High Stakes for Both McGregor and Poirier Entering UFC 264

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LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – Conor McGregor meets Dustin Poirier in the main event of Saturday’s UFC 264 card. There is no championship on the line, though the stakes are still incredibly high. In this rubber match, where each fighter has already defeated the other, a victory is needed to remain atop the fight world and reinsert themselves in the title picture.

McGregor still possesses a unique swagger and dominance, but that will take a massive blow if he loses a second straight fight to Poirier. While he remains a charismatic force, a loss—which would mark his third in his last four fights—would be a blow to McGregor’s MMA standing, removing him from consideration as the biggest name in the UFC. It was equally as important for Poirier, who desperately needs this fight to return on his quest for the lightweight title.

The card has depth from start to finish, including a showcase for Sean O’Malley, a pivotal welterweight bout pitting Gilbert Burns against Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, and important fights for Tai Tuivasa and Irene Aldana.

There are plenty of questions in play as we approach UFC 264.

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Who will win the McGregor-Poirier trilogy?

How can you ever bet against McGregor?

Yet that is where we currently stand, with oddsmakers placing Poirier as the slight favorite. This is the third fight pitting McGregor (22-5) against Poirier (27-6, 1 NC). McGregor won the first at UFC 178 in September of 2014, which stands out as the last night Amanda Nunes suffered a loss. Poirier won the rematch this past January at UFC 257, and the two now return to Vegas to settle the trilogy.

McGregor did not look good in the TKO loss at 257, especially struggling with Poirier’s calf kicks. Perhaps that lack of sharpness can be attributed to time off, considering he went a year between fights. Prior to that, he hadn’t fought since October 2018, so it was imperative for McGregor to have a camp that allows him to highlight his strengths. There is no doubt he will be looking for an early advantage and knockout.

It will be a surprise if this bout doesn’t end in a KO. We’ve seen both men get their chins tested, and we know they each possess a ton of power. Poirier could change his approach this time and grapple, which would be an interesting wrinkle. I was expecting to Poirier’s jiu-jitsu to be a factor in their bout six months ago, but that wasn’t the case. The safe bet is here is that McGregor and Poirier will be swinging for the fences.

Looking at where they both are at this stage in their careers, Poirier should win this fight. But it is never wise to count out McGregor.

What happens if McGregor wins? And what happens if it’s Poirier who has his hand raised?

A loss here is a huge blow for Poirier, even more so than it would be for McGregor.

Even with a loss, which would be crushing, McGregor will still find himself in big fights that would maintain his presence. Poirier does not have that luxury, lacking the type of charisma that makes McGregor such a UFC centerpiece.

The winner here should make a play for the lightweight title. Charles Oliviera is the reigning champ and presents himself as a tough matchup for either. A bout against Poirier has the potential to be excellent, but all parties involved know that Oliveira would be viewed under an altogether different and brighter spotlight if he had the chance to face off against McGregor.

Though Oliveira is currently performing at his peak level, it is also hard to ignore that he has lost to plenty of fighters not even close to McGregor’s skill level. As always, the UFC title picture is more exciting with McGregor involved.

Is this Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson’s last path to a title shot?

Very similar to the McGregor-Poirier main event, both Gilbert Burns and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson recognize the magnitude of a loss in their welterweight bout.

Burns (19-4) had been on a tear until losing this past February to Kamaru Usman, ending a dominant six-fight win streak. Thompson (16-4, 1 NC) has regained momentum by winning his last two fights, defeating Vicente Luque in November of 2019 and then Geoff Neal last December. A win here is monumental for either fighter.

A loss here removes Thompson from the title picture. Already 38, the opportunities to regain his current spot will be exceedingly limited if he cannot beat Burns, who is ranked second in the welterweight division. For Burns, a win is slightly more complicated, but keeps him moving in the right direction. He just lost to Usman, so while we aren’t likely to see that fight run back immediately, a victory at 264 keeps him on a short list of top contenders.

If Burns loses, he will immediately drop in the rankings, which is further compounded by the fact that he already lost to the champ.

How is Sean O’Malley fighting someone (on the main card!) that doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page?

“Sugar” Sean O’Malley was supposed to fight a tough bantamweight in Louis Smolka. Instead, due to Smolka pulling out because of an undisclosed injury, he will meet a fresh face in Kris Moutinho.

O’Malley (13-1) looked sharp this past March, knocking out Thomas Almeida and recovering nicely from his first defeat. While shocks and surprises are part of UFC lore (Dominick Reyes immediately comes to mind), but this should be a showcase for O’Malley. For Moutinho (9-4), it would appear a quick night and a knockout are the key parts of his itinerary for this trip to Las Vegas.

Will a win by Irene Aldana put her back in title contention?

Aldana appeared to be on track to put herself on a short list of contenders for the women’s bantamweight title with a win against Yana Kunitskaya, but that changed at Friday's weigh-ins.

Aldana (12-6) was coming off a loss from nine months ago to Holly Holm and she further hurt her standing by failing to make weight for 264 on Friday. She needs this fight against Kunitskaya (14-5, 1 NC), and should be able to use her speed and diverse offense as an advantage. Aldana is the better striker, but Kunitskaya is powerful, making this another interesting fight on the card.

After struggling with her footwork in the loss to Holm, showing a weakness as she continued to get hit on an outside angle, a return to victory here would be a strong statement for Aldana.

Will this be Greg Hardy’s final fight in the UFC?

Tai Tuivasa looks to earn his third win in a row by swinging for the fences in a heavyweight fight against Greg Hardy (7-3, 1 NC) who remains persona non grata due to his gross history of domestic abuse. Tuivasa (11-3) will be even more of a fan favorite in this bout.

A former NFL Pro-Browler in 2013, Hardy has not particularly stood out in the heavyweight division. But this is a unique fight for him, as Tuivasa’s style puts him as risk and leaves him vulnerable to be knocked out.

Fights take on a different type of electricity with a good guy and a villain. Hardy is definitely going to play the role of villain, and it should bring out a lot of emotion from the crowd.

Will there be a breakout performance from Ilia Topuria?

A candidate for breakout performance at 264 is Topuria, who fights Ryan Hall in a featherweight bout on the prelims.

This is a good test for the undefeated Topuria (10-0). He has seven submissions and two knockouts, so there is a high probability that this bout ends with a finish.

But Hall (8-1) has won his last eight fights. While he is not an entertaining fighter, that should not distract from the fact that he is extremely dangerous in the cage. Topuria is someone the UFC could run with if he keeps picking up wins, but it won’t be easy here. Hall is a tough puzzle to solve, offering strong wrestling and jiu-jitsu, and he be looking to add the first blemish on Topuria’s record.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.