Stand and Deliver: UFC 269

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Every fight matters, but some matter just a little more.

In some ways, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. But while it is true that every fight matters, some feel bigger than others, for whatever reason. In some cases, the elevated stakes are easy to define. Picture the fighter on a losing streak who knows he or she is likely fighting for their job; or conversely, any matchup on Dana White's Contender Series, where two hopefuls know that the brass ring is within their reach if they can win impressively. In other cases, a fight feels especially important for reasons that are harder to quantify, but no less real. Whether it’s the symbolic heft of being a pioneer in MMA from one’s country, or the simple added spice of two fighters who really hate each other’s guts, that fight means just a little more.

This weekend, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is set up to close out 2021 with a bang, as UFC 269, the promotion’s final pay-per-view event of the year, is absolutely loaded. It’s no surprise that the 15-fight card is topped by two title fights, as that has become almost the norm for the UFC in the last year or two. However, the one-two punch of Charles OliveiraDustin Poirier and Amanda NunesJulianna Pena represents some of the best the sport has to offer. The lightweight title scrap between “Do Bronx” and “The Diamond” is one of the most closely matched and hardest-to-call title fights of the year, featuring two of the most offensively potent fighters in the sport, neither of whom has had a boring fight in what feels like forever.

While Nunes’ scheduled defense against Pena is the opposite of closely matched, the “Lioness” may be the most dominant fighter in MMA today, and is giving plenty of indications that she may not be long for the sport. If the two-division queen has one eye on the door, leading to any lapse in her focus and preparation, perhaps we get an upset for the ages, or at least a more competitive affair than the “Nunes -135 to finish the fight inside of two rounds” prop odds would seem to imply. If not, and this turns into another steamrolling, well, we got the chance to see one of the greatest fighters in the world do her thing one more time.

Below the two title fights, the rest of the card is rock-solid, as indicated by some of the things it lacks: debuting Dana White's Contender Series alums (zero), unranked heavyweight bouts (one) and matchups in which the loser is almost certainly going to be cut by the UFC (zero).

Even amid the promised greatness of Saturday’s blockbuster, with its lack of loser-leaves-town matches and faceless up-and-comers, there are some fighters who are under a little extra pressure to perform. Here are two who really need to stand and deliver at UFC 269.

All Eyes Are Now on You, Geoff Neal

And for all the wrong reasons. Neal’s arrest on Thanksgiving for driving while intoxicated and carrying an unlicensed firearm made front-page news last week, throwing doubt on whether his high-profile welterweight matchup with Santiago Ponzinibbio would even take place as scheduled. Neal’s attorney stated that the fighter intends to fight the DWI using the results of the post-arrest blood test, and it is worth noting that Neal’s gun was in fact licensed, but that license was invalidated by the presumption of intoxication, so if the blood tests disprove the DWI, the gun charge goes away as well.

However, even if the charges against Neal are less alarming than the initial headlines might have made them seem, and even if he ends up completely exonerated of both misdemeanors, the bleary-eyed arrest photo remains, as does the simple fact that he was out at 3:45 a.m., two weeks before a crucial fight, in a condition that would even produce suspicion of inebriation. Those observers who are not bound by due process—specifically, MMA bettors and the bookies who take their money—took note, as evidenced by Neal sliding from a slight favorite to a slight underdog in the wake of the arrest.

All of these distractions only ratchet up the pressure on an already crucial fight for “Handz of Steel,” who enters the matchup with Ponzinibbio on a two-fight skid. While he might not be fighting for his job on Saturday, in light of his 5-2 Octagon record and fan-pleasing style, he will now be subject to the eyeball test in all of its subjective, judgmental glory. If Neal performs up to his usual standard, this incident will be forgiven and forgotten quickly, considering his heretofore spotless track record of personal conduct and MMA’s generally short attention span. On the other hand, if Neal loses, or even if he wins but looks flat or gasses out—and heaven help him if he misses weight—plenty of fans will look to Thanksgiving morning as evidence that his commitment and preparation were not what they should have been.

“The Sugar Show” Must Go On

Understand that I’m not criticizing the UFC for the way it has matched up Sean O'Malley. The promotion clearly understands what it has in the 27-year-old, whose brash charisma, memorable look and eye-popping highlight reel combine to make him the fighter with the most obvious potential for Conor McGregor-level star power. That kind of stardom is far easier to achieve and maintain when the fighter in question is winning, which is why the UFC has given O’Malley a bit of the Michael “Venom” Page treatment. In the wake of his first career loss, an ankle-injury-aided TKO at the hands of Marlon Vera last summer, the UFC’s booking philosophy regarding O’Malley went from “sensible bordering on conservative” to “softballs bordering on comical.” Since the Vera fight, O’Malley has faced Thomas Almeida, who came in on a three-fight losing streak and appears to be completely shot, and Kris Moutinho, who closed as one of the biggest underdogs in UFC history. Yes, Moutinho had been a short-notice replacement, but it was still a bad look when O’Malley claimed everyone was scared to fight him while half the bantamweights on roster raised their hands frantically and the UFC signed a 9-4 guy who wasn’t even the best 135-pounder in CES MMA.

This kind of matchmaking is understandable if not especially admirable, but it places its own unique pressure on O’Malley even as it mitigates risk. When you’re a -1500 favorite, just getting your hand raised isn’t enough; there is an implied expectation of dominance. Thus far, O’Malley has stood and delivered, thrashing Almeida and Moutinho in two of the worst Octagon beatdowns of 2021. The ride—and pressure—continue this weekend as O’Malley faces Raulian Paiva. Paiva is on a three-fight winning streak, which would be great except that two of the three wins were over flyweights. Against O’Malley, the Brazilian figures to be smaller, slower and at a severe power disadvantage. It’s another setup fight for “The Sugar Show,” but as long as he keeps knockin’ em down, that’s fine — for now.


What should be the next UFC men's flyweight title fight?