UFC 291 is in the books and it was a doozy. Unlike the previous trip to Utah, UFC 291 had a whole bunch of finishes and insane things happen. Justin Gaethje beat Dustin Poirier to become the new BMF champion, Alex Pereira continues to speed-run a Hall of Fame career, Derrick Lewis got back in the win column and then had a post-fight celebration for the ages, and Tony Ferguson’s tragic slide continued. So let’s talk about all that.
Where does Justin Gaethje rank among best fighters to never win a UFC undisputed title?— Mookie Alexander (@mookiealexander) July 30, 2023
A lot higher after Saturday.
Let’s start here: Gaethje is a bit of an outlier in MMA, because in a sport where nearly everybody is overrated to some extent, he is probably underrated while simultaneously being universally beloved as probably the most exciting fighter to ever live. That’s an extremely specific needle to thread, but it’s true. Of his eight UFC wins, all against top-level guys mind you, Gaethje was the betting underdog in six of them (the only times he’s been a favorite and won were against Michael Chandler and Donald Cerrone). And I think a lot of that comes back to the idea that his style isn’t classically beautiful, which makes him hard to understand; when you go to the hospital after every one of your wins, it’s harder to convince people you’re an all-time great.
But Gaethje really is making a claim for that sort of title.
Lightweight is the best division in MMA (this is a fact). We are talking about a weight class where a guy on a 12-fight win streak wasn’t able to fight for an undisputed title, and where multiple fighters on eight-fight win streaks haven’t fought for any sort of belt. It’s a division where you have to put together a string of incredible performances to rate in the top 15, and even then, you’re still several fights away from contention; and at any point in time if someone falls out or something happens and you end up facing a top-40 guy, he can beat you because the margins are that small. And in that shark tank, Gaethje has remained a top guy for years. That’s an enormous feather in his cap.
On that note, Gaethje’s wins at lightweight are basically all very good, and now having beaten Poirier (a top-seven lightweight all-time) and Tony Ferguson (top-five), at or near the peak of their powers, that really elevates Gaethje to a top tier of the “Haven’t won a real UFC belt” all-stars. Fedor Emelianenko is the president-for-life of that club and Dan Henderson, Mirko Cro Cop, and Joseph Benavidez all sit on the board. As it stands right now, Gaethje is simply a partner in the company along with guys like Poirier and the Diaz brothers, but if he keeps this up, he has the chance to move to a senior partner position, alongside the likes of Alexander Gustafsson, Yoel Romero, and Demian Maia.
Gaethje vs. Conor McGregor
Just how badly would Justin Gaethje thrash Conor McGregor if they met in six months?— Jay Pettry (@jaypettry) July 30, 2023
ICYMI, McGregor started popping off after Gaethje’s win on Saturday because the man can simply never let anyone else have a moment, ever. Remember the halcyon days when McGregor ignored everyone because they were all chasing him? Not how “Notorious” works anymore.
As for a Gaethje-McGregor fight, I’ve been on the record for nearly five years that there is no matchup I want to see more in MMA. We’re talking about two of the five most exciting fighters ever in a stylistic matchup that guarantees insanity. What Gaethje does well, McGregor sucks at, and vice versa. It’s a fascinating matchup.
Or at least it was. Now, I’m pretty confident Gaethje thrashes Conor.
At the peak of his powers, McGregor was an offensive dynamo the likes of which we had rarely seen in MMA. He’s a super-fast starter who has an innate sense of timing and rhythm and would simply thump up dudes who were trying to get going. In contrast, Gaethje’ entire style is meant to break rhythm with repeated car crashes, and he has now long proven to have the sort of ungodly durability that will ruin McGregor’s chances of a swift victory. Conor might show flashes in the first minute or two when he’s at full power, but Gaethje’s defense has improved significantly over the years and his leg kicks will very quickly upend McGregor’s chances of doing much. The fight probably looks like a much more brutal version of McGregor vs. Poirier 2, where instead of Conor getting caught out of position, hurt, and then finished, Gaethje simply breaks the man under his relentless onslaught.
is this a "bad" loss for Dustin?— AD (@adubz123) July 31, 2023
Of course not! There’s no shame in losing to Justin Gaethje, especially when you already have a win over him. If these two dudes fought 100 times, the probably split the matchup down the middle. That being said, this probably is the loss that sets his legacy in stone.
MMA is impossibly hard and Poirier has had a long and arduous career. He’s very likely in his post-prime (and has been for a bit) and this is exactly the sort of loss that, looking back, we will view as the start of that, because now he’s done chasing titles. Poirier is several steps removed from a title shot and has explicitly said that’s not his primary focus moving forward. He wants fun fights, fights that get him interested, not staving off Arman Tsarukyan or whoever else to keep himself in the title mix. That means we probably don’t have more than a handful of Poirier fights left and it’s the legends tour stuff. And while legends tour fights are always fun, they don’t add much to the legacy in a big picture standpoint.
Whether people realize it or not, legacies in MMA are largely determined by what happens to a fighter during his years in pursuit of the belt. Sure, legends matchups and things like that can have some sway (B.J. Penn’s seven losses at the end of his career took him from lightweight GOAT to afterthought), but for the most part they’re just the sprinkles on the sundae. Pretty much regardless of what happens moving forward, Poirier is going to go down as a top-seven lightweight and a universally beloved fighter. That’s the sort of résumé any person would kill for.
Alex Pereira, light heavyweight title challenger
How can all the izzy nuthugger now beg for a fight against Alex for the 205 title after izzy literally said himself the chapter is now closed on Alex LOL?? Can’t just change ya mind now another title could be potentially on the line— Billy T (@BillyT82900427) July 30, 2023
Because it would be cool?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the underlying idea here: It’s a bit hypocritical for Israel Adesanya fans to dismiss a trilogy bout with Pereira until something new is in it for Izzy, but hey, people on the internet are hypocrites. What can I tell you? At least this time the calls for Izzy vs. Pereira in Australia for the light heavyweight title would lead to something insane.
But that’s not going to happen and we all know it. After beating Jan Blachowicz, Pereira is now a legitimate light heavyweight contender, and with Jamahal Hill vacating the belt, it’s functionally a guarantee that Pereira will now fight true champion Jiri Prochazka for the title. Aside from being an insanely fun matchup, it also pits Prochazka against the protege of the man he won the belt off of before suffering his injury and vacating it. It’s a perfect story. And when Pereira inevitably boops Jiri into the land of wind and ghosts to become the eighth multi-division champion in UFC history and the first to do it in just 11 career fights, it will be hilarious and then setup the inevitable fight with Adesanya for the light heavyweight title.
whats your thoughts on lewis wanting to resign with the UFC when theres a potential of a $2million payday with the PFL?— Liam Parry (@liamparry86) July 30, 2023
Derrick Lewis is no man’s fool, and just the way he phrased it let’s you know exactly what “The Black Beast” actually meant during his post-fight interview:
“We’ll see. I’m a free agent now, so hopefully I can get another contract with the UFC. If not, f*** it. It is what it is.”
“We’ll see. I’m a free agent now, so hopefully I can get another contract with the UFC, [but the PFL has an open contract for $2 million, so that’s where negotiations start]. If [the UFC doesn’t want to pony up], f*** it. It is what it is.”
Lewis has been with the UFC for almost 10 years, twice fought for a title, and probably likes the company very much. But he’s a businessman, and at the end of the day, he’s here to get paid. All other things being equal, I’m sure he would re-sign with the UFC. But $2 million is a lot of money, and I doubt the UFC is going to match that.
On top of that, I think the price tag for Lewis is much higher that $2 million, because the PFL has already played their hand. By announcing that any heavyweight gets at least that much for fight Ngannou, they’re going to attract plenty of opposition, but Lewis is one of the few fighters who both can chase that payday down and actually would prove interesting for casual fans. He can probably negotiate for a lot more than just the $2 million. Meaning the UFC would have to break bank for a guy that was just on a three-fight losing skid. That ain’t happening.
Derrick Lewis, PFL heavyweight, coming in 2024.
Please just bring up the fact that Tony was winning a close round to Bobby Green until the eye poke and the two subsequent rounds he did not make a strong case for himself.— Copper2Chloride (@CHlLLDAD) July 30, 2023
Tony Ferguson was winning a competitive round against Bobby Green, and had just dropped him, right before getting poked in the eye. Green got a break to recover and then when action resumed, Ferguson started getting his ass beat. That’s just the way MMA works. Should a point have been deducted? Absolutely. But in the end it wouldn’t have mattered since Green got the finish. Is it crappy? Totally. But Ferguson was never going to not continue, and so ultimately, it doesn’t matter. This is just how MMA works.
Even with all that though, Ferguson should simply stop fighting. As the saying goes, he’s as good once as he ever was, but not as good as he once was. “El Cucuy” can still show some flashes every fight out, but he can’t do it for 15 minutes. Add in the fact that Tony always made some curious tactical choices that he’d get away with due to athleticism, and he’s simply never going to beat another high-level fighter. Father Time is undefeated. Here’s hoping Tony won’t take too much unnecessary damage in the coming years as he fights fruitlessly against that truth.
Thanks for reading, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about things at least somewhat related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your Hot Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew, and I will answer my favorite ones! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane, just so long as they are good. Thanks again and see y’all next week.