As Bruce Buffer would put it, this is the one you’ve all been waiting for.
We’ve had two events and 24 UFC fights in the past six days and yet still, you can sense that there’s another level of anticipation for Saturday’s UFC 257 card headlined by Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor. It’s a rematch six years in the making and even if it wasn’t, you’d still have two of the most compelling fighters in the business facing off.
Poirier lost to McGregor the first time around, then jumped up to 155 pounds and he’s never looked back. Why would he? “The Diamond” has been a force in the UFC’s deepest division, building his resume against quality competition before bumping off stars like Max Holloway, Eddie Alvarez, Justin Gaethje, and Anthony Pettis. He earned himself an interim title, which may not have made him the best lightweight in the world, but he was pretty damn close.
McGregor’s tale is well-chronicled, but his sporting accomplishments are still extraordinary even at a glance. After defeating Poirier, McGregor went on to win two UFC titles, knock off featherweight great Jose Aldo in 13 seconds, headline the UFC’s first-ever visit to Madison Square Garden, battle Nate Diaz in the most lucrative feud in MMA history, and, oh yeah, coax a big-money boxing match out of Floyd Mayweather.
They’ve done well for themselves since that first fight, is what I’m saying.
Somehow, none of that matters and yet so much of it matters as they prepare to fight a second time. The rematch has been dissected every which way: Will the first loss motivate Poirier or cause him to doubt himself? Does McGregor still have the fire to compete against a top-five contender or does he already have one foot out the door as he has in the past? Should they be fighting for a vacant lightweight title with Khabib Nurmagomedov thus far sticking to his retirement, or does the looming shadow of “The Eagle” make it impossible for the division to move on?
And so we’re left with anticipation and the sneaking suspicion that regardless of who wins, we could be left with just as many questions as answers.
The co-main event sees Dan Hooker signing up for the golden opportunity to shut down Michael Chandler before he even gets a chance to get going in the UFC. A three-time Bellator lightweight champion, Chandler finally gets to prove that he hasn’t just been the biggest fish in a smaller pond, and given his resume a convincing win against Hooker could vault him right into the thick of the UFC’s lightweight title picture.
In other main card action, one-time flyweight title challenger Jessica Eye meets Joanne Calderwood in a matchup with plenty of bad blood, The Ultimate Fighter 23 champion Andrew Sanchez tries to snap the 13-fight win streak of Makhmud Muradov in a middleweight bout, and strawweights Marina Rodriguez and Amanda Ribas look to continue their climb up the top-10 ladder.
What: UFC 257
Where: Yas Island in Abu Dhabi
When: Saturday, Jan. 23. The early prelims begin with a pair of fights exclusively on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET. A four-fight preliminary card follows at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+. The pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available to watch through ESPN+.
Everything we’ve seen from Dustin Poirier in his last dozen fights or so tell us that he’s a much better fighter at 32 than he was at 25. He’s smarter, tougher, his boxing is better. He knows what it takes to be a champion.
Does he have what it takes to beat Conor McGregor? That’s another question entirely. Poirier won’t shy away from standing with McGregor, one of the most skilled strikers at 155 pounds. Poirier has traded shots with Max Holloway, Justin Gaethje, and Dan Hooker, and won all of those fights on the feet. If this turns out to primarily be a striking battle, Poirier is well-equipped to upset McGregor.
But Poirier does get hit and there aren’t too many fighters who have been hit by McGregor and lasted long in there with him. Khabib Nurmagomedov outfought McGregor in every aspect and was never threatened, while Nate Diaz has one of MMA’s steeliest chins. I doubt Poirier can neutralize McGregor like Nurmagomedov, or stand up to the best of McGregor’s offense like Diaz.
We could see Poirier take this one to the ground. It’s easy to forget how lethal his submission game is given his propensity for striking wars, but if he gets tagged early or just sees something from McGregor that he doesn’t like, a few timely takedowns can’t hurt. Though it’s worth noting McGregor has an underrated ground game, he won’t want to fool around with Poirier down there for too long. He should have enough submission defense to stay out of trouble until he can get back to his feet.
That’s where I expect this fight to take place for as long as it lasts, which won’t be long at all. McGregor could just have Poirier’s number and while I think Poirier makes it out of the first round, it’s in the second that I see McGregor putting him down.
There aren’t many worse matchups that could have been booked for Michael Chandler’s debut. Then again, there are no easy fights in the top-30 of the UFC’s lightweight division, so Dan Hooker ends up being as good a choice as any.
The rangy New Zealander was involved in two of the best fights of 2020 and he could start off 2021 with another memorable performance, this time against a name that is likely unfamiliar to a large section of fans who will be tuning in on Saturday. Hooker has come off as playfully lackadaisical in the run-up to this one, even admitting that he’d never seen a full fight of Chandler’s before the contract came to fight him. Fortunately for Hooker, there’s a decade of Bellator film to study.
Compact and explosive, Chandler is a heavy hitter with elite wrestling, the exact kind of fighter that usually has great success at 155 pounds. But Hooker has a granite chin and his length makes it difficult for wrestlers to get inside. For the most part, Hooker has only lost to fighters who can match him in the range striking department (or in Poirier’s case, find a way to make the fight ugly) and I can’t see Chandler consistently closing the distance to punish Hooker. Chandler has also fared poorly in bouts that get ugly, being more of a front-runner than a champion known for his ability to battle back from slow starts.
Hooker is a fast starter and an aggressive striker. He’s not going to give Chandler time to find his sea legs. I think Chandler has the skill and stamina to make it to the third round and he may even catch a fading Hooker slipping, but I also expect Hooker to get the first two rounds in the books comfortably and ride that success to a decision win.
You have to like Joanne Calderwood’s chances in a striking matchup here. “JoJo” is more of a “death by a thousand cuts”-type fighter like former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk as opposed to someone with roaring KO power, but that approach shouldn’t be dismissed. She’s more than capable of pushing the pace and making things extremely uncomfortable for her opponents.
I favor her more diverse muay Thai skills over Jessica Eye’s occasionally one-dimensional standup game. Eye is difficult to finish (only current flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko has managed to knock Eye out), but she is susceptible to being outworked. In this case, it won’t be a matter of effort, but a matter of skill. Calderwood is the better striker, it’s that simple.
Calderwood has been looking forward to punching Eye in the face for some time and she’ll have plenty of opportunity to do so on Saturday as she builds towards a win on the scorecards.
There’s no mystery to Makhmud Muradov’s incredible streak of success. He has strong striking fundamentals, a crisp jab, and he’s a patient counter fighter. Andrew Sanchez’s job is to get in Muradov’s face and give him a reality check.
Sanchez has the mentality to pressure Muradov. He’s an excellent wrestler that prefers to sprawl and brawl and create separation when clinching against the fence. He’ll want to mix in a few takedown attempts early though, if only to put the idea in Muradov’s head. Actually getting Muradov down is easier said than done though as the Uzbek can count speed and agility among his plus-attributes.
In space, Muradov will pick Sanchez apart and in close he’ll fire off combinations that will keep Sanchez guessing. Should Sanchez focus purely on his wrestling, that could open up the path to a win on points. I don’t see it happening though. Muradov takes a round or two to find the the range and then he finds Sanchez’s chin for the KO.
Amanda Ribas is a rapidly improving striker, but she’ll want to go back to her bread and butter for this fight.
You can’t play around with Marina Rodriguez. She’s a smart fighter who uses her long legs well, both for scoring points with low kicks and to have an active guard. She won’t want to test that guard for too long against Ribas’ jiu-jitsu, but at least we know she’s not a complete fish out of water on her back. Ribas is a different beast from Rodriguez’s last opponent Carla Esparza when it comes to ground offense though.
While Esparza was focused on holding Rodriguez down and searching for bursts of ground-and-pound, Ribas will be in attack mode as soon as they hit the mat. She’s going to intelligently target a limb or Rodriguez’s neck and if she senses any weakness, she’ll get the tap-out quick.
I give Rodriguez the edge on the feet, though Ribas has shown so much potential there and proven that she can win without having to rely on her grappling. That’s still her best weapon and she should utilize it early and often to counter Rodriguez’s sharp striking.
Ribas is trending in the direction of stardom and that will continue Saturday when she wins either by decision or submission.