Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and the Real Winners and Losers from UFC 257
Conor McGregor. Fight Island.
Put them together, and the stories write themselves.
The melding of the UFC's most famous athlete and its most interesting venue was made official Saturday night when the former two-division champ returned for the first time in 371 days for a high-end lightweight match with former foe and fellow top contender Dustin Poirier.
Their main event at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi came atop a UFC 257 pay-per-view show on ESPN+ that was hosted by Jon Anik, who shared the mic with Daniel Cormier and Paul Felder, while Brett Okamoto worked the room for pre- and post-fight features.
It was the promotion's third show of a busy week in the United Arab Emirates playpen following an appearance on ABC last weekend and another ESPN date Wednesday morning.
About 2,000 socially distanced fans were in the stands, according to the UFC, in a venue that holds 18,000.
Ten other bouts were included on the early preliminary, preliminary and main show portions of the pay-per-view card, which began with a flyweight duel between Amir Albazi and Zhalgas Zhumagulov just after 7 p.m. ET and ended when the main event winner's hand (sorry, no spoilers here) was raised at 12:42 a.m.
The B/R combat sports team was back to take a look at the show from top to bottom and assemble a list of the real winners and losers from the return of the Notorious One. Click through to see what we came up with and feel free to drop a line and leave your own viewpoints in the comments.
OK, McGregor. Back to the drawing board.
A KO victim when they first fought in 2014, Poirier weathered a striking storm in the first round of the rematch before establishing himself in the second with leg kicks and catching the Irishman with a series of punches that put him down, and out, at 2:32 of the second.
It was a jolt to a sport that had waited since January 2020 for McGregor to return, but not to Poirier, who lost inside two minutes in the first fight in 2014 but had rebounded with 10 victories and an interim title reign in the intervening six-plus years.
He was a sizable underdog but entered the cage ranked second in the lightweight division to McGregor's fourth and seventh on the pound-for-pound list to his opponent's 13th.
His win was the ninth in UFC history in a rematch by a fighter who'd been stopped in the first round.
"I'm happy, but I'm not surprised," Poirier said. "We're 1-1. Maybe we have to do it again."
McGregor was swinging for the fences and landed several strong blows in the opening stretch of the first round, but Poirier got inside and scored a takedown and extended the round. McGregor was back up and landed more jolting blows later in the first, but Poirier handled them better and was talking back and forth with the former two-division champ as they engaged.
Poirier's kicks to McGregor's lead leg calf limited the Irishman's movement as the second round began and allowed Poirier to land stunning blows of his own. He rattled McGregor badly as the Irishman retreated to the fence and then dropped McGregor to the floor with a hard right.
Two more ground strikes brought Herb Dean in for a rescue.
"The goal was to be technical and pick my shots, not brawl at all," he said. "I have a tendency to get crazy and try and hurt guys. I felt like this was a title fight. I'm the champion."
McGregor, who fought less than a minute in 2020 and had been off since 2018 before that, claimed the absence from regular work didn't help his cause.
"It's hard to overcome inactivity. I wasn't as comfortable as I needed to be," he said. "I have to dust it off and come back at it. You don't get away with being inactive in this business.
"It's a tough one to swallow."
Winner: Making an Entrance
Street cred is no issue for Michael Chandler.
A former All-American wrestler in college, the 34-year-old honed his MMA chops during a long run in the Bellator promotion that included three lightweight title defenses amid three reigns as champion.
So it's no surprise that he was unfazed by a UFC debut against the likes of Dan Hooker.
The world's sixth-ranked lightweight and a winner in 10 of his 15 Octagonal appearances, Hooker promised before the fight to break the UFC's "shiny new toy."
Instead, Chandler took his first steps toward superstardom with a scintillating first-round stoppage and then went old-school Ric Flair with a post-fight callout that included McGregor, Poirier and recently retired lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov.
"There's a new king in the lightweight division," Chandler said. "God bless. See you at the top."
The Tennessee resident's initial stay in the Octagon officially lasted 150 seconds, ending when Chandler lunged forward with a right to the body and followed with a left hook to the chin that instantly dropped Hooker to the floor. Chandler immediately pounced and delivered better than a dozen ground strikes with no reply before referee Marc Goddard intervened.
Chandler immediately climbed to the top of the cage and backflipped back into the center of the mat.
"That's why you paid the big bucks for Michael Chandler," Cormier said. "Dana White backed up the Brinks truck to the Chandler household. Now you know why. You wanna talk about making a UFC debut, Michael Chandler just did that as good as you can do it."
Loser: Stalling the Stream
Paging the IT department.
Seems the UFC's debut blockbuster of 2021 was not without its technical glitches.
Twitter was abuzz with complaints from several fighters on the promotional roster, in fact, pointing out login and loading issues with the live stream that went for $69.99 a pop in the U.S. and more elsewhere.
The cost, incidentally, was bumped up $5 to begin the new year.
Earlier in the week, some Google searches were suggesting the event had been called off.
Among the frustrated purchasers going vocal Saturday on social media were UFC fighters Kelvin Gastelum, Lauren Murphy, Jessica-Rose Clark and Megan Anderson.
Yahoo's Kevin Iole tweeted about a half-hour into the PPV broadcast, saying he'd been hearing that the problems were due to some 1.3 million people trying to get on at the same time and it would improve as the rush receded.
Many replies to his tweet, however, suggested the problems were continuing well into the show, which began at 10 p.m. ESPN's Michael Eaves tweeted shortly after 11 p.m., saying "We are aware of an issue impacting some fans' ability to access tonight's PPV event and are working to resolve it as quickly as possible."
Winner: Playing Through Confusion
Marina Rodriguez scored two TKOs on Saturday night.
The powerful Brazilian strawweight dropped phenom Amanda Ribas with a laser-guided counter right hand and then battered her with a series of hammer strikes to prompt the intervention of Herb Dean.
But while it looked like the big ref was moving in to stop the fight, he didn’t.
And though Rodriguez had disengaged, thinking her work was done, she quickly restarted the assault with an elbow and another huge right, this time making sure Dean waved it off for good before exulting with her joyous corner team.
It ended, officially, at 54 seconds of the second round.
"He came close to us and I thought it was over," Rodriguez said. "Once the fight got back on, it was, 'OK, let's go.'"
Though she was slotted two slots ahead of the 10th-ranked Ribas at 115 pounds, the streaking 33-year-old was a plus-250 underdog to win per UFC.com. It boosted her to 3-1-2 in six UFC fights and was her sixth by stoppage in 13 career wins.
Ribas, meanwhile, had arrived with 10 wins in 11 fights and was 4-0 in the UFC. She controlled the first round after scoring an early takedown and was pursuing a ground game in the second when she ran into Rodriguez's fight-changing shot.
"She was going to take me down and grapple. We were able to take our game plan into action in the second round," said Rodriguez, who then turned toward the crowd and yelled, "Now you know who I am."
Winner: Fighting Frenetically
Wondering what it's like to get caught in a meat grinder?
Try fighting Arman Tsarukyan.
The sturdy Armenian was a tenacious striking and takedown machine against American veteran Matt Frevola, getting his foe to the mat seven times in the first 10 minutes and landing better than 100 strikes overall. He earned a unanimous-decision win in their fast-paced three-rounder at lightweight.
Two judges scored it 30-27 in the winner's favor, while the third had it 30-26.
Now 16-2 since going pro in 2015, the 5'7" Tsarukyan won his third straight since dropping his UFC debut to Islam Makhachev in 2019. He was 1-1 in two fights after turning pro at age 19, then won 12 in a row before the loss to Makhachev.
He finished with 103 strikes and 10 takedowns for the entire fight. Frevola, who'd been scheduled to meet striker Ottman Azaitar before the Moroccan was pulled from the card and dismissed from the UFC for a safety violation, had 51 strikes and was 0-of-2 in takedown tries.
"Everything looked great for this young man tonight," Cormier said.
Winner: Going for GOAT
If you're going to do a callout, make it memorable.
That's clearly what Julianna Pena had in mind Saturday night.
The 31-year-old was on her back and facing adversity for much of the first two rounds against fellow ranked bantamweight Sara McMann, but she flipped the script in the third and submitted the former 135-pound title challenger with a rear-naked choke just 81 seconds before the final horn.
Fueled by that emotion, she startled Anik and got a response from the small cage-side crowd by setting her sights on the greatest female fighter in combat sports history.
"Amanda Nunes, I want to fight you," she said. "It's time for her to quit ducking. That's my fight."
The seventh-ranked Pena improved to 11-4 as a pro and won for the fifth time in seven UFC appearances against No. 9 McMann. The 40-year-old McMann was submitted by Ronda Rousey in a title try back in 2014 at UFC 170 and lost to Nunes on a Fight Night show 18 months later.
It was the first win in 18 months for Pena, who got a decision over Nicco Montano in July 2019 before a prolonged layoff and a submission loss to former world champion Germaine de Randamie in October 2020.
"I feel great. I feel amazing," she said. "It played out exactly how I thought it would. Sara is the best wrestler in the division, and I beat her."
Loser: Bursting the Bubble
And suddenly, the early leader for this year's "What were you thinking?" award is Ottman Azaitar.
The unbeaten German-born lightweight saw a promising Octagonal run cut short just days before an appearance on the UFC 257 card due to what the company called a "safety zone violation."
The 30-year-old was removed from the show after Dana White told BT Sport (h/t ESPN) that an unauthorized person entered the fighter hotel to deliver a bag to Azaitar's room, using a wristband provided by the fighter. White said the individual "shimmied" across multiple balconies to enter Azaitar's room.
The UFC released a statement addressing the incident:
"UFC is aware of a recent violation of the health and safety protocols involving Ottman Azaitar. As such, Azaitar has been removed from the safety zone and his upcoming bout against Matt Frevola has been canceled. The organization continues to keep the health and safety of all participants as the top priority and will take action against anyone that does not adhere to the strict measures put in place."
ESPN said Azaitar and his entire team were directed off the property Friday, and White told BT Sport, "It's just bad. He's gone. He's no longer a UFC fighter."
Azaitar was already 11-0 in a career in which he'd fought in five countries before arriving in the UFC and racking up consecutive performance bonuses with first-round stoppage wins in Sept. 2019 and Sept. 2020.
Loser: Going for Choke
Nik Lentz is no stranger to the feeling.
He cinches an arm under an opponent's chin, squeezes with all his strength and celebrates when the foe no longer has the breath to continue resisting.
It's happened eight times in the veteran's career, accounting for more than a quarter of his 30 wins.
But Movsar Evloev had no interest in becoming a statistic.
The unbeaten Russian featherweight was in Lentz's patented guillotine grasp twice in the fight's first two rounds but stayed calm and relaxed while working his way to escapes both times before taking charge on his feet and striking his way to a split-decision win in their 150-pound catchweight, three-round match.
Two judges gave the winner a 29-28 nod, while one saw it for a bloodied Lentz by the same count.
B/R went with the majority and scored it for Evloev, who took the fight on short notice and improved to 14-0 overall and 4-0 in the UFC.
"He loves breaking guys mentally and physically," Anik said of Evloev. "Nik Lentz is kind of the unbreakable type. But he got it done."
Later, Evloev used his post-fight mic time to make a blanket callout.
"I'm hungry," he said. "I'm angry. Dana [White], listen to me. I want top 15. I deserve it."
Winner: Finding New Stars
If you're mining the early preliminary landscape for jewels, you could do worse than Amir Albazi.
Already the UFC's 15th-ranked flyweight after a single summertime Octagon appearance, The Prince made it two straight in impressive fashion by mixing sound striking with effective ground work in a three-round decision win over rugged second-time Octagon competitor Zhalgas Zhumagulov.
All three judges scored it 29-28 in favor of the Iraq-born Albazi, who fights out of London and made his UFC debut with a first-round stoppage of Malcolm Gordon on a Fight Night show in July.
Saturday's victory was just the second time in 14 pro wins that he went the distance to get his hand raised.
"I'm feeling great," he said, "but I like to finish fights."
His opponent was impressed with him regardless. "His stand-up looked beautiful tonight," Felder said. "That's an impressive young man right there."
Albazi showed post-fight emotion in dedicating the win to those who died in a suicide bombing in Iraq earlier in the week.
UFC 257 Full-Card Results
Dustin Poirier def. Conor McGregor by TKO, 2:32, Round 2
Michael Chandler def. Dan Hooker by TKO (punches), 2:39, Round 1
Joanne Calderwood def. Jessica Eye by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
Makhmud Muradov def. Andrew Sanchez by TKO (punches), 2:59, Round 3
Marina Rodriguez def. Amanda Ribas by TKO (punches), 0:54, Round 2
Arman Tsarukyan def. Matt Frevola by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-26)
Brad Tavares def. Antonio Carlos Junior by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28)
Julianna Pena def. Sara McMann by submission (rear-naked choke), 3:39, Round 3
Marcin Prachnio def. Khalil Rountree Jr. by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Movsar Evloev def. Nik Lentz by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)
Amir Albazi def. Zhalgas Zhumagulov by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)