A perfect storm of mixed martial arts savagery will hit the Delta Center in Salt Lake City when Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje battle it out for the BMF title in the main event of UFC 291 on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The co-headliner is a blockbuster as well as ex-middleweight titleholder Alex Pereira looks to put the 205-pound division on notice by taking down former light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz.
Elite strikers Stephen Thompson and Michel Pereira face off in the featured bout, former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson takes on Bobby Green and Michael Chiesa collides with Kevin Holland in the main card opener.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Dustin Poirier (1.71) v Justin Gaethje (2.20) (BMF Championship)
They’re two of the greatest lightweights in UFC history. As decorated as they are dangerous, they are true warriors to their core, gladiators who enter the ultimate battleground in combat sports with a kill-or-be-killed mindset.
Their journeys to legendary status have been paid in full and paved in blood, their rise to the top of the 155-pound division built on a combined 34 knockouts. Beloved and respected worldwide, each of these dogs of war has held interim lightweight gold and remains ravenous to realise undisputed glory.
Their much-anticipated main event battle is for a different title, one unique to the UFC that recognises the holder as the baddest mother f**ker in the sport. Both men can lay claim to being just that, but only one can leave Salt Lake City with the belt.
The pair put on an absolute classic in their first meeting five years ago, a back-and-forth war that ultimately saw Poirier (29-7-1NC) score the knockout in the fourth round. That epic 2018 Fight of the Year left fans yearning for a rematch and the time has finally come for the legendary lightweights to run it back.
As technically sound as they come, Poirier is a surgeon who dissects opponents with precision striking. Crisp and intelligent, he sets traps and seizes upon the openings he creates. The cerebral assassin is the only man to knockout Conor McGregor and is coming off a submission win over Michael Chandler, his eighth tap-out victory.
Gaethje (24-4), who’s fresh off a decision win over Rafael Fiziev, is a berserker with bazookas for arms. He walks opponents down like something out of a horror movie and his one-punch knockout power is legendary.
“The Highlight” is known for his spectacular displays of violence, which have earned him 19 knockouts, and is one of the most entertaining fighters of all time.
Wild and aggressive to a fault earlier in his career, he has matured over the last three years, although, he still has fights where he throws caution to the wind, like his win over Chandler in their crazy three-round classic in 2021.
Poirier’s poise is huge in this fight. He’s demonstrated he can stay more disciplined than Gaethje and is cooler under fire. It’s a fight that could go either way and like in their first battle, both men will have their moments.
Ultimately, though, Poirier’s cleaner, crisper striking and composure should see him beat Gaethje to the punch and get the finish once again in a banger befitting its BMF billing.
Jan Blachowicz (1.83) v Alex Pereira (2.00) (Light Heavyweight)
Don’t blink in the blockbuster co-headliner between former champions and the only two men to have beaten Israel Adesanya.
All eyes will be on Pereira (7-2) as he makes his much-anticipated light heavyweight debut after knocking out Adesanya to capture the middleweight title and losing it back to his long-time rival in the rematch in April.
Just how the imposing 6’4″ Brazilian made 185 pounds is beyond me and without the draining weight cut, he’s primed to be at the peak of his powers, which is a frightening prospect for everyone in the 205-pound division.
As long as “Poatan” is standing, he has the ability to knockout anyone in the world. The former Glory middleweight and light heavyweight champion is that good and that explosive. He’s a truly special striker, one with a vast arsenal, and has freakish athleticism.
With his “legendary Polish power”, Blachowicz (29-9-1) is a knockout artist in his own right. A thick, 6’2″ tank of a man, he has dynamite in his hands and wicked body kicks.
After losing the title in a shock upset to Pereira’s training partner Glover Teixeira two years ago, he stopped Aleksandar Rakic to earn an opportunity at the vacant belt and looked to have done enough against Magomed Ankalaev in December, however, the fight was ruled a split draw.
While his boxing is crisp and he’ll have no qualms battling it out on the feet, Blachowicz has a big advantage in the grappling department and his best path to victory is to take the fight to the ground.
He did just that in the championship rounds to hand Adesanya his fight loss when “The Last Stylebender” moved up to challenge him for the light heavyweight belt in 2021 and would be wise to press Pereira, whose takedown defence remains suspect.
All six methods of victory, bar Pereira prevailing by submission, are in play, which makes this such an exciting encounter, in addition to the winner likely earning a shot at the once-again vacant title.
I won’t be shocked if Pereira does manage to find the knockout blow, but Blachowicz’s wrestling and grappling should see him weather the shockwaves to get his hand raised.
Stephen Thompson (1.66) v Michel Pereira (2.30) (Welterweight)
The hits keep on coming in this fascinating featured bout between two of the most exciting strikers in the welterweight division.
Thompson (17-6-1) is one of the most sophisticated strikers to ever compete in the UFC. Fighting out of a trademark bouncing karate stance, “Wonderboy” has beaten former champions and some of the biggest names in the game over the years, including Robert Whittaker, Jorge Masvidal, Rory MacDonald and Johny Hendricks.
He’s fought for the title twice and TKO’d Kevin Holland in his last fight to launch his last run at the belt. That main event win in December showed the seventh-ranked Thompson still has gas left in the tank and remains a tough puzzle to solve.
Pereira (28-11) is still working his way up the ranks. A five-fight win streak has landed him this, the biggest fight of his career, a first against a member of the welterweight elite, where a victory will see him catapult into the top 10.
Big for the weight class, “Demolidor” was wild bordering on reckless when he initially made a name for himself. He’s found the necessary maturity to be successful but still has that unpredictable edge to him that makes him so dangerous on the feet.
A highly explosive athlete, the 29-year-old is the better pure athlete and harder hitter. Thompson, though, has made a career out of being technically and tactically superior and that should be the case here with the crafty veteran, who’ll have a two-inch reach advantage, outpointing the Brazilian.
Tony Ferguson (4.20) v Bobby Green (1.25) (Lightweight)
Will this be Ferguson’s last ride? That’s the big question as the embattled veteran heads into his 34th fight.
The past few years have been brutal for the former interim lightweight champion. He hasn’t been the same since his stoppage loss to Gaethje in 2020, a punishing defeat that set a devastating downward spiral in motion.
He’s lost his last five fights (leaving his record at 25-8) and was arrested on a DUI charge following a rollover crash in Los Angeles in May. One of the best lightweights ever, “El Cucuy” is now – sadly – a shell of the fighter he used to be.
Green (29-14-1) is a fellow veteran but has plenty of tread left on the tyres by comparison. He never reached the heights Ferguson did but hasn’t been in the wars his foe has either.
In their primes, Ferguson would’ve ripped through Green, but the way things have played out, “King” – who’s 2-2 in his last four – is primed for a big win, most likely by stoppage.
Ferguson’s one of the most beloved fighters in UFC history. It’ll be sad to see him go, but I do hope he hangs up his gloves this weekend.
Michael Chiesa (2.25) v Kevin Holland (1.68) (Welterweight)
The main card will get underway with a compelling clash of styles.
Chiesa (16-6) is a powerful wrestler and high-level grappler with 10 submission wins, while Holland (24-9) is a slick, rangy striker with 14 knockouts to his name.
Chiesa’s the underdog due to the fact that he’s returning from a nearly two-year hiatus and also because he’ll have to find a way inside Holland’s six-inch reach advantage.
On the flip side, Holland has a history of losing to grapplers, including being controlled by the likes of Derek Brunson, Marvin Vettori and Khamzat Chimaev.
If “Trailblazer” can keep the fight standing, he’ll piece up and TKO Chiesa. However, I don’t have faith in his takedown defence and see good value in “Maverick”.