For the most part, Conor McGregor has always had the last word in his feuds.
When he knocked out Jose Aldo at UFC 194, McGregor didn’t look back despite the Brazilian star having a resume that merited an immediate rematch. McGregor’s box office power was enormous even back then and when he decided that he would go up to 155 pounds and challenge for another title instead of defending the one he just won, the UFC wasn’t going to stop him.
His “champ-champ” destiny was briefly put on pause when then-lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos withdrew from their UFC 196 meeting with an injury, resulting in McGregor instead taking a welterweight bout with replacement Nate Diaz. Stockton’s favorite son shocked oddsmakers with a second-round submission of McGregor, but McGregor again had his way as he demanded an immediate rematch at the same weight class and got his wish five months later. He won a majority decision in the rematch and while he’s constantly mentioned fighting Diaz a third time, he seems content to have avenged that loss for now.
He beat Eddie Alvarez and then left the whole lightweight division in the lurch to chase a fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. He lost that fight, but just getting it pretty much gave McGregor a leg up on anyone who said he could never make that boxing match happen (this writer included). Really, only Khabib Nurmagomedov got the better of McGregor in such a way that the proud Irishman will never be able to make peace with that situation.
It’s not about staying in the title picture (does that even matter to McGregor anymore?) or bouncing back from the first knockout loss of his career. If Poirier wins, there will almost definitely not be a fourth fight and that would give Poirier bragging rights for eternity. With respect to lightweight champion Charles Oliveira, that’s really what’s on the line tonight.
As for Poirier? He can shut McGregor up once and for all, something not even McGregor’s most staunch supporters will be able to shrug off.
In other main card action, welterweight contenders Gilbert Burns and Stephen Thompson meet in the co-main event, heavyweight Tai Tuivasa looks to extend his win streak against Greg Hardy, Yana Kunitskaya fights Irene Aldana in a catchweight bout after Aldana missed the bantamweight mark by over three pounds, and fan favorite bantamweight Sean O’Malley takes on short-notice replacement Kris Moutinho.
What: UFC 264
Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
When: Saturday, July 10. The four-fight early prelims begin on ESPN and ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET. A four-fight preliminary card follows at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available to watch through ESPN+.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Dustin Poirier (1) vs. Conor McGregor (11)
Conor McGregor’s approach to this trilogy bout has been confusing, and yet also somehow wholly predictable. He’s long been an advocate for “win or learn” and yet at the same time he’s been yapping about how Dustin Poirier’s win over him was a fluke. He’s accused Poirier of disrespect while making churlish attempts to drag Poirier’s wife into the pre-fight trash talk. He talks about the importance of reemphasizing the core aspects of MMA in one interview and then the next he’s claiming that submission victories don’t count as real wins.
As I said, confusing.
Underneath all of that bluster and mixed messaging is a talented fighter, a fact that tends to get lost in everything else that encompasses the McGregor brand. McGregor has great movement, devastating accuracy, and yes, the ability to get inside of his opponents’ heads. Whether that latter factor will impact Poirier at all is up for debate. What we do know is that Poirier will take this challenge as seriously as he did six months ago.
The thinking then was that McGregor wins the fight early and Poirier wins the fight late. That narrative was turned on its head when Poirier shredded McGregor with calf kicks and drilled him with punches in the second round. This time, I expect it to go the way I thought UFC 257 would.
Poirier knows he’ll be facing a better version of McGregor than last time. McGregor, if he’s smart, will benefit from a heightened sense of mortality and be a tad more cautious in the early going. There will be no shortage of thrilling exchanges through the first three rounds and it will come down to a battle of wills after that.
After Poirier beat McGregor, I echoed the sentiment of many observers that the former two-division champion had lost his edge. He’s become “the man who has everything,” a lifestyle change that isn’t conducive to self-analysis nor self-improvement. There’s no metaphorical switch for him to flip anymore.
McGregor’s prodigious talents can keep him in any fight, but I’m sticking with Poirier to definitively end this rivalry. Everything Poirier did in their second fight is replicable, so unless McGregor has developed several new wrinkles to his game since January, we should see Poirier finish him again.
Gilbert Burns (3) vs. Stephen Thompson (5)
As someone who has consistently picked Stephen Thompson to win all of his fights over the past few years, this is going to be as shocking to me as it is to you: I think Gilbert Burns can beat him.
It’s not that Burns presents “Wonderboy” with anything he hasn’t seen before. He’ll be giving up size to Thompson and while he’s made great leaps as a boxer, Thompson has faced better strikers than him. It’s Burns’ potential to mix things up with his grappling that has me picking him for the upset. While I’m sure he’d love to score a resounding knockout, Burns has to be smart here and use his striking as a means to an end, which is his top-notch jiu-jitsu game.
Thompson isn’t an easy target for takedowns. For someone who’s been squarely categorized as a stand-up artist, he’s rarely lost because he couldn’t get his back off of the mat or the fence. If anything, Burns’ grappling expertise will primarily come into play when it comes to controlling the pace of the fight and keeping Thompson from creating too much separation, because at range Thompson can pick anyone apart.
I’d actually lean towards Thompson in a five-round fight, but I think Burns can generate enough bursts of significant offense over 15 minutes to take a close, possibly controversial decision.
Tai Tuivasa vs. Greg Hardy
The odds should be firmly in Tai Tuivasa’s favor here, but Greg Hardy remains a dangerous heavyweight despite his inexperience. As one might expect, his athletic gifts have carried him to wins over lower-level UFC competition and he’s struggled against ranked contenders. Tuivasa is a notch above the guys that Hardy has beaten even if he’s not on the level of Marcin Tybura or Alexander Volkov.
Don’t let Tuivasa’s laid-back, frat boy, shoey-enthusiast persona fool you. He’s a good, technically-sound striker, which is all he needs to be to defuse Hardy. Add in his punching power and you can see why he’s going to give Hardy plenty to worry about. Tuivasa could mix in some takedowns too, but if he’s on point then he can reliably stick and move on the outside to set up his power punches rather than risk getting in close where Hardy can catch him with something.
Tuivasa will get ahead on the scorecards and it’s Hardy who’s going to have to take a risk in the second or third round and that’s when Tuivasa puts him down.
Irene Aldana (4) vs. Yana Kunitskaya (6)
Bad break for Yana Kunitsakya having to face a second straight opponent that came in heavy on the scales. It didn’t cost her last time as she outworked Ketlen Vieira for a win, but I think Irena Aldana is a different story.
Those extra three-plus pounds are going to make a big difference when Aldana is throwing hands, not to mention the fact that she likely didn’t endure a difficult a weight cut as usual as she didn’t come close to hitting the 135-pound mark. If Aldana has any sort of stamina edge, that’s going to be a serious problem for Kunitskaya.
Look, Kunitskaya keeps proving me wrong, and it’s not hard to see why. She has a ton of heart and is a talented striker in her own right even if she can’t match Aldana’s power. A Kunitskaya decision win is absolutely in the cards here. I think Aldana has her outgunned though.
Sean O’Malley vs. Kris Moutinho
We’ve had a couple of stunning upsets recently authored by UFC newcomers, so let’s not write off Kris Moutinho just because he came out of nowhere to win the Sean O’Malley sweepstakes, as it were. In the past four weeks, we’ve seen Terrance McKinney finish Matt Frevola in seven seconds and Jeremiah Wells KO the more experienced Warlley Alves. It’s not inconceivable that Moutinho could be another Cinderella story.
Realistically though, this is a tailor-made matchup for O’Malley as long as he doesn’t underestimate Moutinho. Everything you’ve heard—or maybe just assumed—about Moutinho is true: He’s had modest success on the regional scene, he’s going to walk forward and swing away, and he’s been on the receiving end of some nasty finishes. If the intent here is just to build up O’Malley’s highlight reel, then mission accomplished on paper.
O’Malley is taller, quicker, more dynamic on the feet, and he’s had a full camp to prepare for Saturday while Moutinho is making the turnaround a little over 40 days since his most recent fight. The odds are stacked in O’Malley’s favor, he just has to make sure not to slip on the proverbial banana peel now.