Al Iaquinta, Kevin Lee

Saturday night, at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, thousands of fans will be treated to a fantastic pair of fights on the UFC 243 card. The rest of the bout sheet leaves a bit to be desired, as there are more than a few regional-level fighters filling out this event. You can choose to look at that as a “glass half-empty” scenario, or you can take it from the “getting an early look at possible future stars” viewpoint. I choose the latter as a way to justify this even being a PPV card.

The main and co-main events are outstanding fights and will be worth the wait to watch, since this will be kind of a late-running show, with the main card portion not starting until 10 p.m. ET. The middleweight belt unification bout between Israel Adesanya and reigning king Robert Whittaker is a worthy headliner, and the lightweight showdown between Al Iaquinta and James Hooker is guaranteed fireworks.

I’ve selected four bouts I feel have a high probability to end in an upset. These certified live dogs are battle-tested and worthy of a second look. Let’s get started with some brief analysis:

Brad Riddel ($8,600) vs. Jamie Mullarkey ($7,600)

This pair of lightweights will be making their UFC debut. Riddell is a very good kickboxer and if the fight stays on the feet, he has the clear advantage. That said, Mullarkey is a crafty, experienced veteran and the more well-rounded of the two. Jamie has plenty of grappling chops, so his best route to victory is to get this to the ground as quickly as possible. This is really anybody’s fight, but I like to err on the side of experience and a more robust, complete skillset.

Prediction — Jamie Mullarkey via Decision

Tai Tuivasa ($9,300) vs. Sergey Spivac ($6,900)

I don’t really have any rhyme or reason for this pick other than they’re heavyweights, and heavyweights hit ridiculously hard. It’s anybody’s fight, and Tuivasa has proven to have issues with cardio and poor decision-making in the past, despite having meat hammers with considerable power. This pairing obviously was set for Tuivasa to bounce back from back-to-back losses, but sometimes, those fights don’t always go according to plan. I’m living on the edge with this one, but I’m smelling the sweet, sweet aroma of upset in the air.

Prediction — Sergey Spivac via Decision

Dan Hooker ($8,500) vs. Al Iaquinta ($7,700)

Hooker has been looking phenomenal since returning to lightweight, having racked up five wins, with the lone loss in that two-plus year stretch being to Edson Barboza. He possesses power and good submission chops and has learned how to use the size advantage he frequently has to his advantage. That said, I feel his strength of schedule is a little lighter than Iaquinta’s, with his best win being James Vick, who was a top-10 ranked opponent less than a year before they fought. That extra veteran seasoning “Raging Al” has goes a long way toward victory.

Iaquinta only has two losses in five-plus years, with one of them being to current lightweight kingpin Khabib Nurmagomedov, and even on just a few days’ notice, he widely is considered to have given Khabib his toughest test. He holds wins over Jorge Masvidal, Kevin Lee (x2), and Ross Pearson before he was shopworn. He’s a skilled boxer and a very accomplished grappler with a great team to guide him. This is an evenly matched contest, but I’m feeling like Iaquinta has this one.

Prediction — Al Iaquinta via Decision

Robert Whittaker ($8,200) vs. Israel Adesanya ($8,000)

Bobby Knuckles is a powerful, accomplished striker who’s riding a nine-fight win streak. He has a great jab and marvelous kicking game and does very well in the phone booth, a place Adesanya had been reluctant to go to. While not overtly brash and reckless, he can be lured into wild exchanges, a trait we all saw in the several knockdowns Romero scored on him (officially two, but go back and watch that fight, and you’ll see there were three, possibly four; one was questionable). As a matter of fact, an argument could be made Romero won the last fight.

Then, there’s the elephant in the room, the litany of injuries he’s incurred over the past few years. Knee injuries, staph infections (in his stomach!) and abdominal hernias have plagued Mr. Knuckles since his first fight with Romero, who happens to be the only person he’s fought since April 2017. And let’s not forget what those two fights with Romero were like — absolute wars. It’s hard to put faith in him, talented as he is, when he seems so fragile.

Then you have Adesanya, burning his way through the middleweight division like a forest fire and looking fantastic every step of the way. Izzy is an extraordinary striker with a keen sense of timing and wicked accuracy. He uses his reach and length very well, controlling the distance with finesse. Once upon a time he seemed uncomfortable fighting in close quarters, but that disappeared after he faced Kelvin Gastelum. And he’s got a very durable chin, taking some serious heat from Gastelum and making it through to the other side.

There’s a reason he’s undefeated and has been on the fast track to this very auspicious moment. He’s incredibly well-rounded, fights well from either stance, is an excellent counter-striker, has great footwork and is a master feinter. I’m not saying he’s perfect — no fighter is — but he’s primed for greatness and I’m here for it. It’s a super tough test, but I think he has all the tools required to get the W here.

Prediction — Israel Adesanya via Decision

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