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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Justin Barrasso

UFC 290 Predictions: Volkanovski-Rodriguez, and Four Other Huge Fights

Seven months into the calendar, UFC 290 features the best card of the year.

No, there isn’t a heavyweight title defense from Jon Jones against Stipe Miocic, which was briefly discussed back in March to be the main event. But from the prelims to the main card, 290 is bringing a loaded set of fights.

Alexander Volkanovski is the right man to headline. He seeks to take another step forward in his pursuit of becoming the greatest featherweight in UFC history (José Aldo, to his credit, is still keeping that seat warm). There is also Jack Della Maddalena on the prelims, as well as Robbie Lawler against Niko Price–and even rising star Cameron Saaiman on the early prelims. And the excitement of the main card.

Here are my picks for UFC 290:

Main event: Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski vs. interim champion Yair Rodríguez

Yair Rodríguez is a phenomenal fighter. But I’m willing to die on this hill if necessary: this fight will go as long as Alexander Volkanovski wants.

It isn’t necessarily Volkanovski’s strength that will be the determining factor. The difference is speed. Max Holloway couldn’t keep up with Volkanovski. Up a weight class, Islam Makhachev barely survived. Volkanovski’s speed kills, and the writing is on the wall for Rodríguez.

Volkanovski (25-2) is seeking to avoid a second straight loss, which would be the first occurrence of that in his career. But I just can’t see Rodríguez (15-3, 1 NC) solving the Volkanovski puzzle. Rodríguez may eventually have a run as undisputed featherweight champ, but it’s not happening in July of 2023.

Pick: Alexander Volkanovski

Flyweight title bout: Brandon Moreno (c) vs. Alexandre Pantoja

Brandon Moreno is one fight away from the biggest payday of his career in a bout against Henry Cejudo.

Except there is one problem. Standing in his way is Alexandre Pantoja, a man who Moreno has been unable to defeat. This is one of those bouts where it’s hard to root against either man. The son of pinata makers, Moreno is a real underdog story, and Pantoja has built himself into a world-class fighter after a very poor beginning as a child in Brazil.

Moreno (21-6-2) has grown exponentially in skill level since his last bout in 2018 against Pantoja (25-5). His victory in January against Deiveson Figueiredo put an emphatic end to their feud, and it stands as the signature victory of Moreno’s career. But it wasn’t as though Pantoja was idle during that time, either. Pantoja dominated Alex Perez last summer, and now he finally has his shot at the title.

This should be an incredibly compelling fight. Both like to fight with their hands and grapple, and it will be a genuine surprise if this does not extend into the championship rounds.

Pick: Alexandre Pantoja

Middleweight bout: Robert Whittaker vs. Driscus du Plessis

Driscus du Plessis is exactly what the middleweight division needs: an exciting new opponent for Israel Adesanya.

Adesanya has cleared out the overwhelming majority of the division. He ran into a giant-sized roadblock in Alex Pereira, but their trilogy bout is not happening anytime soon with Pereira moving to light heavyweight. Adesanya has already defeated Robert Whittaker twice, as well as beaten Jared Cannonier. It is extremely unlikely that Sean Strickland would pose any sort of problem for Adesanya, limiting the new challengers for the champ.

That brings us to Du Plessis (19-2), who would make a perfect fresh opponent. Winner of seven in a row, and 15 of his last 16, he would bring new energy and excitement to a title bout against Adesanya. He first has to go with Whittaker (24-6), who is the best middleweight in the world not named Israel Adesanya. Whittaker has won 13 of his last 15, with the only two defeats suffered against Adesanya. Can Du Plessis keep pushing forward against someone as elite as Whittaker, or will he need to implement a different strategy in order to win this fight?

This should be compelling. It is exactly the proving ground that Du Plessis needs to show he is ready for Adesanya, or the confirmation needed to show that Whittaker is (again) next in line.

Pick: Driscus du Plessis

Lightweight bout: Jalin Turner vs. Dan Hooker

Full disclosure: I liked this bout a lot more for Dan Hooker when it was originally scheduled for March.

Since then, Hooker broke his hand and Jalin Turner lost to Mateusz Gamrot. Turner (13-6) had won five in a row before that split decision defeat to Gamrot, and he desperately needs this fight to remain relevant in the top 10 of the lightweight division. In retrospect, this may have fit better on the prelims. If Jack Della Maddalena had a better opponent, his fight would have been a better fit here.

Hooker (22-12) enters this bout having split his last four. The length of Turner should pose problems, especially protecting himself from a very aggressive striker.

Pick: Jalin Turner

Middleweight bout: Bo Nickal vs. Val Woodburn

Val Woodburn introduces himself to the UFC on Saturday night, filling in as a late replacement for Tresean Gore in a bout against Bo Nickal.

The hype machine is working overdrive for Nickal (4-0), who is an outstanding wrestler. He is supposed to take one step closer to title contention with a dominating win… but what if Woodburn causes problems?

Woodburn (7-0) is in a unique position. He’s expected to lose. There are no expectations beyond that. Can he land a combination that prevents Nickal from taking him to the ground early? If he does, the crowd at T-Mobile in Vegas is going to explode.

Pick: Bo Nickal

Last week: 2-3

2023 record: 68-45

Justin Barrasso can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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