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Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier face off ahead of their lightweight championship unification main event bout Saturday at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi
Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier face off ahead of their lightweight championship unification main event bout Saturday at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The stakes don’t get much higher for Dustin Poirier this Saturday.

Poirier has said in the past that fight night is his one chance to “make life fair” and he can do a hell of a lot more than that when he meets Khabib Nurmagomedov in a lightweight championship unification bout at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi. If Poirier beats Nurmagomedov, he’ll go from interim to undisputed, become the one in 27-1, and by his own estimation emerge as the greatest ever to compete at 155 pounds.

It’s not the most outlandish claim given that Poirier is stepping into the Octagon with a man widely considered to be one of the best of all-time to compete in MMA, regardless of weight class. Nurmagomedov’s record speaks for itself. He doesn’t lose fights. He’s almost never lost a round. And even if Poirier proves to be his toughest test, Nurmagomedov’s wrestling has a way of making the most difficult challenges look easy.

This one is going to be good.

As an appetizer, you can’t do much better than Edson Barboza and Paul Felder in the co-main event. The two lightweights fought in an entertaining tilt back in July 2015, with Barboza getting the better of Felder. Both are older and wiser now, but no less inclined to leap headfirst into a standup war. It might take some time to wipe off the mats after these two are through.

In other main card action, Islam Makhachev puts his wrestling up against Davi Ramos’s jiu-jitsu in a lightweight bout, heavyweights Curtis Blaydes and Shamil Abdurakhimov throw down, and lightweights Mairbek Taisumov and Diego Ferreira put their long win streaks on the line.

What: UFC 242

Where: The Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

When: Saturday, Sept. 7. The four-fight early preliminary card begins at 10:15 a.m. ET and will air on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, followed by a four-fight preliminary card on ESPN+ and FX at 12 p.m. ET. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 2 p.m. ET and is available for purchase exclusively through ESPN+.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier

The stars are aligned for Dustin Poirier to shock the world. However, Khabib Nurmagomedov has shown what he does to stars.

He smeshed the biggest star in the sport last October, using his trademark wrestling to defuse the legendary left of Conor McGregor and pick up a fourth-round submission win that was more inevitable than suspenseful. Nurmagomedov did what he always does, putting his opponent down on the mat and suffocating them.

Can Poirier avoid that fate? It’s difficult to say as even he has conceded that this matchup might not be about avoiding takedowns, but how he reacts after being taken down. Though not an elite wrestler, Poirier can scramble with the best of them and in his earlier days he was a legitimate submission threat. He’ll have to draw upon those stored skills to keep Nurmagomedov honest in the grappling exchanges.

Nurmagomedov’s standup remains overlooked, with most critics pointing to a brief (and ultimately inconsequential) sequence in his fight with Michael Johnson where he appeared to be wobbled. But he out-struck Al Iaquinta and knocked down Conor McGregor. These are real things that happened and yes, his standup is aided immensely by the threat of the takedown, but to suggest Nurmagomedov is lacking in the striking department is inaccurate.

Poirier will have the advantage on the feet, of course. “The Diamond” fights at a furious pace, firing combinations and finding angles to land hard shots from distance or in close. What’s working against Poirier is that he doesn’t necessarily bring anything to the table that Nurmagomedov hasn’t seen before in previous fights with the likes of McGregor, Edson Barboza, or Rafael dos Anjos. Nurmagomedov eats strikers alive.

Kudos to Poirier for putting together a run of victories over a murderer’s row of all-time greats (an argument could be made that Poirier’s recent resume is more impressive than Nurmagomedov’s) and getting to this point. He’s a worthy challenger and nobody in MMA gets out undefeated. Nurmagomedov will fall someday, it just won’t happen at UFC 242.

Pick: Nurmagomedov

Edson Barboza vs. Paul Felder

I’ve made it a rule to never pick against Edson Barboza in a striking duel (unless he’s fighting Justin Gaethje) and I’m not breaking that rule today.

The man dominates pure standup affairs. Paul Felder has the ability to mix it up, but he’s going to want to fight Barboza strength-for-strength and as noble as that is, it will be his downfall here. That said, he’s sharper technically than he’s ever been and nearly impossible to finish, so it’s not like Barboza is going to blow him out here.

If anything, this should play out much like their first encounter—hopefully without Felder taking a spin kick to the yabos—and Felder will have no fear standing in the pocket with Barboza (even though any rational human being would do everything to avoid this situation). They’ll both be ready to throw and defend against spinning strikes, and otherwise just go all-out looking for the finish.

Barboza outpointed Felder four years ago and he should do the same in their rematch.

Pick: Barboza

Islam Makhachev vs. Davi Ramos

Were it not for his friend Khabib Nurmagomedov, it’s Islam Makhachev who might be considered the most feared takedown artist in the lightweight division. Makhachev can’t match the relentless pace of the champ, but as far as technique goes, he is Nurmagomedov’s equal.

Makhachev effortlessly transitions between takedown entries and once on top, excels at maintaining control. His standup, while not flashy, gets the job done. He’s going to get his hooks in on Davi Ramos and take this where he wants it to go.

What makes this matchup so fascinating is that conventional wisdom would dictate that you should not go to the ground with Ramos if at all possible. Ramos is a pitbull on the mat, with the potential to be the lightweight version of Demian Maia. Nobody at 155 pounds has been able to deal with him on the ground. His jiu-jitsu technique is flawless and he’s strong as an ox to boot.

As much as I respect Ramos’s BJJ credentials, I still lean towards Makhachev here because I trust his submission defense to hold up and if need be, he can dial down the offense in favor of keeping his limbs intact. There should be some fun scrambles here with Makhachev eventually winning out.

Pick: Makhachev

Curtis Blaydes vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov

Even though he’s coming off of a win over Justin Willis, Curtis Blaydes needs another strong performance to wash away the bitter memory of a 45-second loss to Francis Ngannou. That November 2018 rematch was supposed to be Blaydes’s coming-out party, proof that he’d not only caught up to Ngannou but surpassed him; instead, Ngannou put himself back on track for another title fight and Blaydes is again rehabilitating his image.

I’ve questioned Shamil Abdurakhimov’s cardio in the past and while he’s certainly improved in that area, at least enough that it isn’t a liability, I think his gas tank will be put to the test against Blaydes. Abdurakhimov is a good wrestler, but Blaydes will put him on his back and into positions that Abdurakhimov isn’t accustomed too. The burly Russian has effective ground-and-pound, which will be difficult to implement since its Blaydes who will be on top for the most part.

In the standup, Blaydes will have to be careful not to over-pursue as Abdurakhimov knows his way around a counter-punch. He might not have the stopping power of Ngannou, but he’ll make Blaydes pay all the same if he’s overeager. Blaydes is still a work-in-progress on the feet and he’d be wise to avoid prolonged striking exchanges with Abdurakhimov.

As long as Blaydes sticks to his wrestling, his bread and butter, he should take this one.

Pick: Blaydes

Mairbek Taisumov vs. Diego Ferreira

Few lightweights fit the description of “coiled spring” better than Mairbek Taisumov, but how else to describe his ability to generate knockout blows seemingly out of thin air. Diego Ferreira is a finisher in his own right, even though he might not be able to unload one-hitter quitters like Taisumov.

Look for Ferreira to push the pace, tentatively stringing together combinations while avoiding the inevitable home run swing of Taisumov. That’s easier said than done because Taisumov is a master of footwork and timing and he has strong defense too. He’s not going to hang around in the pocket once Ferreira starts to flurry.

There’s always the chance Ferreira attempts to take this one to the ground. Taisumov hasn’t spent much time on the mat during his UFC run, which is a testament to his takedown defense and distance control. He’ll punish Ferreira’s legs with kicks if the Brazilian is indecisive in his approach.

In a broad sense, breaking down Taisumov’s game plan is simple; actually finding a way to beat it is another question altogether. Ferreira will be Taisumov’s toughest opponent yet, but the Russian will come away with a knockout win in round two or three, or win a decision.

Pick: Taisumov


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