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UFC 291 predictions, preview, and analysis

Who is the Baddest Mother F*cker at 155 pounds?

We’re going to find out in the most violent way possible when lightweight rivals Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje run it back in the UFC 291 pay-per-view (PPV) main event on ESPN+ this Sat. night (July 29, 2023) from inside Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. The all-action mixed martial arts (MMA) extravaganza will also feature the light heavyweight debut of former middleweight champion Alex Pereira, who jumps out of the 185-pound frying pan and into the 205-pound fire against ex-division kingpin Jan Blachowicz. The winner is expected to move on to challenge for the vacant light heavyweight strap a some point later this year or perhaps early 2024.

Fan favorites Stephen Thompson, Tony Ferguson, and Kevin Holland will also see main card PPV action this weekend in “The Beehive State.”

LIVE! Watch UFC 293 PPV On ESPN+ Here!

MASSIVE MIDDLEWEIGHT MATCH! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) makes its highly anticipated return to Sydney, Australia, for the first time in five years on Sat., Sept. 9, 2023, with a 185-pound world title fight inside Qudos Bank Arena. In the ESPN+-streamed pay-per-view (PPV) main event, Middleweight roost-ruler, Israel Adesanya, plans to silence No. 5-seeded contender, Sean Strickland. In UFC 293’s hard-hitting Heavyweight co-main event, No-6-ranked fan favorite, Tai Tuivasa, locks horns with towering Russian, Alexander Volkov (No. 8).

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

Before we break down the five-fight PPV main card, be sure to take a closer look at our comprehensive preview and predictions for all the UFC 291 preliminary undercard action on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN+ by clicking here and here. The latest UFC 291 odds and a complete betting guide for the entire “Poirier vs. Gaethje 2” PPV event can be located here. Remember, you’ll need a subscription to ESPN+ to order this weekend’s fight card (get one here), but it comes with complete access to all the subsequent UFC “Fight Night” events in 2023 and beyond (or until you cancel your subscription).

Let’s get down to business.

155 lbs.: Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier (29-7, 1 NC) vs. Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje (24-4) for BMF title

MMA fans who think pro wrestling is stupid but love the idea of the BMF belt need to have a long conversation with themselves because the title is not real, it’s a promoter’s prop to add a little extra sizzle to the main event steak. How can either Dustin Poirier or Justin Gaethje be considered the Baddest Mother F*cker at lightweight when they both suffered submission losses to Charles Oliveira, a former division champion who holds the UFC record for most finishes AND most post-fight performance bonuses?

Okay, enough of that crap.

Poirier has been nothing short of spectacular over the last six years, compiling a 9-2 record (with one No Contest) and scoring six stoppages along the way. One of those finishes came over Gaethje at UFC on FOX 29 back in early 2018, a thrilling “Fight of the Night” campaign that marked one of eight performance bonuses during his incredible run. Poirier’s two losses came by way of submission to Khabib Nurmagomedov and the aforementioned Oliveira, which are forgivable when you consider “The Eagle” and “Do Bronx” are two of the greatest fighters in the history of the division — and maybe all of UFC. Another highlight during “The Diamond’s” recent run includes his knockout win over longtime rival Conor McGregor, avenging a previous loss to “Notorious” back when both combatants were up-and-coming featherweights.

The numbers aren’t that far off for Gaethje. His last six years return a record of 7-4 with five knockouts and 11 post-fight performance bonuses. His only two losses since the Poirier fight also came against Nurmagomedov and Oliveira, also by submission. If a critique exists, I guess you can argue that Gaethje couldn’t finish Chandler (Poirier did) and his victory over Rafael Fiziev came by way of majority decision. I know it sounds stupid to poke holes in two “Fight of the Night” performances but there isn’t much to work with here. Poirier and Gaethje are that damn good and bring the f*cking heat each and every time out, so when you’re trying to build a case for one fighter over another, all you can do is nitpick. That said ... how the hell do you pick a winner in a fight like this? The odds are close to even and keep shifting as the late money trickles in.

All things being equal, and they mostly are (including their age), we have to go back and look at their first fight. In addition to the fourth-round finish, Poirier was ahead on the judges’ scorecards. A lot has changed for both fighters since they first went to war more than five years back, but unlike many rematches, this is not a case of one fighter surpassing the other. They’ve both maintained their upward (and unapologetically violent) trajectory. Gaethje will always be a threat and if he actually used his wrestling he could probably win this one with ease. Instead, he’ll try to bang it out on the feet and erase the memory of UFC on FOX 29. I can’t say I like his chances.

Prediction: Poirier def. Gaethje by knockout

205 lbs.: Jan Blachowicz (29-9-1) vs. Alex “Poatan” Pereira (7-2)

Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje may have gotten top billing but Jan Blachowicz vs. Alex Pereira is the more important fight. The light heavyweight division is currently in shambles and I’ll be the first to admit that we were previously spoiled by the extended title reign of former 205-pound kingpin Jon Jones. Since “Bones” took an extended leave of absence — then returned to capture the 265-pound crown — the light heavyweight class has seen four separate champions and two title vacancies due to injury. The latest, courtesy of Jamahal Hill’s collapsible Achilles, opens the door for the winner of Blachowicz vs. Pereira to battle for the 205-pound belt, presumably against former division titleholder Jiri Prochazka. The good news for fight fans is that both Blachowicz and Pereira present a fresh challenge for “Denisa,” who is returning from shoulder surgery later this year. That’s a long-winded way of saying yeah, there's a lot on the line in the UFC 291 co-main event and just 15 minutes to settle the score.

The 40 year-old Blachowicz is by far the division’s oldest contender and he’s built a reputation for having “Polish power,” despite registering just nine knockouts in 29 wins, the most recent of which came by way of injury when Aleksandar Rakic blew out his knee. I’m also not sure how excited I should be over finishes against the likes of Dominick Reyes and Luke Rockhold, who have both lost four of their last five with three of those four losses coming by way of knockout. That’s not meant to diminish his offensive weapons, I just think we need to recognize that he’s not the brick-fisted bulldozer the hype machine paints him to be. Fortunately for Blachowicz, the UFC 291 co-headliner calls for brains, not brawn. Pereira is a kickboxer who built an MMA career on the bodies of middleweights brazen enough to stand with him (see Strickland, Sean). But he’s no mixed martial artist, he’s a striker who trains grappling much the same way big league baseball players train bunting. You lay the first pitch down in batting practice, then ego-swing for the remaining count. Pereira could not hit mitts for the rest of his career and probably remain a better striker than most of the division, but every fighter has to stay true to what got them to the big dance.

I believe this fight will be dictated by the Pole’s gameplan. If he wants to stand and bang, seduced by Pereira’s knockout loss to Israel Adesanya, he’s going to get crushed, in much the same way he went limp against Thiago Santos, another bomb-dropping Brazilian. “Poatan” is just too rangy and too powerful to out-strike, thanks to advantages in both height and reach. The more likely scenario is that Blachowicz spams takedowns, dirty boxes against the fence, and uses all available resources to disrupt the rhythm of the former middleweight. Not to sound like a dick, but if you get out-wrestled by Israel Adesanya, there is little hope for defensive countermeasures against the ground game of Blachowicz. It may not be as ugly as the UFC 282 stinker against Magomed Ankalaev, but fans hoping for fireworks are likely to be disappointed.

Prediction: Blachowicz def. Pereira by WrestleMania

170 lbs.: Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson (17-6-1) vs. Michel “Demolidor” Pereira (28-11, 2 NC)

Stephen Thompson was last seen kicking the crap out of Kevin Holland at UFC Orlando last December, a “Fight of the Night” performance that was basically just target practice for the former welterweight title challenger. Part of that is because Holland suffered an early injury but we also have to accept that Thompson is the superior striker and you can’t give a talent like “Wonderboy” the real estate to work or he’ll pick you apart from bell to bell. It was a much-needed win for Thompson, who was coming off back-to-back decision losses to Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad. I don’t think It’s breaking news to reveal that Thompson has putrid takedown defense, getting matted 12 times across his last three fights. Not surprisingly, the former kickboxer has repeatedly turned down fights against wrestle-heavy opponents. I don’t know how much longer Thompson can stay competitive at 170 pounds considering he’s halfway to his 41st birthday. What I do know is that “Wonderboy” looked like he still has his speed and timing against Holland, two factors that will need to be on point for his pressure-minded opponent at UFC 291.

Michel Pereira had a rough start to his UFC career, losing two of his first three fights and getting disqualified against the since-departed Diego Sanchez. In the years that followed, “Demolidor” has rattled off five straight wins, though his last four have all gone to a decision — including a split against Santiago Ponzinibbio at UFC Vegas 55. The Brazilian is an inch taller than Thompson but gives up two inches in reach, an important stat when you consider their contrasting styles. Pereira is a high-octane fighter with four performance bonuses to his credit, landing a whopping 5.09 significant strikes per minute. Thompson has a great chin but it’s not bulletproof, as we learned in the Anthony Pettis loss. Pereira has also racked up double-digit takedowns over the last few years, so it’s not unreasonable to think he can back Thompson into the cage with a Brazilian blitzkrieg, then use the ensuing chaos to change levels and score a takedown. I might have concerns about a balls-to-the-wall attack across a five-round headliner, but with just 15 minutes to work, Pereira can go full speed for all three rounds to keep “Wonderboy” wondering why he’s not back at Upstate Karate teaching tots how to throw a Mikazuki Geri.

Prediction: Pereira def. Thompson by unanimous decision

155 lbs.: Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson (25-8) vs. “King” Bobby Green (29-14-1, 1 NC)

Former UFC interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson returns after nearly a year on the sidelines and one of the most disastrous two-year stretches from any fighter in the history of the promotion. From May 2020 to Sept. 2022, Ferguson dropped five straight bouts, getting knocked out twice and submitted once along the way. That said, there are a couple of ways to grade that hideous span. The first one considers damage incurred against Justin Gaethje at UFC 249. “El Cucuy” suffered what could be considered career-altering punishment, reflected in his limp performances in the four bouts that followed. The second perspective says Ferguson was simply outclassed by the best fighters in his weight class. Gaethje, Charles Oliveira, Beneil Dariush, and Michael Chandler are all ranked in the Top 5 of the division. As for Nate Diaz? Ferguson made a sloppy mistake against a dangerous jiu-jitsu fighter with double-digit submission wins in his career. There’s also the possibility that it’s both damage incurred and level of competition, so we need to decide if the shopworn Ferguson still has enough left to overcome the challenge of longtime veteran Bobby Green.

And “King” hasn’t ruled anything but the loss column since Feb. 2022.

Green was part of the Strikeforce merger back in early 2013, roughly two years after Ferguson captured the glass trophy on Season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) and had a pretty hot start. He came over to UFC with four straight wins in Strikeforce, then jumped out to four consecutive victories inside the Octagon, including his UFC on FOX 12 decision over former Strikeforce champion Josh Thomson. That streak landed “King” inside the Top 10 of the division at No. 7 but he was unable to sustain his success. In the years that followed, Green is 6-9 with one split draw and one No Contest. Prior to his clash of heads against Jared Gordon back in April, Green registered consecutive knockout losses to Islam Makhachev and Drew Dober. As far as I’m concerned, his biggest advantage heading into this fight is his age — three years younger than Ferguson at 36 — and his beard, having accumulated less significant strikes than “El Cucuy” over the last decade.

So who wins?

Both fighters have similar statistics, offensively as well as defensively. They throw a ton of volume and eat just as much in return. The numbers indicate Green is the more active wrestler with better takedown defense. That might be where this fight is decided, since Ferguson has been outwrestled by nine different opponents over the years, losing the battle of takedowns by a score of 18-7. If Green can find success on the ground he’s likely to repeat it, though he’ll need to be weary of the defensive submission game — which caught Kevin Lee at UFC 216. I know Green hasn't been lighting the world on fire in recent years but I think that’s because “King” just wasn’t good enough (or made too many dumb mistakes) to beat superior competition, whereas Ferguson might be way past his expiration date. A lot of fans are hoping for “the old Tony Ferguson” to show up. Instead, plan for a Tony Ferguson who just looks old.

Prediction: Green def. Ferguson by unanimous decision

170 lbs.: Michael “Maverick” Chiesa (16-6) vs. Kevin “Trailblazer” Holland (24-9, 1 NC)

Michael Chiesa hasn’t been seen for nearly two years thanks to a lingering back injury and “Maverick” told the combat sports media back in summer 2022 that he wasn’t going to rush the recovery because he wanted to be competing at 100 percent of his capability. How much that back issue played a role in his consecutive losses to Vicente Luque and Sean Brady is unknown, but the TUF 15 champion did not look like he belonged in the Top 15 in either of those performances. There’s really no gentle way to put this: Chiesa has putrid striking, with an embarrassingly-low 1.88 significant strikes landed per minute with just 41-percent accuracy. Those numbers are the lowest of any fighter currently ranked in the Top 15 of his division (Chiesa is No. 12). You know it’s a bad sign when you make Neil Magny look like Floyd Mayweather by comparison. “Maverick” is able to make up for that deficiency with a tireless wrestling attack, good enough for nearly 40 takedowns across his UFC career. Part of me wonders what favors he did for UFC matchmakers Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby considering he’s paired against a fighter who’s been taken down a staggering 43 times under the UFC banner.

Let that number sink in.

Kevin Holland can blame a lot of that on his decision to compete at middleweight, where his height (6’3”) and reach (81”) made him a formidable foe, on paper. Unfortunately he did not have the strength nor the takedown defense to utilize those weapons because punishing wrestlers like Derek Brunson and Marvin Vettori were able to take him down and push him around with little-to-no resistance. His inevitable drop to welterweight started off hot, courtesy of consecutive wins — and finishes — over Alex Oliveira and Tim Means. Then his limitations were exposed by wrestling phenom Khamzat Chimaev and striking wunderkind Stephen Thompson, reminding us that Holland is as much a star for his personality as he is for his in-cage exploits. For UFC 291, the promotion did him zero favors. “Trailblazer” certainly has the power to finish Chiesa, and his submission game is not the be underestimated, I just don’t think “Maverick” will afford him the opportunity to use either. I hate to fall back on the old MMA maxim that a very good wrestler will almost always beat a very good striker, but there is a reason Jan Blachowicz is the betting favorite against a headhunter like Alex Pereira. Holland will come out with something funky and dynamic, then get dragged to the floor and mugged for the next 15 minutes.

Boo birds clear your pipes, it’s your time to shine.

Prediction: Chiesa def. Holland by unanimous decision will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 291 fight card right RIGHT HERE, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the remaining undercard balance on ESPN/ESPN+/ABC at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 291: “Poirier vs. Gaethje 2” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here. For the updated and finalized UFC 291 fight card and ESPN+ lineup click here.

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