Roughly 70 percent of trilogies conclude with the fighter who won the pair’s second meeting winning the third encounter as well. In that sense, Conor McGregor will be looking to defy the odds this weekend at UFC 264.
McGregor meets Dustin Poirier in the main event of the UFC’s latest pay-per-view venture. After over seven years passed between their first and second meetings, Poirier and McGregor now meet again just under six months after their last encounter.
Poirier turned down the opportunity for a lightweight title fight while instead opting for the payday and accolades associated with a third clash against the Irishman McGregor. Poirier won their last bout by second-round knockout, which leaves McGregor looking to bounce back and avoid consecutive losses for the first time in his career. If McGregor fails, he will fall to 1-3 over his last four fights.
Meanwhile, the co-headliner pits two top welterweight contenders against each other as they both look to stake a claim as the next person to challenge Kamaru Usman for the belt. Gilbert Burns fell short in his most recent fight, his first chance at Usman and a UFC title, when he succumbed to the champ’s power in the third round of their contest. Burns started that fight strong, though, and had the champion on shaky legs in the first stanza.
Here, Burns will collide with Stephen Thompson, who failed in his two previous title attempts. Thompson fought to a draw in his first fight with then-champion Tyron Woodley and then lost a controversial decision in the pair’s rematch. After facing a setback to Woodley’s teammate Anthony Pettis, “Wonderboy” has now won back-to-back fights against welterweight stalwarts Vicente Luque and Geoff Neal.
The main card also includes a pair of bantamweight contests, one in the men’s weight class and one in the women’s division. Irene Aldana, who lost a lopsided verdict to Holly Holm in 2020, tries to get back to her winning ways when she takes on Yana Kunitskaya, who picked up a unanimous decision in her last outing against Ketlen Veira. Meanwhile, fan-favorite Sean O’Malley goes up against late-replacement opponent Kris Moutinho, who steps in for Louis Smolka after Smolka contracted a staph infection.
UFC 264, which set records for how quickly it sold out the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, kicks off with the early prelims on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ at 6:15 p.m. ET. The televised prelims follow on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The action culminates with the five-fight main card on pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the fights in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
It’s now even at one win apiece for Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor. Who takes the trilogy and how?
Sumian: Win, loss or draw, McGregor still holds the ability to enamor the MMA world whenever he steps foot inside the Octagon. The former double champ is inarguably the most popular and widely known mixed martial artist of all time, and this is undoubtedly the biggest fight of his career in regards to his legacy and relevance as we enter the back half of 2021.
The McGregor who starched both José Aldo and Eddie Alvarez is gone and will never come back. The Irishman’s insatiable lust for success, money and lifestyle has unquestionably softened his fighting personality and allowed him to transition more into a celebrity rather than a fighter. The former featherweight king has compiled a 3-3 record in his last six UFC appearances and has only one win since 2017, which came at the expense of a nervous and out-of-prime Donald Cerrone.
After suffering the first knockout defeat of his career at the hands of his rival Poirier, McGregor’s motivation, training and overall commitment to the sport have come into question. The Irishman’s driving force in this bout is to prove his doubters wrong by returning to former glory and an eventual title shot.
Poirier is as motivated as ever to compete at the highest level. The former interim lightweight champion has effectively taken out every combatant thrown at him besides the newly retired former titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov. Poirier possesses some of the most fluid boxing skills in MMA today and complements these abilities with a solid ground attack. He has all the tools necessary to become the new champ and defeat Charles Oliveira. First, though, he’s ready to cash in on another showdown with McGregor.
Prior to the knockout, McGregor was certainly finding his own success when the pair met in January. It was only after his leg gave out from Poirier’s aggressive low-kick attack that he began to shut down rather than effectively attack and counter. He’ll be much more composed this time around as he looks to counter with uppercuts and hooks whenever Poirier tries to throw or combo up.
Poirier is smart and will certainly expect an improved McGregor here. He will impose a similar game plan to the one he utilized in their second bout, but with further emphasis on getting this fight to the ground, where he holds a distinct advantage.
The “Notorious” one has a lot more riding on this fight than Poirier. If he suffers another defeat, then it pretty much puts the lid on his future title aspirations and a legacy as an elite mixed martial artist. Poirier has already established that he is a top-two lightweight and will only move back slightly in the rankings if he is to suffer a setback here.
It won’t be easy, but after a long and gritty bout in which both men find success, McGregor will turn in a hard-fought split-decision victory. The fight will be extremely close and likely result in controversy, but that will not matter. The UFC will use it to quickly book a title shot for McGregor against Oliveira and give the Irishman a chance to return to the throne.
Petela: McGregor could have trained for this fight in Ireland, Siberia or the moon. None of it would change the outcome. Poirier will still earn a second consecutive knockout victory over him to conclude the trilogy.
American Top Team’s Mike Brown gets a lot of credit in the media for Poirier’s success. To a certain extent, this is deservedly so. However, the real difference in this fight will be all the time Poirier has spent with Dyah Davis, the son of Olympic gold medalist Howard Davis Jr. and one of the best boxing minds in the game today.
There is no doubt that McGregor is going to land his fair share of punches in this fight. For most fighters, this would spell disaster because of the power in the Irishman’s left hand. However, thanks in large part to the tutelage and time spent training with Dyah, Poirier will be able to roll with those punches and not absorb their full power. This, along with the head movement that will make McGregor miss more than he is used to, will deplete the Irish fighter’s energy and zap his confidence.
This will all culminate in another second-round stoppage for “The Diamond” and the realization for millions of McGregor fans that the superstar is much more hype than hope.
Gilbert Burns is coming off a loss to welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. Does he get back on track against perennial contender Stephen Thompson?
Petela: Nope. This fight will be a shining example of why Thompson deserves a crack at Usman’s belt.
While there is certainly no doubt that Burns has a gigantic advantage in the grappling realm, it is an edge that he will not get a chance to use. The karate style of “Wonderboy” will stifle Burns’ attempts to close the distance and utilize his world-class jiu-jitsu. The front-leg side kick of Thompson will also stop Burns from getting into punching range, where he would have a notable power advantage.
Though Burns is a very different fighter than both Geoff Neal and Jorge Masvidal, fans can expect this fight to look very similar to those Thompson contests. It will be three full rounds of “Wonderboy” landing precision strikes as he darts in and out of range, safely keeping himself out of harm’s way.
With this victory, Thompson will have more than earned another title shot. He will have won three straight fights over adversaries who are actively being avoided by most of the division’s ranked contenders. It seems a foregone conclusion that the rematch between Usman and Colby Covington is next on the horizon, but if the UFC chooses to operate as a meritocracy, then the 38-year-old Thompson is the more deserving man.
Sumian: It is incredible to think that Thompson still fights the way he does at his age. The two-time title challenger is certainly the most interesting match-up for Usman. His unorthodox striking and movement have perplexed many opponents in the past and could give the reigning champ some headaches.
Burns is definitely one of the most well-rounded welterweight contenders currently on the roster, though. He has the tools to derail Thompson with hard leg kicks and his masterful ground game.
This fight will consist of Thompson sticking and moving, while Burns chases him down and looks to land a big shot or tie up. In the end, it will result in a unanimous decision that favors Burns’ aggression and forward pressure over Thompson’s elusiveness.
Kris Moutinho — do we need to know this name?
Sumian: Props to Moutinho for stepping up to face an extremely dangerous opponent in Sean O’Malley, but he is merely a body being put in front of one of the UFC’s most loved prospects in an effort to keep that man on the card. O’Malley will finish Moutinho and move on to bigger and better things.
Petela: Moutinho will seize this incredible opportunity and immediately catapult himself into UFC lore with an upset victory over one of the UFC’s darlings. When all is said and done, Moutinho will end up somewhere between Buster Douglas and Matt Serra in terms of his true legacy. However, for at least for one night, he will be the most important name in combat sports.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 264?
Petela: Kris Moutinho. He’s stepping in on short notice to take on a high-profile fighter in Sean O’Malley. This will earn him a ton of respect regardless of the outcome. The entertaining fight that these two men engage in will serve to make Moutinho an instant star. The historic upset will be an even bigger post-event storyline than the outcome of the highly anticipated main event.
Sumian: Conor McGregor. His performance on Saturday will lead to yet another shot at UFC gold. He’ll prove that he still has what it takes to compete at the highest level. The days of the Irishman finishing his opponents in mere seconds may be gone, but he’s still capable of turning in a calculated and clean showing, which is just as impressive and respectable.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 264?
Sumian: Greg Hardy. The former NFL star will suffer the second in a set of back-to-back knockouts at the hands of Tai Tuivasa. This will effectively put an end to this experiment and any contender plans the UFC had for him. Hardy has done a fine job in learning as much as he can during his short time as a mixed martial artist, but he is simply too far behind to catch up to those who have been doing this for a number of years.
Petela: Conor McGregor. The biggest star the MMA world has ever known will be a long way from the pedestal he sat atop as “double champ.” While he will still be able to cash in on his name for big paydays for a couple more years, any hopes he has of regaining a UFC title will be wiped out with a second straight loss to Dustin Poirier. When he comes up short this time, the Irish fighter and his team will be forced to realize that the dream of becoming an all-time great is over. Instead, McGregor’s legacy will be one as the biggest celebrity to ever fight in the UFC.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Jessica Eye. The former flyweight title challenger is in desperate need of a victory. Since she was knocked out by champion Valentina Shevchenko, Eye has gone just 1-2 with her lone win coming in a catchweight contest after she missed weight by five pounds. Eye has dropped back-to-back outings, and a third consecutive loss could very well cost her her spot on the UFC roster.
Sumian: Jerome Rivera. The New Mexican is 0-3 in the UFC and in desperate need of a win to stick around. Unfortunately, he will suffer another loss at the hands of Zhalgas Zhumagulov which will mark the end of his time with the organization.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Sumian: Niko Price and Michel Pereira. This has all the makings of a “Fight of the Night” contender. Price is a seasoned and established finisher known for pulling off wild knockout finishes, such as his off-the-back hammer-fist clobbering of Randy Brown. Pereira is a flashy and smooth striker who will look to extend his winning streak to three. Fans can expect a wild slugfest in this welterweight match-up that’s almost guaranteed to end with a finish.
Petela: Dricus Du Plessis and Trevin Giles. South Africa’s Du Plessis stormed into the UFC with a first-round knockout of Markus Perez. This weekend, his sophomore outing is the rescheduled contest against Giles, who defeated late-notice replacement Roman Dolidze in March when visa restrictions forced Du Plessis out of their contest. This one will be entertaining from the opening bell.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Petela: Ryan Hall. The Arlington, Va., product is one of the most unique grapplers on the UFC roster. He dives in and looks for leg locks with an imanari roll without thinking twice. He is more than happy to be taken down and work from his back, too. These qualities, combined with the flashy yet tactical striking he displayed in his last fight against Darren Elkins, create the recipe for a highlight-reel moment each time he steps into the cage. A big win over an undefeated Ilia Topuria will result in a post-fight bonus for Hall.
Sumian: Jennifer Maia. The Brazilian will submit Jessica Eye in brutal fashion and earn a well-deserved bonus. Maia did surprisingly decent against Valentina Shevchenko in November and is certainly one of the best flyweight ladies on the roster today.
If you need to step away from the fights, do it during…
Sumian: The clash between Omari Akhmedov and Brad Tavares. At one point in time, these two men were top middleweight contenders. Now, they have become decision masters more focused on getting the win than they are in turning in a memorable performance. Fans won’t be missing much here.
Petela: The contest between Jennifer Maia and Jessica Eye. Both of these former flyweight title challengers are attempting to bounce back in a big way. Unfortunately, the stylistic match-up will leave fans less than thoroughly entertained. The jiu-jitsu black belt Maia will have a difficult time taking down Eye, who boasts incredible defensive wrestling. This fight will be a series of stuffed takedowns and resets to striking at range, where neither woman will do much damage.
Pair this card with…
Petela: The biggest star of the night is going to be Milford, Mass., native Kris Moutinho. Whether or not he has a long UFC tenure ahead of him is yet to be determined, but he will shine at UFC 264. In the New Englander’s honor, whip up lobster rolls for everyone in your viewing party.
Sumian: If there were ever a card to have a party around, it’s UFC 264, folks. This card is loaded from top to bottom with fun, meaningful fights that are sure to capture your attention. So, get the TV set up outside, fire up the grill, and enjoy a Saturday night that won’t soon be forgotten. A Mojito or two wouldn’t hurt either.
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
LW: Dustin Poirier vs. Conor McGregor
WW: Gilbert Burns vs. Stephen Thompson
HW: Tai Tuivasa vs. Greg Hardy
Women’s BW: Irene Aldana vs. Yana Kunitskaya
BW: Sean O’Malley vs. Kris Moutinho
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Max Griffin vs. Carlos Condit
WW: Niko Price vs. Michel Pereira
FW: Ryan Hall vs. Ilia Topuria
MW: Dricus Du Plessis vs. Trevin Giles
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, 6:15 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW: Jennifer Maia vs. Jessica Eye
MW: Omari Akhmedov vs. Brad Tavares
FlyW: Zhalgas Zhumagulov vs. Jerome Rivera
MW: Alen Amedovski vs. Hu Yaozong
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