Mixed martial arts fans in Salt Lake City are loving life! The Ultimate Fighting Championship is in town and has brought with it an electric card with a main event that’s one of the most anticipated rematches in recent years.
Dustin ‘The Diamond’ Poirier and Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje waged an all-time battle that was dubbed the 2018 Fight of the Year more than five years ago. On that night in Glendale, AZ., at the Gila River Arena (now the Desert Diamond Arena), Poirier scored a knockout win 33 seconds into Round 4 as a -125 favorite.
Gaethje will be looking to avenge that loss when they collide in tonight’s UFC 291 headliner for the “BMF” belt. The winner will likely get a title shot against the winner of the UFC 294 main event between former champion, Charles ‘Do Bronx’ Oliveira, and current lightweight kingpin, Islam Makhachev.
As of Friday afternoon, most books had Poirier (29-7-0-1 MMA, 21-6-0-1 UFC) installed as a -145 (DraftKings) to -155 (BetRivers) favorite, with Gaethje at +125 odds on the comeback. The total was 2.5 rounds (‘over’ -127, ‘under’ -107).
By late Saturday morning, most betting shops had Poirier as a -150 to -155 ‘chalk,’ with Gaethje at +125 or +130. DraftKings had Poirier’s proposition bet to win inside the distance at +130. His prop to win by TKO/KO was at +175 at most spots, but FanDuel was offering +225 odds. Poirier via submission was at +650.
The props for Gaethje to win were at the following numbers: inside the distance (+215), by TKO/KO (+225, but +255 at FanDuel) and via submission (+2000 or 20/1).
Since these two legendary fighters went at it last, both have compiled a 6-2 record, and both took their losses against former 155-pound champions Khabib Nurmagomedov and Oliveira. Gaethje and Poirier are both 34 years of age and both once held the UFC’s interim lightweight belt.
Gaethje (24-4 MMA, 7-4 UFC) bounced back from the loss to Poirier and ripped off three consecutive wins by first-round KOs over James Vick, Edson Barboza and Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone. Those victories earned him a shot at the interim title against Tony ‘El Cucuy’ Ferguson, who came into the UFC 249 headliner on a 12-fight winning streak.
Ferguson was initially scheduled to fight Nurmagomedov on April 18 of 2020 in Brooklyn at Barclays Arena, but the global pandemic forced the card to be postponed. It was the fifth time a just-not-meant-to-be matchup between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov had to be scrapped.
With Nurmagomedov stuck in Dagestan unable to travel, UFC President Dana White booked Gaethje-Ferguson for May 9 in Jacksonville. Gaethje dominated Ferguson from start to finish and finished him via fifth-round KO as a +200 underdog.
In his shot at unifying the title at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi on Oct. 24 of 2020, Gaethje lost to Nurmagomedov by technical submission (triangle choke) 1:34 into Round 2.
After more than a year off, Gaethje returned on Nov. 6 of 2021 to score a unanimous-decision victory over Michael Chandler at UFC 268. That performance earned him another crack at UFC gold against Oliveira at UFC 274.
Gaethje dropped Oliveira multiple times and bloodied him up in the first two minutes of the contest, but then ‘Do Bronx’ dropped Gaethje and was able to follow him to the ground and score a submission win (rear-naked choke) at the 3:22 mark of the opening stanza.
In March at UFC 286, Gaethje ended Rafael Fiziev’s six-fight winning streak with a majority-decision win (29-28, 29-28, 28-28) as a +185 underdog.
After his win over Gaethje, Poirier beat Eddie Alvarez by second-round KO and then defeated then-featherweight champion Max Holloway via unanimous decision to win the interim strap at UFC 236.
But like Gaethje, Poirier’s bid to become the undisputed lightweight kingpin came up short against Nurmagomedov in a third-round submission loss at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi.
However, the Lafayette, LA., product responded with a three-fight winning streak, including a pair of TKO victories over Conor McGregor.
Those wins garnered him another title shot vs. Oliveira. Again, like Gaethje, Poirier took it to Oliveira early, bloodying him up with his striking. The tide turned late in Round 2, though, and Oliveira retained his belt with a third-round submission win at UFC 269.
Poirier bounced back with a third-round submission win over Chander at UFC 281.
PREDICTION: As a gambler, you usually check “your feelings” at the door. However, I can’t in this instance. In terms of my favorite fighters, Matt Brown is my Uno, Nate Diaz is #2, Poirier and Gaethje are 3A and 3B and Chuck ‘The Iceman’ Liddel is my #5. I’m using a bit (but not a lot) of hyperbole here when I say, “I just don’t want them to kill each other.” Furthermore, I don’t want them to take a half-dozen years off of each other’s lives, either, but that’s probably what happens if they go four of five rounds. As a fan, of course we all want to see another battle for the ages but by the same token, we also want the honor to get to watch these prize fighters compete several more times in the future. Therefore, I’m hoping one of them stops the other with a mid-to-late second-round finish. The main event is a hard PASS for me.
In the co-main event, former UFC middleweight champion Alex Pereira will take on former light heavyweight kingpin Jan Blachowicz. As of Friday afternoon, most spots had this scrap as a pick ’em (-110 either way). The total was 1.5 rounds (-143 to the ‘over,’ +108 for the ‘under’) at BetRivers.
Those numbers had not moved by Saturday morning.
Pereira (7-2 MMA, 4-1 UFC) is moving up a division after losing his rematch against Israel ‘The Last Stylebender’ Adesanya by second-round KO at UFC 281 last November. However, the 36-year-old Brazilian won’t be giving away any size.
In fact, the 6-foot-4 Pereira has a two-inch height advantage and a one-inch edge in reach. Before splitting a pair of contests with Adesanya (he won the first bout by fifth-round KO), Pereira earned Performance of the Night bonuses in KO wins over Andreas Michailidis (flying knee and punches in Round 2) and Sean Strickland (punches in Round 1). He also has a UD victory over Bruno Silva on his UFC resume.
Blachowicz (29-9-1 MMA, 12-6-1 UFC) went 9-1 in 10 fights from October of 2017 through the summer of 2021, including five finishes over Devin Clark, Nikita Krylov, former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold, Corey Anderson and Dominick Reyes. His second-round KO win over Reyes at UFC 253 was for the light heavyweight belt that had been left vacant by Jon ‘Bones’ Jones.
In his next outing at UFC 259 in March of 2021, Blachowicz successfully defended his strap with a UD win over Adesanya (49-46, 49-45, 49-45), who had moved up a weight class to try to become a double champ.
Blachowicz lost the belt to Glover Teixeira in a second-round submission setback at UFC 267. The 40-year-old native of Poland bounced back with a third-round TKO victory over Aleksandar Rakic, who sustained a serious knee injury in the third stanza.
With the belt left vacant once again when Jiri Prochazka relinquished it after sustaining a serious shoulder injury, Blachowicz fought Magomed Ankalaev to a split draw in a title fight at UFC 282. Now Blachowicz can earn another title shot with a win Saturday, as the victor is expected to face Prochazka for the strap that’s vacant (yet again) after Jamahal Hill relinquished it due to a torn Achilles tendon suffered two weeks ago.
PREDICTION: Blachowicz has already given two former UFC middleweight champions – Rockhold and Adesanya – rude welcomes to the 205-pound loop. However, he was 38 and 36 and in the midst of the best (9-1) run of his career at the time of those victories. Blachowicz is 1-1-1 in his last three outings and the lone victory came when Rakic blew out his knee. I think dodging the extremely difficult weight cut will make Pereira even stronger. He’s also been training exclusively with Teixeira, an elite grappler, to hone his skills on the ground. I’m on Pereira, the younger fighter by six years, for 1.5 units at a -105 price (Caesars and FanDuel). Let’s also go with 0.5 units on Pereira to win by TKO/KO for a +170 payout (FanDuel).
The curtain jerker for the main card is a welterweight clash between Kevin Holland and Michael Chiesa. As of Friday afternoon, DraftKings had the best price on Holland at -140, while most other shops were at -148 or -150. Chiesa was a +125 underdog, and the total was 1.5 rounds (‘over’ -150, ‘under’ +114 at BetRivers).
Those numbers remained the same Saturday morning.
The 30-year-old Holland (24-9 MMA, 11-6 UFC) was the 2020 Fighter of the Year when he went 5-0 with four finishes and earned three POTN bonuses, and all of that work was done in the middleweight division. He beat Anthony Hernandez, Charlie Ontiveros and Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza via first-round KOs.
After dropping back-to-back UDs to Derek Brunson and Marvin Vettori and then competing in a no-contest (due to an accidental clash of heads) vs. Kyle Daukaus, Holland dropped back down to welterweight. Since then, he’s posted a 3-1 record with two KOs (Alex Oliveira and Santiago Ponzinibbio) and one submission (Tim Means).
There was also a first-round submission defeat in this recent stretch, but that came last September when he took a 180-pound catchweight bout vs. Khamzat Chimaev on one day of notice.
Holland has 14 career wins by KO and six via submissions. He’s been submitted three times and KO’d just once. That was last December when Holland lost an Instant Classic to Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson by fourth-round TKO (corner stoppage) due to a broken hand. Wonderboy-Holland won FOTN honors and was named the Fight of the Month by MMAJunkie.
Chiesa (18-6 MMA, 11-6 UFC) won Season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter back in 2012 with a first-round submission win over ‘Raging’ Al Iaquinta. He posted a 7-2 record in his first nine Octagaon appearances, with his lone defeats coming against Jorge Masvidal and Joe Lauzon.
Chiesa’s loss to Lauzon earned FOTN honors. He also earned a Submission of the Night bonus in a win over Colton Smith via rear-naked choke. Chiesa bagged a POTN bonus in a second-round submission win over Beneil Dariush, and he earned an extra $50,000 for FOTN honors in a second-round submission win over Jim Miller.
The 7-2 start to his UFC tenure was followed by back-to-back losses to Kevin Lee and Anthony Pettis. Chiesa missed weight ahead of the loss to Pettis, prompting him to move up to welterweight.
Chiesa won his first four fights at 170 pounds, earning scalps over Carlos Condit, Diego Sanchez, Rafael dos Anjos and Neil Magny. His winning streak was snapped at UFC 265 in a first-round submission loss (D’Arce choke) to Vicente Luque.
Three months later on Nov. 20 of 2021, Chiesa lost a UD to Sean Brady. He hasn’t fought since then, spending much of his time doing a podcast with Paul Felder and working at the desk in a broadcasting role for the UFC.
PREDICTION: Chiesa has been on the sidelines for 20 months. He was scheduled to face Li Jingliang in April, but Jingliang had to pull out due to an injury. Chiesa is the better fighter on the ground compared to Holland, although Chiesa’s stand-up skills have improved. Have they improved even more in the last 20 months? Even if they have, he’s still no match for Holland when the contest is on the feet. The question will be if Holland can defend the takedowns. I think he can. I’ll risk 2.8 units to win two units with Holland at the -140 price (DraftKings).
In the second bout on the pay-per-view card, Ferguson (25-8 MMA, 15-6 UFC) will take on Bobby ‘King’ Green in a lightweight showdown. As of Saturday morning, most shops had Green listed as a -360 (DraftKings) to -400 (FanDuel) favorite. The total was 2.5 rounds (‘over’ -139, ‘under’ +106).
Since Ferguson’s 12-fight winning streak was snapped in his loss to Gaethje in 2020, he’s lost four more times and is looking to snap a five-fight slide. However, he’s been facing the best of the best at 155 pounds.
Ferguson lost via UD to Oliveira at UFC 256 before dropping another UD to Dariush at UFC 262. He looked great in the opening round of a UFC 274 scrap against Chandler.
Ferguson was winning the striking exchanges when the fight was standing for the first 3.5 minutes. Chander scored a takedown with more than a minute remaining in the frame, but Ferguson hammered Chandler’s forehead and drew blood with at least a half-dozen elbows from the bottom position.
But in Round 2, Chandler scored a highlight-reel KO with a lightning-fast front kick to the face. Ferguson returned at UFC 279 last September and was scheduled to face Jingliang in a welterweight bout.
Instead, he ended up facing Nate Diaz in the main event after Chimaev badly missed weight. Diaz defeated Ferguson via fourth-round submission (guillotine choke).
The 36-year-old Green (29-14-1-1 MMA, 10-9-1-1 UFC) is 0-2 with one no-contest in his last three fights. His most notable career wins have come over Josh Thomson, Clay Guida, Landon Vannata, Iaquinta and Nasrat Haqparast.
PREDICTION: At this point in his career at the age of 39, Ferguson is undoubtedly an auto-fade fighter if he’s facing a ranked lightweight opponent. Green is unranked, however. Before the loss to Diaz, Ferguson’s losses came against third-ranked Gaethje, No. 1-ranked Oliveira, fourth-ranked Dariush and fifth-ranked Chandler. Green is in the richest ‘chalk’ spot of his career, and he has no business being favored this heavily. Let’s risk 0.3 units on Ferguson as a +300 underdog to win 0.9 units.
The bout ahead of the co-main event was supposed to be a welterweight clash between ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson and Michel Pereira, but Pereira missed weight by three pounds when he hit the scales at 174 pounds Friday morning. Therefore, this bout was scratched from the card.
One of the prelims – a heavyweight contest between 11th-ranked Derrick ‘The Black Beast’ Lewis and Marcos Rogerio de Lima – was elevated to the main card.
As of Saturday morning, most books had Rogerio de Lima installed as a -200 (Caesars) to -225 (BetMGM and FanDuel) favorite, with Lewis at +185 odds at BetMGM. The total was 1.5 rounds (‘under’ -210, ‘over’ +155 at BetRivers).
Lewis (26-11-0-1 MMA, 17-9 UFC) is looking to snap a three-fight losing streak. He’s been finished inside of two rounds in all three recent defeats, including a pair of KO losses to Tai Tuivasa and Sergei Pavlovich.
However, like Ferguson, tonight’s spot for Lewis is a step down in competition against the unranked Rogerio de Lima. During a 1-4 slump in his last five outings, Lewis has lost to second-ranked Ciryl Gane, No. 1-ranked Pavlovich, sixth-ranked Tuivasa and eighth-ranked Sergey Spivak.
Lewis’s two most recent wins came over fifth-ranked Curtis Blaydes (Feb. 20 of 2021) and 14th-ranked Chris Daukaus (Dec. 18 of 2021). Lewis owns other notable career wins over the likes of Aleksei Oleinik, Blagoy Ivanov, Travis Browne, Francis Ngannou, seventh-ranked Alexander Volkov, 10th-ranked Marcin Tybura, Roy Nelson and Gabriel Gonzaga.
Rogerio de Lima (21-8-1-0 MMA, 10-6 UFC) is 7-3 in 10 fights in the UFC’s heavyweight division, but he hasn’t faced anyone that’s currently ranked. The 38-year-old Brazilian is on a 4-1 run in his last five appearances, but two of the wins came over foes – Ben Rothwell and Maurice Green – that are no longer on the UFC roster.
The loss came to Ivanov. Another win came over 44-year-old Andrei Arlovski last October, and Rogerio de Lima is off a UD (29-28, 29-28, 29-28) victory over Waldo Cortes-Acosta.
PREDICTION: Unlike his recent outings, the 38-year-old Lewis isn’t facing a younger heavyweight that’s highly ranked. He’s taking on a man that’s his age and isn’t ranked. Does the altitude concern me? It does, but Rogerio de Lima has to deal with it, too. Let’s go with 0.5 units on Lewis for a +185 return. Also, let’s go with 0.5 units on the prop for the fight to end in Round 1 at a -125 price. Seventeen of Rogerio de Lima’s 30 career bouts have ended in the opening frame, including four of his last seven fights. Three of Lewis’s last four scraps have ended in Round 1.
**B.E.’s Bonus Octagon Nuggets**
-Check out White’s UFC 291 version of “If you don’t know, now you know:”
-Here’s the UFC 291 Cold Open:
— danawhite (@danawhite) July 28, 2023
-Here’s another great teaser for the main event narrated by ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson (!):
— danawhite (@danawhite) July 27, 2023
-Although his first 10 Octagon appearances came at featherweight (actually nine, but a 10th scrap was at a 151.5-pound catchweight when Diego Brandao missed weight), Poirier is still tied with Drew Dober for the all-time lead in KO/TKO wins in UFC lightweight division history with eight. He’s fifth in 155-pound history in significant strikes landed (1,139), fifth in strikes landed per minute (6.18), sixth in total strikes landed (1,361) and tied for sixth in finishes (9). In terms of his overall body of work (at 145 and 155, and compared to all divisions), Poirier is tied for fifth (with Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva) in career finishes (14), tied for sixth (with Jon ‘Bones’ Jones and Neil Magny) in the promotion’s history in career wins with 21, tied for sixth in KO/TKO wins (10), tied for 10th in knockdowns landed (13) and tied for seventh in significant strikes landed (1,623).
-Gaethje is the UFC lightweight division’s all-time leader in significant strike accuracy (60.2%).
-Green is the UFC lightweight division’s all-time leader in significant strikes landed with 1,500, which is 225 more than the retired Evan Dunham (1,225). He’s also the leader in total strikes landed (1,718).
-Wonderboy released the following statement after his bout with Pereira was cancelled:
— “Wonderboy” Thompson (@WonderboyMMA) July 28, 2023
-Whether you tail or fade, best of luck and enjoy the show!