We’ve certainly come a long way since Conor McGregor’s Octagon debut way back in April 2013. At the time, “Notorious” was a simply a “Prelims” card prospect with some international buzz, who parlayed two consecutive victories (one of which came over future hall-of-famer Max Holloway) to earn his very first main event.
Where I predicted he would win by technical knockout (thankyouverymuch).
I also made a lot of dumb Irish jokes which not surprisingly, have not held up over time. But has McGregor? He certainly looked like a world beater against Donald Cerrone this time last year and will now try to dispose of another accomplished lightweight veteran tomorrow night on “Fight Island.”
Beating Dustin Poirier in the UFC 257 pay-per-view (PPV) headliner could have “Notorious” in the crosshairs of either Michael Chandler or Dan Hooker, who collide in the Jan. 23 co-main event in Abu Dhabi, assuming streaking lightweight Charles Oliveira doesn't get to him first.
Simply put: there’s a lot at stake for the lightweight division at UFC 257.
So who wins and who loses? If I knew that for sure, I would be at MGM Grand laying heavy timer on a bevy of parlays. I don’t, so I’ll give you the next best thing: an educated guess from over a decade of dumb, emotionally-charged picks that usually end up being right, which is how I got the moniker “Nostradumbass.”
Before we break down tomorrow night’s UFC 257 main card, go ahead and take a look at what MMA whiz kid Patrick Stumberg had to say about the preliminary bouts, spread across the ESPN and ESPN+ networks by clicking here. Latest UFC 257 odds and a complete betting guide for all the “McGregor vs. Poirier” action can be located here.
Let’s get to work.
155 lbs.: “The Notorious” Conor McGregor (22-4) vs. Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier (26-6, 1 NC)
Despite his inactivity and frequent tomfoolery, former UFC two-division champion Conor McGregor is still the biggest fight you can land in combat sports. If you’re wondering why “Notorious” remains the A-side despite not having the hard data to warrant that spot, you’re probably not alone. The power-punching Irishman has only competed twice since late 2016 and in those four-plus years he’s 1-1, getting submitted by Khabib Nurmagomedov before destroying a shopworn Donald Cerrone. Probably not the kind of resume that warrants champagne and mylar balloons but to be fair, Kimbo Slice was able to get six million viewers on CBS for beating the barbecue out of his street-fighting brethren. On the flip side, McGregor has to perform exceptionally on Saturday night and look every bit the superstar the promotion positions him to be. Anything less will be considered a failure and even for a fighter as dialed in as “Mystic Mac,” maintaining focus inside a steel cage while another world-class athlete tries to kill him is unquestionably a Herculean task.
Much has been made about McGregor’s UFC 178 knockout win over Dustin Poirier back in late 2014. While I recognize that a combatant with the grit and determination of “The Diamond” can transform into a completely different fighter within that span, one thing you can’t improve is your ability to withstand impact. The question — and a fair one — is how much the cut to featherweight contributed to the erosion of Poirier’s chin. That’s not bro-science, it’s a medically proven fact that severe dehydration takes water from the brain and contributes to fragility, which is why I cannot to this day understand why weight cutting is still a staple of nearly every fighter’s camp. That remains a topic for another day but it stands to reason Poirier has survived the bludgeoning power of Justin Gaethje and the high volume of Max Holloway because he’s competing at the right weight. I do think it’s equally fair to suggest that he could be wearing head gear and still get knocked out by McGregor because “Notorious” was blessed with dynamite for hands.
I guess that leads to a couple of different scenarios. It’s no secret that McGregor’s biggest threat is the hourglass; meaning, his cardio is good for a couple of rounds and then his greatest attributes — speed, power, precision — are significantly reduced. And I don’t care how good any of the top lightweights are, nobody gets excited about a fifth round against Poirier because “The Diamond” is ready to die inside the cage. In order to make it that far, the Louisianan will need to shackle his ego and fight smart which means movement, clinching, and frequent wrestling. Remember, not every shot is to score a takedown, sometimes it’s a way of keeping a striker (like McGregor) out of his comfort zone and preventing him from finding his rhythm and range. Fans may not like it, but if we believe Poirier’s pre-fight banter then he’s here to be the best, not to pocket another “Fight Night” bonus.
There’s not much I can tell you about these two gladiators that you don’t already know. McGregor is a knockout machine with improved takedown defense and killer instincts. He’s also been out of the cage for a year and was never that great at conditioning to begin with. Poirier is a blood-and-guts warrior who can perform at a high level anywhere the fight goes. But that “Diamond” defense has more holes in it than Michael Bisping’s liver. By my estimation, “Notorious” has two rounds to land the fatal blow. Anything after that should be considered deep water and Poirier is captain of the swim team. Since I’m forced to make a pick for the purposes of this column, I will confess that my brain picks McGregor. My heart, however, says Poirier.
Since I’m not that smart, why should I trust my brain?
Prediction: Poirier def. McGregor by submission
155 lbs: “Iron” Michael Chandler (21-5) vs. Dan “The Hangman” Hooker (20-9)
This will be an exciting but in many ways uncertain debut for ex-Bellator MMA champion Michael Chandler. I know the running punchline — particularly among active UFC lightweights — is “he got knocked out by a featherweight” because of his first-round loss to Patricio Freire. That isn’t a fair critique because A) it discounts “Pitbull” as a world-class fighter and B) Chandler has won eight of his last ten, including back-to-back knockouts in his final two bouts for Scott Coker and Co. His level of competition has been hit-or-miss and the NCAA Division-1 All American turns 35 in April, so we have to take that into consideration when talking about this weekend’s fight. What I can say for certain is that Chandler will bring a blistering pace and a heavy right hand into the UFC 257 co-main event.
Dan Hooker, currently ranked No. 6 at 155 pounds, also knows a thing or two about heavy leather, scoring double-digit knockouts spanning his 11-year MMA career. “The Hangman” boasts a similar record to Chandler across his last 10 fights (7-3), putting Gilbert Burns to bed at UFC 226 and notching consecutive “Fight of the Night” bonuses opposite Paul Felder and Dustin Poirier. Hooker went five years with only one decision and now he’s seen the scorecards in three straight bouts; I’m not sure if that’s a testament to his quality of opposition or an indication that things are starting to slow down for the soon-to-be 31 year-old Kiwi. Perhaps this fight will tell us more about his future but for now there is no reason to suggest we’re not getting a prime “Hangman” who is one of the few fighters who openly volunteered to fight Chandler at this weekend’s event.
I know it’s easy to throw around superlatives in this sport and often times it’s warranted. I just have a hard time imagining this contest being anything but spectacular. You have two high-octane action fighters who aren’t afraid to go for broke and the pace Chandler brings will only up the intensity. “Iron” may eventually fall back on his wrestling and when he does, he’ll need to be weary of Hooker’s submissions, particularly the guillotine. “The Hangman” has been pretty good at stuffing takedowns in recent years, denying Burns, Felder and Al Iaquinta in past fights. Forgive the cliche but there are levels to this game and Chandler’s wrestling is going to present more complex problems for the UFC veteran to solve. In a five-round bout I might have a different take on this fight, but to the detriment of Hooker it’s not, so Chandler can empty his tank in the first two frames and score a couple of judge-friendly takedowns in the third to steal the round. A hotly-contested decision would not surprise me.
Prediction: Chandler def. Hooker by unanimous decision
125 lbs.: Joanne “JoJo” Calderwood (14-5) vs. Jessica “Evil” Eye (15-8, 1 NC)
Joanne Calderwood could have waited a few months and received a title fight against Valentina Shevchenko. Instead, she opted to compete and lost to Jennifer Maia by submission. That was a decision that was not unique to “JoJo” and represents two schools of thought in combat sports: You can fight and stay active and throw hands with whoever the promoter puts in front of you, or you can carefully navigate the division to procure opportunities, including big-money headliners and championship title fights. So do you chase the money or the respect? Let’s face it, very few combatants get both. Calderwood may have the street cred but she also has a 6-5 record for UFC and a spot just outside the Top 5 at No. 7. The chance to catch a speeding “Bullet” may not come again anytime soon.
Maybe that’s for the best after watching what Shevchenko did to Jessica Eye, who meets Calderwood on the UFC 257 main card. “Evil” was considered a massive underdog for her 2019 crack at the crown but at the same time, earned her spot by winning three straight in a division starved of contenders. Since then, the Bellator MMA veteran is 1-1, splitting a pair of decisions with Viviane Araujo (W) and Cynthia Calvillo (L). Eye turns 35 this summer so if she has another run inside her, now is the time. If that’s the case, she’s going to have to work on her takedown defense. The Ohioan has been taken down 17 times in her UFC career, four of which came against Calvillo, a former strawweight. I guess now is a good time to mention that Calderwood has scored 15 takedowns of her own inside the Octagon, so I think you know where I’m going with this.
Eye is tough as nails and can be a tiring opponent because she is both strong and durable. Calderwood, also 34, has the benefit of competing without fear of the knockout, so she may very well opt to keep this fight upright until the situation calls for a takedown (and it may not, depending on how she fares). I know this may sound kinda shitty, but I do not have high expectations for this fight. “Evil” is not an exciting fighter and Calderwood certainly hasn’t done anything worth writing home about over the last two years. The good news is we only have three rounds to deal with it, though I would not be surprised if the typically-reserved “JoJo” comes out with something to prove after her mishap against Maia.
Prediction: Calderwood def. Eye by unanimous decision
Note: The following prediction was promoted from Patrick Stumberg’s preliminary card preview after Ottman Azaitar was cut from UFC, sending opponent Matt Frevola into battle against Arman Tsarukyan much earlier in the lineup.
185 lbs.: Andrew “El Dirte” Sanchez (12-5) vs. Makhmud “Mach” Muradov (24-6)
Andrew Sanchez ran the table on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 23, only to fall into a 2-3 slump soon after that saw him suffer two comeback knockout losses. With his back against the wall, he came up huge against Wellington Turman in Aug. 2020, knocking out the Brazilian to claim his first “Performance of the Night” bonus.
“El Dirte” gives up an inch of height and just under two inches of reach to “Mach.”
Makhmud Muradov — The Money Team’s sole MMA representative — brought an 11-fight win streak into his Octagon debut and extended it to 12 with a decision over Alessio Di Chirico. His next effort was even more impressive, as he leveled Trevor Smith with a brutal right hand to win his own “Performance of the Night.”
His 19 stoppage wins include 16 by form of knockout.
Though Muradov still has a lot to prove before he can be labeled a future top contender in this shark tank of a division, he’s perfectly equipped to win this one. Sanchez, though technically sound, struggles when forced to work at a high pace. And between Muradov’s quality footwork and the fact that he lands nearly five strikes per minute, “Mach” certainly fits the bill, and he’s a good enough wrestler to keep Sanchez from grinding things to a halt on the mat.
Muradov’s just too elusive and too active for Sanchez to get his offense going. Even if “El Dirte’s” cardio holds up, he’ll have too much trouble corralling Muradov to bring his power and top control to bear. In short, Muradov takes him apart at range for a wide decision.
Prediction: Muradov via unanimous decision
115 lbs.: Amanda Ribas (10-1) vs. Marina Rodriguez (12-1-2)
This is an exciting fight for the strawweight division and is expected to separate contender from pretender. The 115-pound weight class is so thin you can floss with it and the fault doesn’t rest with the current roster. The promotion is still working on cultivating new talent and it will probably take a few years for the division to level out. Until then, it’s up to Amanda Ribas and Marina Rodriguez to prove they belong among the strawweight elite. Rodriguez had that opportunity against former champion Carla Esparza last July but lost a split decision on ESPN. Hearing that “Cookie Monster” could be in line for a title shot now that Rose Namajunas is mired in contract negotiations must really burn the 33 year-old Brazilian, who went to a draw against Cynthia Calvillo prior to her Esparza fight.
As for Ribas, she’s looked nothing short of dominant since making her UFC debut back in June 2019. She took the hype from Mackenzie Dern the way Shang Tsung took the soul of Great Kung Lao. Back-to-back wins over Randa Markos and Paige VanZant would follow with the latter ending by way of first-round armbar. The lone blemish on her MMA record came against fellow Jungle Fight import Polyana Viana more than five years ago in Brazil, which is surprising when you consider how unremarkable “Dama De Ferro” has looked since crossing over to UFC in early 2018. Regardless, Ribas stands at 4-0 inside the Octagon and at age 27, is fighting in the prime of her career. It’s not unreasonable to think the Brazilian is one or two wins away from a potential title shot in the current 115-pound climate.
Rodriguez is taller but has the shorter reach. She’s also been taken down 10 times in her UFC career and Ribas is the complete opposite, scoring six takedowns of her own. I doubt Rodriguez will provide much of a submission threat from guard, considering Ribas was able to ground Dern on two occasions without jeopardizing her momentum. That’s really what this fight boils down to for me. Rodriguez is good in just about every area and has high-volume striking. Unfortunately Ribas is just a little bit better and does a more efficient job of putting it all together. One of these strawweights still fights like a work in progress while the other performs like the complete package, something that will be apparent by round two of this 115-pound showdown on Saturday night.
Prediction: Ribas def. Rodriguez by unanimous decision
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 257 fight card on Sat. night RIGHT HERE, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN+ and ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
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