It’s easy to forget Charles Oliveira is the champion heading into his highly anticipated clash with Dustin Poirier. It’s even easier to forget the longest reigning current UFC champion is fighting in the co-main event. It’s unfortunate Amanda Nunes doesn’t have anyone who can pique the interests of fans opposite of her, but that’s the breaks. Make no mistake, Julianna Pena is trying to get people to care, but her track record is hard to get excited about. Fortunately for Pena, she doesn’t need to do much promoting as the vast majority of MMA fandom is going to find the money to throw down for Oliveira and Poirier. While the main event isn’t as anticipated amongst the general public as Poirier’s last two fights – both against Conor McGregor — it could very well be the most anticipated fight for the year of 2021 for those who closely follow the sport.
Charles Oliveira vs. Dustin Poirier, Lightweight
Poirier being in the limelight of the sport for the last few years – his fights with Justin Gaethje, Max Holloway, and Khabib Nurmagomedov were arguably higher profile fights than anything Oliveira has been in, much less the McGregor fights – has him in the driver seat in this contest despite Oliveira is the champion. Many view Poirier as the uncrowned champion for these reasons. If one wants to argue Poirier should have been inserted into the title fight in May, I would agree. However, Poirier willingly chose not to pursue that avenue, instead choosing to take the trilogy fight with McGregor to further line his bank account. I don’t blame him, but he can’t be an uncrowned champion if he voluntarily chose not to fight for the belt.
That said, anyone who is in the limelight in generally fighting the highest level of competition and Poirier is no exception to that rule. Regardless of what anyone thinks of McGregor, the wins over Gaethje and Holloway are arguably better wins than Oliveira’s wins over Tony Ferguson and Michael Chandler. Thus, while I disagree with the sentiment Poirier is the uncrowned champion, I at least understand where the sentiment comes from as Poirier’s only loss in the last five years came to Khabib, the GOAT for many respectable followers of the sport.
The transformation of Poirier from a fringe featherweight contender to the elite – and massive – lightweight he now is has been nothing short of incredible. Poirier could be a bit hot-headed back in the day, but is now as cerebral of a fighter as there is. That doesn’t mean he isn’t above getting into a slugfest, but that’s only happening on his terms. Despite being on the slow side, Poirier, who was never a poor boxer, has sharpened his boxing to the point I’ve heard credible opinions stating he’s the best boxer in the sport. Given his ability to outslick his opponent or overpower them, it’s hard to argue.
The question is whether he’ll be able to keep the fight standing. Oliveira, the record holder for most submissions in UFC history, is an absolute wizard on the mat. When the Brazilian was younger, he could be overconfident and reckless, but it’s been a long time since Oliveira made a mistake on the mat that cost him. Poirier isn’t a poor grappler by any means, but he does have a tendency to give up his back and if there’s anyone that can make him pay for that, it’s Oliveira.
However, it’s not like Poirier is completely safe on the feet either. It may have taken Oliveira until his 24th UFC fight before he registered his first KO/TKO finish, but he’s racked up two more in the next four fights, including the one over Chandler that awarded Oliveira the title. Owner of a lanky frame, Oliveira can afford to be more risky on the feet than most as he doesn’t mind having an opponent leap into his guard if Oliveira hits the mat. Given how well Oliveira recovered from Chandler hurting him while inviting him into his guard, it also proved he has apparently overcome the mental issues that held him back from fulfilling his promise even earlier.
There are a lot of factors to consider in this contest. Given Oliveira’s progress on the feet, it seems plausible he could KO or submit Poirier. On the flip side, a submission victory for Poirier seems unlikely. In fact, it seems likely Poirier’s wrestling dimension will be a non-factor. However, while Poirier has gone into deep waters many times in his career, entering the championship rounds in knockdown, drag ‘em out slugfests, Oliveira has never entered the championship rounds. Yes, he’s been in fights scheduled for five rounds, but they’ve never gone very deep. I’ve flip-flopped many times on who I believe will win, but I’m going in the direction of Poirier for this reason: his heart has never been questioned. Oliveira does appear to have turned a new leaf, but even in the times Poirier appeared relegated to being a fringe contender, no one ever questioned his heart. The same can’t be said for Oliveira. Poirier via TKO of RD4
Amanda Nunes vs. Julianna Pena, Women’s Bantamweight
It feels obligatory to point out Nunes is the most dominant champion we have in the sport at the moment. We’ve been saying that for years. Part of that can be attributed to the lack of depth in both women’s bantamweight and featherweight divisions, but to say that’s the sole reason Nunes is so dominant would be doing Nunes a great disservice. Name her biggest weakness. It isn’t easy, is it?
If I were to be completely honest, I’d probably have to say her wrestling is her greatest weakness. After all, that was the issue that led to her last loss to Cat Zingano all the way back in 2014. Well... that and a faulty gas tank, but her stamina hasn’t been an issue for a while, so we’ll stick with wrestling being her biggest weakness. Just how weak is her wrestling? She’s been taken down one time since claiming UFC gold over five years ago. Once. Any fighter would love to have those results for what is their greatest weakness. Some of that can be attributed to Nunes facing a lot of strikers in that time, others would point to several quick finishes on behalf of Nunes, but she’s also gone into the fifth round four times in that stretch and landed 19 takedowns of her own in that stretch.
Regardless, a small contingent of fans believe that Pena will be able to expose that hole in Nunes’ arsenal. There’s no doubt Pena will try. An aggressive fighter in all stages, Pena is at heart a wrestler who has overwhelmed many opponents with her athletic ability and aggression. However, is she more athletic than Nunes? No. Has her aggression worked against her against composed opposition. Yes. In fact, while confidence is key to any fighter’s success, it’s safe to say Pena is overconfident, successfully defending just 23% of her opponents takedown attempts since entering the UFC. That isn’t even mentioning Pena’s two UFC losses that have come via submission after Pena landed a takedown. You can be damn well assured Nunes is aware of that and will look to expose Pena’s lack of takedown and submission defense.
The contest on the feet isn’t even close. Nunes proved she can be both the bull and the matador within the same contest within the same against both Cyborg Justino and Ronda Rousey. She’s comfortable with more disciplined pressure like she did to Raquel Pennington or engaging in a tedious point fight with Valentina Shevchenko. Nunes is a chameleon on the feet who can adapt to whatever her opponent brings. Due to her anxiousness to get the fight to the mat, Pena is a pressure fighter who uses her punches to close the distance. She does have some power, but that has been seen far more when she gets the top position and unleashes her GnP.
If Nunes continues to fight, she will eventually lose. It happens to everyone. Knowing those losses seem to occur when it’s least expected (ala Holly Holm dethroning Rousey), this doesn’t feel like that moment. Many have said Nunes is losing motivation, the basis for that reasoning being Nunes has a child. I don’t know if that’s enough evidence to support that, but even if it were true, Pena has been talking enough to provide Nunes the motivation she may have lost. I’m sure Pena believes she’s giving herself an edge by attempting to get into Nunes’ head, but I don’t see that working here. Nunes has been cool, calm, and collected. Holm at least waited until the weigh-ins to play any sort of mind games with Rousey, who was also notoriously hot-headed. Expect Nunes to look as dominant as ever. Nunes via submission of RD2