On Saturday, Jul. 29, the UFC’s symbolic “BMF” belt will be on the line as the rematch between lightweights Justin Gaethje and Dustin Poirier will headline UFC 291 at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City. The winner will take home the unofficial title that was first won by the since-retired Jorge Masvidal, when he beat Nate Diaz by TKO in Nov. 2019.
In the last four years, both Poirier and Gaethje went 4-2 in the Octagon, and both men’s losses during that time were in title bids against Khabib Nurmagomedov and Charles Oliveira. And, both of them are coming off wins since losing to Oliveira in their previous bouts. Poirier submitted Michael Chandler at UFC 281 in Nov. 2022, and Gaethje scored a dominant win over Rafael Fiziev at UFC 286 last March, even though it somehow ended in a majority decision. Poirier and Gaethje are currently sitting at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the rankings, and the winner of the BMF title will be next in line to face whoever the titleholder is after former champion Charles Oliveira looks to claim his gold back from current champ Islam Makhachev in October.
The co-main event features the light heavyweight debut of former middleweight champion Alex Pereira, as he takes on former light heavyweight champ Jan Blachowicz. The longtime GLORY Kickboxing middleweight champion Pereira entered the UFC in Nov. 2021 with a 3-1 MMA record. After going 3-0 in the Octagon, he faced former kickboxing foe and UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, who he had already beaten twice in the Glory of Heroes ring. Pereira finished Adesanya in the fifth round of a fight he was losing to capture the belt. However, in their Apr. 2023 MMA rematch, Adesanya knocked out Pereira in the second round, and the Brazilian decided it was time to move up.
Blachowicz picked up the vacant light heavyweight title in Sep. 2020 and had one successful defense against Adesanya six months later. However, in Oct. 2021, he lost the title to Glover Teixeira, before picking up a win over Aleksandar Rakic in May 2022. By Dec. 2022, the belt was vacant again and the Polish fight challenged Magomed Ankalaev for the title, but that ended in a split draw. With Blachowicz sitting at No. 3 in the rankings, and Pereira looking to stake his claim at 205 pounds, both men will have their eyes on a future title shot with a win.
The main card also features a welterweight battle between Stephen Thompson and the streaking Michel Pereira, veterans Tony Ferguson and Bobby Green in a lightweight showdown, and Michael Chiesa will be making his long-awaited return against Kevin Holland.
The UFC 291 early prelims air live on ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass starting at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the preliminary card on ABC, ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The main card airs on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje’s first fight was a memorable affair; can the pair of fan favorites deliver another Fight of the Year contender?
Kuhl: Anyone not jacked out of their mind for the rematch between Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje is completely delusional. Sure, we can look back to their first meeting over five years ago, but I’m even more excited because of what they’ve done lately.
In 2021, after back-to-back TKO finishes of Conor McGregor, Poitrier closed out the year with a submission loss to Cahrles Oliveira in a lightweight title bout. However, in Nov. 2022, he was back in action, when he submitted Michael Chandler nearly halfway through the third round of their bonus-winning war.
The perennial bonus winner Gaethje has also had some impressive performances. In Nov. 2021, he picked up his own win over Chandler by decision, and this win put him next in line for a shot at Oliveira’s belt in May 2022. The Brazilian champ would have defended his belt once again with a submission of Gaethje, but he was stripped of his title after he missed weight ahead of the fight. 10 months later, Gaethje resurfaced at UFC 286 in London, when he absolutely dominated Rafael Fiziev in a three-round affair. With both men coming off big wins after an unsuccessful title fight, these two warriors are coming in hot for a shot at the BMF belt.
This fight is going to be bonkers. While I do not truly expect this one to go the distance, it is difficult to call for anything other than a split decision, but this is a five-round fight, and neither of these guys has a tendency to go the distance.
The war is going to start the second the fight starts, and it will get really dirty, really quickly. Gaethje lost their first meeting by TKO, and I do not expect that to happen again, with Gaethje winning before the end of Round 2. However, if this one drags into Round 3 or beyond, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Poirier pull off a submission.
Petela: This one is going to be fun! No matter the outcome, the fans win in this showdown. Neither man is capable of putting on a boring fight. Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje are both nearing the end of their primes but I haven’t seen anything that tells me that this will be the fight where we start to see a diminished version of either fighter.
It’s become almost a joke at this point that Khabib Nurmagomedov was only one leg kick away from being stopped in his title unification bout against Justin Gaethje but it’s not altogether false. Gaethje has the strangest ability to throw leg kicks from practically no distance away from his opponent and they severely hampered Poirier in the first fight. The more measured version of Gaethje we have seen over the past couple years will be able to do that same damage without walking into oncoming traffic the way he did the first time around against “The Diamond.” It might not necessarily be a TKO by leg kicks but they will set up a big head shot that Poirier eats once his mobility is compromised. After this one it will be 1-1 in this series and fingers crossed they both stick around long enough for us to see a trilogy.
Alex Pereira makes his light heavyweight debut against former champion Jan Blachowicz; can the hard-hitting Brazilian kickboxer make a major statement and defeat his Polish counterpart?
Petela: I have very little confidence in my pick for this fight, but I believe that Jan Blachowicz will pull out a submission victory and make a claim that he deserves a crack at the now-vacant light heavyweight title. Blachowicz certainly isn’t a standout wrestler, but he has a tremendous jiu-jitsu game and nine submission wins over his career. He knows that, if this turns into a kickboxing match, he is in serious trouble against Alex Pereira. That will have him looking for any and every attempt to get this fight to the mat. It probably won’t come via a traditional takedown, but rather from a trip in the clinch or a caught kick that he uses to dump “Poatan” to the mat. From there he will be able to turn this fight into something similar to his fight against Israel Adesanya, except with one difference. There will be a lot of ground control time, some moderate ground-and-pound, and then an arm triangle choke to pull out the finish.
Pereira has been spending a ton of time with the last man to beat Blachowicz, Glover Teixeira. The pair are as thick as thieves, and, certainly, Teixeira has been helping Pereira with his takedown defense and overall grappling skills. However, he hasn’t seen anyone with Blachowicz’s submission skills in a live fight, and there is a major difference between training and a live fight. I won’t say that Pereira will panic when he’s on his back, but he will be rattled after eating a few punches and elbows, and he will make a mistake while he tries to get back to his feet and create the window Blachowicz needs to lock up the choke. The rest will be academic. The debut at 205 pounds. doesn’t go as planned for the Brazilian.
Kuhl: To echo what Matt said, and even expand, Alex Pereira could not have had a worse match-up for his 205-pound debut. Not only is Jan Blachowicz one of the most powerful light heavyweights, but he has a far superior ground game. There are videos floating around of Pereira getting easily taken down by smaller training partners.
In his last bout against Adesanya, Pereira was knocked out by his longtime nemesis, who is significantly smaller than Blachowicz. Granted, the weight cuts have likely taken a big toll on Pereira’s large frame, which can cause a loss of plasticity in the brain, making him more likely to get knocked out. But, Blachowicz hits way harder than Adesanya, has actually won a decision over the middleweight champ, and will be able to take Pereira down with ease. The Pole is a veteran fighter who knows not to stand in Pereira’s range, and, as Matt suggested, will eventually get this one to the mat. Finish or not, he beats Pereira. Styles make fights, and this is not the style that Poatan wants for his first light heavyweight fight.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 291?
Kuhl: The winner of Gaethje -Poirier will not only pick up the BMF title, but the victor will likely be the first BMF with a true title shot. Islam Makhachev and Charles Oliveira are set to rematch for the title in Oct. 2023. The winner of the UFC 291 main event will most likely be the next to face whoever wins that bout. However, if either the champ or challenger fall out, the BMF titleholder could potentially fight again this Fall.
Petela: For me, it has to be Jan Blachowicz. The next stop for him after defeating Alex Pereira has to be a crack at the vacant belt. Even with the less-than-thrilling draw he had against Magomed Ankalaev, the division is kind of running out of fighters deserving a title shot now that former champions Jiri Prochazka and Jamahal Hill are both on the shelf for a little while. The Polish standout is going to be challenging for the belt shortly before his 41st birthday.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 291?
Petela: Bobby Green. He is going to be the unfortunate fighter who ends up losing to a well-past-his-prime Tony Ferguson. That will make three losses in his last four fights, with the only fight he didn’t lose coming in a no-contest against Jared Gordon where an accidental headbutt lead to Gordon being put unconscious. It will be tough for him to come back from losing to this version of Ferguson and it will likely mark Green’s official transition from fringe contender to just another guy in the UFC.
Kuhl: While I don’t believe he will get bounced from the UFC with a loss, I’m not feeling great about Alex Pereira in this one. He is in a bad stylistic match-up, even though all the hype has him as a potential title contender at 205 pounds. Knowing the status of the division, he definitely took a calculated risk, because a win over Jan Blachowicz basically guarantees him a title shot for his next bout, but where does a loss put him?
If Pereira loses, which could very well happen, he might land somewhere in the middle of the rankings, at best.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: It has to be Tony Ferguson, right? In fact, until he wins again, his UFC career will always be on the ropes. The guy hasn’t won a fight in over four years, and his last two losses were stoppages at the hands of Michael Chandler and Nate Diaz. A loss to Bobby Green would mark six in a row. That has to be a recipe for walking papers.
Petela: Yea that one I can’t argue with, even a little bit. Another fighter who is in desperate need of a win is Derrick Lewis. He has fallen in three straight fights and lost four of his last five. Power is always the last thing to go, as they say, but if he can’t get by Marcos Rogerio de Lima there really isn’t a clear place in the UFC’s heavyweight division for Lewis. “The Black Beast” always has a chance as long as he’s upright, but if he ends up on a four-fight skid and a 1-5 record over six bouts, this could be the end of the road for him in the UFC. It might be bare-knuckle boxing time if this doesn’t go his way.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Matthew Semelsberger vs. Uros Medic. Medic replaces Yohan Lainesse for this welterweight contest and these two should put on a high level, entertaining fight early on in the night. Medic has notched six of his eight victories by knockout and two by submission so he will be looking for a finish from the get-go. Semelsberger is always a crowd pleaser and he is yet to be stopped since joining the UFC. This one gets the Salt Lake City crowd going early.
Kuhl: The women’s match-up between Miranda Maverick and Priscila Cachoeira should get the event started on the right foot. Both of these ladies are scrappy finishers looking to crack into the stacked flyweight rankings. While a win might not vault either into the top 15, they both badly need a win to get a peek at the rankings. This should make for a fun fight.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: The winner of Justin Gaehtje and Dustin Poirier – or both men in the case of a decision – will certainly earn a performance bonus. This fight will not be boring, no matter how it goes.
Petela: That answer almost feels like cheating. I’ll instead go with Michael Chiesa. He returns to action after over a year and a half away from the cage, and he really needs a victory. He is on the verge of a three-fight losing streak if he can’t get by Kevin Holland on Saturday night. I not only expect him to score the win but he is going to submit the Travis Lutter blackbelt and reintroduce himself to the welterweight division. Chiesa is getting up there in age in welterweight fighter terms but this performance will be just the showing he needs to start one more solid run towards challenging for the belt.
Pair this card with…
Petela: The movie “The Sandlot.” There’s a line in that movie that kept popping into my head when I looked at this fight card for the first time. While discussing an aging Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez the commentator says “they say the Jet’s lost a step or two but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some fireworks here.” With fighters like Tony Ferguson, Stephen Thompson, and Derrick Lewis all fighting on the card and all being past their primes, I wouldn’t be surprised if they set off some fireworks of their own by all three picking up victories.
Kuhl: Bang Bang Shrimp, either from Bonefish Grill or even a similar homemade style. Top-to-bottom, this card is full of hard-hitting finishers. My colleague mentioned above that the last thing to go is power, and with guys like Jan Blachowicz, Stephen Thompson, and Derrick Lewis on the older end, and Michel Pereira, Matthew Semelsberger, and Uros Medic on the younger side, there is a ton of knockout potential on this card. Nothing screams knockouts like Bang Bang Shrimp.
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
BMF Championship: Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje
LHW: Jan Blachowicz vs. Alex Pereira
WW: Stephen Thompson vs. Michel Pereira
LW: Tony Ferguson vs. Bobby Green
WW: Michael Chiesa vs. Kevin Holland
Preliminary Card (ABC/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Trevin Giles vs. Gabriel Bonfim
HW: Derrick Lewis vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima
MW: Roman Kopylov vs. Claudio Ribeiro
WW: Jake Matthews vs. Darrius Flowers
Early Prelims (UFC Fight Pass/ESPN/ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
FlyW: CJ Vergara vs. Vinicius Salvador
WW: Matthew Semelsberger vs. Uros Medic
Women’s FlyW: Miranda Maverick vs. Priscila Cachoeira
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