A win on Saturday night against Dustin Poirier would put Max Holloway squarely in any pound-for-pound best conversation.
Five thoughts in advance of Saturday night’s UFC 236 card from Atlanta:
• Max “Blessed” Holloway has a chance to cement his status as an unsurpassing fighter. The featherweight champ will try to add a belt to his notch, as it were, by beating Dustin Poirier in the co-main event, for the interim lightweight championship. There is very little Holloway doesn’t do well. And though he is coming off a war against Brian Ortega in December, the Hawaiian gave much worse than he got. Though this is billed as a “rematch,” Holloway lost to Poirier seven years ago, a lifetime in the dog years of UFC. (To their credit, neither fighter is putting much stake in that result or storyline.) Today, Holloway is only 27; and a win Saturday night puts him squarely in any pound-for-pound best conversation. To add a layer of stakes, he already knows his next opponent; the mighty Khabib Nurmagamedov, who, by most accounts has never lost a ROUND in UFC.
What: UFC 236
When: Saturday. Early prelims begin at 6:15 p.m.; main card scheduled to start at 10 p.m. (All times ET.)
Where: State Farm Arena, Atlanta
TV: Pay-per-view broadcast available exclusively on ESPN+. Early preliminary bouts on ESPN+, UFC Fight Pass (6:15-8 p.m.). Prelims on ESPN (8 p.m.).
• Much like Holloway, Dustin Poirier doesn’t get arrested, get suspended or refer to his opponent’s wife with racist terms. So it is that this fight generated less attention in the run-up week than the ongoing ugliness between the other two lightweights not fighting, Conor McGregor and Khabib. But Poirier is one of those consummate professionals who gives the UFC credibility, heft and depth; the supporting actor who doesn’t get the credit he deserves but elevates the promotion. In his 23rd UFC promoted fight, Poirier, age 30, finally gets a chance for a belt. While he will be the underdog, you overlook him at your peril.
• In the co-main event, Kelvin Gastelum gets his shot at a belt against ascending star Israel Adesanya of New Zealand. Like his weight, Gastelum’s career has fluctuated wildly. There are times when he looks like a devastating knockout artist. There are times he gives something other than a wholehearted effort. Gastelum is coming off a disappointing cancellation fight two months ago—hours before UFC 234, his opponent Robert Whittaker suffered a collapsed bowel that forced him to undergo emergency surgery later that day—which he admitted exacted a steep mental price. But Gastelum claims to have recovered. And provided he makes weight, he has a real shot at the interim middleweight belt.
• Is there a UFC fighter whose stock is gaining more altitude than Adesanya? The 29-year-old from New Zealand has run roughshod through his opposition, winning fights in a variety of ways and in a variety of contexts. He is terrifically entertaining when he fights, and when he speaks. And a win on Saturday night against a much different kind of fighter —and different body type—would elevate himself further and set up a Aussie/New Zealand unification title fight against Whittaker.
• Is there a more underrated story in sports than Eryk Anders? He is known to mainstream sports fans as the Alabama linebacker who may well have been the best player on the field during the 2009 BCS championship game against Texas. (Anders made a team-high seven tackles and forced a fumble.) Since then, he has transitioned to MMA and become a serviceable fighter. While he is on a two-fight losing streak, he will have considerable crowd support in SEC-mad Atlanta. And a win Saturday night will elevate his career —and this remarkable story waiting to be amplified.