Wednesday, July 17, 2024

UFC 269 — Charles Oliveira vs. Dustin Poirier: Five biggest storylines to watch in Las Vegas

The final UFC pay-per-view card to close what has been a blockbuster 2021 for the promotion goes down on Saturday in Las Vegas with a lightweight title bout atop the marquee.  

Dustin Poirier will look to make a claim for fighter of the year honors when he challenges defending 155-pound champion Charles Oliveira in the main event while the recognized G.O.A.T. on the women’s side, two-division champion Amanda Nunes, returns to defend her bantamweight crown for the first time since 2019.  

As we draw closer to what is a stacked card of interesting fights and must-see returns, let’s take a closer look at the biggest storylines entering UFC 269 inside T-Mobile Arena.

1. Dustin Poirier’s gamble paid off huge 

The aftermath of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s sudden retirement last year (although it wasn’t officially confirmed until March following an unnecessary soap opera) left a gaping whole atop the lightweight division. But Poirier, who lost his 2019 bid for the title against Nurmagomedov, chose to go the route of money and fame rather than fighting for the vacant title. It just so happened that the gamble paid off perfectly for “The Diamond” following a pair of high-profile PPV wins over former champion Conor McGregor, both by TKO. The result offers Poirier a chance to have his cake and eat it too by capping off the year with a title shot — while entering as the betting favorite — against defending champ Charles Oliviera, who stopped Michael Chandler in May for the vacant crown.  

Although Poirier, 32, once held the interim title for five months in 2019, he has yet to cap off his surefire Hall-of-Fame career by capturing an undisputed UFC title. A win on Saturday would essentially cement Poirier’s bid for career immortality by adding yet another impressive victory to a resume that includes wins over Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez, Max Holloway (twice), Dan Hooker and McGregor (twice).  

2. Charles Oliveira is fighting just as much for respect as he is the UFC title

Let’s face it, any UFC titleholder forced to start their reign in the immediate aftermath of such a dominant champion’s exit runs the risk of being thought of as a paper champion. No one in recent history was as dominant as Nurmagomedov, who retired unbeaten as the sport’s reigning pound-for-pound king following a flawless run of finishes against McGregor, Poirier and Gaethje in title defenses to end his career. It’s only natural that Oliveira might be overlooked by some, especially given Poirier’s decision to fight McGregor rather than contend for the vacant belt. All of that can go away with Oliveira defeating Poirier on Saturday, even if he’s forced to do so as the underdog. Too many critics still hold Oliveira’s difficult two-year stretch beginning in 2015 against him when he lost four of six fights. But the native of Brazil has been lights out since that time, recording nine straight victories, including eight by stoppage. Along the way, Oliveira set UFC records for most finishes and most submission victories. For whatever Oliveira lacked at the start of his current winning streak from the standpoint of elite wins, getting a shot at Poirier following impressive performances against Tony Ferguson and Chandler should be enough to put this conversation to rest.

3. Is there any shot Julianna Pena’s bite is as big as her bark? 

When taking a quick glance at the betting odds for Saturday’s co-main event, it’s hard to believe there is. Yet, a great deal of that has to do with how dominant Nunes has been regardless of whether she’s defending her bantamweight or featherweight crown. But “The Venezuelan Vixen” enters UFC 269 with somewhat of a questionable resume for someone entering a title shot. Pena has fought just four times since 2016 due to injury and has lost two of them, albeit against elite competition in the form of Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie. While Pena’s submission win over Sara McMann in January was impressive, that’s hardly the kind of win that normally catapults someone to the front of the line. Did Pena receive the title shot more because she called Nunes out after the victory or because the division is so devoid of fresh talent? Or is the answer a little bit of both? Debating such a question is pointless because Pena will get the shot at Nunes regardless. Even so, imagining her giving Nunes any trouble is difficult unless the champion has trouble cutting back down to 135 pounds for the first time in two years.

4. Cody Garbrandt’s flyweight debut has the feeling of a must-win fight  

It’s hard to overlook just how much Garbrandt’s decision to cut down to 125 pounds for the first time in his nine-year pro career has the feeling of desperation attached to it as the former bantamweight king attempts to distance himself from a disastrous five-year stretch. Garbrandt, now 30, looked like the sport’s next big star when he seemed to handle Dominick Cruz with ease in capturing the 135-pound title in 2016. But four defeats over his next five bouts, including three in a row by knockout, have Garbrandt’s biggest critics wondering whether his days among the elites are numbered. Garbrandt will get no form of charity from a matchmaking standpoint in his flyweight debut when he faces Kai Kara-France. Given how poorly fellow former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw’s body responded to his attempt at cutting down to flyweight in 2019, finding confidence that Garbrandt’s luck will be any different remains hard. The same can be said from how sucked out Garbrandt looked in recent pictures. But make no mistake, this one feels like win or go home. A victory would make Garbrandt an instant contender to the flyweight crown while a loss would rightfully bring into question whether his days competing in the Octagon are numbered.  

5. Sean O’Malley is too talented to remain stuck in neutral  

From a matchmaking standpoint, it’s difficult to get excited about O’Malley’s return bout on Saturday against Raulian Paiva, in what feels like yet another showcase fight for the dynamic bantamweight. O’Malley made headlines in recent months by admitting he isn’t willing to challenge himself by taking on the big names in the top 10 if the UFC will pay him the same amount to face someone he would be heavily favored against. Attempting to defend the UFC when it comes to fighter pay isn’t easy, thus it’s hard to blame O’Malley for turning down better fights. But considering O’Malley previously lost two years of his early prime to a USADA suspension, seeing him make yet another lateral move as a 3-1 favorite to defeat Paiva is far from inspiring. O’Malley’s penchant for creating viral moments and highlight-reel finishes make him an interesting future title contender. Yet he’s clearly far from a finished product, as evidenced by his 2020 defeat to Marlon Vera in a fight where O’Malley succumbed to injuries in a first-round TKO loss and failed to inspire with how he handled adversity. Is O’Malley merely playing out the string of his current contract in hopes of testing his value as a free agent? Or is UFC content to slow play his eventual move into the top 10? Either way, it’s frustrating.  

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