The UFC has stacked the deck ahead of their return to "Fight Island" this weekend, with UFC 253 set to feature two world title fights, as well as a host of intriguing match-ups – but which fights should you keep a close eye on?
Somebody's '0' must go
In the more than quarter-century history of the UFC, very rarely have two undefeated fighters fought for a world title. Rashad Evans vs. Lyoto Machida was one, Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier was close to being another if it wasn't for Jones' controversial DQ loss to Matt Hamill all those years ago, as was Ronda Rousey versus several of her foes during the early days of the UFC's women's bantamweight division.
This weekend's headliner, though, between middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa is perhaps the most anticipated such clash in more than a decade. Through 32 combined fights, both Adesanya and Costa have yet to experience defeat – something that designates the UFC 253 headliner as "must-see TV."
And, while records may not matter as soon as the cage door is locked shut, there is something tangible about being an undefeated fighter unobstructed by the cruel sting of defeat. Firstly, each man knows how to win rounds and will put themselves in position to do exactly that – despite the potential ramifications of such a strategy.
As Hall of Fame fighter Randy Couture once said, "If you don't have any losses on your record, you are not fighting the right guys."
This maxim will be painfully true for one of the men in Saturday's main event.
The post-Jon Jones era begins now
For much of the last ten years, the UFC's light heavyweight belt has sat snugly around the waist of just two fighters: Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier. Now, with the former moved to heavyweight and the latter having hung up his gloves, daylight exists atop one of the UFC's most traditionally talent-rich weight classes.
Dominick Reyes, the man who came close to dethroning Jones earlier this year, and Polish slugger Jan Blachowicz are the two men designated to tussle over a new era at 205lbs.
Reyes shone in his first title bout, losing a close five-round decision in February but the collegiate football standout showed that he belongs in rarified air in the division – and he intends to finish what he began in February by finally raising aloft UFC gold in Abu Dhabi.
It won't be easy, though. Jan Blachowicz is a fighter who has been continually counted out by his opponents and fans alike. Former UFC champion Luke Rockhold famously said before his second-round knockout defeat to Blachowicz last year that, "I don't lose to guys like Jan."
Dominick Reyes would be wise to be wary.
The return of Zubaira Tukhugov
A teammate of Khabib Nurmagomedov, featherweight striker Zubaira Tukhugov has been signposted as a future title contender.
He showed off this potential earlier this year when he earned a first-round TKO against Kevin Aguilar but one suspects he will be in for a tougher time against Canadian kickboxer Hakeem Dawodu.
Dawodu possesses a varied arsenal of stand-up strikes and will look to keep on the outside of the aggressive Tukhugov where he can look to pull some tricks out of his extensive kicking toolkit. Another interesting wrinkle to this fight is that Dawodu has spent time training on the mats of SBG Ireland in Dublin alongside the likes of Artem Lobov – a sworn enemy of Tukhugov's, dating back to the incident between him and Khabib Nurmagomedov which prompted Conor McGregor's infamous parking garage bust-up a couple of years back.
Lobov has repeatedly stated that he will one day fight Tukhugov but, until that day comes, he will have to settle for cheering on Dawodu this Saturday.
Diego Sanchez continues to be counted out
The longest-tenured fighter on the UFC roster, Sanchez is clearly a different fighter to the person who began his career with an undefeated 17-0 start. Since then, Sanchez's influence has waned but he still remains a very capable threat at 170 pounds.
In Sanchez's last 12 fights, he has been the bookmakers' underdog in 11 of them. His record during that time? 6-6. This tells us that Las Vegas, and even fans of the sport, have begun to overlook the veteran fighter, despite him winning three of his last four in the Octagon.
He will face another tough outing this weekend against the 16-4 Jake Matthews, who has had his hand raised in five of his last six bouts. It will come as little surprise that Sanchez is once again considered more likely to lose than win (on the money line at least), there is perhaps no fighter more accustomed to proving people wrong than Sanchez.
Can he do it again? Time will tell, but you can be sure that he won't be lacking for effort.
Will there be any last-minute hiccups?
We have reached the "touch wood" part of this article, but it is worth noting that, despite the UFC's best efforts, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic remains a potential issue.
The UFC's safety protocols have limited last-minute changes to cards for the most part, but one only needs to browse back through these pages for news of fighters being forced to withdraw from cards due to a positive test.
One hopes that the MMA gods aren't looking for any such sacrifices this weekend, or at least not at the top of the card. But, as has happened to the likes of Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Ion Cutelaba and a handful of others in this "new normal" that we've been forced to endure, it's something that is still hard to mitigate against.
But we must think positive thoughts and cross our fingers that UFC 253 remains intact. Let's just hope that everyone has been washing their hands…