Surprise, surprise, fight fans. The McGregor show is back.
UFC kicks off their 2021 campaign with a must-see card. Saturday marks the return of the most iconic fighter in UFC history, the “Notorious” Conor McGregor.
McGregor, the most prolific fighter in the world, headlines the card against No. 2 ranked lightweight Dustin Poirier. This fight’s winner presumably becomes the No. 1 contender for the Lightweight Championship belt, currently held by Khabib Nurmagomedov (Nurmagomedov retired in October 2020, but his title has yet to be vacated).
Saturday’s bout from UFC’s “Fight Island” in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, is a re-match more than six years in the making. Their 2014 match ended in a McGregor first-round knockout of Poirier, a fight many claims was the catalyst for McGregor’s meteoric rise to fame.
Poirier, a much more polished fighter in 2021, seeks to prove he deserves another lightweight title bout. He last competed for the belt at UFC 242 in 2019, losing to champion Nurmagomedov by rear-naked choke.
While the main event deservedly garners the bulk of excitement, the event’s co-main event is my early pick for fight of the night. Former-Bellator juggernaut Michael Chandler makes his UFC debut when he takes on top-10 knockout artist Dan Hooker.
The rest of the card is stacked from start to finish, including three fantastic women’s fights amongst ranked fighters. Up to 2,000 fans will be in attendance, making it the first pay-per-view card with fans since March 2020. The atmosphere should be electric.
The prelims begin at the usual 8 p.m. ET start time, with the main card kicking off at 10 p.m. ET. You can stream the fight through ESPN+ for $69.99.
Odds in this article come the way of our partners at the FanDuel Sportsbook. New users can get boosted 25-to-1 odds for McGregor vs. Poirier. Bet $5 on either fighter to win, and if they succeed, you win $125. You can lock in the offer by clicking this link.
Virginia Residents: FanDuel Sportsbook reported that it is launching in Virginia as early as Thursday, January 21st. Register now and you can get up to a $1,000 risk-free bet when sports betting officially goes live.
Michigan Residents: FanDuel Sportsbook and Casino is launching in Michigan at 12pm EST this Friday, January 22nd. Register now and you can get up to a $1,000 risk-free bet when sports betting officially goes live.
MAIN CARD PREVIEW AND PICKS
Lightweight Bout: No. 2 Dustin Poirier vs. No. 4 Conor McGregor (-325)
The winner of this fight likely takes on Nurmagomedov next for the Lightweight Championship. McGregor, one of the greatest MMA fighters of all-time, promises to replicate his 2014 performance when he correctly predicted knocking Poirier out in the first round.
Since then, Poirier is an impressive 10-2-1, comfortably staking a claim as one of the UFC’s elite fighters. He won the interim-Lightweight Championship in 2019 when he beat Max Holloway. Both Poirier and McGregor need this fight to avenge their losses against Nurmagomedov.
I think this is a mismatch favoring one of the greatest strikers ever, McGregor. I’m betting on the same outcome as their first fight.
The Pick: McGregor Round 1 KO/TKO (+175)
Lightweight Bout: No. 6 Dan Hooker (-132) vs. Michael Chandler
If the main event showcases the elite, these two aren’t far behind. New Zealand’s Hooker has staked a claim as one of the fiercest knockout artists in MMA, earning 10 of his 20 wins by knockout. That’s not to say he isn’t an excellent submission artist either. Seven of his wins come the way of the ground. He last fell to Poirier by decision in June 2020, but his exceptional performance helped earn “Fight of the Night” honors.
He takes on a formidable foe in Chandler, the former Bellator lightweight champion. Chandler walks into Saturday with a massive chip on his shoulder, seeking to prove he wasn’t just the best Bellator fighter but the best in the world. While dominance across two promotions isn’t unheard of, Chandler continuing his reign in a stacked lightweight division would be massive for his legacy.
While Hooker has the height and reach advantage, both fighters possess styles that make this a matchmaker’s dream. But short of a Hooker knockout, I think the immensely-motivated Chandler proves his worth with a win by decision.
Chandler is well-rounded across all disciplines and is a proven winner in late rounds. Hooker, on the other hand, is just 3-6 in fights that go the distance.
The Pick: Chandler (+108)
Women’s Flyweight Bout: No. 6 Jessica Eye vs. No. 7 Joanne Calderwood
Both of these fighters need a win, with each coming off hard-fought losses. We can safely expect this bout to be fast-paced, as each competitor prefers to stand with their opponent. Coincidentally, both fighters have submitted their opponents in only 7% of their career wins, so it’s unlikely to go to the ground. If it does, the advantage goes to Calderwood, who is a blue belt jiu-jitsu grappler.
We want to pay close attention Eye’s weight cut. She missed weight in each of her last two fights, most recently a losing effort to Cynthia Calvillo in June 2020. She is also fighting for the first time since having gallbladder surgery, one she called a “dead organ.”
Six months removed from her last fight, there isn’t much worry for ring rust. Eye’s primary discipline is boxing, possessing excellent hand speed and a healthy mix of punch selection. You can safely expect her to come out firing quickly against Calderwood.
Calderwood is coming off a submission loss to Jennifer Maia in August 2020, a fight she didn’t need to take. Calderwood was in line to fight Valentina Schevchenko for the flyweight championship but decided not to wait, regrettably opting to fight Maia instead (though she says she doesn’t regret her decision). It may not have worked out, but we can’t forget the caliber of a fighter she is, one who packs a hefty punch and is a solid grappler.
In my eyes, Eye can only win by a finish. Even then, I lean Calderwood. I’m backing Calderwood in a close one.
The Pick: Calderwood (-118)
Lightweight Bout: Matt Frevola vs. Ottman Azaitar (-168)
Styles make fights. Knockouts do, too. If you don’t know who Ottman Azaitar is, you will on Saturday. His style is a powerful punch that almost always ends in a knockout. He looks to improve on his perfect 13-0 record when he takes on Matt Frevola, who comes into Saturday with an 8-1-1 record.
Frevola is no slouch. He promises to drag Azaitar into “deep waters and drown him.” The Matt Serra trained fighter is well-rounded. He’s a brown belt jiu-jitsu grappler with one win by knockout, three by submission and four by decision. He feels Azaitar 10 knockouts are overrated, padded by unproven opponents. While I disagree, it’s excellent bulletin board material, and Frevola has the game to back it up.
It’s important to note he hasn’t fought since October 2019, though. Even if ring rust weren’t a thing, Azaitar’s heavy hands and knockout potential are too strong to ignore. He should dominate Frevola early and quickly. I won’t be shocked if this results in “knockout of the night.” That’s high praise for a fighter on a McGregor card.
Women’s Strawweight Bout: No. 8 Marina Rodriguez vs. No. 10 Amanda Ribas (-355)
This fight is deserving of the main event on a UFC card, but opening a McGregor card might be even better. This fight should be electric, guaranteed to begin the stacked pay-per-view with a bang. Ribas, one of the fastest rising stars in the UFC, takes on Rodriguez, one of the most violent strikers on the roster.
Rodriguez, a brilliant Muay Thai fighter, is taking on her grappling equal. Ribas is both a Judo and jiu-jitsu black belt with an incredibly dominant ground game. Rodriguez will have some struggles on the ground, but she can limit the damage with her 84% ground defense rate.
While Ribas certainly has the makeup of an ideal dominant performance, Rodriguez at +270 presents fantastic value for those who think she’ll win.
With what anticipates to be the most viewed UFC event ever, these two will make names for themselves. I see paths to victory for both women, so I’m not betting on it. But if I had to pick, I’m going Ribas because of her grappling brilliance.
The Pick: Ribas (-355)
Just 23 days into 2021, this card has an excellent shot at being the card of the year. Agree or disagree? Drop your fight picks in the comments below.
Best of luck if you’re betting. Enjoy the fights!