After what will forever go down in infamy as the debacle of UFC 223, the UFC is back in action only a week later when UFC on Fox 29 lands at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz. Top-six lightweights Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje headline the show.
The 29-year-old Poirier has been gradually climbing the UFC lightweight ladder for the last three and a half years. Since suffering a loss to former champ — and alleged conspirator of the aforementioned debacle — Conor McGregor in September 2014, Poirier has gone 6-1 with one no-contest in the division. He moved up to fifth in the rankings after a technical knockout of former lightweight champ Anthony Pettis in November.
The Arizona native Gaethje entered the UFC in 2017 with a 17-0 record and a long reign as the World Series of Fighting lightweight champ. The former NCAA Division I wrestler put on one hell of a show when he faced Michael Johnson in his promotional debut. Gaethje came from behind to win by knockout in round two. He added another exciting fight when he faced former UFC and Bellator champ Eddie Alvarez in early December. Gaethje was finally stopped near the end of round three for his first defeat.
The co-headliner was initially slated to feature welterweight veterans Carlos Condit and Matt Brown, but Brown suffered a knee injury only two weeks out. Brown has been replaced by Brazilian striker Alex Oliveira. Condit is coming in on a very unusual three-fight skid, but he is still hanging on to the No. 12 spot in the division. Oliveira, who remains unranked, was on a four-fight winning streak before getting knocked out by Yancy Medeiros in December. This one is shaping up to be a showdown for relevance.
The main card also includes an exciting middleweight clash between Nigerian kickboxer Israel Adesanya and Italy’s Martin Vettori, as well as a women’s strawweight battle between Michelle Waterson and Cortney Casey.
The UFC Fight Pass early preliminary card begins at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 14, followed by the Fox prelims at 6 p.m. ET. The action stays on Fox for the main card, which kicks off at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Bryan Henderson and Dan Kuhl get you ready for the fun in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Dustin Poirier enters his headlining bout with Justin Gaethje as a slight favorite in betting lines. Will he live up to those odds and beat Gaethje, who has steamrolled through 18 opponents and only suffered a loss in a war with Eddie Alvarez?
Henderson: After the debacle of UFC 223, most fans will be thankful if this fight just manages to stay intact all the way through fight week. It’s not quite as big as Khabib Nurmagomedov’s slated bouts with Tony Ferguson and Max Holloway, but Gaethje and Poirier really could combine for some fireworks.
Gaethje’s history of entertaining bouts gets plenty of attention. He’s already engaged in some electric action in the UFC cage through his contests with Michael Johnson and the aforementioned Alvarez, and he boasted spectacular fights against Luis Palomino and Nick Newell during his World Series of Fighting run. The Genesis Training Center product has picked up 15 of his victories by some form of knockout, too.
However, Poirier is often overlooked as a similarly entertaining and dangerous member of the lightweight division. The 29-year-old has excelled since leaving the featherweight division in the rearview mirror and setting his sights on the 155-pound weight class. At lightweight, Poirier has posted an impressive 6-1 mark with one no-contest against Alvarez. His list of victims includes Carlos Diego Ferreira, Yancy Medeiros, Joe Duffy, Bobby Green, Jim Miller and Anthony Pettis. Furthermore, Poirier picked up three of those victories — Ferreira, Medeiros and Green — with first-round knockouts. Overall, the American Top Team representative has 10 knockouts and seven submissions.
So, in conclusion, Poirier is plenty capable of living up to those odds. Gaethje carries a big reputation, but he’s actually far less proven at the highest levels of the game than his upcoming foe. While Gaethje does hold a two-inch height advantage, he’ll actually be at a two-inch disadvantage when it comes to reach. Alvarez was able to score the finish against Gaethje, and Poirier might be able to follow suit in what should be a very hard-fought battle.
Kuhl: Here’s an interesting, albeit important stat: Poirier is 5-foot-9 with a 73-inch reach, and Gaethje is 5-foot-11 with a 71-inch reach. Why is that important? Gaethje has many TKOs by leg kick. He is absolutely lethal with those kicks. If he is two inches taller, but his reach is two inches shorter, there’s a lot of distance in those nasty legs of his.
On paper, Poirier and Gaethje both have knockout power. They both are veterans and can likely win anywhere this fight goes. However, everyone knows exactly what you get with Gaethje. He’s a former NCAA Division I wrestler with an incredible takedown defense, he throws all kinds of strikes with reckless abandon, and he won’t stop coming forward unless he’s stopped, which only one person in 19 pro fights has actually been able to do.
Poirier is a bit different. The ATT standout has been in wars. He has knockouts and submissions, and he has gone the distance. Most importantly, he has fought a who’s who of the UFC lightweight division for over seven years now. If this was based solely on prior experience, Poirier would get the win. However, nobody can truly prepare for Gaethje, because he’s like no other fighter.
Poirier will come out, throw some heat, and maybe try to get the fight to the ground. Gaethje wants that. Gaethje wants Poirier to get uncomfortable trading, because his takedown defense is so good that he will keep the fight standing. As soon as Poirier makes one mistake, Gaethje will capitalize. At some point, he will punish the legs, and, whether or not that leads to the outcome, I have him taking this one by knockout.
Carlos Condit is 2-6 over his last eight fights, dating back to 2012, but he still carries enough star power to land in a co-headlining slot. Can he finally turn the tide against Alex Oliveira? If he doesn’t, will this be the end of the line for Condit in the UFC?
Kuhl: Condit has always been one of my favorite welterweights, going all the way back to the WEC days, when he finished five opponents in a row. He’s such a longtime vet that most people don’t even realize that he was still only 24 years old when he made his UFC debut in 2009. When he met Robbie Lawler two years ago for the UFC welterweight title, he was 7-4 in the UFC, and his losses consisted of three decisions and an injury. By no means was the “Natural Born Killer” out of his realm or out of the hunt. Unfortunately, something happened to him mentally.
A five-round fight with Lawler will put years on anyone’s chassis. Then, seven months later, Condit dropped a submission loss to Demian Maia. Maia has won over a third of his pro fights by sub, so you can’t fault anyone for that. However, Condit started to break mentally. He took over a year off, and when he came back to fight Neil Magny in December, he didn’t even look like the same fighter. He was slower, more lethargic, and lacked the killer energy for which he had long been known.
I don’t know if Condit will be able to beat Oliveira, because I don’t know which Condit to expect — the “NBK” or the guy who fought Magny. Either way, it really hurts to see a guy, one who long reigned at welterweight, so lost in his own mind. Hopefully we did not lose Condit in the last couple years, because he’s still only 33, about to turn 34, and a win over Oliveira will put him right back in the mix.
This is a tough one to pick. Ask me three years ago, and I would’ve picked Condit hands down. Condit was preparing for the ultra-gritty Matt Brown before a knee injury yanked Brown last weekend, so I’m going to put one last ounce of faith into the “Natural Born Killer.” Condit needs this — not just for his career, but for himself. He’ll come in, put everything on the line and find a way to submit the kickboxer Oliveira sometime prior to round three.
Henderson: My colleague has a lot more faith in Condit than I’m willing to invest.
Condit was an extremely different fighter in that bout with Magny, and Magny is a bit more of a grinder than Oliveira, who’s much more likely to bring the fight to Condit. If we see the slower, lethargic version of Condit this weekend, then Oliveira’s going to add another win to his resume. The Brazilian has already stopped the likes of KJ Noons, Piotr Hallmann, Will Brooks, Tim Means and Ryan LaFlare. He would have stopped Yancy Medeiros, too, had it not been for a comeback of epic proportions by Medeiros and a depleted gas tank on the part of Oliveira.
And that’s where Condit’s only chance can be found. If the “Natural Born Killer” can dig deep and turn this into a slugfest, then he might be able to wear down his opponent. He’ll also have to avoid getting finished in the process, which could be the bigger hurdle for Condit to clear.
Unfortunately, we seem to be witnessing Condit’s decline right now. Yes, he’s still only 33, but he’s been struggling to find wins since 2012, albeit against some of the best welterweights in the world. Oliveira represents another tough fight for Condit, and he might not be able to pull this one out.
It’s not a sure thing that a loss would jettison Condit from the UFC roster, though. He’s a big name who has suffered his losses to other big names. If he looks awful, then maybe he’ll be gone. However, if he puts up even a decent effort, the UFC is likely to hold onto him and put him in more match-ups that seek to elevate his opponent at his expense.
Lauren Mueller, Dan Moret and Ricky Rainey — do we need to know these names?
Henderson: This isn’t exactly the most overwhelming list of prospects ever thrown onto a UFC card, but there’s definitely some promise here.
The 26-year-old Mueller is undefeated through four fights, but her most recent opponent, Kelly McGill-Velasco, was the only non-rookie she’s met thus far. The San Diego-based fighter is getting an Octagon debut against a similar level of talent in The Ultimate Fighter 26 alum Shana Dobson, so there’s a decent chance for her to extend her undefeated streak and make some progress in the women’s flyweight division. However, Dobson seems to have more stopping abilities and should hand Mueller a setback.
Moret is probably the strongest bet of the bunch, but he draws a really tough first UFC outing against Gilbert Burns, who is 5-2 in seven Octagon outings. The 31-year-old has put together a solid 13-3 record, but his missteps came against Luke Sanders, Bobby Moffett and Raoni Barcelos, the three most UFC-ready opponents he has faced. Moret is a big fish in the Legacy Fighting Alliance promotion, but he’s going to struggle to win fights in the UFC.
Rainey is perhaps the most questionable signing. The veteran has struggled to find consistency throughout his 17-fight career, but he’s also posted some nice wins, including his decision nod over UFC vet Gilbert Smith under the Bellator banner. Rainey’s stay in Bellator netted him a 5-2 mark, but his losses came to the likes of Dhiego Lima, Michael Page and Chidi Njokuani. Rainey is a striker with plenty of power, but his performance against Smith demonstrated that he’s capable of handling a grinding clinch fighter and wrestler, too. Rainey stepped in to replace Abdul Razak Alhassan, and he could deliver a real barnburner in his fight with Muslim Salikhov. Somebody’s getting a stoppage there, and Rainey’s comfort with fighting on U.S. soil could give him a slight edge.
Kuhl: I disagree a bit on Moret. He’s one of those guys that is a longtime vet of the Resurrection Fighting Alliance and LFA organizations, and he has long been on the brink of cracking into the Octagon. In addition to MMA, he also is a pro boxer. However, most of his MMA wins have come by submission. Those three pro losses were to very high-level guys, and he’s only been stopped once. It’s also important to note that all of his losses came at featherweight, but he is undefeated as a lightweight, which is where he lands in the UFC. He will need to keep the fight on the feet against the UFC vet and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Burns and use his striking and reach advantage to come out victorious.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Kuhl: The UFC welterweight return of Yushin Okami.
Okami takes on The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption and TUF 19 semifinalist Dhiego Lima. Okami got a new lease on life when he came in on short notice in September to fight Ovince Saint Preux on less than a week’s notice. Now, in his second run in the UFC, he is back to where he left off at welterweight and has a lot to prove.
Lima, on the other hand, felt he got completely screwed when Jesse Taylor took away his second chance to become a TUF champion, only to find out Taylor popped for an estrogen blocker a month after their fight. This likely means Taylor had been doping, which surprised nobody.
This fight comes with chips on shoulders, and that usually leads to a great battle.
Henderson: Israel Adesanya is on the main card, but he’s probably still flying under the radar with most UFC fans. The kickboxer is undefeated through 12 pro MMA fights. He destroyed many of his opponents, including UFC veteran Melvin Guillard outside of the UFC, and he also scored a finish of Rob Wilkinson in his Octagon debut. Adesanya is still developing in some areas of MMA, but he features a lethal striking arsenal.
Adesanya is matched up with Marvin Vettori, a 24-year-old with a 12-3-1 mark. The Italian fighter already has four UFC outings under his belt, and he’s emerged with a 2-1-1 record inside the Octagon. Vettori holds a victory over Vitor Miranda, who posted a respectable 3-3 record inside the UFC, so he’s no slouch. The majority of Vettori’s wins have come via submission, and he could test Adesanya’s takedown and submission defense.
Adesanya performed well in his promotional debut. He has another difficult opponent in front of him, but he could very well deliver another knockout and continue his climb up the ladder. This bout is definitely worthy of attention, and its location on the main card could allow many more fans to become aware of this up-and-comer.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: Gratitude over a fight that will play out in the cage, rather than turning into a WWE-style affair. Conor McGregor’s disgusting display prior to UFC 223 was probably enough to bring most MMA fans to the point of fatigue with all of the theatrics and trash talk involved in promoting big fights. Gaethje and Poirier may talk some smack, but they’re far more likely to let their skills speak for themselves inside the cage. We may have lost when it comes to UFC 223, but we all win if both of these men enter the cage at UFC on Fox 29.
Kuhl: Honestly, this whole card is a sleeper. Top to bottom, it’s a way better card than last week’s effort, even before all the bullshit happened. What could be better with a stacked card than a stacked sandwich? I’m talking good rye bread, dijon mustard, black forest ham, smoked turkey, roast beef, bacon, a couple good cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes, fresh onions, fried onions and, of course, Stackers pickles. Let’s go big for a free night of great fights.
|Fight||Henderson’s Pick||Kuhl’s Pick|
|Main Card (Fox, 8 p.m. ET)|
|LW: Justin Gaethje vs. Dustin Poirier||Poirier||Gaethje|
|WW: Carlos Condit vs. Alex Oliveira||Oliveira||Condit|
|MW: Israel Adesanya vs. Marvin Vettori||Adesanya||Adesanya|
|Women’s FlyW: Michelle Waterson vs. Cortney Casey||Casey||Waterson|
|Preliminary Card (Fox, 6 p.m. ET)|
|MW: Antonio Carlos Junior vs. Tim Boetsch||Boetsch||Junior|
|WW: Muslim Salikhov vs. Ricky Rainey||Rainey||Salikhov|
|FlyW: John Moraga vs. Wilson Reis||Reis||Moraga|
|MW: Krzysztof Jotko vs. Brad Tavares||Tavares||Tavares|
|Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 3:30 p.m. ET)|
|LW: Gilbert Burns vs. Dan Moret||Burns||Burns|
|Women’s FlyW: Shana Dobson vs. Lauren Mueller||Dobson||Mueller|
|WW: Yushin Okami vs. Dhiego Lima||Okami||Okami|
|HW: Arjan Bhullar vs. Adam Wieczorek||Bhullar||Bhullar|
|BW: Alejandro Perez vs. Matthew Lopez||Lopez||Lopez|
|BW: Luke Sanders vs. Patrick Williams||Sanders||Sanders|