It’s a battle for legacy as Conor McGregor, the biggest name in combat sports, and Dustin Poirier conclude their rivalry in a trilogy fight for the ages at UFC 264 in Las Vegas on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The T-Mobile Arena will be jam-packed with 20,000 fans for the historic headliner at 155 pounds (70kg), which promises to deliver fireworks with the added bonus of earning a title fight on top of ultimate bragging rights. The stakes are high in the co-main event as well as top-five welterweights Gilbert Burns and Stephen Thompson battle it out, while a title shot might well be up for grabs in the featured female fight between bantamweights Irene Aldana and Yana Kunitskaya.
Also on the main card, Tai Tuivasa faces former gridiron star Greg Hardy in what’s set to be a heavyweight slugfest and the latest episode of “The Suga Show” sees the charismatic and creative Sean O’Malley welcome Kris Moutinho to the UFC. Plus, South African star Dricus du Plessis will be in action on the prelims as he makes his second walk to the Octagon to take on Trevin Giles in a middleweight match-up.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Dustin Poirier v Conor McGregor (Lightweight Bout)
The future Hall of Famers’ seven-year rivalry has been a showcase of the art of war at the highest level of mixed martial arts. First, there were the mind games of McGregor (22-5), which essentially won him the fight clash – contested at featherweight – before the bell had even rung.
Poirier (27-6-1NC) now admits the brash Irishman’s trash talk had gotten the better of him and left him “a deer in the headlights” when the Octagon door shut on that fateful day at UFC 178 in September 2014. Blinded by rage, he was ripe for the picking and “The Notorious” pounced, knocking him out in just one minute and 46 seconds.
Fast forward to January of this year and a mature Poirier, in the prime of his career, turned the tables with a piece of tactical brilliance in the lightweight rematch. UFC 257 on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi was the stage where “The Diamond” unleashed a secret weapon in the form of crippling calf kicks to rob McGregor of his greatest strength, his masterful movement. Having reduced the sport’s biggest superstar to a sitting duck, Poirier finished the job with a flurry of punches in the second round to become the first man to stop McGregor with strikes inside the Octagon.
With an emphatic win apiece, it all comes down to this. One final beat to determine who the better man truly is. It’s the ultimate pick ’em, set to once again be decided by superior strategy. Naturally, the first order of business for the McGregor camp is to take the calf kicks off the table. It’s anything but as simple as it sounds.
The physical technique of checking the baseball bat-like attacks is just step one. It’s the mental threat it poses that’s most problematic as it’s the perfect set-up for Poirier to fake low and go high, so don’t be shocked if the king of Lafayette, Louisiana gets it done with a head kick knockout.
Secondly, McGregor must return to the lucid movement that made him famous. The blockbuster crossover boxing bout he had with Floyd Mayweather in 2017 has adversely affected his striking in MMA and it’s imperative he returns to his rangy, free-flowing origins. That said, he did have success with his hands in the second fight, but staying in boxing range defensively proved to be his undoing.
For Poirier, he has to survive the first two rounds when McGregor is at his most dangerous. The longer the fight goes, the more it favours the American, who is one of the best ironmen in the game. After being choked out by Nate Diaz in a stunning upset, McGregor showed in the epic rematch that he can both adjust and dig deep as he earned a gruelling decision victory, so “Mystic Mac” winning by points is improbable rather than impossible.
The stakes truly don’t get any higher. Granted, the richest prize in MMA is a UFC championship and both men have tasted gold. McGregor famously became the first fighter in UFC history to simultaneously hold titles in two different weight classes when he knocked out Eddie Alvarez in November 2016 to add the lightweight belt to the featherweight title he won with a 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo the previous year.
Poirier, for his part, handed then-featherweight champion Max Holloway his first loss in six years to win the interim lightweight championship in April 2019. However, as prestigious as the title is – and the winner of the trilogy is set to be new champion Charles Oliveira’s first challenger – legacy trumps all.
For McGregor, in particular, this is a must-win fight given where he is at this stage of his game-changing career. Sitting atop Forbes’ highest-paid athletes list, the 32-year-old is a feature attraction – a true prize-fighter – whereas Poirier is an active gladiator with yielding determination to become an undisputed champion.
Poirier (13 KOs and seven submissions) has more time and ways to win. McGregor (19 KOs), though, has shown time and time again he doesn’t need much else than his laser-accurate and sledgehammer-like left hand. Many have questioned McGregor’s motivation and dedication after his mega-money fight with Mayweather but with his legacy on the line, that’s a nonissue.
McGregor is a fighter at heart, however, Poirier has more dog in him, which combined with his larger tool kit, greater consistency of living the fight camp life in recent years and maturity has me leaning towards “The Diamond.”
Gilbert Burns v Stephen Thompson (Welterweight)
Like the headliner, the co-main event is a title eliminator with the victor expected to face the winner of the rematch between Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington that’s currently in the works. It’s No.2 facing No.4 with fourth-ranked Thompson (15-4-1) favoured to come out on top.
That’s because the five-time kickboxing world champion is on a two-fight win streak, while Burns (14-4) is coming off a TKO loss to Usman in their tilt in February. Thompson knows the heartache of falling short in a championship bout all too well, having fought to a draw and then losing a decision to then-champion Tyron Woodley in 2016 and 2017.
Polar opposites, Burns (5’10”) is built and hits like a tank, while Thompson is all of six feet tall and a lanky and highly sophisticated sharpshooter known as “Wonderboy” because of his creativity and countless striking techniques. Their methods may differ, but they’re both dangerous with the Brazilian having six knockouts to his name and Thompson seven.
Boasting a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and eight submission wins, “Durinho” has a decisive advantage on the ground, but Thompson has good takedown defence (78%), so I expect a largely stand-up battle. Beating Thompson, with his phenomenal footwork and mastery of distance, in a striking duel is a tall order for anyone, let alone Burns, who has to find a way inside a four-inch reach disadvantage. As a result, I’m tipping Thompson to pick up his third consecutive decision win.
Tai Tuivasa v Greg Hardy (Heavyweight)
A big fight card needs a big heavyweight battle and this is set to be a banger. Simply put, Tuivasa (11-3) is the better fighter and Hardy (7-2-1NC) the better athlete as a former NFL star. In the land of the leviathans, though, the better fighter doesn’t always win as it only takes one shot to switch the lights off. At 6’5″, Hardy’s three inches taller than “Bam Bam” and will have a five-and-a-half-inch reach advantage to help make up for what he lacks in experience.
Chances of this one going the distance are slim as all but one of their respective wins have come by knockout. Hardy has an explosive first step that could trouble Tuivasa and possibly win you some money as the 2.10 underdog. However, Tuivasa has only been knocked out once, by a far superior striker than Hardy in former champion Junior dos Santos, so I can’t see “The Prince of War” getting the Australian out of there.
Irene Aldana v Yana Kunitskaya (Bantamweight)
Top contenders with designs on securing a title fight. Fourth-ranked Aldana (12-6) hit a roadblock in her first main event last time out against Holy Holm, dropping a decision to the former champion. Fifth-ranked Kunitskaya (14-5), meanwhile, has won her last two. Both have a 50% knockout rate but considering they’re both high-level strikers, it’s unlikely that one will be able to finish the other.
Neither hardly ever go for takedowns and mainly like to work at distance, which suggest this will be a point fight. The Russian is a bit more of a grappler than Mexico’s Aldana and routinely pushes opponents up against the fence and soften them up there. With that added wrinkle to her game and momentum on her side, she’s a good underdog bet.
Sean O’Malley v Kris Moutinho (Bantamweight)
A makeshift match-up as O’Malley (13-1) was meant to face Louis Smolka, who was forced out of the fight through injury last Wednesday. Enter Kris Moutinho (9-4), who emerges from relative obscurity to make his UFC debut on one of the biggest pay-per-views of the year. Not only that, the colourful O’Malley has one of the biggest social media followings among UFC fighters, so it’s truly an opportunity of a lifetime for Moutinho, who’s won two straight on the regional circuit.
A lethal striker with a flair for viral knockouts, O’Malley was heavily favoured over Smolka and is an even bigger favourite now. There’s always a slight chance that complacency could lead to a shock upset in a case like this, but “Suga” by knockout is a safe bet.
Dricus du Plessis v Trevin Giles (Middleweight) – PRELIMS (from 0 AM Sunday SA time):
Du Plessis (15-2) returns to the Octagon hoping to build on the dream UFC debut he enjoyed when he knocked out Markus Perez in the first round last October. He and Giles (14-2) were originally set to get it on in March only for visa issues to leave “Stillknocks” stranded in South Africa.
Giles went on to defeat Du Plessis’ replacement, Roman Dolidze, by decision to stretch his win streak to three, the same as his hard-hitting Hatfield-born opponent’s. If you haven’t watched a Du Plessis fight, don’t blink. The 27-year-old is not just the most gifted and well-rounded mixed martial artist South Africa’s produced, but a straight-up savage as well. The former EFC welterweight and middleweight champion boasts a 100% finishing rate, having knocked out six foes and submitted nine, and he’s predicting another stoppage win.
Giles is a dangerous and complete fighter in his own right. “The Problem” is exactly that, with good striking, which has earned him six knockouts, and a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which has earned him five submission wins. With a 5-2 record in the UFC, he’s used to performing on the sport’s biggest proving ground, but Du Plessis’ no stranger to big events, having won the KSW title in Poland and fought in front of 32,000 fans in Wembley in back-to-back bouts against Roberto Soldic in 2018.
It’s a pick ’em, but Du Plessis has the temperament and all the tools to take out the talented Giles, which is what I see the Pretoria-based pugilist doing.