The year 2021 is one for big rematches in the UFC. Three pay-per-views have already been headlined by rematches, including two for undisputed UFC title fights. Two more are scheduled for this weekend at UFC 263, with the co-main event pitting Deiveson Figueiredo against Brandon Moreno for the UFC flyweight strap.
The first contest between the two men at UFC 256 was an all-time classic. Moreno defied many pre-fight predictions to push Figueiredo all the way to the limit. After five pulsating rounds of action, the bout was scored a majority draw, with Figueiredo keeping hold of his title.
Ahead of the second act of this intense rivalry, what can these two men learn from the big rematches that have taken place so far in the UFC in 2021?
The biggest fight of the year thus far was the rematch between former interim UFC lightweight champion Dustin Poirier and former UFC featherweight and lightweight kingpin Conor McGregor. The first contest between these two took place at UFC 178 in September 2014, amidst McGregor’s meteoric ascent to superstardom. The build-up was dominated by trash-talk from McGregor, which visibly irritated Poirier to a great degree during fight week. Despite being billed as a battle of two promising featherweight contenders, the fight ended up as a one-sided affair. McGregor landed a shot behind the ear toward the end of the first round that dropped Poirier and brought an end to the bout.
The second fight between Poirier and McGregor took place in January at UFC 257. Poirier went for a takedown early, which seemed to catch the Irishman by surprise. Poirier managed to push McGregor against the cage, and although the position was reversed on a couple of occasions, “The Diamond” had safely navigated the part of the fight where McGregor was considered most dangerous. When they got back to the open, Poirier made a concerted effort to slow McGregor down with the use of calf kicks. McGregor failed to check the kicks, but he was still on target with his trademark left hand.
In stark contrast to the fight in 2014, Poirier was able to take McGregor’s shots, but he was still staggered at times. The leg kicks eventually started to take a toll on McGregor, who was becoming a stationary target. Poirier gauged McGregor’s timing and was starting to evade the left hand with regularity whilst finding success with his own punches. In the second round, Poirier caught McGregor with a check hook that turned the Irishman around. Poirier then unloaded a barrage of punches before he connected on the button and knocked out McGregor.
There is a very different dynamic to Figueiredo and Moreno’s rematch, as only six months have elapsed since their first fight compared to six years for Poirier and McGregor, but the mental aspect is going to be similarly crucial. In a contest between two closely matched competitors, marginal gains can determine the winner.
Moreno emerged as a fan-favorite following his outstanding display at UFC 256 and will be backed this weekend by a sizable Mexican-American contingent in Arizona. This situation is the inverse of the Poirier and McGregor scenario, as this fight will take place in front of a full-capacity crowd after the first was contested with no fans present at the UFC Apex. Poirier struggled to deal with the hostile atmosphere that was created by the Irish fans who seemingly took over Las Vegas in 2014. However, he was able to hold his nerve at UFC 257 to deliver the biggest win of his career in front of a pay-per-view audience of 1.6 million people. He was helped by the lack of McGregor supporters in attendance, as there was a reduced capacity in Abu Dhabi due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Figueiredo’s first fight against Joseph Benavidez last year was the main event of a UFC Fight Night card, and his three subsequent bouts in 2020 went ahead without fans. It will be intriguing to see how he fares with the increased spotlight that will be on him at UFC 263 in front of a sold-out arena in Glendale.
The reversal in fortunes between Poirier and McGregor could also be attributed to the Irishman’s over-confidence in the weapons that secured him the win in their first contest. For Moreno, there is a chance to learn from this and avoid a similar fate.
The 27-year-old Moreno managed to take big shots from Figueiredo at UFC 256 and was not dropped once, let alone knocked out. His resilience was praised by fans, but this is with the caveat of Figueiredo’s physical condition seemingly being compromised. In the days after the fight, it emerged that the champ had been hospitalized due to a stomach infection in the days prior to his first title defense. The Brazilian is a big flyweight and has struggled to make weight in the past, notably missing the mark and losing the opportunity to become champion in his first fight with Benavidez. This factor, combined with the 21-day turnaround after his previous bout — albeit the same as for Moreno — contributed to a less-than-100-percent version of the champion.
McGregor was one-dimensional and predictable at UFC 257, throwing his power left hand repeatedly without disguising it well. Ultimately, after overreaching with this exact punch, he found himself off balance and was countered by Poirier. This was the beginning of the end for him and highlighted the dangers of putting too much stock in a previous fight against the same opponent. Consequently, one of the biggest mistakes that Moreno could make would be to develop a sense of invincibility due to the way in which he stood toe-to-toe with Figueiredo in December.
Moreno cannot afford to be reckless and take as many big punches again from the Brazilian, who will likely be in a much better physical condition to make the most of his power strikes. His footwork and head movement will also need to be improved in order to avoid getting into another firefight with a man who hits harder and is naturally bigger. As durable as Moreno has been throughout his career, fighters cannot be involved in so many wars and not find themselves physically diminished afterwards.
The second major rematch of the year can provide Moreno and Figueiredo with additional lessons. It involved Stipe Miocic defending his UFC heavyweight championship against Francis Ngannou at UFC 220 and in a rematch at UFC 260.
Ngannou was perfect in his UFC tenure heading into the first bout. He had demonstrated ferocious knockout power and appeared to be on an unstoppable path to the title. Miocic was a dominant champion, having defended the title on three occasions, but he was the betting underdog, such was the hype around the challenger. The Croatian-American survived an onslaught from Ngannou in the first round, as the challenger threw strikes with reckless abandon in an attempt to get the knockout. Miocic then took complete control of the fight, taking down the exhausted Ngannou at will and out-landing the challenger by a significant margin.
Miocic eased his way to a unanimous-decision win on the judges’ scorecards. He exposed glaring weaknesses in Ngannou’s game, namely the challenger’s lackluster conditioning and takedown defense. The Cameroonian’s lack of experience at the elite level came to the forefront, as did his chaotic preparation for the contest.
Ngannou experienced a disorganized camp, flying back and forth from Paris to Las Vegas just over a month after he knocked out Alistair Overeem. With a stable training structure in place at the Xtreme Couture gym, Ngannou made the necessary adaptations to overcome Miocic in the rematch and become the champion in his second attempt just over three years later.
In the first round of the rematch, he successfully stopped a takedown from Miocic, spun around, and proceeded to tee off. Miocic was cautious and looked to try to drag the fight into the later rounds, as he had done in 2018. However, Ngannou was measured in his approach and was selective with his explosions of strikes. In the second frame, Ngannou knocked down Miocic with a power jab. He was staggered seconds later by a counter, though. Unlike the first fight, he recognized the need to reset and knocked out Miocic with a left hook.
Figueiredo will likely need to mirror this change of approach if he is to have a long reign as champion. His power at flyweight is perhaps unmatched in the history of the division. This partly explains his style, where he stalks his opponent in a fairly flat-footed manner and keeps his hand so low, to the point that it almost seems negligent. This has been part of his rise to the top, but it almost cost him against such a battle-hardened opponent as Moreno.
After Figueiredo failed to dispose of the challenger with the ease and quickness that he expected, he fatigued and allowed the Mexican to land many blows of his own. In the same way that Ngannou was able to deploy his power in bursts against Miocic and conserve his energy, Figueiredo will need to reduce the number of his attacking flurries to avoid tiring and leaving himself open to strikes. He will also need to develop new tools in his arsenal to keep Moreno guessing. Ngannou was able to surprise Miocic with his patient style in the rematch and also caught the champion off guard with a head kick. Figueiredo is a well-rounded athlete, but his penchant for brawling has made him a somewhat one-dimensional fighter on the feet.
The flyweights can also learn from the third high profile rematch of the year: the main event of UFC 261 in which Kamaru Usman defended his welterweight title against Jorge Masvidal. Their first contest had a similar scenario to the first encounter between Figueiredo and Moreno.
Masvidal took the fight on six days’ notice, stepping in for Gilbert Burns. He came out aggressively before Usman took him down and controlled him on the ground. Masvidal showed good takedown defense to stop most of Usman’s shots, but he was unable to prevent himself from being controlled and clinched against the cage for prolonged periods. Usman continued to deploy this game plan and comfortably won the fight with scores of 50-45, 50-45 and 49-46 across the judges’ scorecards.
In the rematch at UFC 261, Usman made a conscious decision to keep the fight standing, despite having the ability to grind out a victory with a grappling-heavy attack. He started to get the better of Masvidal on the feet, using his newly developed powerful jab to great effect. To the surprise of many, he continued to stand in boxing range with a man who is considered to be one of the best pure boxers in MMA. This proved to be an intelligent decision. In the second round, Usman faked a jab before unleashing a devastating right hand that left Masvidal unconscious. It was just Masvidal’s second knockout loss in 50 professional fights.
Masvidal later admitted that Usman’s wrestling-heavy approach in the first contest led him to believe that he would employ a similar game plan in the rematch. He also said that he lowered his left hand when Usman faked the jab, anticipating a takedown attempt. This was ultimately a fatal error, leaving the right side of his face completely exposed. Masvidal being so wary of something which was so effective in the first contest is something that both Figueiredo and Moreno will need to be aware of in their own rematch. Both are excellent grapplers, with “Deus Da Guerra” in particular having an elite Brazilian jiu-jitsu game. The 33-year-old could look to do the opposite of Usman by throwing big strikes to bring Moreno’s hands up and then shoot for a takedown. His submission win over Alex Perez shows that he does not need to have an iron grip of a hold in order to force the tap from his opponent.
Moreno will likely need to work harder to be able to get a submission win, such is the caliber of Figueiredo’s jiu-jitsu. If he can cause the Brazilian to fatigue to a similar level as in their first encounter and draw him into thinking that he has no interest in taking the fight to the ground, then he could spring a surprise by getting a takedown and submission win of his own.
This has been an unprecedented year for high-profile rematches in the UFC. Figueiredo and Moreno have the unique opportunity to learn from the mistakes that others have made recently when confronted with the same opponent for the second time. The man who does so is likely to definitively prove themselves as the best flyweight on the planet.
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