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UFC 291 roundtable: Is Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje 2 a lock to be Fight of the Year? Plus more

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC 291 is nearly here, and it’s headlined by one of the most anticipated fights of 2023. Dustin Poirier and Justin Poirier take center stage five years after their first meeting captured Fight of the Year honors, and this time the promotion’s vacant BMF title is on the line. Saturday’s card also features the light heavyweight debut of Alex Pereira against Jan Blachowicz in a battle of former champs, plus much more from Salt Lake City.

Join MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Alexander K. Lee, and Mike Heck as they sidle back up to the roundtable to discuss the biggest storylines heading into UFC 291.

1. Is UFC 291’s main event a lock to be Fight of the Year?

Al-Shatti: Is it ridiculous to call any fight a lock to be Fight of the Year before it even happens? Of course. Remember when Ngannou vs. Lewis was a lock to be the second coming of Lesnar vs. Carwin? The blood gods love nothing more than to bathe in our despair anytime expectations for a big fight reach hyperbolic levels. You’d think we’d learn our lesson by now considering all the Schadenfreude the MMA world has be forced to swallow whenever we’ve let our imaginations run a little too wild amid pre-fight hype.

But have I learned that lesson?

Absolutely. Not.

If ever there was a matchup that screams FOTY guarantee, it’s UFC 291. Combined, Dustin Poirier (x2) and Justin Gaethje (x3) have stacked up five Fight of the Year awards from this very website since 2012, including their epic first encounter in 2018. That’s impressive in and of itself, sure, but consider this: If you remove the three-year run dominated by The Most Exciting Fighter of All-Time™ (Robbie Lawler’s epic 2014-16 title reign), 50 percent of the remaining years over that span have featured either Poirier and Gaethje (or both) dominating the top FOTY spot, reducing their combined odds down to a literal coin flip.

To push it even further, over the past six years alone, lightweight’s two marauders have a combined nine (9!) appearances on our yearly FOTY top-fives. That’s obscene.

It’s also about as surefire of a monopoly on violence as we’ve seen in this volatile sport.

(Random aside: The symmetry between Poirier and Gaethje is getting dizzyingly bizarre at this point. Here’s Poirier’s résumé since their 2018 classic: 6-2 UFC record with four finishes and two decisions, a victory over Michael Chandler, an interim belt captured over a man with a 12-fight win streak and angel wings tattooed on his back, and only losses over that span were submissions in title bouts against Khabib Nurmagomedov and Charles Oliveira. Want to know Gaethje’s résumé since 2018? Well, a 6-2 UFC record with four finishes and two decisions, a victory over Michael Chandler, an interim belt captured over a man with a 12-fight win streak and angel wings tattooed on his back, and only losses over that span were submissions in title bouts against Khabib Nurmagomedov and Charles Oliveira. We’re all living in a simulation people. This fight is incontestable proof. But I digress.)

I’ve been around this game long enough to understand that no bout is a lock to be anything, but there’s a 97-percent chance we’ll be talking about UFC 291’s main event in December once we start making all of these year-end lists — and considering how important Saturday is for both Poirier and Gaethje’s fading title chances (and thus how much of themselves they’ll be willing to give in there to get the win), I’m deferring back to that old 50-50 coin flip of a chance for this one to hold the top FOTY honors by 2023’s end.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Heck: The word “lock” is incredibly strong when talking about a year that has already seen Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski. Heck, as great as this fight is on paper considering the war he had with Dustin Poirier in their first fight, the bar is quite high for this to even be the best Justin Gaethje fight of 2023 after his victory over Rafael Fiziev.

While many will say yes to this question without hesitation, I tend to think that this fight, although it will be really, really, really good, may come up a shade short of the best of the year. Look, the BMF title aspect has potential to be really good if the concept becomes more of a mainstay, but there’s more on the line for both guys. Both Poirier and Gaethje have to know that the winner is going to get a lightweight title shot against either Islam Makhachev or Charles Oliveira next. Both have fought and were finished by Oliveira — and Gaethje continues to talk about the power “Du Bronx” brought to the table in their meeting at UFC 274 — while Makhachev is a new, different, and difficult challenge for both.

The stakes aren’t just a title shot, but more than likely the last time either will get their opportunity to win the undisputed championship that has eluded them their entire careers. Am I saying this is going to be a slog? Of course not, that would be silly of me. I am saying there’s a real chance that both fighters, as exciting as they are, might take a bit more of a let’s-think-about-the-longer-game approach to it, where it won’t be full-on chaos from horn-to-horn, but a slightly more cautious method to things. And with lightweight still being the best division in the sport, and countless contenders on the rise who are going to get their big-fight chances eventually, I believe this fight will be the right blend of bedlam, with a hint of wiseness that will still deliver, but in a different way than it did 62 months ago. Not to mention, it’s in Salt Lake City, where the altitude could (and probably will) play a factor.

We’re going to witness a fight that will surely make most Fight of the Year lists, I am penciling it in there as we speak. But will it be No. 1? I just don’t know if it will reach the somewhat unfair expectations it already has placed upon it.

2. Is Jan Blachowicz the right opponent for Alex Pereira’s 205-pound debut?

Lee: I loved this matchup the moment it was made and I haven’t wavered.

Sure, it would’ve been fine to have built Pereira up in similar fashion to how he fought his way to the middleweight title — I, myself, was touting a Khalil Rountree fight for Pereira’s first MMA fight at 205 pounds — but throwing him into the hot, hot heat against a former UFC champion isn’t bad either. Pereira already has a ton of name power from the scintillating Adesanya feud and we know from his kickboxing days that competing at light heavyweight is no problem for him, so why waste time? If he can’t beat Blachowicz, he’s probably not going to make it all the way to the top of the division anyway.

I’m more annoyed that the UFC didn’t just call an audible and make this fight for the (once again) vacant light heavyweight title after Jamahal vacated due to injury. There’s plenty of money to be made if Pereira scores a massive knockout of Blachowicz and then goes on to fight Prochazka, but that would be true whether the UFC waited to make a proper title fight anyway. What’s the difference between Pereira or Blachowicz entering a fight with Prochazka as champion as opposed to fighting him for a vacant title? Why overthink this?

If the UFC’s goal is to put Pereira in a title fight, then I understand the criticism of this bout. There’s a strong chance Blachowicz simply out-muscles Pereira for three rounds and grapples his way to a decision to put himself right back in the No. 1 contender’s spot, which probably isn’t what the matchmakers are hoping for. But every fight has its risks, and few results could give Pereira more credibility than adding Blachowicz to his highlight reel.

Pereira wanted to instantly enter a second title conversation. This is the price of entry.

MMA: APR 08 UFC 287 Photo by Alejandro Salazar/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heck: To be honest, I’ve thought about this question a lot, and have teeter-tottered with my answer since the moment the matchup was made. At first, the answer was no — and I’ll share why in a moment — but now that we see what this division currently looks like, this one actually worked out to be the actual correct fight.

There is no light heavyweight champion right now after Jamahal Hill vacated due to injury. Jiri Prochazka likely awaits the next guy up to emerge, and it doesn’t seem like the UFC is in any hurry to give Magomed Ankalaev — who may be the division’s best and most complete fighter — another title opportunity just yet. So this will do just fine, all things considered.

From a stylistic perspective, this has the makings to be an awful matchup for Pereira. Israel Adesnaya is not known to be a prolific wrestler, yet he had success in that department against the hard-hitting Pereira — or at the very least, he gave his longtime rival something to think about by mixing the martial arts. If Blachowicz can avoid a big shot and land takedowns early, it could be a very tough night for Pereira, and quite honestly, for the fans hoping for a barnburner.

At the same time, if Blachowicz wants to assert himself as the no-brainer guy to fight for the vacant title, I’m not sure a grappling-heavy 30-27 or 29-28 decision win will be enough for Dana White to go to the post-fight press conference and not use his “I don’t make fights the night of the fight” line. So I think Blachowicz will have to take a few more chances in this one in an attempt to be, well, as fun as can be, while still minding his Ps and Qs.

If Pereira wins, it’s going to be via spectacular knockout, and the UFC and White will be salivating at putting together promotional packages for a Prochazka vs. Pereira vacant title fight. The bout will do big business, and have a similar energy surrounding it as Saturday’s headliner between Poirier and Gaethje. Plus, the storyline of Prochazka submitting Pereira’s mentor Glover Teixeira — and the former middleweight champion eyeballing him moments later like he just stole food off of his tray — will be part of some incredible theater.

3. Which storyline outside of the main two has you most intrigued?

Al-Shatti: Let me clear: I completely understand the matchmaking behind Tony Ferguson vs. Bobby Green. “El Cucuy” needed an unranked opponent after dropping five straight bouts, and Green has long maintained a residence on Fun Fighter Island. Throw these two Tasmanian devils together even at their advanced ages and you’re guaranteed to get an interesting product, one way or another. I’m more just terrified of what may be coming.

We said it plenty both before and after UFC 290, but there are few happy endings in this cold, unflinching game. That tends to ring even truer for tragic figures like Ferguson, a man who spent the majority of his career as one of the very best in his weight class and at least four years of his peak as a top-two lightweight in the world, yet will ultimately leave this sport without a single legitimate title shot on his résumé due to a combination of factors outside of his control — timing, politics, management, and just plain piss-poor luck.

Ferguson remains a top-10 lightweight of all-time. Unfortunately, MMA is rarely gracious to hard-luckers on their way out the door who missed their window as “El Cucuy” did.

Yet ... alas. Where once there was none, the retirement of Robbie Lawler has given me hope.

In terms of both age and fight years, Ferguson is a hard 39 in a division renown for its ruthlessness to its senior class. Nothing about his late-career slide has given us any reason to expect anything other than another depressing outcome at UFC 291. But as the original driver of the “El Cucuy” bandwagon, is it crazy to yearn for just one final throwback performance against another longtime vet? Ferguson hasn’t indicated that Saturday will be his swan song, but is there a world out there where that old Blades ‘N’ Shades Tony makes one last reemergence and leaves one last victim looking like a defeated character sprite from Street Fighter II? More than a decade of working in MMA has trained me to understand that we don’t deserve good things, but can July 2023 be the one month in the history of forever when the blood gods finally gift us the sort of legend sendoffs we deserve?

I’m manifesting this like Izzy manifested DDP. For one final night, “El Cucuy” rides again.

Tony Ferguson Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Heck: I believe there’s a case to be made for any of the remaining main card bouts, and even the Lewis vs. de Lima heavyweight prelim, but I’m going with the low-hanging fruit and the featured bout between Stephen Thompson and Michel Pereira.

For “Wonderboy,” it’s simple: Can the 40-year-old fighter find his way into one more title shot? A win over Pereira is certainly a nice step forward, and in the storyline-heavy world we currently reside in, Thompson getting one last crack at championship gold could be just the kind of heartwarming tale the UFC could use to their advantage. Somehow, with the way things have shaken out at 170, Thompson — although hanging on by a thread — is not out of the title picture. He hasn’t fought current champ Leon Edwards, nor the upcoming challenger in Colby Covington, and although he has losses to Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns over his past three appearances, Thompson is still pretty darn popular in the eyes of the fans, and it showed after a stoppage of Kevin Holland at UFC Orlando. A loss likely locks that door behind him for good, but a Thompson win would create conversation.

On the flip side, is Pereira a legit title contender himself? For years, people have been waiting for his moment to shine in a big spot against a well-known name, and now he has his chance. Pereira is an exciting striker, but Thompson has found ways to frustrate fighters of Pereira’s caliber in the past. This is far and away the most compelling matchup of Pereira’s career, and an opportunity that fans have requested for quite some time. At 29 years of age, “Demolidor” might be hitting his stride at the right time, and I’m sure he learned a lot in his recent split decision win ovver Santiago Ponzinibbio. There’s certainly more on the line for Thompson in this one, but a Pereira win would be huge (and inject some more freshness in a division that is getting more interesting by the day).

Lee: Fine, I’ll be the jerk who asks: Is this the end of the road for “The Black Beast?”

Derrick Lewis has been a mainstay in the heavyweight division seemingly forever, so it feels wrong that for the first time since MMA Fighting started doing its own rankings, the fan favorite no longer has a number next to his name. On the other hand, given that he’s lost three straight fights (two in the first round) and four of his past five, it might be more surprising for some if Lewis was still in the top 15.

Throughout his memorable UFC career, Lewis has always managed to bounce back from losses. He’s typically just one explosive knockout or one viral quote away from returning to relevancy. But he’s never been in a funk quite like this one, and with the division showing signs of life, it might just be time for Lewis to be pushed out of the contenders’ circle for good. Could the 38-year-old contemplate retirement with his fourth loss since 2021? There isn’t much left for Lewis to prove, and at this point it wouldn’t be a shock to see him lay those massive gloves in the center of the octagon should he fall to Marcos Rogerio de Lima.

I imagine most fans would love to watch Lewis swangin’ and bangin’ for another five years, but those same fans probably don’t want him hanging on longer than he should. This is a must-win for Lewis if he has any inclination to stick around; otherwise, we should all be prepared to say goodbye to one of MMA’s truly unique personalities.

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