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UFC 269 predictions, preview, and analysis

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will close out its 2021 fight campaign with a championship pay-per-view (PPV) doubleheader this Sat. night (Dec. 11) inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, featuring the lightweight title fight between reigning division kingpin Charles Oliveira and former interim straphanger Dustin Poirier. Before that five-round banger gets underway in “Sin City,” current women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes will answer the call of longtime 135-pound contender and one-time Ultimate Fighter (TUF) winner Julianna Pena, who will look to pull the sword from the proverbial stone.

Geoff Neal, Cody Garbrandt, and Sean O’Malley will also see action.

LIVE! Watch UFC 270 PPV On ESPN+ Here!

CHAMPIONSHIP DOUBLEHEADER! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., on Sat., Jan. 22, 2022, for the first time in more than two years with a Heavyweight title unification bout that will see former teammates collide, as division kingpin, Francis Ngannou, battles interim counterpart, Ciryl Gane. In UFC 270’s pay-per-view (PPV) co-main event, newly-minted Flyweight champion, Brandon Moreno, runs it back with former titleholder, Deiveson Figueiredo. IT’S A THRILLING CHAMPIONSHIP DOUBLE DIP YOU SIMPLY CAN’T MISS!

Don’t miss a single second of EPIC face-punching action!

Before we break down the five-fight main card, which also features appearances from Santiago Ponzinibbio, Kai Kara-France, and Raulian Paiva, get an in-depth look at the UFC 269 “Prelims” card expertly deconstructed by the run-and-gun stylings of Patrick Stumberg here and here. Remember too that Draftkings sportsbook offers several bonuses that you can take advantage of if you’re looking to bet on the fights. For the current UFC 269 start time as well as all available viewing options go here.

Enough potatoes, let’s get to the meat.

155 lbs.: UFC Lightweight Champion Charles “Do Bronx” Oliveira (31-8, 1 NC) vs. Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier (28-6, 1 NC)

Charles Oliveira will make his first lightweight title defense atop the UFC 269 fight card tomorrow night in “Sin City” and a victory will help silence some of the Doubting Thomases who believe “Do Bronx” isn’t the “real” champion. We can’t really blame the Brazilian for not fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov, who retired in late 2020, but there is merit to the argument that Oliveira made it to the mountain top by climbing over the top two contenders at 155 pounds: Justin Gaethje and Dustin Poirier. It didn’t make sense at the time considering “The Highlight” was coming off a loss to Nurmagomedov and Poirier was more interested in continuing his rivalry with Conor McGregor, probably because “The Diamond” has children and a “Notorious” showdown yields the kind of life-changing payday that most fighters can only dream of. To wit: Poirier bagged two of those in one year, so I’m sure it will be a very merry Christmas at Casa de Diamond.

In the absence of those two fighters, Oliveira was paired against former Bellator MMA champion Michael Chandler, and just like he’s done since June 2018, “Do Bronx” performed spectacularly, securing yet another finish along with another “Fight Night” bonus to go with his 155-pound strap. Whatever issues that were plaguing the Brazilian earlier in his career appear to have been corrected or outgrown, though it also helps that his competition has been good, but not great. Oliveira went on a 7-0 tear after losing to Paul Felder at UFC 218, but two of those fighters are no longer with the promotion and the other five were not ranked in the Top 15. There are also questions about what Tony Ferguson had to offer in the wake of his snuff film (co-starring Justin Gaethje) and despite his balls-to-the-wall style of fighting, Michael Chandler has a losing record in UFC. This isn’t an attempt to dismiss what Oliveira has done — it’s been sensational — but these are the finer details that have to be considered when you drop him in a cage against one of the best lightweights in the world.

Like Oliveira, the 32 year-old Poirier had his share of problems earlier in his career and went from promising featherweight to lightweight middleman. Honestly, I don’t think anyone could have predicted this kind of run after watching “The Diamond” get scratched at the hands of Michael Johnson back in late 2016. What followed was an 8-1 run (with one No Contest) which includes finishes over three former UFC lightweight champions. Along the way, Poirier also shut down 145-pound dynamo Max Holloway and avenged his loss to Conor McGregor, putting him one victory away from locking in my vote for “Fighter of the Year.” It’s even more impressive when you consider this latest hot streak comes on the heels of his loss to Nurmagomedov, giving you an idea of where “The Diamond” is at, mentally speaking. I don’t think a fighter who would risk his legacy (as well as his shot at the title) by volunteering for a third Conor McGregor fight is going to be rattled by the pressure surrounding this weekend’s headliner in Las Vegas. Let’s just hope nobody breaks their leg.

There are a couple of different ways you can look at this matchup. Oliveira is obviously a decorated grappler with top-shelf submissions, but he’s also been submitted three times himself — twice by guillotine. Poirier has only been submitted once over the last decade and that came against Nurmagomedov. As far as the striking is concerned, Oliveira has proved that he’s just as dangerous on his feet, racking up three knockouts over the last two years. That said, I’m not sure he wants to volunteer for a brawl with a powerful, blood-and-guts banger like Poirier, who holds a slightly shorter reach but throws from the southpaw stance. This fight is probably going to boil down to who controls the wrestling, which presents its own dangers when you have two combatants who’ve mastered the guillotine. I can tell you that no matter who wins, it probably won’t come as a surprise. We have two accomplished veterans with championship experience and high-level skills from top to bottom. When that’s the case, we have to look at the intangibles, and I don’t know if there is a fighter at lightweight (or any other division, for that matter) who can sweat, suffer, and bleed like Poirier — and somehow get more dangerous as the fight goes on.

Prediction: Poirier def. Oliveira by technical knockout

135 lbs.: UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Amanda “Lioness” Nunes (21-4) vs. Julianna “Venezuelan Vixen” Pena (10-4)

Julianna Pena can win this fight, which gets a lot of eye rolls from the dismissive “Lioness” fans, but this is a dangerous contest for Amanda Nunes. Remember, success breeds vulnerability and there’s no one more successful than the Brazilian bomber, at least when it comes to women’s MMA. Outside of her Valentina Shevchenko fights, Nunes has enjoyed a steady stream of overmatched and outgunned opponents across two different weight classes. Former champions Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg, Miesha Tate, and Holly Holm were not just defeated, they were destroyed. I don’t know what else there is to say about Nunes that isn’t already painfully obvious. She’s the best striker in the division with the heaviest hands and has enough championship experience to cement herself in the annals of MMA history. She’s also a formidable jiu-jitsu fighter with sneaky submissions. If “Lioness” is a bloated -900 favorite; well, she’s earned it.

Nunes is also extremely comfortable and used to winning.

Longtime bantamweight contender Julianna Pena captured the glass trophy on Season 18 of TUF and was grinding her way up the 135-pound ladder. Then came a submission loss to Shevchenko — probably the second best female fighter behind Nunes — in early 2017. “The Venezuelan Vixen” then missed two years of action to become a doting mom before returning in summer 2019, where she’s put together a 2-1 record with one finish. Not exactly the stuff of legend but even if she was 3-0 with three knockouts, does anyone think it would matter against a murderous power puncher like Nunes? There’s really nothing Pena could have done over the last few years that would have anyone picking her and that has more to do with the success of Nunes than any shortcomings from the challenger. It just needs to be said that Pena is an outstanding wrestler who averages 2.5 takedowns per fight and can go hard for 25 minutes without losing much strength or stamina. And yes, she is going to spam takedowns for as long as this fight remains active.

When’s the last time Nunes was not in a glorified kickboxing match?

If Nunes has been training as hard as she would for a Shevchenko rematch, this should be another easy day at the office. If, however, the champ has spent most of her gym time playing peek-a-boo with her baby, or counting her belts in the ATT trophy case, she’s going to find herself in a very precarious situation when the third round comes and she’s out of gas. Is that the kind of outcome I would bet money on? No, I’m not an idiot (at least when it comes to my money). Nunes is still the favorite and rightfully so. At the same time, it would be irresponsible to think she’s going to comfortably stroll into the cage and score an easy-peasy knockout. Pena is not afraid of the “Lioness” mystique and might be the hungriest fighter Nunes has faced in years. Besides, it’s hard to score a knockout when you spend most of the fight in reverse, pressed against the fence or even worse, smothered on the mat. Remember too that Pena absorbs just 1.7 significant strikes per minute. Sorry, I know “Nunes by knockout” is what everyone wants to hear, but my gut tells me otherwise.

Prediction: Pena def. Nunes by submission

170 lbs.: Santiago “Argentine Dagger” Ponzinibbio (28-4) vs. Geoff “Handz of Steel” Neal (13-4)

It’s been a rough couple of years for Santiago Ponzinibbio, who missed more than two years of his athletic prime due to injury and illness. Upon his return, the “Argentine Dagger” was demolished by welterweight “Leech” Li Jingliang, which sent him tumbling out of the welterweight Top 10. The Argentinian would rebound with a unanimous decision victory over the unheralded Miguel Baeza back in June to retain his spot at No. 11 in the promotion’s official rankings. That’s two spots below Neal, who joined the UFC Hall of Shame last week with his arrest for DWI, supplemented by weapons charges. Whether or not that erodes “Handz of Steel” on fight night all depends on the mental game of the 170-pound Texan. I think if Neal was a more prominent name in the sport there would be a much bigger microscope and far more distractions than a just couple of dopey questions from reporters at MMA-RAGE-BRO.com during Wednesday’s pre-fight media day.

I don’t think it’s any kind of revelation to predict this fight plays on almost entirely on the feet. Both Ponzinibbio and Neal end more than half their wins by way of knockout and on average, register less than one takedown per fight. Neal stands a couple of inches shorter than the “Argentine Dagger” but does enjoy a two-inch reach advantage, which could present all sort of problems from the southpaw stance. When you have two combatants who throw bricks with every punch, the fighter with the better defense has the best chance or prevailing — at least in theory. In this case, they’re pretty much dead even on strikes absorbed per minute (roughly 4.5) and striking defense (63% for Ponzinibbio, 62% for Neal). Expect a close, competitive contest, but it’s hard to pick Neal after watching him lose two straight, which includes a tepid performance against Neil Magny where “Handz of Steel” threw just 37 strikes the entire fight.

Prediction: Ponzinibbio def. Neal by unanimous decision

125 lbs.: Cody “No Love” Garbrandt (12-4) vs. Kai “Don’t Blink” Kara-France (22-9, 1 NC)

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Cody Garbrandt was widely considered the best bantamweight fighter in the world and the official UFC rankings reflected that. In addition to his spot atop the 135-pound chart, “No Love” was listed at No. 5 on the promotion’s pound-for-pound list. The general consensus is that Garbrandt suffered a complete collapse in the wake of those rankings, losing four of his next five while getting knocked stiff three times along the way. There was even talk of TJ Dillashaw, hulked up on EPO, stealing his soul with back-to-back finishes in their championship twofer.

Maybe.

I’m sure it was a contributing factor, but I think it had more to do with the fact that Garbrandt was on Easy Street for the first half of his UFC career, wiping the floor with bantamweight pushovers like Marcus Brimage and Augusto Mendes. In fact, the first five opponents Garbrandt beat inside the Octagon have all be released by UFC. His most impressive victory to date was his championship performance opposite Dominick Cruz, the same “Dominator” who scored just one finish over the last decade. There’s a very real chance we’re seeing the same Garbrandt we saw from 2015-16 — against better competition — and the results have left “No Love” with “No Choice” but to drop down to the flyweight division.

Waiting to greet him will be 125-pound mainstay Kai Kara-France, a talented but inconsistent addition to the promotion’s smallest weight class. The Aucklander was sporting the questionable nickname “Don’t Blink” despite going to the scorecards in his first five UFC fights, but since he pasted Rogerio Bontorin at UFC 259, I guess we’ll have to let him hang onto it for a little longer. I don’t have a lot of great things to say about Kara-France because he hasn’t done many great things with his time in UFC. Outside of Bontorin, “Don’t Blink” hasn’t beaten anyone in the Top 15. Considering the depth of the flyweight division — or lack thereof — it’s a pretty damning statistic. It’s also worth noting that Kara-France was getting manhandled by Bontorin before landing a finisher in their wild firefight.

That’s an important sequence to remember in a fight like the one we’ll see tomorrow night. Despite his background in wrestling, we haven’t seen much mat work from Garbrandt until the Rob Font fight, where “No Love” was 3-10 on takedown attempts. There’s a chance we’ll see more of the same against Kara-France, but something tells me that losing to Font with a wrestle-heavy offense will have Garbrandt reverting to his bread-and-butter. That’s unfortunate because I think he wins this fight with his wrestling more than he does with his boxing, despite his footwork, because “No Love” absorbs more than four significant strikes per minute. Kara-France is not a lock by any means but he’s a proven commodity at 125 pounds facing a fighter on The Machinist diet in hopes of making the flyweight limit. Will that drastic cut rob him of his knockout power? Or make him more susceptible to knockouts? The burden of proof falls to Garbrandt and without definitive answers to the many questions about his performance this weekend in Vegas, the safe pick is Kara-France.

Prediction: Kara-France def. Garbrandt by knockout

135 lbs.: “Sugar” Sean O’Malley (14-1) vs. Raulian Paiva (21-3)

Longtime something-weight veteran Kevin Lee recently got his walking papers and on his way out, the “Motown Phenom” warned young, up-and-coming fighters to avoid “tough fights” and “cherry pick” easier opponents. That appears to be the strategy of 135-pound sensation Sean O’Malley, who despite all his talent (and all his potential), remains comfortably seated outside the bantamweight Top 15. Probably because “Sugar” gets paid the same regardless of who he fights, so why not settle for the path of least resistance? The result is a 6-1 record with four knockouts and five performance bonuses, so it’s hard to argue with a formula that works. It’s even harder to know what kind of fighter O’Malley is (or will become) because he’s put his career in cruise control. One thing we do know for certain is that O’Malley hits like a truck, though I think we can all agree that power can only take you so far in today’s fight game.

Where it takes him on Saturday night remains to be seen. Hoping to sour the “Sugar Show” is rising bantamweight bruiser Raulian Paiva, who like O’Malley, is a graduate of Dana White’s “Contender Series” proving ground. The Brazilian was expected to make waves in the 125-pound division; however, a series of brutal weight cuts — along with a pair of losses to flyweight standouts Kai Kara-France and Rogerio Bontorin — sent Paiva to bantamweight. The move appears to have paid off, based on his upset win over Kyler Phillips back in July. Unfortunately for Paiva, he gives up three inches in both height and reach against a striker with 8.37 significant strikes landed per minute. That’s not just the highest in the bantamweight division, it’s the highest in the entire organization — across any weight class. So too, is O’Malley’s 4.94 striking differential, which means every “Sugar” fight is a 15-minute shooting gallery. Weighed against the Brazilian’s 4.90 strikes absorbed per minute, it’s hard to see this fight going the distance. That’s bad news for a combatant with 14 decisions in 21 wins.

Prediction: O’Malley def. Paiva by knockout

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 269 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the remaining undercard balance on ESPN2/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

For more news and notes on UFC 269 be sure to visit our comprehensive event archive right here. For the updated, revised, and finalized UFC 269 fight card and ESPN+ lineup click here.