Coming into 2019, the idea of seeing Khabib Nurmagomedov, the UFC’s undefeated Muslim champion, headline a major event in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, would not have seemed far-fetched. Picturing Dustin Poirier as the man standing across from him, however, would have been much harder to envision.
It’s not that Poirier (25-5) wasn’t one of the top lightweights in the world coming into this year. Quite the contrary. In 2018, Poirier stopped Justin Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez, extending his unbeaten streak to five. His record at 155 pounds in the UFC, coming into 2019, was 7-1 with one no contest.
But Poirier wasn’t really on many people’s radar when it came to the Nurmagomedov sweepstakes. And if he was on someone’s list, there were plenty of names ahead of him. Former interim champ Tony Ferguson, for one. Reigning featherweight champion Max Holloway, for another. And, of course, the 1,000-pound gorilla in any MMA conversation, Conor McGregor.
But in April, with McGregor missing in action and Ferguson dealing with personal issues, Poirier got his shot at a vacant interim title against Holloway, who agreed to move up in weight. Poirier defeated Holloway via unanimous decision in a masterful five-round performance to earn his shot at arguably the most coveted belt in MMA today: the UFC lightweight title.
Saturday’s UFC 242 main event represents several things. It represents the beginning of the UFC’s five-year commitment to Abu Dhabi. It represents a return to normalcy in the 155-pound division, where a champion will actually defend his belt against the No. 1 contender, something McGregor never did in his 511-day reign as champ.
And for Poirier, the bout represents something that he has put into words perfectly: “25 minutes to make life fair.” It took Poirier 22 fights in the UFC to become an interim champion. In the history of the UFC, only Michael Bisping (26) had to make more appearances before earning his first title shot.
Honestly, when the year began, the sport probably didn’t expect Poirier to be here this weekend. But he has erased any alternative, while earning his shot the hard way.
By the numbers
11: UFC wins for Nurmagomedov, the most without a loss by any fighter in UFC history. With a win on Saturday, Nurmagomedov would become the seventh fighter with a 12-fight UFC win streak, joining Anderson Silva (16), Jon Jones (13), Demetrious Johnson (13), Georges St-Pierre (13), Max Holloway (13) and Tony Ferguson (12).
7.11: Strikes landed per minute by Poirier, second most in UFC lightweight history.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
A look back … and downward
Five vs. five
Khabib Nurmagomedov’s most recent results
Win: Conor McGregor (SUB4, Oct. 6, 2018)
Win: Al Iaquinta (UD, April 7, 2018)
Win: Edson Barboza (UD, Dec. 30, 2017)
Win: Michael Johnson (SUB3, Nov. 12, 2016)
Win: Darrell Horcher (TKO2, April 16, 2016)
Dustin Poirier’s most recent results
Win: Max Holloway (UD, April 13, 2019)
Win: Eddie Alvarez (TKO2, July 28, 2018)
Win: Justin Gaethje (TKO4, April 14, 2018)
Win: Anthony Pettis (TKO3, Nov. 11, 2017)
NC: Eddie Alvarez (illegal knees, May 13, 2017)
Abu Dhabi déjà vu?
“I have a chance to do something great. Not too many times in your life do certain events happen to set you up to do something like this on Saturday night. Champion vs. champion in an arena they’re building in the desert in a foreign land [where] I’ve never been. It’s a very special point in my career and a special point in combat sports. It’s gonna be an historic night.” — Poirier, speaking to ESPN
“The difference between all of his opponents and me — Eddie Alvarez, Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, Max Holloway, Jim Miller, all of these guys — nobody can wrestle like me. Nobody. And I’m going to put pressure [on him], very good pressure. And he has to wrestle with me all 25 minutes. With these guys, he can box with them. But with me, he have to wrestle. He have to be ready for this one. And I don’t think he’s ready for this.” — Nurmagomedov, speaking to ESPN
Gil & Joe’s film study
Gilbert Melendez demonstrates how Khabib Nurmagomedov holds his opponents down, especially up against the cage. Order UFC 242 here https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Brett Okamoto’s pick
Poirier’s performance against Holloway, who is a bona fide pound-for-pound great, was eye-opening to say the least. Poirier is tough and resilient, but he’s also much more than that. For him to not only match but outperform Holloway in areas such as cardio and striking accuracy was sublime to watch. This 30-year-old interim champ is brimming with confidence coming into this fight, and he’s arguably one of the best-conditioned athletes Nurmagomedov has ever fought. But Nurmagomedov is just too hard to pick against. Nurmagomedov via decision.
Waiting in the wings
Tony Ferguson. Or maybe the next title shot could go to … Tony Ferguson. Here are a few more options: Tony Ferguson, Tony Ferguson, Tony Ferguson. Don’t even try cutting the line and stepping in front of “El Cucuy.”
What else to look for … beyond the main event
A striking rematch in the co-main
“I think this fight takes Felder to another level.”
That was UFC president Dana White singing the praises of Paul Felder in the aftermath of his 2015 fight against Edson Barboza. Felder had clearly impressed the boss, but he wasn’t so impressed himself. Felder had just dropped a unanimous decision, the first loss of his career.
“I got that first L,” Felder said afterward, sounding despondent but determined. “Now I’m just gonna have to get a whole more W’s.”
That did not turn out to be his immediate path — Felder lost again barely a month later — but now he is on a good run, having won four of his past five. And in Saturday’s co-main event he gets another shot at Barboza, whose recent career has gone the other way — three losses in his past four fights.
Joseph Benavidez thinks Edson Barboza should bring his left kick to the head, catching Paul Felder off guard. Order UFC 242 here https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
A few co-main appetizers, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
Seven of Barboza’s UFC wins have come by KO/TKO, tying him with Melvin Guillard for most in lightweight history. Five of those finishes were with kicks or knees, tied for second most in UFC history.
Barboza has 10 knockdowns in his UFC career, placing him third in lightweight history behind Guillard (13) and Cerrone (11).
Felder (16-4) has finished 11 of his wins (10 KO/TKOs, 1 submission).
Three of Felder’s UFC finishes have come by elbows, most in promotion history.
Can she rise to the occasion at a higher level?
Andrea Lee has won seven fights in a row, but she has never faced anyone like Joanne Calderwood, whom she meets in Saturday’s feature prelim. Calderwood has lost three of her past five — but against fighters at a higher level than those Lee has been in with during her three-bout UFC stint.
Calderwood (13-4) is No. 4 in ESPN’s rankings at women’s flyweight, while Lee (11-2) checks in at No. 8.
Lee is coming off a June win over Montana De La Rosa in which she outlanded her opponent 73-14, according to UFC Stats research. But Calderwood connected with 112 significant strikes in her fight that same month, a loss to No. 2-ranked Katlyn Chookagian, and lands the second-most significant strikes per minute among active women’s fighters, at 6.1.
Expect a whole lot of swinging.
Bits and pieces
Zubaira Tukhugov, who faces UFC newcomer Lerone Murphy in a featherweight prelim, will be fighting for the first time since a 2016 loss to Renato Moicano, which ended a nine-fight winning streak. Tukhugov is one of the Nurmagomedov teammates who were suspended for their actions during the brawl with Conor McGregor’s team at UFC 229 last October.
Murphy is 8-0 with five wins by KO/TKO, all in the first round.
Also making an Octagon debut is bantamweight Liana Jojua (7-2), who has won her past five fights, four by first-round submission. She faces Sarah Moras, a loser in her past three. Another loss would put Moras in a tie for fourth for most consecutive losses among UFC women.
Ottman Azaitar (11-0) looks to extend his perfect record in his first UFC fight, a lightweight prelim. But he has a formidable obstacle in front of him: Teemu Packalen (8-2), who has finished all eight of his wins.
Packalen has not fought since 2017, and his past two bouts have lasted a combined 54 seconds — a 30-second KO loss to Marc Diakiese in March of that year and a 24-second submission win over Thibault Gouti in February 2016.
Nordine Taleb (15-6) is one of two UFC welterweights all time who is in the top 10 in both significant strike accuracy (50.8%) and significant strike defense (66.3%), along with former champion Georges St-Pierre, according to UFC Stats. He faces Muslim Salikhov (14-2).
Thirteen of Salikhov’s wins have come by stoppage, including 11 by KO/TKO.
(Thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for the intel.)