Rodriguez, could be his last before seeking a Makhachev rematch (and a full-time move up in weight).

With all due respect to rising title contender Ilia Topuria, who dominated Josh Emmett last month, a potential victory over Rodriguez could be the final step for Volkanovski in supplanting contemporaries like Holloway and Jose Aldo as the best 145-pound fighter in UFC history.

The main reason for Volkanovski’s claim would be how thoroughly he has defeated the biggest names available to him. Volkanovski gained 22 consecutive fights heading into the Makhachev bout and owns featherweight victories over Chad Mendes, Aldo, Holloway (three times), Brian Ortega and “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung-Jung. And the fact that he won so dominantly over a still viable Aldo in 2019 might be the difference maker in allowing him to pass “The King of Rio” on the all-time rankings list.

Volkanovski is not only a complete and brilliant fighter, he has shown time and again (particularly in defeating Ortega) just how durable and spectacular he can be in the face of danger.

No one brings danger quite like this version of Rodriguez, which only amps up what’s potentially at stake for Volkanovski with another triumph. 

Moreno, who recaptured the flyweight crown by stopping former champion Deiveson Figueiredo in their historic fourth meeting in January, joins Rodriguez on Saturday as two of the faces of Mexican MMA’s recent rise, which has also included Alexa Grasso’s March upset of women’s 125-pound champion Valentina Shevchenko. But Moreno’s second reign as champion will be over before it starts if he can’t erase the past he has endured with Alexandre Pantoja.

The 33-year-old Brazilian submission threat is not only bringing a three-fight win streak (including stoppages of Brandon Royval and Alex Perez), he brings the confidence of having twice defeated Moreno in big spots. Pantoja submitted Moreno in Round 2 of their exhibition fight on the 2016 season of “The Ultimate Fighter: Tournament of Champions.” Two years later, Pantoja scored a unanimous decision over Moreno in their exciting rematch.

If there’s one thing MMA fans learned about Moreno from his extended rivalry with Figuereido (who edged Pantoja by decision in 2019), it’s that the 29-year-old “Assassin Baby” has become very adept at keeping his poise and making key mid-fight adjustments within chaos. Five years removed from their last meeting, Pantoja is fighting a very different Moreno this weekend as the all-action division continues to churn out compelling pairings among its elite fighters. 

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