A question that has persisted for much of the year will be answered on Saturday: Who is the true king of the lightweight division?
Supporters of both Charles Oliveira and Dustin Poirier have clear arguments as to why their man is the one to beat. Oliveira enters the UFC 269 main event with a UFC championship around his waist that is widely regarded as the most important title in MMA. “Do Bronx” has won nine straight fights, all but one by knockout or submission, and no one in UFC history has finished more fights than he has.
On the other side, Poirier — the No. 1 lightweight in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings, a spot ahead of Oliveira — brings a deeper resume into the matchup with notable wins over Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez, Anthony Pettis, Max Holloway, and Conor McGregor. Poirier twice beat McGregor this year, elevating his own star power and earning potential, but also leaving the door open for Oliveira to claim the title. Now, “The Diamond” gets his chance to leave no doubt that the top spot has always been his.
In the co-main event, the only question is whether Julianna Pena can overcome astronomical odds to defeat two-division champion Amanda Nunes. This is Nunes’ first bantamweight title defense in two years, but whatever division Nunes has competed in she has been a force of nature.
“The Lioness” has logged seven straight successful title defenses at 135 and 145 pounds with only a handful of those contests being remotely competitive. She’s cleared out the bantamweight division to the point that Pena — accomplished as she is — is receiving a title shot essentially by default. Nunes is not a “will she win” champion — she’s a “how will she win” champion.
That’s not to say Pena isn’t a live dog. She has the wrestling base and toughness to make this a fight, but it’s not a stretch to say this will go down as one of the biggest upsets in combat sports history if Pena guts out a win.
In other main card action, Geoff Neal faces Santiago Ponzinibbio in a welterweight bout, Kai Kara-France welcomes former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt to the flyweight division, and Raulian Paiva looks to slow the Sean O’Malley hype train.
What: UFC 269
Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, Dec. 11. The five-fight early prelims begin on ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the four-fight prelims on ESPN+ and ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Charles Oliveira (2) vs. Dustin Poirier (1)
Here we go. All the debate, all the speculation, all the rankings talk, none of it will mean anything after Saturday night when the only two men in the discussion that truly matter will have their say.
Dustin Poirier is right, this is 25 minutes to eternity, a statement that holds true for both fighters. The champion, Charles Oliveira, jumped on the opportunity presented to him at UFC 262 and etched his name in the history books. He holds an undisputed title, something Poirier cannot claim to have done despite many anointing him as the new No. 1 at lightweight following Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement. Oliveira never got the chance to test himself against Nurmagomedov, so he has to settle for Poirier.
It’s an absurdly tall task given the level of competition that Poirier has vanquished. He’s arguably the best boxer in the UFC and has stood toe-to-toe with the likes of Justin Gaethje and Max Holloway and walked out with his hand raised. Poirier debuted in the UFC almost 11 years ago as a plucky, young 20-something with a world of potential. He’s since realized that potential and shored up most of the weaknesses that impeded his path to elite status. He’s already one of the best lightweights of all time and a UFC title only cements that legacy.
Oliveira needs this. And I think he gets it. His best skill — that limitless jiu-jitsu — is better than Poirier’s best skill — that boxing — which is what gives Oliveira the edge for me. Like Poirier, he’s had to overcome hurdles, many of them psychological, and now that he has he’s looked as dominant as anyone ever has at 155 pounds. Even if I bought into the narrative that Oliveira was once a “quitter,” that shortcoming hasn’t been seen for years and anyone banking on that aspect of Oliveira to rear its ugly head will likely be disappointed.
These are two of the hardest-working, most well-liked, and most respected fighters in the entire business and the only thing that’s guaranteed is that whoever wins, it’s going to be emotional.
Oliveira by submission in Round 2.
Amanda Nunes (1) vs. Julianna Pena (5)
Amanda Nunes all the way.
There’s a version of Nunes that Julianna Pena beats. Pena has a top-notch wrestling and pressure game, the kind of skillset that gave Nunes problems when she was a talented, but raw up-and-comer. We’ve seen grinders like Pena excel against seemingly insurmountable odds before, the best example being Chael Sonnen pummeling Anderson Silva to the point that “The Spider” needed a miracle in their first meeting to avoid a rare loss. That’s the kind of performance Pena needs if she wants to do the impossible on Saturday.
But possible and likely are miles apart in this scenario. Even now, Nunes still doesn’t get enough credit for how she’s rounded out her game. People point to the power advantage she has in most of her matchups to detract from her performances, ignoring how sharp her striking has become and how diverse her grappling arsenal is. Few fighters can mix it up as effectively as Nunes and do so with such aggression. She dictates the action and, more often than not, decides when it’s time to end it.
At best, I see Pena taking the first round with her wrestling before Nunes and her team make the proper adjustments to neutralize Pena’s most potent weapon. Then it’s the champ’s time to shine.
Nunes by knockout in Round 3.
Geoff Neal vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio
I’m not sure what Geoff Neal did to get himself lined up for a third time against a cagey, long-distance striker, but here we are.
Santiago Ponzinibbio gives up a couple of inches in reach to Neal, but Neal just hasn’t proven that he knows how to deal with tactical, more experienced fighters. It’s possible that opponents like Ponzinibbio, Neil Magny, and Stephen Thompson are just his Achilles heel. More optimistically, one might argue that Neal has learned from his recent losses and Ponzinibbio is exactly who he should be fighting now to show how far his striking has advanced.
Call me skeptical. Neal is a knockout artist and will get the better of most brawls, something that Ponzinibbio knows how to avoid. Ponzinibbio will pick Neal apart before forcing him into a range that opens up his own opportunities to land heavy punches. The speed of Neal could help him out here, but Ponzinibbio is great at controlling tempo and avoiding damage.
Ponzinibbio gets the decision win here and hopefully for Neal he gets a slight step back in competition next time.
Kai Kara-France (10) vs. Cody Garbrandt (13, BW)
Let’s face facts first: I don’t know what Cody Garbrandt is going to look like at 125 pounds. And neither do you.
We’ve certainly seen enough of “No Love” to make a few educated guesses as to how he’ll perform at a new weight class. He’s always had great hand speed, knockout power, and slick movement. He also has a reputation for going into frenzy mode once he smells blood — either his own or his opponent’s. It’s the calculated, measured Garbrandt that became UFC champion, not the berserker.
Cutting an extra 10 pounds could be exactly what Garbrandt needs or it could accentuate his weaknesses, possibly softening up an already well-worn chin and leaving him with less in the gas tank as the fight goes on. There’s a lot of variables at play here, even more so than usual for a Garbrandt fight.
All of that is before we even mention the threat of Kai Kara-France, a longtime standout at flyweight who would love to use Garbrandt’s name to boost his own title hopes. Kara-France is as fundamentally sound as they come and should be able to match Garbrandt in the movement department, which should make for a dizzying opening five minutes.
It’s a safe pick, but I’m going with Kara-France to take the decision here. That’s not a death knell for Garbrandt’s chances to contend at 125 pounds, just a sign that he probably has some more work to do before we get the best version of him in this weight class.
Raulian Paiva vs. Sean O’Malley
This one’s for Kyler!
Sean O’Malley has a chance to earn a measure of revenge here for his pal Kyler Phillips, who lost a controversial majority decision to Raulian Paiva in July. Much of the media felt that fight should have been a draw given the damage that Phillips did in the first round, even as he dropped the last two to Paiva. Regardless, it’s the former flyweight Paiva who jumped into the bantamweight rankings and has earned himself a shot at O’Malley.
I have my doubts that Paiva can be an effective bantamweight as he’s going to be giving up plenty of size against rangy fighters like O’Malley. “Sugar” has a height and reach advantage, not unlike what Paiva faced in the Phillips matchup, plus a bit more experience under the brightest of lights. That poise is an underrated aspect of O’Malley’s game.
Paiva has plenty of power for a lighter weight fighter even if that hasn’t always shown up in his results. He has a tendency to get wild, which is a no-no against the accurate O’Malley, but some chaos could serve him well here especially if it helps him to close the distance and get within grappling range. How much Paiva decides to test O’Malley’s grappling will be a major factor in the fight.
This is the right matchup for O’Malley at this stage of his career and the self-proclaimed “unranked champion” should make the most of his opportunity, finding a KO in the first or second round.