Conor McGregor (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 257 Preview and Predictions

After an afternoon matinee and Wednesday’s early morning event, the UFC finally heads back to primetime on Saturday, Jan. 23, for UFC 257, the company’s first pay-per-view event of the year.

In the evening’s headliner, global superstar Conor McGregor returns to action after 12 months away from the cage. His opponent is Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier, who seeks to avenge a 2014 loss to the “Notorious” one when the two men met at featherweight. In that fight, McGregor required just a minute and 46 seconds to score a TKO stoppage of Poirier.

The McGregor bout was Poirier’s last fight at 145 pounds. His move up to lightweight has brought with it much success, including a 10-2 record and an interim championship following his UFC 236 victory over Max Holloway. Meanwhile, McGregor went on to claim the featherweight strap before following suit and moving up in weight. The Irishman defeated Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 to become the first simultaneous two-division champion in the promotion’s history, launching him into the stratosphere as a global icon.


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Poirier wants another crack at an undisputed UFC title, especially with current champion Khabib Nurmagomedov all but retired and the belt likely to be vacated. If McGregor comes out with a win, it would mark his first at lightweight since 2016.

There are heavy championship implications in the co-main event, too. Former three-time Bellator lightweight kingpin Michael Chandler makes his promotional debut after defeating former WEC and UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson in his final fight with Bellator. Chandler’s first UFC outing comes against Auckland, New Zealand’s Dan Hooker. The City Kickboxing stalwart has proven he has both the talent and toughness to compete with the best in the world. Hooker posted a win over Paul Felder in a closely contested fight and suffered an equally close loss to headliner Poirier.

The two top-billed affairs are separated from a third lightweight contest by a women’s flyweight match-up between former title challenger Jessica “Evil” Eye and Scotland’s Joanne “JoJo” Calderwood. Both women have maintained their positions near the top of the division despite holding 1-2 records over their respective last three fights. A convincing win in a high-profile spot could be what each woman needs to start building momentum toward a showdown with champion Valentina Shevchenko.

The greatest nickname in sports history belongs to Matt “The Steamrolla” Frevola, who returns to action for the first time in over a year. He’ll try to become the first man to defeat Ottman Azaitar. Azaitar, who was born in Germany to Moroccan immigrants, has earned a pair of performance bonuses across his two UFC outings with first-round knockouts of Teemu Packalen and Khama Worthy.

The main card opens with two Brazilian flyweight ladies who look to put the division firmly on notice. Amanda Ribas has rattled off five straight wins and defeated two of the sport’s most popular figures in Mackenzie Dern and Paige VanZant. Her upcoming opponent, Marina Rodriguez, is now tasked with trying to put an end to Ribas’ winning streak. Rodriguez came up on the wrong end of a split decision in her last outing when she was defeated for the first time as a professional by former champion Carla Esparza.

Once again, the setting is the Etihad Arena on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. UFC 257 will begin with three early prelims streaming on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ at 6:15 p.m. ET. ESPN will join in on the fun alongside ESPN+ for the remaining televised preliminary action at 8 p.m. ET. The action culminates at 10 p.m. ET on pay-per-view via ESPN+ for the five-fight main card. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the event this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.

In their 2014 showdown, Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier fought as featherweights, with McGregor picking up the win in less than two minutes. In their rematch, these two men will compete as lightweights. Will Poirier fare better this time around?

Sumian: Nothing could be as fitting to start 2021 as the return of the “Notorious” one. McGregor steps back into the Octagon after a year’s absence. The Irishman has only competed twice in the UFC since October 2018. This included a submission loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov and a TKO victory over Donald Cerrone. The former double champ has since been cautiously lingering on the sidelines.

Despite a mediocre consistency in competing in the UFC, McGregor still ranks as the No. 4 lightweight according to the UFC rankings. He is likely a victory away from once again competing for UFC gold. Throughout the last few years, the Irishman’s name has been consistently linked to drama and negative media attention, including several assaults and other, worse allegations. However, he has made it clear that his recent behavior is a thing of the past. McGregor insists that he has never been more focused and determined than entering his UFC 257 main event bout.

If McGregor proves to be victorious on Saturday, then he is almost guaranteed to find himself fighting for the championship at some point in 2021. The only thing standing in his way is a rematch with Poirier, a fellow lightweight who is a far different fighter from when McGregor first fought him in 2014.

In that first encounter, McGregor’s mind games led to a frazzled and unconfident Poirier, who was quickly dispatched in round one. After suffering the first knockout loss of his career and admitting to difficulties in meeting the featherweight cap, Poirier decided to return to lightweight. This would prove to be the best decision of his career. Since then, “The Diamond” has compiled a 10-2-1 record with notable victories over Bobby Green, Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez, Max Holloway and Dan Hooker. The former interim lightweight champ’s most recent loss came in a historic title showdown against Nurmagomedov that further elevated the Louisiana native’s stardom. Poirier currently sits at No. 2 in the official UFC rankings, with the potential for another crack at UFC gold on the horizon, and he also has the chance to enact vengeance on the perpetrator of perhaps the most memorable loss of his career.

Poirier has been the more active fighter of the two and has undoubtedly grown into one of the best lightweights in the world during his recent run. The American Top Team representative boasts some of the best boxing skills on the UFC roster in tandem with a stellar ground game that includes ever-improving wrestling and black-belt-level jiu-jitsu. Poirier has the ability to finish anyone on the feet due to his fluid striking, relentless pace, and killer instinct. These attributes were particularly on display in his wins against the aforementioned Gaethje and Alvarez. However, he has also been known to absorb fairly significant damage, even in victory, as he baits his opponent into all-out brawls.

McGregor is a cool, calm and calculated striker who fights at range. He utilizes a long jab, powerful kicks, and a precision left hand. There has not been a large sample size on McGregor lately, which makes it hard to determine just how good he can be coming into this bout. His first-round TKO of Cerrone was thoroughly impressive, but the argument can be made that Cerrone was already defeated prior to stepping into the Octagon. Poirier will provide McGregor with a much stiffer challenge. The Irishman will have to rely on his accuracy to negate his opponent’s offense while finding a home for his power shots.

Poirier’s style is one that McGregor thrives on. His best chance of success would be to get this fight to the ground, where he can surely dominate McGregor. However, it might be more reasonable to expect these two top lightweights to meet in the center of the cage and bang it out.

This fight ends in two ways: 1. A late submission victory for Poirier; or 2. An early TKO win for McGregor. Poirier can succeed in finding the former if he can tire out McGregor in the early rounds through the pressure of offensive wrestling, clinch work, and volume striking. McGregor could find his hand raised via the latter result if he successfully baits Poirier into range before landing a powerful and accurate punch.

Petela: This contest will look nothing like the pair’s first encounter.

Poirier is a much better version of himself at lightweight. He has an elite gas tank and can maintain his pace even while enduring significant damage. Just look at his fights with Gaethje, Holloway and Hooker. These past affairs are proof that Poirier’s body is durable enough to keep up with his iron will.

The lead-up to this fight has been much less contentious than in the days prior to the pair’s first encounter. This is in large part due to where both men are in their respective careers and the mutual respect they have for each other’s skill set. This time around, Poirier won’t let emotions get the better of him and allow McGregor to capitalize on an early mental lapse.

McGregor will definitely have some success here, assuming that he shows up in top form. The training videos suggest that he will. He is lightning fast and throws punches from all sorts of angles. However, the blueprint on how to defeat him has been written: an opponent just has to wear down McGregor and get him into deep waters, where his cardio starts to fail him. Nate Diaz and the aforementioned Nurmagomedov were both able to get a submission win once McGregor was out of gas. Poirier will have that same opportunity after a frustrated McGregor loads up on punches when he finds “The Diamond” still moving forward despite taking some punishment.

Whether it’s Poirier who scores a takedown on a slowing McGregor or the Irishman who shoots for a desperation takedown, like he did in the first Diaz fight, this bout will end up on the mat by the third round. McGregor will find himself with Poirier landing punches from top position. Don’t expect a TKO finish from Poirier, though. Instead, McGregor, confronted with this ground-and-pound barrage, will give up his back as he notoriously does when he’s in trouble. This will allow Poirier to get an instant tap with a rear-naked choke.

There is no built-in excuse for McGregor fans when he comes up short in this fight. It’s always changing. With the Diaz fight, the reasoning was that it took place at welterweight and featured a late change of opponent. In his match-up with Nurmagomedov, it was that he had two years off between fights and was focused on building his whiskey brand. Here, the answer is more concise: Poirier will beat McGregor because Poirier is better than McGregor. There will still be plenty of excuses offered up by those who believe McGregor can do no wrong, but they won’t hold any water. Even the apologists themselves won’t really believe the excuses.

Will Michael Chandler kick off his UFC career with a win over Dan Hooker?

Petela: Yes, but don’t expect it to be the type of performance that will lure Khabib Nurmagomedov out of retirement. This will be a prototypical workmanlike effort from Chandler in which he utilizes his superior wrestling to ensure the fight is largely contested on the mat.

Chandler, 34, knows that his window to secure a UFC championship is not very large. It will certainly be tempting to come out of the gates with a flashy knockout or to go all out to deliver an instant classic. However, both of those approaches bring much more risk and would set him at the back of a very crowded pack of fighters in the lightweight division. This would make a title run exponentially more difficult, too. Instead, Chandler will have a similar strategy and performance to the one he turned in against Brent Primus in that pair’s rematch.

Hooker has outstanding takedown defense. He will probably stifle the first couple of attempts from Chandler. He will also likely be the more effective striker as the contest begins, peppering his jab to keep Chandler at distance. By the end of the first round, however, Chandler will have figured out his timing well enough to land an overhand right as he changes levels and gets Hooker to the mat. It hasn’t been easy for opponents to keep “The Hangman” on his back, but none of his previous foes have been NCAA Division I All-American wrestlers out of the University of Missouri. The takedowns will become easier for Chandler to convert over the second half of the fight, and the former Bellator champion will get a convincing decision that sets him up nicely for his second fight with the promotion.

Sumian: Indeed, Chandler will likely mix in his wrestling here and there. However, he will also do everything in his power to provide fans and the UFC with a memorable performance. This will lead to his ultimate downfall.

Hooker and Chandler will meet in the center of the cage from the start of the bell and start exchanging in a fast-paced and wild manner. Hooker, the taller fighter, will do more damage in these exchanges. Chandler will attempt to shoot in an effort to get the fight to familiar territory, but Hooker will stuff multiplate takedowns. Chandler will quickly realize that the UFC is a whole other ball game before abandoning his offensive wrestling and attempting to throw powerful shots with Hooker.

After some incredible action and unwavering excitement, Hooker will land a precise knee or kick that will daze Chandler. Hooker will then secure the TKO victory. Chandler’s title shot will not happen anytime soon, if ever. Instead, the “Hangman” will prove that he is here to stay as one of the top lightweights in the world.

Several high-profile ladies appear on this card. Jessica Eye clashes with Joanne Calderwood, Marina Rodriguez battles Amanda Ribas, and Sara McMann collides with Julianna Peña. Which of these competitors turns in the most impressive performance of the evening?

Sumian: The only right answer is Ribas. She has one of the most deadly submission games in MMA today and has utterly dominated any form of competition thrown her way since she joined the UFC in 2019. The No. 14-ranked strawweight has soundly defeated Emily Whitmire, Mackenzie Dern, Randa Markos and Paige VanZant. She will look to extend her winning streak to five when she faces the sixth-ranked Rodriguez. Ribas will get this fight to the ground and secure a quick submission, which should launch her into the top seven or eight in the rankings. The Brazilian will fight for UFC gold in 2021, plain and simple.

Petela: Yes, that is the correct answer. However, expect a return to top form from the former title challenger Eye as well. Her struggles on the scale recently are no secret, but Eye underwent surgery to have her gallbladder removed since a decision loss to Cynthia Calvillo in June. That very likely compromised not only her ability to cut weight but her performance in the Octagon as well. This time around, Eye will win the fight on the scale. She’ll come into this match-up with Calderwood rejuvenated and deliver one of the best performances of her career.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 257?

Petela: Charles Oliveira. When UFC President Dana White made the announcement last weekend that Khabib Nurmagomedov might come back to the cage if one of Saturday’s lightweight contenders put on a performance that impressed him enough, it sounded like Nurmagomedov was politely telling White to stop bothering him. The belt will be vacant once the boss realizes that a return to action for the champion is nothing more than a pipedream. Oliveira will be the logical choice for one half of the vacant title fight, likely against the winner of the UFC 257 main event.

Sumian: Conor McGregor. From 2013-16, McGregor displayed a level of confidence, focus and hunger that was unmatched in the UFC at the time. This ultimately led to two title reigns and one of the most historic runs in UFC history. Although we have not seen that McGregor in quite some time, “Notorious” is now set to return. The former double champ will defeat Poirier after a fun and competitive fight. This will in turn lead to either a bout for the vacant title or a rematch with his Russian nemesis Nurmagomedov. Either way, it’s a win for the Irishman and the UFC, which aims to significantly profit from the true return of the biggest star in the company’s history.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 257?

Sumian: Michael Chandler. The Bellator veteran’s move to the UFC is a good one and should provide fans with a number of exciting fights. However, his hype will come to a halt when he suffers a TKO loss to Dan Hooker on Saturday. This will erase any conversation about Chandler fighting for a UFC title in the next two years and will yet again prove the UFC’s superiority to other promotions.

Petela: Conor McGregor. While he is still the most popular fighter in the sport, his time away has caused his star power to dip. He was faced with a Catch-22 with the UFC unable to have fans in attendance. The Irishman was too popular for the UFC to pay him what he wanted without the money from a live gate, but he has been unable to build upon his superstar status without any fights in the last year. With a loss in the rematch against Poirier, his stock will drop substantially. He will be on the outside, looking in at the title picture at lightweight. It will be difficult to find a fight with the high profile to satisfy his ego and monetary demands. There’s always the Nate Diaz trilogy, but it might be the only viable option. The world will no longer be McGregor’s oyster.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Petela: Marcin Prachnio. Three straight losses is never a good look. Three losses by first-round knockout is worse. It’s desperation time for the Polish light heavyweight. He is taking on Khalil Rountree Jr., who has been inconsistent recently. After moving to Thailand to overhaul his striking, Rountree delivered an impressive performance in a lopsided win over Eryk Anders. He was unable to capitalize on the momentum from that victory, though. He lost his next outing to Ion Cutelaba via first-round TKO. Rountree is a sizable betting favorite (-310), but either man could end up closing the show with one punch.

Sumian: Nik Lentz. The Texan has been one of the most consistent fighters on the UFC roster throughout the past decade. Lentz has compiled a seasoned 14-8-2 record in his time with the promotion. However, at age 36 and on a two-fight skid with no foreseeable run at the title, Lentz’s days are likely numbered in the UFC. He commands a decent-sized salary and holds a valuable roster spot, whether at featherweight or lightweight. If Lentz was to go winless through three consecutive appearances, then the chopping block might be on the horizon.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Sumian: Nasrat Haqparast and Arman Tsarukyan. This is going to be one of the most memorable bouts of the evening. These two lightweight prospects have combined for 19 finishes and six UFC victories throughout their short time with the promotion. Both men are on the brink of becoming notable lightweights with a victory at UFC 257. Expect the hard-hitting Haqparast to give it his all when facing the relentless and well-rounded Tasrukyan in an epic three-round war.

Petela: The opening bout of the night between flyweights Amir Albazi and Zhalgas Zhumagulov. Albazi picked up a submission win over Malcolm Gordon in his promotional debut, while Zhumagulov has wins over UFC veterans Ali Bagautinov and Tyson Nam. They will start the night off with a fun one.

Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?

Petela: Amanda Ribas. Strap a rocketship to her back, because she’s about to become a star. A submission win over Marina Rodriguez will be a great start to the main card and more than worthy of an extra $50,000 in her pocket.


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Sumian: Khalil Rountree Jr. Despite a rocky run with the UFC, Rountree has quietly compiled a number of memorable knockouts. His victories over Daniel Jolly, Paul Craig and Gokhan Saki are highlight-reel moments. Expect another one to materialize when he meets struggling fellow light heavyweight Marcin Prachnio, who is already the victim of three consecutive knockouts inside the Octagon.

Pair this card with…

Sumian: The New Age. Despite UFC President Dana White’s recent comments about Khabib Nurmagomedov’s possible return depending on the results of UFC 257, expect the Russian superstar to stay retired. The UFC’s most competitive division will finally move on and usher in a new era once the brass figures out which two top lightweights will throw down for UFC gold. Either way, the division will get a breath of fresh air.

Petela: Generosity. The night will belong to Dustin Poirier as he gets revenge from his first fight with Conor McGregor and leaves no doubt that he should fight for the title in his next outing. Poirier is well known for all the good he does in his Lafayette, La., community through his charity, The Good Fight Foundation. So rather than shell out any extra cash for booze this weekend, use that money instead to make a donation to The Good Fight.

FIGHT PICKS
Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
LW: Dustin Poirier vs. Conor McGregor McGregor Poirier
LW: Dan Hooker vs. Michael Chandler Hooker Chandler
Women’s FlyW: Jessica Eye vs. Joanne Calderwood Calderwood Eye
LW: Ottman Azaitar vs. Matt Frevola Frevola Frevola
Women’s StrawW: Marina Rodriguez vs. Amanda Ribas Ribas Ribas
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Arman Tsarukyan vs. Nasrat Haqparast Tsarukyan Tsarukyan
MW: Brad Tavares vs. Antonio Carlos Junior Tavares Tavares
Women’s BW: Sara McMann vs. Julianna Peña Peña Peña
LHW: Khalil Rountree Jr. vs. Marcin Prachnio Rountree Rountree
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, 6:15 p.m. ET)
MW: Andrew Sanchez vs. Makhmud Muradov Muradov Muradov
FW: Nik Lentz vs. Movsar Evloev Evloev Evloev
FlyW: Amir Albazi vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov Albazi Albazi