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UFC 264 predictions, preview, and analysis

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With the score tied one apiece, top-ranked lightweight contenders Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor will meet for a third and final time atop the UFC 264 pay-per-view (PPV) event, scheduled for this Sat. night (July 10, 2021) inside the jam-packed T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. The winner moves on to fight current lightweight titleholder Charles Oliveira (probably) while the loser heads back to the gate to see what’s worth keeping at 155 pounds.

LIVE! Stream UFC 266 Here

CHAMPIONSHIP DOUBLEHEADER! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to T-Mobile Arena with a pair of thrilling world championship bouts. The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 29 coaches collide when Featherweight champion, Alexander Volkanovski, defends his title against No. 2-ranked contender, Brian Ortega. UFC 266’s co-main event will see women’s Flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko go for her sixth consecutive title defense when she meets No. 3-seeded contender, Lauren Murphy. Last, and certainly not least, Nick Diaz returns against former Welterweight roost ruler, Robbie Lawler, in a five-round banger.

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

There are a handful of other big-ticket matchups on the UFC 264 fight card, including the welterweight battle between Top 5-standouts Stephen Thompson and Gilbert Burns. The winner of their 170-pound showdown may find themselves atop a very short list of division title contenders, depending on what happens in the Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington championship rematch later this year. In addition, headline grabbers Greg Hardy and “Sugar” Sean O’Malley will make hay while the sun shines this weekend in “Sin City.”

Before we break down tomorrow night’s PPV main card, go ahead and take a look at what MMA whiz kid Patrick Stumberg had to say about the UFC 264 “Prelims” contests — spread across Fight Pass, ESPN, and ESPN+ — by clicking here and here. The latest UFC 264 odds and a complete betting guide for all the “Poirier vs. McGregor 3” action can be located here. And last but not least, we have a couple of UFC 264 video previews here and here.

Let’s get to work.

155 lbs.: Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier (27-6) vs. “The Notorious” Conor McGregor (22-5)

In Episode 3 of UFC 264 “Embedded,” Dustin Poirier told teammate Jorge Masvidal that his much-celebrated calf kick from UFC 257 — which contributed to the demise of longtime nemesis Conor McGregor — was not part of the pre-fight gameplan. But it landed and landed clean, so “The Diamond” adjusted his attack to further exploit a newfound hole in his opponent’s defense. That has as much to do with the “Notorious” loss as the killing blow, a mental error similar to the one the power-punching Irishman carried into his first Nate Diaz fight at UFC 196. Holed away in his private training camp surrounded by “yes men” in Abu Dhabi, McGregor worked on his boxing and little else, confident the Poirier rematch would end with “The Diamond” face down, not unlike the finished product at UFC 178.

It’s hard to know what adjustments have been made in the wake of his loss. McGregor insists his new camp has been “nothing but martial arts” which sounds great on paper, but I think anyone with any knowledge of the fight game will tell you that improvement is made with experience, not practice, which is why Poirier is 7-1 (1 NC) since late 2016. McGregor is just 1-2 during that same span and I’m not making room in the trophy case for a technical knockout victory over Donald Cerrone, now 38, who is being held together by duct tape and Popsicle sticks. That’s not to take away from a gifted fighter. McGregor has the kind of power you don’t typically see in the lower weight classes and some of the best hands in all of combat sports. But even an average hitter can cheap-seat a Jacob deGrom fastball if he knows it’s coming.

One of McGregor’s problems is that he expects victory to come easy. And why not? It did for so many years. But MMA is a game of momentum and at this level, you can’t fight three times within five years and expect to just walk through the competition. Sooner or later the mind games stop working and the power punches stop landing. Not because “Notorious” is any less talented than he was in his heyday, but rather because everyone else has caught up. That’s what happens when you fail to maintain your lead, which is a shame, because there was a time in the not-too-distant past when McGregor was the best in the world. Now? He’s simply one of the best, which means Poirier has just as much a chance at winning as “Notorious” does.

That said, this remains a very dangerous fight for “The Diamond.” I’m not sure where this talk of a weak chin comes from, as Poirier has only been knocked out twice in 33 professional fights. Those finishes had more to do with his lack of defense than his durability, probably because the Louisianan has a reckless tendency to abandon his gameplan for a fan-friendly bar fight. If he does that here, or has some point he wants to prove to the Doubting Thomases, he’s dead in the water. McGregor can knockout anyone at 155 pounds with a clean shot and that’s not a game “The Diamond” wants to play — though he may roll those dice without even knowing it. That’s one of the evils of pride (and confidence) and Poirier is brimming with both after avenging his loss to McGregor.

McGregor has 25 minutes to land the knockout punch, which is a lot of time to find an opening. Poirier knows it but must also resist the urge to rush things, which could produce the opposite result and leave him vulnerable. I’ve been going back and forth on this fight for several days because strong cases can be made for each fighter (perseverance vs. raw talent). In the end, I have to side with “The Diamond,” simply because the only thing McGregor has proved over the last five years is that Cerrone is way past his expiration date.

Prediction: Poirier def. McGregor by submission

170 lbs.: Gilbert “Durinho” Burns (19-4) vs. Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson (16-4-1)

Stephen Thompson keeps billing this fight as “karate guy vs. jiu-jitsu guy” like he’s promoting UFC 2 or some other toughman contest from early 1994. I guess being Brazilian and knowing jiu-jitsu automatically makes you a “jiu-jitsu guy” but if we’re taking a more critical look at Gilbert Burns we’ll see that “Durinho” has just one submission victory over the last five years across a span of 11 fights, and that came against unheralded “Beast Boy” Mike Davis. I think that’s important to note because the six-fight winning streak that Burns parlayed into a welterweight title shot does not hold up under scrutiny. His two biggest wins during that run came against Tyron Woodley, who was not re-signed to UFC after losing four straight and Demian Maia, who is being forced to retire after compiling back-to-back losses at age 43.

Not exactly the stuff of legend.

You can make similar critiques against “the karate guy.” He’s spent the last two years complaining about the cold shoulder from Kamaru Usman but did little to build his case. After losing his second title fight against the aforementioned Woodley, “Wonderboy” is just 3-2, with a couple of ho-hum decisions and a knockout loss to Anthony Pettis. Sorry, but outworking Geoff Neal — currently ranked No. 10 in the division — is not going to have anyone sub-tweeting matchmakers. Thompson, who turned 38 back in February, has not finished a fight since folding Johny Hendricks back in early 2016. He remains a very talented striker but not much else and I don’t expect to see any wrestling against Burns, particularly when he’s working with a four-inch advantage. On the plus side, the “NMF” champ has seven post-fight bonuses in the bag, so we might be in for a pleasant surprise.

Thompson works best when his opponent brings the fight to him, something he won’t have to worry about against Burns. The question is whether or not “Wonderboy” plays it too safe and turns this into a point-fighting match. Judges love aggression and forward movement so a tight decision could fall in favor of “Durinho.” I do think the Brazilian can make this his fight if he falls back on his grappling roots, it’s just hard to discourage a guy from throwing hands when it’s gotten him so many big wins. Expect three rounds of back-and-forth action with a couple of close calls, but in the end “Wonderboy” should prevail.

Prediction: Thompson def. Burns by unanimous decision

265 lbs.: Greg “The Prince of War” Hardy (7-3) vs. Tai “Bam Bam” Tuivasa (11-3)

I’m not sure what the end goal was when UFC President Dana White signed disgraced NFL star Greg Hardy, who spent more time defending his moral turnaround than he did promoting his MMA fights. Perhaps White and Co. were using the subsequent headlines to their advantage, or maybe they were just enamored with an athletic heavyweight packing concrete in his gloves. Only White knows for sure, but I think we can all agree that Hardy has been knocked down a few pegs with convincing losses to both Alexander Volkov and Marcin Tybura. I don’t want to use those performances as an excuse to trash “The Prince of War” even after these ridiculous comments, because his skill set — or lack thereof — is not uncommon in the land of big men, even among ranked fighters.

When’s the last time you saw a takedown attempt from Jairzinho Rozenstruik?

Getting mileage out of Hardy means pairing him against opponents who play by the same rules. Like his UFC 264 rival, Tai Tuivasa has a history of getting boxed up by superior strikers and shut down by well-rounded contenders. He may not have the size of Hardy but hits just as hard — and drinks beer from a dirty shoe. I don’t know what that has to do with Saturday night’s showdown, but I feel like it has to count for something. “Bam Bam” was nearly cut after losing three straight, including his submission loss to heavyweight wunderkind Sergey Spivak, only to battle back and capture his next two fights over Stefan Struve and Harry Hunsucker, both by knockout. With that in mind, I think confidence and momentum are his two best attributes coming into this hard-hitting affair.

I wish I had something deeper to say about this contest but I don’t. If you’re looking for technical nuance or striking subtleties, look elsewhere. Both Hardy and Tuivasa are going to lumber forward and throw sloppy bombs until one of them falls down. I know elitists turn their noses up at these clumsy affairs, but I believe there’s a place for Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em robots in today’s combat sports landscape. With a five-inch reach advantage and quicker feet, it’s hard not to presumptively crown “The Prince of War” the winner of this fight — unless this goes to a second round and Hardy loses his inhaler.

Prediction: Hardy def. Tuivasa by knockout

135 lbs.: Irene Aldana (12-6) vs. “Foxy” Yana Kunitskaya (14-5)

Irena Aldana was being positioned as the next big thing at 135 pounds but I think fans were tricked into buying wolf tickets. Let’s not forget that Aldana started her UFC career 0-2 before bouncing back with three straight victories, though it should be noted that two of those opponents are no longer signed to UFC. The other is a 38 year-old Bethe Correia, which preceded another loss to Raquel Pennington. Starching fellow bantamweight standout Ketlen Vieira propelled Aldana into a main event opposite Holly Holm, where she once again came up lame in the big spot. I think it’s time to be realistic about where the Culiacán Rosales native stands in this division and to be honest, her ranking at No. 4 is both generous and indicative of the state of the 135-pound weight class.

Like her UFC 264 opponent, Yana Kunitskaya also migrated from Invicta FC and went belly up in her Octagon debut. Though to be fair, the promotion callously tossed her into a Cris Cyborg fight, which means certain death for any woman not named Amanda Nunes. What followed was a 4-1 record against good (but not great) competition, including consecutive victories over Julija Stoliarenko and Ketlen Vieira in her previous two fights. Hurting her position as a serious title contender is a technical knockout loss to Aspen Ladd back in late 2019. I think the big knock against “Foxy” is that she came into UFC with eight nasty finishes and then failed to secure a stoppage in her next six trips to the cage. Regardless, Kunitskaya remains ranked one spot below Aldana at No. 5.

There’s been a lot of suspect matchmaking in recent months but this is the right fight to make and both combatants present comparable skill sets. I don’t want to overstate the case here and promise some kind of “Fight of the Night” though we should get a fun scrap. I know it’s hard to resist the Aldana hype but Kunitskaya feels like the better pick. It’s a three-round fight and Aldana has been known to get stuck in first gear in some of her previous outings, which could be just enough for “Foxy” to squeak by on the judges’ scorecards.

Prediction: Kunitskaya def. Aldana by unanimous decision

135 lbs.: “Sugar” Sean O’Malley (13-1) vs. Kris Moutinho (9-4)

It’s been four years since Sean O’Malley burst onto the scene with a devastating knockout victory over Alfred Khashakyan on Season 1 of Dana White’s “Contender Series.” And despite a 5-1 record inside the Octagon, “Sugar” remains unranked at 135 pounds. Probably because the only time he fought a ranked fighter, he got pounded out by veteran bantamweight Marlon Vera. A rebound win over the animated corpse of Thomas Almeida certainly put him back on track, but heads were scratched and eyebrows were raised when the promotion opted to book him for UFC 264 against Louis Smolka, a former flyweight contender who continues to be remarkably average at 135 pounds. Then we lost “Da Last Samurai” to Staph infection and matchmakers want you to believe that regional somebody Kris Moutinho was the best they could do on short notice.

Uh huh.

With Conor McGregor atop the UFC 264 fight card, the promotion doesn’t need any help selling PPV buys, so there was no reason to keep O’Malley in the lineup. Why not just promote Carlos Condit vs. Max Griffin and backfill the preliminary card? I don’t get it, especially when UFC Vegas 31 is so desperate for star power. I’m trying to keep it respectful because Moutinho is getting the opportunity of a lifetime and has certainly paid his dues, but he also got knocked out twice in 2019 and is now tasked with facing one of the hardest punchers at 135 pounds, who boasts nine knockouts in 13 wins. This feels like a matchup that was designed — much like the Smolka pairing — to keep O’Malley from losing until the promotion can figure out how to best monetize him. I never thought I would miss the days of dirty Q-tips and soiled undies.

There’s not a lot to say about this fight, at least from an analytical perspective. We haven’t yet seen what Moutinho can do in the UFC pressure cooker and I’m not one of those weirdos who hunts down old regional MMA tapes to sound smart in predictions columns. O’Malley is a great striker with tremendous power and Moutinho will need to make this an ugly fight. Lots of clinching, wall-and-stall, whatever he can do to close the distance and disrupt his opponent’s rhythm. Can he do that while also conquering UFC jitters on what is arguably the biggest card of the year? Probably not, and O’Malley has 15 minutes to land the big shot. If you’re looking to bet an upset at UFC 264, don’t do it here.

Prediction: O’Malley def. Moutinho by knockout

Remember to preview the UFC 264 “Prelims” card (with predictions) here and here.

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 264 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the early Fight Pass/ESPN/ESPN+ “Prelims” matches at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

For much more on UFC 264: “Poirier vs. McGregor 3” be sure to check out our official UFC 264 news archive by clicking here. For the complete UFC 264 fight card and PPV lineup spread across Fight Pass, ESPN+, and ESPN click here.