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UFC 281 picks: A trilogy in combat, but a first in MMA

MMA Bobbleheads CEO and creator Dave Manley offers up his selections for Saturday's pay-per-view event in New York.

1. Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira

Yes these gentleman have fought twice before, both times in kickboxing. The first was in 2016, and by all measurements it was extremely close. They rematched in 2017, and it appeared as though we were getting a clone of the first match, then in the third round, it ended with a vicious left hand KO of Israel Adesanya (23-1 MMA, 12-1 UFC). 

Alex Pereira (6-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) may have literally knocked him out of the sport, as Israel left kickboxing after that loss. Now Alex is deep in the MMA game, hunting Israel down. That was then, and this is now. The rules are different, the gloves are different, and the stage is different. Israel can't back up over the top rope of a ring. If he runs out of room while he backs up into the fence, he might get caught. On the other hand, he has more room for lateral movement, which will aid his counter-fighting style. The X-factor is whether or not Israel shoots for a takedown. He has much more MMA experience, and this is an MMA fight. That being said, we've not seen much from him that resembles an offensive grappling game. His takedown defense has been decent, but Alex won't employ any offensive wrestling, right? Ultimately, we have no idea if Israel will even want this fight on the mat. 

While that would be wild and interesting to watch, I don't anticipate it. As far as their momentum goes, Israel has won every middleweight match he's had, and Pereira hasn't. It must be noted that his only loss was by submission, and it was his MMA debut back in 2015. That doesn't tell us much, possibly the only clear determiner of momentum is that Pereira has knocked out three of his last four opponents, and he's knocked out Israel in a striking match. That will likely haunt Israel, if only to a small extent. The mental game weighs heavy in this sport. 

Hardcore History: Adesanya was born in Lagos, Nigeria. Around the age of 9, he attended an after-school taekwondo club, but that was short lived, as his parents relocated him and his four siblings to the Republic of Ghana in 1999. Finding Ghana not suitable for the education they desired for their children, his parents moved them to Rotura, a bay side city on the north island of New Zealand. That is where Israel attended an all-boys high school and dove deep into a passion for anime and the science of computer design. This likely led to some level of bullying which prompted him to start kickboxing at age 18. Two years later he went pro and from there amassed a 6-0 record before suffering his first and second loss, both by decision. 

His opponent, Pereira, grew up in a harsh neighborhood in Sao Paulo, Brazil with his six siblings. He dropped out of school early and at age 12 started working at an auto repair shop. This was a very rough life, as it led him to extreme alcoholism and an impulse to fight. All his coworkers would drink, and Alex stated that at one point it got so scary, he would drink as much as a liter of rum and a few beers every day. That would last almost a decade before he entered his first kickboxing gym. For almost four years thereafter he would continue to drink, before he finally got sober in 2013. That same year he went pro as a kickboxer, winning his first three fights.

Dave's Pick: Izzy -200, comeback on AP is +175. This fight is so interesting in so many ways. On one hand, you got a guy who’s come out victorious the previous two times they fought, albeit a different sport (more on that later), and on another hand, you have one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time coming back to avenge his losses. If there was a gun to my head and I had to pick a winner, I’m going with Izzy. He has too much experience, and if this fight were to end up on the ground, he will have a clear advantage. But since this is gambling, and there are odds involved, I have to look at this fight a bit differently. For starters, I have to ask myself what style of fight will this most likely be? Secondly, who would dictate that particular style? Third, what are the odds? To me, the answers seem pretty clear and straightforward. This will be a standing match – almost pure striking, as neither wants to take this to the mat. They are both going to be happy keeping it on the feet. So with that said, this WILL BE a kickboxing match with smaller gloves. If this is the case, and you’re giving me +175 on the guy that already beat the other guy (TWICE) in a kickboxing match, well, that makes things seem pretty easy for me. I’ll take the plus money all day. I’m taking AP to win this and become the new middleweight champion. 

2. Dustin Poirier vs. Michael Chandler

"Iron" Michael Chandler (23-7 MMA, 2-2 UFC) might be the last great lightweight Dustin Poirier (28-7 MMA, 20-6 UFC) hasn't faced, not counting Islam Makhachev and his new class of peers. Michael was a premier lightweight at the top of his game for many years in Bellator MMA, sporting wins over the likes of Patricky "Pitbull" Freire, Eddie Alvarez and Benson Henderson. He participated in 11 Bellator title bouts before he made his UFC debut at age 34, scoring a first-round knockout of then surging contender Dan Hooker. It was a shockingly explosive finish and he stuck the landing with a "pro wrestling" style callout of then champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Since that, he's gone 1-2, the most painful loss being a very intense six-minute title fight with Charles Oliveira

On the other hand, his opponent Poirier has lived his own glory run, winning seven of his last nine. The glaring down side is that the two losses were huge title fights, and both of those were submission losses to grappling studs. Chandler is very much a grappling stud. He fears no man's takedown or back control. The sticking point that I keep coming to is whether or not he will employ said grappling advantage. He mostly left it on the back burner in his all out war with Justin Gaethje and didn't really need it in his second-round highlight-reel knockout over downward spiraling Tony Ferguson. He tends to get caught up in striking wars he doesn't need to be in, and Dustin reps a very strong MMA-boxing game. All that we know about Michael leads us to believe that he will, in fact, entertain a sparring match, at least for the first round if he is competitive. That would likely give Dustin a huge advantage, and seeing as this is only a three-round affair, losing that first round can really take the wind out of your sails. Other factors that might affect this bout are quality of training camp, time off in between fights and quality of the weight cut. Both men are seasoned professionals with experienced camps and a solid rapport with their coaches, so those factors shouldn't weigh too much on the outcome. Let's just sit back and enjoy the fury of veteran combat. 

Hardcore History: Both men are quality pillars of their community, each with their own positive impact in the fight game and in the real world. "The Cayenne King," Poirier, runs the highly praised charity "Good Fight Foundation" orchestrated by him and his loyal wife, Jolie Poirier. Having been together for over 14 years and thriving, they work together tirelessly to right the ship in their native state of Louisiana. Contributions include hundred of thousands of dollars donated towards school equipment for impoverished children living in and around the Lafayette Parish. 

As for Chandler, he and his wife Brie have adopted two kids in hopes of giving them the best life possible. Brie, a resident physician at the University of Missouri Hospital, has vocalized her early desires to adopt, and together the couple work with others in their native Nashville to help ease the adoption process. You can imagine how a full-time MMA fighter who owns his own local gym and a resident physician who operates as a single mom of two kids (for at least three months out of the year) might be pretty damn busy. Yet they continue to succeed and set a prime example for those in or around the fight game. No matter who wins this fight, these two gents are quite literally winning at life. Thank you for showing us how its done.

Dave's Pick: Dustin comes in as the -180 favorite, with the comeback on Chandler at +150. The total is 1.5 rounds, Over -120. The clearest path to victory for Chandler is going to be through the mat. He MUST wrestle. If he doesn’t, it will be a short night for Mike. And when I say "short," I mean under one round. But here's the thing, even if "Iron" Mike does get the takedowns, can he keep Dustin (a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt) down? Can he take him down multiple times? Hold him down multiple times? I just don’t see it happening. Dustin is too good EVERYWHERE, and to me, this fight will play out like most of Chandler's other fights in the UFC, an exciting barnburner for the first round, with the ending coming soon after. Dustin takes Chandler out in round 2. Dustin Poirier by KO/TKO.

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3. Brad Riddell vs. Renato Moicano

A story of momentum, resilience and loss.

Picture you're in the top 3 deepest division in the UFC, you've got seven wins in a row with four of them being in the UFC. Your last win was over a very game opponent in Drew Dober, so you expect to get the call to face a top-10 opponent that will really shoot you towards the top of the division. You might expect a tough fight coming, but you don't anticipate it to be Rafael Fiziev. The same guy who took over your old job, as Tiger Muy Thai striking coach. You worked so hard, putting in countless hours of work to get here, now they want you to face your replacement, the new hype on campus. You two immediately show mutual respect, knowing full well how dangerous the other is. You're worked up and nervous, but you trained really hard and you're no rookie. The ref calls out, "fighter are you ready?" You nod, and he confirms your opponent is ready. The fight commences, and you give it everything you've got. Two high-pace rounds go by. It's very competitive as one might imagine. To the untrained eye, you're two equals dancing around the cage, landing hard at times, but also measuring each other constantly. 

Enter the third round. You may be down on the scorecards but have no idea what the judges are seeing. Your nerves are firing up every fiber of your being. The ref signals the start of the final round, and you walk to the center, touch gloves and resume the "friendly war." 

Two minutes go by, but it feels like only seconds, and you don't know where you are. The ref is monitoring the situation while the cageside physician checks you out. You ask your team what happened and they simply reply, "he caught you when you were backed up against the cage." You're confused, considering the outcome, only to look up at the replay screen and see yourself getting knocked out cold with a lightning fast wheel kick. The fight is over. You've lost. All that momentum gone, all your hard work for nothing. You try to shake it off. You've got to get another win to erase this feeling, but due to concussion protocols, you must wait at least three months before fighting again. Five devastatingly long months go by, and you finally get the call for redemption. Your next opponent is Jalin Turner. You've waited so long for this chance. You forget the name they told you. Another 10-week training camp goes by, and you're standing across the cage from a giant man standing seven inches taller than you. You hear he's also four years younger and has a four-inch reach advantage. He's got four wins a row in the UFC, all by stoppage. 

What have you got yourself into this time? You've really done it now. Oh well, time to put your game face on and commit to the fight. A solid win here could be all you need to get back on track. The ref calls out to confirm you're ready. Forty-five seconds scream by as he measures the distance, mauls you with heavy strikes, and grabs your neck from the standing position. It all happens so fast you don't know what to think and reactively start tapping out. Damn it! Now you've gone from a 7-0 run to an 0-2 skid, an entire year seemingly wasted. 

The UFC takes pity on no one. Shortly after your loss, you get the call to face another hard-nosed opponent in Renato Moicano (16-5-1 MMA, 8-5 UFC). The fight will be at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Three of your training partners will also be fighting on the card. One of them is headlining, in what might be the pinnacle fight of his storied career. You can't lose. That's not an option. Not only would that be three in a row, but the momentum of your team depends on each teammate winning. No pressure, bro. Good luck to Brad Riddell (10-3 MMA, 4-2 UFC).

Dave Manley is the creator and CEO of MMA Bobbleheads, a California-based company making handmade, high-quality, high-artistry bobbleheads of your favorite MMA personalities. A 25-plus year fan of MMA, Manley saw a need for high-end, handcrafted memorabilia for fans and decided to create the best bobbleheads that have ever been made for any sport. Learn more on Twitter and Instagram.