Preview: UFC 242 ‘Khabib vs. Poirier’

Nurmagomedov vs. Poirier

By Tom Feely Sep 4, 2019

The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 242 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

UFC 242 on Saturday in the United Arab Emirates looks to be a one-fight card as pay-per-views go, but it is one heck of a fight, and the earlier start time should make for a pleasant watch. After being one-half of the most-purchased card in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, Khabib Nurmagomedov finally comes back for a title unification bout against Dustin Poirier that ranks as one of the best possible fights in the sport at the moment. Beyond that, there is a fun rematch between Edson Barboza and Paul Felder that could serve as a headliner for a smaller UFC Fight Night card nowadays, but otherwise, this is basically a mid-tier Russian card with a few other things sprinkled in.

Now to the UFC 242 “Khabib vs. Poirier” preview:

UFC Lightweight Championship

Khabib Nurmagomedov (27-0) vs. Dustin Poirier (25-5)

ODDS: Nurmagomedov (-440), Poirier (+350)

For Nurmagomedov, it has been 27 up, 27 down. UFC 229 will always be remembered for the insane aftermath of his camp getting into a giant brawl with that of Conor McGregor, but inside the cage, it was another day at the office for “The Eagle,” who emerged victorious in the most-purchased pay-per-view in MMA history and did so in one-sided fashion. It also marked the ascent of Nurmagomedov to the throne as one of the UFC’s biggest stars. Already popular back home in Russia, his status as McGregor’s most intimidating foil yet -- and the aftermath of their fight -- gave him more global name value, for better or for worse. If only he would fight more often. For all his success, Nurmagomedov’s UFC career has been star-crossed, given that he established himself as a top contender all the way back in 2014 with a win over Rafael dos Anjos. After that victory came two years of knee injuries, and as Nurmagomedov worked his way back into contention with wins over Darrell Horcher and Michael Johnson, the lightweight title picture was thrown into flux as McGregor decided to box Floyd Mayweather. UFC 223 was where everything turned around from a career standpoint. While the umpteenth unsuccessful attempt to book Nurmagomedov-Tony Ferguson resulted in “The Eagle” earning the lightweight title against Al Iaquinta, the bigger headlines came outside the cage, as McGregor threw a hand truck through the window of a fighter bus in an attempt to get to Nurmagomedov. For better or for worse, that suddenly made McGregor-Nurmagomedov the money fight, and indeed, everyone involved made a ton of cash in the circus that followed. Unfortunately, the fallout from that bout led to yet another layoff for Nurmagomedov, who has still been occasionally neutralized but never fully tested. The good news: On paper, Poirier might be Nurmagomedov’s toughest test yet.

Poirier’s story is one of overcoming adversity and evolving over the course of his fights. It is worth remembering just how raw the Louisiana native was when he made his way to Zuffa. His World Extreme Cagefighting debut came just 15 months after his pro debut, and within five months, he had been moved to the UFC. A 2012 “Fight of the Year” contender against Chan Sung Jung essentially made Poirier a must-see attraction, but throughout his run at featherweight, there was a sense that he could never get over the hump to true title contention. After a 2014 loss to McGregor, Poirier decided to move back to his pre-UFC weight class at 155 pounds, and since then, the results have been amazing. At first, it was just as simple as the smaller weight cut allowing Poirier to fight at a quicker pace, as he managed to spark tough competition like Diego Ferreira and Yancy Medeiros. However, in his last few fights, Poirier has finally evolved into the fighter he always wanted to become. His 2017 encounter with Jim Miller represents the last time Poirier was overwhelmingly the old version of himself, willing to respond to any challenge by igniting a brawl and putting himself in danger in the process. Over the last two-plus years, Poirier has been a more practiced fighter, using his diverse boxing while always staying consciously in the fight. The 2016 version of Poirier likely would have lost wars against Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez and Max Holloway, but Poirier’s last three fights have seen him pick his spots, break down his opponents and earn the victories. That gives him a chance to try and figure out one of the toughest challenges in the sport, and doing so would serve as an amazing culmination of years of hard work.

Poirier might be the guy to pull this off. Nurmagomedov’s win over Johnson has become a bit of a punchline in the ensuing years, mostly due to the commentary of Joe Rogan, who insisted that Johnson had Nurmagomedov hurt much more than he actually did. While Johnson did not cause a ton of damage, his hand speed and willingness to throw volume was enough to scare off Nurmagomedov early, and it is easy to see Poirier -- who will not cave at the first sign of difficulty like Johnson did -- being able to pull that off more effectively. Throwing enough effective volume to keep Nurmagomedov from entering at will is going to be a huge factor for Poirier, as is his willingness to throw punches to the body as part of his combinations. The cardio advantage seems to be firmly in the Russian’s corner, but attacking his wide-open body might be the key to making sure he tires out first. Add in that Poirier is an effective enough grappler that he might be able to stall some of Nurmagomedov’s takedown attempts, and there is plenty to suggest that the American Top Team standout can earn the biggest win of his career. Nevertheless, Nurmagomedov remains the safer pick. “The Eagle” can be painted as a one-dimensional grinder, but he is a legitimately elite athlete with a strong chin -- two facts that will likely make it difficult for Poirier to score the knockout he likely needs to author the upset. Again, the cardio edge seems firmly in Nurmagomedov’s corner. Yes, Poirier has won multiple-round wars in his last few fights, but he has been exhausted come the later rounds. Even a successful game plan from Poirier is going to require expending a lot of energy, so unless he can score a finish, the championship rounds will probably be Nurmagomedov’s best opportunities to move in on takedowns and make it his fight. Poirier seems to have overcome most of his mental issues, but it will still be interesting to see how the threat of Nurmagomedov’s wrestling affects him. While volume and aggression will probably be Poirier’s best bets, Nurmagomedov’s opponents have usually had difficulty with the counter-intuitive nature of having to pressure someone who is so strong at getting takedowns. Still, this is the champion’s toughest test yet, as Poirier is poised to be the Alexander Gustafsson to his Jon Jones or the Chael Sonnen to his Anderson Silva -- the type of opponent who forces an all-time great to dig deep and gut out a win. The pick is Nurmagomedov via decision.

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