In one of the first scenes of the show “Billions” something is uttered to the effect that when it comes to main character Bobby Axelrod, he doesn’t call meetings, they form around him. A similar statement could be made, in a way, about mixed martial arts and the UFC’s lightweight division in regards to a one Conor McGregor, the former champion of that weight class and the biggest star the sport has ever seen. Some question the validity of McGregor’s current claim to the top echelon of that division, and that’s fair. There was his leaving the division, then MMA as a whole, then returning to lose to the reigning lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, and then him taking a fight outside what one may call the contender’s bracket, against a declining Donald Cerrone. However this is still the fight game and he’s still Conor McGregor. What’s more is that the three other lightweight contenders fighting on Saturday night also have both excellent resumes and yet shaky immediate claims to area surrounding the throne. McGregor’s opponent, Dustin Poirier, is coming into the night on a one fight winning streak having lost to Khabib two fights ago. In the co-main event, Dan Hooker, a highly touted prospect cum contender lost his last fight to Poirier. His opponent, Michael Chandler, is debuting in the UFC and is thus unranked and untested against the best the promotion has to offer. So, while the biggest superstar in the history of the sport may not lay such a valid claim as he once did, that claim is still there in the context of this group and he is still as they say, in some aspects, the king.
The two fighters that reach the peak Saturday night meet only uncertainty, oddly enough. Firstly, Dana White said a tremendous performance from any one fighter may be enough to bring the retired Nurmagomedov back, although The Eagle has since said otherwise. Keep in mind this is a stance he has kept since his last victory and retirement in October. Secondly, and possibly more notably, we have #3 contender Charles Oliveira. Oliveira sits only below Poirier and Khabib’s last victim, Justin Gaethje, in the 155lb rankings and recently beat divisional stalwart and perennial top 5 fighter Tony Ferguson, only to be left without a dance partner this weekend. With that said, it could be that the more impressive of the two victors receives not the opportunity to retrieve the belt from Nurmagomedov as White contends, but a chance to fight for a vacated championship against Oliveira.
All of that comes after 40 possible minutes of combat however, and it is still just a guess which two men come out victorious. For them all their is left to do is make weight and fight. For me, to try and guess who does the latter better.
A Fun One To Start
Amanda Ribas (#10) vs. Marina Rodriguez (#8) – Strawweight (115lbs) Fight
Ribas is a win or two away from becoming a bonafide sensation on the women’s side of MMA. Her last time out, she put away divisional veteran and sometimes contender Paige Van Zant with an armbar in round one – and didn’t seem to break too much of a sweat doing it. While Ribas has developed some effective and varied striking, mainly hooks from all levels and a diet of body kicks, grappling is where her bread is buttered. She a black belt in both Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and will use the former former to get her opponents to the mat and set up the latter. Ribas is savvy St using pressure and her striking to get her opponents to the cage and begin the grappling exchange, starting with an arsenal of trips and throws.
Rodriguez is in the curious spot of being ranked quite highly but being positioned as a bit of an afterthought. A replacement for Michelle Waterson in this bout, Rodriguez is coming off a decision loss to Carla Esparza, a razor close fight in which one judge saw Rodriguez as the victor. The Muay Thai practitioner has also drew with former top, and oversized, strawweight contender Cynthia Calvillo while beating mainstay Tecia Torres and former WSOF champion Jessica Aguilar. Style-wise, she is a downright vicious striker who will use her long, straight punches and kicks to abuse amd frustrate her opponents. What makes her a particularly tricky match up for Ribas however is her prowess in the clinch. Should Ribas lock up along the fence, she may be fed a knee or elbow for her trouble.
Due to the aforementioned clinch, this is a tricky one to pick. The on-fire upstart or the steadily climbing contender.
Amanda Ribas def. Marina Rodriguez (SUB, RD2)
Dan Hooker (#6) vs. Michael Chandler (Unranked, UFC Debut) – Lightweight (155lbs) Fight
One could look at the rankings and then this fight and its implications and wonder what the fuck is going on but here we are. This fight is the result of the current/probably retired champion taking out the second ranked contender, that second rank contender taking out the fifth rank contender to earn that title fight, and a slew of other divisional dominoes falling. Nonetheless both guys have earned this and will cement their spot atop the division with the win.
New Zealand’s Hooker has been nothing short of a revelation since moving up to 155lbs from 145lbs, where he was forved to cut just way too much weight from his 6′ frame. Now a little more well nourished, he has collected a handful of knockouts to show for it and is now a fight or two away from securing a title shot. A long, rangy kickboxer, Hooker uses his footwork and head movement about as well as anyone in the division. Not just committed to straight punches, Hooker will change the level of where he is throwing and landing his punches at a moments notice, and they’ll come with some pop on them as well. What he really likes to do is either set up or finish off those combos with a long, high knee up the middle. Being a taller, flexible guy for the division, Hooker is able to hit opponents dead in the chin at the snap of a finger with a knee with no set up. It should also be noted, especially due to him fighting a shorter, wrestling-minded opponent, that Hooker has a couple of wins by guillotine. Should he find him self against the fence, he may try and submit his way off of it. My knock on Hooker is that his last two fights against Poirier and Paul Felder have been his two biggest and he could not close the show. That knockout ability against lighter competition is great but if he can’t bring it with him, he’ll find out what a rough game it could be trying to outpoint the division’s best on the way to a title shot. In tbis case especially, outpointing an unproven, in the UFC at least, commodity won’t serve Hooker well to work his way into the top 5.
Standing on the other aide of the cage will be Michael Chandler, who up until Saturday night will have spent most of his professional career in the MMA purgatory known as Bellator. That said Chandler fared just fine against the talent coming from or oing to the UFC and thus deserves the respect of a top tier lightweight. In terms of what he does in the cage, Chandler could be described as Team Alpha Male-esque in style, particularly in the Ludwig/Kampmann eras, despite him having no affiliation with the California camp. He is indeed a stocky, athletic former college wrestler, having earned D1 All American accolades at Missouri. He also, like many athletes coming out the renowned California camp (Chandler did this camp at Sanford MMA in Florida with Henri Hooft), has developed quite a fluid kickboxing game that sees him switching stances fluidly, throwing heavy overhands and hooks, and keeping opponents at bay with low and body kicks. His striking does have holes however. He can be hittable, which may actually be more due to him being a bit on the small side of the division – he’ll be giving up four inches in height and reach to Hooker on Saturday – and thus his opponents are able to hit him first rather than the alternative. He also puts A LOT into his power shots which can throw him off balance. All of that said he still has quality striking which leads to, of course, his wrestling. Chandler loves to shoot for a blast double and use the cage to finish it, either applying ground and pound or fishing for a submission from there. The big achilles heel for the Missouri native seems to be his gas tank. He is seen as a guy who comes out absolutely firing them runs out of steam earlier than one would hope. However, this is only a three round fight, not a five round affair like Chandler has come to know all too well.
Dan Hooker def. Michael Chandler (RD3, Decision)
The Main Event
Conor McGregor (#4) vs. Dustin Poirier (#2) – Lightweight (155lbs) Fight
Dublin collides with Lafayette, Louisiana for a second time Saturday as these two future hall of famers run back their 2014 contest. Fought at featherweight the first time around, McGregor was able to wear down a depleted Poirier (this would be his last fight at 145lbs) and knock him out in round 1.
Mystic Mac returns to 155lbs after taking on Donald Cerrone in what seems more and more as a cameo at 170lbs about a year ago. That came about a year and a half after getting mauled and submitted by Nurmagomedov at UFC229 in October of 2018. With the promise of becoming a more active fighter only one thing hanging in the balance, McGregor also puts his place as a top divisional contender on the line, for now, as well.
It seems somewhere between silly and pretentious at this point to detail what Conor does in the cage. However his style has shifted a bit over the years. Although he has not completely shifted away from throwing hook and spinning kicks to set up his attacks, Conor has become a bit more straightforward in his approach. This could be due to his improved pure boxing, evidenced by his foray into that sport professionally. More and more he has come to favor throwing front kicks to the body to weaken his opponents or bring their hands down, leaving their heads exposed. Also still a part of his arsenal are hard roundhouse kicks to both the body and head, again thrown to do damage as well as to move his opponents defense into a more advantageous position. Obviously his main weapon remains his piston-like straight left hand. One thing to mention is the fact that McGregor’s grappling has greatly improved, particularly defensively from both a shot-stopping and on-the-mat perspective.
While not stylistically a much different fighter than in 2014, Poirier is a much better one. He is now one of the cleaner boxers in the entire sport and will throw high volume combinations hitting both the head and body. Although not impossible, and sometimes too possible, to hit, Poirier can employ phenomenal head movement to set up those combinations, truly getting into an uncompromising flow with his abuse. With that said, it may just be the truth that the American Top team representative fights best in a phone booth, cracking his opponents with short hooks and uppercuts, as well as the occasional knee. His straight left can sizzle much like McGregor’s, but for me it’s was a bit disappointing that Poirier was unable to put away Hooker in his last fight, particularly given the shots he was landing on the Kiwi. Grappling-wise, he is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt whose submission attempts seem to come out of nowhere sometimes. With that said he doesn’t have otherworldly wrestling to strike fear into McGregor with so unless he is able to begin fishing for something substantial against the cage, that facet of his game and the fight may be null.
Conor McGregor def. Dustin Poirier (RD2, TKO/KO)
Justin Gaethje-Nate Diaz announced during the PPV.