The Great White North plays host to a massive UFC event this weekend as the greatest woman to ever step foot in the Octagon looks to defend the bantamweight title that she reclaimed in her rematch against Julianna Peña. Amanda Nunes puts her gold on the line against Mexican standout Irene Aldana. Aldana has won four of her last five bouts, including back-to-back knockout wins over Yana Santos and Macy Chiasson. Originally slated to be the trilogy between Nunes and Peña, broken ribs forced Peña out of the bout, and Aldana stepped in as she looks to bring a fourth UFC title back to Mexico.
The deepest and most talent-stacked division in the sport will be on display in the co-main event as former champion Charles Oliveira squares off against Beneil Dariush. Oliveira will try to earn a chance to reclaim his belt by ending the eight fight winning streak of Dariush, who has been a dark horse in the lightweight division for the last several years.
Also on the main card is a welterweight showdown between Mike Malott and Adam Fugitt. Malott fights in his home country of Canada for the first time since joining the UFC and he will try to extend his winning streak to six by defeating Fugitt.
The UFC 289 early prelims air live on UFC Fight Pass, ESPN and ESPN+ starting at 7 p.m. ET, with the action staying on ESPN and ESPN+ as the preliminary card starts at 8 p.m. ET. The main card will air on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the card in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Irene Aldana looks to become the fourth Mexican fighter to claim UFC gold this weekend; can she topple the consensus women’s GOAT Amanda Nunes?
Kuhl: The Mexican UFC base has had an amazing run as of late. Last July, Brandon Moreno captured the interim flyweight title, which he later unified in Jan. 2023. A month later, Yair Rodriguez scored the interim featherweight title with a second-round submission of Josh Emmett, and he will look to unify that belt against champion Alexander Volkanovski in July. Then, in March, Alexa Grasso captured Valentina Shevchenko’s long-held flyweight title, when she submitted the reigning champ with a nasty fourth-round neck crank. Will Irene Aldana be able to continue the success of her compatriots? My guess is: likely not.
Amanda Nunes, like Shevchenko, appeared to be unbeatable. In fact, prior to the Grasso loss, the only person to beat Shevchenko in the last decade was Nunes, and, until Dec. 2021, Nunes hadn’t lost a fight since Sep. 2014. At UFC 269, Julianna Peña shocked the world when she submitted Nunes for the title, but it only took seven months for Nunes to get her game back together and dominate Peña to win back her belt. The two were set for a trilogy fight this weekend, before Peña pulled out with an injury and was replaced by Aldana.
The choice of Aldana as replacement was already questionable. Raquel Pennington was set to be the back-up for the title fight, and was next in line in the official UFC rankings. Not to mention, Pennington had already beaten Aldana once by a split decision. Pennington will still serve as back-up, should one of the headliners fall out.
All storylines aside, this is going to be a tough fight for Aldana. Her UFC career has had its ups and downs, with most of her fights going to decision and a few of those being split. While she is on a two-fight winning streak, both by knockout, Nunes is a complete buzzsaw, with a skillset well above Aldana’s last two opponents – Macy Chiasson and Yana Santos. Aldana is also the same age as Nunes, so while she may not have been in the UFC as long, she will not have youth on her side.
From a skill perspective, Nunes is good everywhere, and everywhere that Aldana is good, Nunes is, at least, equal, if not better. But, the toughness of Nunes is a factor that the two will not match-up on. Nunes had a rude awakening when she entered the first fight with Peña with one foot in and one foot out of the cage. She did not seem to be well-prepared, and her lack of preparation was exploited by Peña. However, in the rematch, she came back with a vengeance, and Peña had no answers for her attacks. I see the same thing happening on Saturday. Nunes is going to come in, dominate Aldana right out of the gate, defend her title once again, and there is always that specter of retirement.
Nunes and wife Nina have one child already and are well into family life. She already said that she contemplated retirement after the loss to Peña, and for all intents and purposes, this fight was likely going to seal the deal on that trilogy and would have been the perfect segue to hanging up the gloves. With Peña pulling out, and a win over Aldana, she doesn’t really need to do this anymore. She has a ton of miles on her chassis, and has obviously made a boatload of money, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see her call it quits, win or lose.
Petela: This is going to be Irene Aldana’s night. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think she is peaking at the right time for this division. As Dan mentioned, Amanda Nunes is nearing the end of her career, and, while I don’t doubt her commitment to training or fighting, I can’t imagine that she has the same hunger that she did in her rematch against Julianna Peña. There is nothing really left for Nunes to prove and something tells me that she will be ever so slightly off her A-game, which is all that Aldana will need.
Also going for Aldana is this wild wave of Mexican momentum. Brandon Moreno, Yair Rodriguez, and her gym mate Alexa Grasso have all won world titles, and Aldana will be bolstered by their success and come out and have the performance of a lifetime. This will be a far better version of Aldana than the one who lost a lopsided decision to Holly Holm a few years back. Expect the biggest and most efficient weapon to be the left hook of Irene Aldana. For all the great skills that Amanda Nunes has shown throughout her career, she is not known for having great head movement.
Looking back to the first matchup with Peña, Nunes got jabbed to pieces, because of her lack of head movement. Rather than correct that by moving her head more efficiently in the rematch, Nunes switched stances to be able to avoid that jab. This fight, she will be getting caught at the end of combinations with the left hook from Aldana that has fight-ending intentions. A new champion will be crowned Saturday night by fourth-round TKO.
Former lightweight champion Charles Oliveira hasn’t fought since losing to Islam Makhachev last October; can he cement his position as the rightful number one contender by defeating Beneil Dariush?
Petela: There isn’t a worse matchup in the lightweight division for Charles Oliveira, outside of the current champion, than Beneil Dariush. He’s so incredibly well rounded that no matter where the fight goes, Oliveira will struggle to find a finish. On the feet, Dariush doesn’t always look like he’s throwing the most technical strikes, but he has a way of hitting people and not getting hit. The longer he works with Rafael Cordeiro, the more efficient his striking game becomes, and he has excellent cardio.
I give the advantage on the ground to Oliveira, but it won’t be a large enough advantage to allow him to get the finish. He may earn some decent top-control time, but nothing overwhelmingly damaging. As the fight drags on into the later rounds, Dariush will take over. By the championship rounds, he will have Oliveira bewildered, unable to make any real inroads towards a finish. At that point, a flustered Oliveira will make a mistake and rush in to try and land a fight-altering strike. That will prove to be a mistake, as he gets countered by a Dariush right hand that wobbles him and leads to a fourth-round TKO win for Beneil Dariush to earn him a title shot.
Kuhl: My colleague must be suffering from amnesia. The only bad match-up for Charles Oliveira in the last five years was proven to be Islam Makhachev, and Beneil Dariush is a far cry from the current champ in terms of style. Oliveira was said to have bad match-ups in Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler, and he finished all of them in three rounds or less. That makes three guys at the top of the heap, who could not find an answer for his well-rounded game. I’m not seeing the absolute domination this weekend that my colleague envisions.
Dariush is a black belt in jiu-jitsu, but Oliveira is way better. That’s not even subject to debate. While the two may be the same height, Oliveira is longer and much more dangerous on the mat. In the striking department, Dariush has solid striking power and accuracy, but so did Michael Chandler when he got dusted by Oliveira in the opening seconds of the second round of their battle for the vacant title.
Every time Oliveira gets counted out, he comes in with a fantastic finish. It is a lot easier to see a path to victory for Oliveira than for Dariush. The former champ is very durable, has amazing cardio and can win the fight wherever it goes, no matter how much damage he has sustained.
I have Dariush coming in trying to put on the pressure early, but Oliveira will, at some point, capitalize on a mistake and submit Dariiush before the final bell. If Michael Chiesa can submit Dariush, Oliveira certainly can as well. It’s not like Dariush has been cleaning out the top of the lightweight division for the last five years, but that’s exactly what Oliveira had been doing before losing his belt to Makhachev.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 289?
Kuhl: Amanda Nunes. I see her defending her belt one last time, and riding off into the sunset as the greatest female fighter in history. Her pockets are lined, she has a family to take care of, and she is already a future Hall of Famer.
Petela: Mexican MMA. Four champions. That would have been unheard of just a few short years ago. The boxing-rich nation has begun to sprout some top mixed martial arts talent, and this will be one more huge step for them. Expect this wave of top prospects and contenders to continue for quite some time.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 289?
Petela: Charles Oliveira. He comes into this fight looking for a statement win that will earn him another shot at the title he once held, but, by coming up short, he will move himself to the back of the pack in a talent-stacked division. The veteran will have to claw his way back towards the top and try to get through the new wave of elite lightweights who are staking a claim at the top of the division.
Kuhl: Kyle Nelson has a tough out this weekend when he faces undefeated Blake Bilder. Nelson is essentially on a three-fight losing streak, even though his last one was a majority draw, due to a headbutt by Doo-ho Choi. Officially, he is 1-4-1 since joining the UFC four and a half years ago. Bilder, on the other hand, came into the Contender Series with a 6-0-1 record, scored a first-round submission in front of Dana White and won his promotional debut at the huge UFC 284 card last February in Australia. Nelson has a good chance of losing this one, and, subsequently, getting his walking papers.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: Wow, this is a tough one, as two fighters really stand out – Dan Ige and Eryk Anders – and I already addressed Kyle Nelson above. I’m going to go with Anders in this one. The former University of Alabama linebacker, who won the BSC National Championship in 2009, came into the fight game in 2012 with a great story, and he entered the UFC with an 8-0 pro record. However, he has never put together a winning streak of more than two fights, and he is 2-3-1 in the last five years. He did pull off a TKO of Kyle Daukaus in Dec. 2022, but a loss to Marc-Andre Barriault on Saturday night will definitely move him one step closer to release. He is the type of guy who could make big waves in PFL or Bellator, but there just doesn’t seem to be a place for him in the UFC with another loss.
Petela: Diana Belbita and her opponent Maria Oliveira. These women have a combined record of 2-5 in the UFC. This fight has all the making of a win-or-go-home matchup. Both of these women are 26-years-old, and far from finished products, but whoever comes up short this weekend might be told to go sharpen the skills on the regional scene before they are welcome back under the UFC banner.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Eryk Anders vs. Marc-Andre Barriault. There is no way that this isn’t a fun fight. Anders is about as durable as they come and Barriault consistently lives up to his “Power Bar” nickname. These two will batter the hell out of each other until only one of them is left standing.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: The winner of Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush could easily walk away with a little extra dough. In fact, this one could pull Fight of the Night honors, earning both of them a bonus, should it go the distance. While I don’t think a decision will be the outcome, someone from this bout will bring home some extra cash.
Petela: Aiemann Zahabi. I could be biased, because I think his brother is the most talented mixed martial arts coach on the planet, but I expect big things from him against Aoriqileng this weekend. I expect Zahabi to come away with a statement victory and become the first fighter to knockout Aoriqileng. Aiemann Zahabi is definitely coming away with an extra fifty-thousand dollars.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Find a local authentic Mexican restaurant and try to get them to cater your fight watch party. This will be a huge night for Mexican MMA as Irene Aldana becomes the fourth UFC fighter from the country to win a title, joining Brandon Moreno, Alexa Grasso, and Yair Rodriguez. A country long prided for its boxers and their come forward fight style is not so slowly taking over mixed martial arts as well and the talent pool will continue to grow as more champions are crowned and contenders emerge.
Kuhl: If Matt is going with Mexican cuisine on this one, I’m going with Brazilian. Nunes is not only the greatest woman champion of all time, but also one of the best Brazilian mixed martial artists in the history of the sport. While having a bunch of gauchos bringing you endless meats in your living room, Brazilian steakhouse style, it will be more feasible to go with a Brazilian feijoada. Feijoada is a black bean stew with beef and pork, best served over a bed of rice. It is rich and flavorful, just like most of this card, and it will be a great way to celebrate the reigning champ.
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
Women’s BW Championship: Amanda Nunes vs. Irene Aldana
LW: Charles Oliveira vs. Beneil Dariush
WW: Mike Malott vs. Adam Fugitt
FW: Dan Ige vs. Nate Landwehr
MW: Eryk Anders vs. Marc-Andre Barriault
Preliminary Card (ESPN/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
MW: Nassourdine Imavov vs. Chris Curtis
Women’s FlyW: Jasmine Jasudavicius vs. Miranda Maverick
BW: Aiemann Zahabi vs. Aoriqileng
FW: Blake Bilder vs. Kyle Nelson
Early Prelims (UFC Fight Pass/ESPN/ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Stephen Erceg vs. David Dvorak
Women’s StrawW: Diana Belbita vs. Maria Oliveira
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