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Adesanya will be more aggressive; Chandler needs to prove himself



As the MMA world prepares for two championship fights at UFC 253 on Saturday, another storyline developed when the promotion signed former Bellator champ Michael Chandler and immediately put him in position to possibly debut with a title shot at UFC 254.

Chandler will fill in if either champ Khabib Nurmagomedov or interim champ Justin Gaethje falls out of the Oct. 24 main event. Is that fair to longtime UFC lightweight contenders Tony Ferguson and Dustin Poirier, who have been competing against — and beating — the best lightweights in the world for years?

Poirier had been training for a Ferguson bout at UFC 254, but he left camp when negotiations broke down. Ferguson publicly supported Poirier’s efforts to get paid. Can their fight be salvaged?

But in the meantime, middleweight champ Israel Adesanya defends his belt against Paulo Costa on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, following the first UFC light heavyweight title fight since Jon Jones vacated the belt to pursue heavyweight goals. Dominick Reyes, who lost a controversial decision to Jones in February, will have his second straight shot at the title when he faces Jan Blachowicz. Will it be good to have a new champ in a division Jones has dominated for the better part of a decade?

As far as the main event, what can be expected from Adesanya, who heard the boos when he decisioned Yoel Romero in a lackluster bout in March? And if Costa is going to win, will he have to do it early?

ESPN’s MMA experts — Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy — break down what’s real and what’s not.

Real or not: Israel Adesanya will be more aggressive vs. Paulo Costa because of the criticism he faced after a lackluster win over Yoel Romero



Israel Adesanya calls his fight vs. Yoel Romero boring and explains how Romero was loading up to hit Adesanya with counterpunches.

Raimondi: I don’t see that. Costa will be the aggressor, as just about all of his past fights indicate. Pushing the pace, closing the distance and roughing up Adesanya in close quarters is Costa’s best path to victory. Adesanya, who has the range advantage and is very dangerous with his striking when he’s able to keep his range, will have to weather the storm — not be aggressive.

Adesanya has said it himself. He doesn’t expect to have to bring the fight, because Costa will do it for him. Even if that were not the case, I don’t see the Romero fight lingering much in Adesanya’s mind. He’s a disciplined, technical striker, not to mention an excellent counter puncher. Adesanya’s background is high-level kickboxing. He has fought the best kickboxers in the world and has been competitive with them — even beating some. The one thing past opponents — in MMA and kickboxing — have mentioned over and over is Adesanya’s adaptability and patience. It’s unlikely he’d abandon all that just because fans booed his fight against Romero, which was a very unique stylistic matchup.

Another thing Adesanya is very good at is risk management. He takes risks in fights but usually in such a way that he protects himself from a big counter or ending up in a bad position. Adesanya will probably be more aggressive against Costa. Not because he has something to prove but because Romero, an Olympic wrestling silver medalist, was a constant threat to take him down. Costa, while a solid wrestler in his own right, isn’t nearly on that level. And this is likely to be a striking battle.

Real or not: If Paulo Costa doesn’t knock out Israel Adesanya early, the champ will retain his title



Paulo Costa and his coach, Captain Eric Albarracin, discuss Costa’s middleweight title fight vs. Israel Adesanya at UFC 253.

Wagenheim: Paulo Costa fights like he’s late for an appointment.

Prior to going the distance with Yoel Romero a year ago, Costa had finished his first 12 opponents, all by midway through the second round. His first nine went down in Round 1. So yes, if Costa is going to get the job done, he’s likely to do it early.

If the fight reaches the championship rounds, will Costa be a lost cause? Not necessarily. We don’t know how Costa would fare in a five-rounder because we’ve never seen him in a fight that lasts anywhere near as long. My sense is that Costa is the kind of guy who can bull rush you all day, not at all demoralized by miss after miss because he knows that for him, an author of 11 career knockouts, it takes only one punch.

For that reason, Adesanya cannot be satisfied to simply make the burly Brazilian miss on Saturday. He needs to make Costa pay for every incursion. Adesanya is a master counterpuncher, and he needs for those skills to be sharp in this fight. If the champion lands enough stinging counters to weaken or slow Costa after a couple of rounds, Adesanya will have things his way for the rest of the bout.

Real or not: Michael Chandler should have to fight his way into a UFC title bout

Helwani: Absolutely. If only because that’s what the UFC has been telling us for years. Look, Michael Chandler is a tremendous fighter. He is a former Bellator lightweight champion. I remember being at a UFC event in 2013 and someone calling me out for stating on my show that Chandler was one of the best lightweights in the world. Seven years later, without being champion, he’s the standby for a lightweight title fight involving arguably the best lightweight ever, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and a blazing-hot Justin Gaethje?

If Chandler ends up fighting for the belt in his debut, it will be supremely unique. Remember, the UFC has told us for years that you can’t just walk into the promotion and get a title shot — if you’re a male fighter, that is. Women’s MMA is a little different given the lack of depth and promotions out there putting on high-level women’s MMA fights.

Consider this: The last male fighter to fight for the belt in his UFC debut was Joe Soto at UFC 177 in August 2014. But, as you might recall, Soto wasn’t originally scheduled to fight then-bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw that night. He replaced challenger Renan Barao the night before the event after Barao failed to make weight. So, that one doesn’t really count. He was a prelim fighter.

Prior to that, we saw Gilbert Melendez, Dominick Cruz and Jose Aldo debut in title fights, but they fought for organizations owned by Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, prior to their debuts and the latter two were given the UFC title before their debuts. All three were also champions in either Strikeforce (Melendez) or WEC (Cruz, Aldo) right before entering the UFC.

So, you have to go all the way back to 2003, when then-WFA champion Frank Trigg made his debut against welterweight champ Matt Hughes at UFC 45. For the historians, this was three years before Zuffa purchased WFA. As for a non-champion debuting in a title fight? Well, you’d have to go back to UFC 36 in March 2002 for that. That’s when Hayato Sakurai fought then-welterweight champ Hughes for the belt. Eighteen years ago.

I’m not saying Chandler isn’t a top-ranked lightweight, because he is. Absolutely. But the UFC brass can no longer state with a straight face that Bellator is the minor leagues when it is giving a fighter who was TKO’d by the current Bellator champion a little over a year ago a shot like this. If he were still the reigning, defending champion, OK, then it makes more sense. But he’s not.

Does this have something to do with Tony Ferguson and Dustin Poirier taking hard-line stances this week in negotiations? I’d venture to guess yes. But, regardless, what I just laid out are simply the facts.

And if I’m the Fergusons and/or Poiriers of the world — you know, top UFC lightweights who have been swimming with the 155 sharks for years — I’d probably feel some kind of way about this right now.

In the end, I think I speak for everyone when I say I hope this doesn’t come to fruition because we all hope to see Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje next month. What a great matchup that is. And when it does happen, here’s hoping the UFC books Chandler against a Dan Hooker or Paul Felder.

Real or not: Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson will fight each other next



More than two months after his loss to Justin Gaethje, Tony Ferguson says he’s ready to step back in the Octagon and lists the names he’d be willing to compete against.

Okamoto: My first inclination is to say, “Of course they’ll fight each other next.” Poirier wants to fight Ferguson. Ferguson wants to fight Poirier. They’re sort of committed to each other now. Ferguson sympathized with Poirier’s request for more money, which Poirier obviously appreciates. Not to mention, it’s the fight that makes the most sense. Rankings-wise, these guys are right there for the next title shot after Justin Gaethje. And stylistically, it’s a ridiculously good fight. So, 100 percent they’ll be each other’s next opponent … right?

The only thing that gives me hesitation is that this was the perfect time for this one. It was such an obvious spot. The UFC wanted it as an insurance plan for the UFC 254 main event title fight. And I know plenty of people want to see it as a main event, so it can be five rounds, and trust me, I agree. But the point I’m making is … if this fight didn’t come together now, what makes it more likely to come together a month, two months, three months from now? What changes? What allows it to happen? I’m not saying it won’t, I just don’t see what the big change in negotiations or circumstances will be that results in this fight happening. And everything changes so fast in MMA. There’s a new player in the division now in Michael Chandler. I could definitely be wrong on this one, but my final answer is, “No, these two will not fight each other next.”

Real or not: It will be good to have new blood atop the light heavyweight division



Dominick Reyes explains why he thinks Jan Blachowicz, whom he fights at UFC 253, is a tougher opponent for him than Jon Jones.

Murphy: “New blood” sounds appealing. But this isn’t your favorite restaurant expanding the entrees and apps on its happy hour menu. The UFC sits atop the mixed martial arts promotional heap because it — mostly — hosts the absolute elite in each weight class. The question of “Who is the best fighter in this division on this planet?” finds its answer in the Octagon.

Jon Jones’ departure kicks wide open the door at light heavyweight. It’s great for Dominick Reyes, Jan Blachowicz, Thiago Santos and the like. But for us watching, until the king is forcibly dethroned — not by his own volition — those title fights will appear as competitions for the silver medal. And it’s far less compelling to watch a belt passed around like a hot potato than leaning forward during latter rounds as Jones is pushed by Reyes, for instance, wondering whether you’re witnessing greatness getting conquered.

Superstars sell pay-per-views and sell out arenas, not parity.

Best-case scenario: One of the rising contenders establishes himself as the new king of the hill — your guess is as good as any. It will take some time and some good fortune, but we generally don’t realize those things are happening until they’ve already arrived. If a new apex predator emerges at 205, there’s a compelling angle for Jones to return, looking to reclaim his place as the greatest light heavyweight ever. That would be a promotional dream: demand unaffected by Jones’ heavyweight pursuits should they fail. But it skyrockets if he storms back to his former home carrying another belt.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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