4 storylines to watch at UFC 276
International Fight Week is upon us, and with it comes two UFC title fights and a loaded undercard.
Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya is looking to continue his dominant run in Saturday's UFC 276 main event against the hard-hitting Jared Cannonier. Meanwhile, Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway meet for a third time with the featherweight belt on the line.
Also at the Las Vegas event, surging middleweight Alex Pereira will try to beat Sean Strickland and break into title contention, while Sean O'Malley will take on Pedro Munhoz.
Here are four key storylines heading into the event.
Will Adesanya take advantage of the spotlight?
Adesanya is one of the most popular fighters in the UFC - the company values him. But he's still far from a transcendent superstar like Conor McGregor was and still is.
Headlining International Fight Week for the first time could help Adesanya get there.
UFC 276 is shaping up to be one of the biggest events of the year. The International Fight Week label alone usually helps boost pay-per-view sales, so if Adesanya delivers a memorable performance - a stoppage of Cannonier or a "Fight of the Night" - that could make his star shine even brighter as he continues to sit atop the division.
While Adesanya has produced several emphatic results in the UFC, such as knockouts of Robert Whittaker and Paulo Costa, his last three performances have been less flashy. "The Last Stylebender" should aim to put on a career-best performance against Cannonier to fully take advantage of the spotlight he's been given.
Holloway under pressure
It's never a good idea to talk about MMA in definitives because it's a truly crazy sport that throws curveballs each day. But Saturday could very well mark Holloway's final chance of reclaiming the featherweight throne - at least as long as Volkanovski is on top.
There's no doubt Holloway is under a lot of pressure - even if it doesn't feel like it to him - ahead of the most pivotal bout of his career.
Holloway has done something few fighters ever achieve: He's earned a third title shot after losing to current champion Volkanovski twice. The call was easy to make on the UFC's part since Holloway beat Calvin Kattar in a historic beatdown and Yair Rodriguez in a "Fight of the Year" candidate - both in 2021 - to cement his spot as the world's No. 2 featherweight. Plus, both fights with Volkanovski, especially the July 2020 rematch, were competitive.
But if Holloway loses to Volkanovski for a third time, that would essentially close the door on the 145-pound title for "Blessed" for the foreseeable future. At 30 years old, Holloway could be a contender for years to come and eventually work his way back up. But barring some kind of controversial outcome this weekend, it's unlikely the UFC would book Volkanovski and Holloway in a fourth fight.
It's strange to think that Holloway's time as a title contender could soon end, considering this is the guy who dominated the division from 2017-19 - and that's only counting the time he held the belt, not his impressive winning streak that came before it. Holloway is probably still the second-greatest featherweight of all time, but Volkanovski is catching up. If Holloway loses again, Volkanovski would seal the deal as the second greatest. The defeat would also have a lasting impact on Holloway's legacy - there would always be that one guy he couldn't beat.
Is Pereira the real deal?
To say the UFC is fast-tracking Pereira would be an understatement. But it's also a great business move.
Pereira is the former GLORY Kickboxing champion and holds two wins over Adesanya - including a knockout - in that sport. Ever since Pereira got onto the promotion's radar, a potential meeting with Adesanya in MMA has been the talk of the town, and Pereira could, rightfully, solidify that opportunity with a victory over Strickland.
Pereira hasn't exactly proven himself yet. He beat Andreas Michailidis by highlight-reel knockout and Bruno Silva by a less-impressive unanimous decision in his two UFC bouts so far.
With that in mind, now it's time to find out if Pereira is a legitimate MMA contender and whether we should even discuss him challenging Adesanya. Pereira is getting a huge step up in Strickland, the No. 4-ranked middleweight who hasn't lost since 2018. Beating Strickland would skyrocket Pereira into title contention and prove that the 34-year-old is, in fact, ready to take on the best of the best like Adesanya.
O'Malley's big test
Speaking of rising stars who are getting steps up in competition at UFC 276, how about "Sugar" Sean?
In a bid to finally crack into the bantamweight top 10, O'Malley will take on Munhoz, a staple of the division who's ranked No. 9. This is clearly O'Malley's biggest test since suffering his first career loss to Marlon Vera in August 2020.
O'Malley has impressed in his recent outings, finishing the likes of Thomas Almeida and Raulian Paiva, but a win over Munhoz would elevate him to new heights. Claiming the victory would indicate that he's matured enough to contend with the elite bantamweights and make a serious run toward the top.
Munhoz should not be taken lightly - despite being the underdog against O'Malley. He has only lost to champions or former champions in the last four years, and he's never been finished in his veteran career. Munhoz will challenge O'Malley in ways that others couldn't.