The first pay-per-view blockbuster event of 2021 is upon us. The grand finale of another historical week on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi grants us a lineup of spectacular bouts featuring some of the sport’s biggest names. In the main event, the man known as The Pride of Ireland, The Notorious One, the Champ-Champ returns to the arena after a year off to face a familiar enemy with the same aspirations. The co-main event is likely to live up to the hype too, as a Kiwi sniper squares off against a champion from another territory looking to plant his flag in the world’s leading promotion.
Below, we previewed those fights and more, offering analysis and highlighting our favorite bets as we get you ready for UFC 257.
Main Card (10 P.M. ET on ESPN+ PPV)
– #2 Dustin Poirier (+245) vs. #4 Conor McGregor (-315) – Lightweight Bout
– #6 Dan Hooker (-130) vs. Michael Chandler (+100) – Lightweight Bout
– #6 Jessica Eye (-105) vs. #7 Joanne Calderwood (-125) – W. Flyweight Bout
– Ottman Azaitar (-155) vs. Matt Frevola (+135) – Lightweight Bout
– #8 Marina Rodriguez (+230) vs. #9 Amanda Ribas (-300) – W. Strawweight Bout
Prelims (8 P.M. ET on ESPN)
– Arman Tsarukyan (-270) vs. Nasrat Haqparast (+210) – Lightweight Bout
– #14 Brad Tavares (-140) vs. Antonio Carlos Junior (+110) – Middleweight Bout
– #7 Julianna Pena (+105) vs. #9 Sara McMann (-135) – W. Bantamweight Bout
– Khalil Rountree (-340) vs. Marcin Prachnio (+260) – Light Heavyweight Bout
Early Prelims (6 P.M. ET on ESPN+)
– Makhmud Muradov (-145) vs. Andrew Sanchez (+110) – Middleweight Bout
– Movsar Evloev (-500) vs. Nik Lentz (+350) – Featherweight Bout
– #15 Amir Albazi (-110) vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov (-120) – Flyweight Bout
Dustin Poirier (+245) vs. Conor McGregor (-315)
The billionaire strut. The expensive suits. The evil laugh. The heated promotional events. All the pageantry and emotion that accompanies a fight involving The Pride of Ireland has finally returned. The champ-champ is gracing us with yet another spectacle that has the potential to be better than anything we’ve ever seen from the face of MMA himself.
It may sound casual, but if a Conor McGregor fight doesn’t get you amped up, you might need to contact your physician.
McGregor (22-4) is making another long-awaited installment to his already illustrious career, this time against a familiar foe. Dustin Poirier (26-6) will share the Octagon with The Notorious One for a second time on Saturday night in a matchup that is guaranteed to produce fireworks.
Whether you have been following the UFC for an extended period of time, or if you simply have access to the internet, you’re probably familiar with what transpired the first time these two legendary competitors met in the Octagon. If not, see for yourself (spoiler: it doesn’t last long).
If you didn’t watch the fight, I’ll give you a quick summary: McGregor demolished Poirier in the first round. It only took 1:46 for McGregor to cause Poirier’s head to bounce off the bloody canvas on that fateful night back in September of 2014. The date of that fight is incredibly important, though, because September 2014 was a long, long time ago. A lot has happened since the novice Poirier first traded blows with the up-and-coming McGregor.
After losing that fight, Poirier went on a tear, going 10-2 and knocking off the likes of Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez, Max Holloway and Dan Hooker among others. Poirier’s strength of schedule is something to behold and the scalps he has in his satchel are proof that he’s one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet.
At his core, Poirier is an exceptional boxer with a criminally underrated ground game and a third lung when it comes to cardio. He’s a well-rounded, astute fighter who seemingly gets better every time he makes the walk. He’s certainly made substantial progress since that first meeting with McGregor.
When McGregor finished Donald Cerrone in 40 seconds back in January 2020, fans finally thought that maybe, just maybe, McGregor would get back into a rhythm and become active again. Then a pandemic hit, the whole world went up in flames, and here we are, an entire year later with that Cerrone scrap still being his most recent bout.
Due to his constant antics, his crossover to boxing and his multiple out-of-the-blue retirements, it seems as if some people have forgotten just how damn good Conor McGregor is at fighting. McGregor is one of the best strikers the UFC has ever seen. His style is unconventional, his kicks and punches are fast, accurate and unbelievably powerful for someone who only weighs 155 pounds. Time and time again, fans have speculated about which opponents could potentially stand and bang with McGregor. Time and time again, they’ve been proven wrong. Like him or not, he’s truly one of the best ever.
Throughout UFC history, rematches have favored the original winner. Since 1993, the victor in the first fight has won at a 62% clip in the rematch. Unfortunately for Poirier, I think that trend continues Saturday night. Poirier has undoubtedly made leaps and bounds in his boxing over the past few years and he has showcased that in his recent outings. But McGregor is just too smooth, too quick and too powerful. There is one major issue for us gamblers, though: betting on McGregor to simply win this fight has no value whatsoever.
However, both the round total and round of victory props are enticing here. Of McGregor’s 12 fights in the UFC, nine of them have been stopped before the end of the second round, with five of those being first round knockouts. I believe McGregor will add another early finish to his record Saturday night.
I’m not going to go as far as saying Poirier will enter this fight tentatively in fear of McGregor, but I have a hard time believing he just erased the memory of looking up at the bright lights of an arena ceiling after eating a left hand from the champ-champ. On top of that, the performance that McGregor put on a year ago in Las Vegas may have been the best we’ve ever seen from him, even if it was against an aging Cerrone. Similar to that bout, I expect an onslaught of fight-ending shots from McGregor and I expect it to come very early, making the under a really safe bet here.
McGregor puts away Poirier within the first ten minutes of this fight, just as he’s been saying for months. After all, they call him Mystic Mac for a reason.
Best Bet: Under 2.5 rounds (-180)
Value Bets: McGregor in round 1 (+175), McGregor in round 2 (+350)
– Nick Stavas (@nickstavas)
Dan Hooker (-130) vs. Michael Chandler (+100)
To say I was shocked when this fight was booked on a Conor McGregor card is an understatement. I was baffled. Not because these two fighters don’t deserve the spotlight; quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just difficult to see a bout of this caliber overshadowed by the sport’s biggest superstar, but Dana White felt like spoiling the fans and giving us two incredible fights back to back, so I won’t complain.
Both Dan Hooker (20-9) and Michael Chandler (21-5) have a chip on their shoulder heading into Saturday, and it’s essentially for the same reason: to prove that they belong.
Hooker has had a rollercoaster of a career but he’s becoming a stalwart in the UFC and after many question marks early on, has solidified himself as a top 10 lightweight in the world. But that’s not enough, he wants to be a title contender in the toughest division in the promotion.
Hooker began his UFC campaign at featherweight, which is hard to believe considering he’s pushing 6-foot-1. After a meager 3-3 start, Hooker made the decision to jump up a weight class and begin anew at 155 pounds. Boy, was that a great decision. Hooker proceeded to rattle off four straight victories and is 7-2 since making the move to lightweight, his only losses coming to Edson Barboza and Dustin Poirier.
This new-look Hooker seems to have found his style and looks more comfortable every time he makes the walk. He hails from City Kickboxing in Auckland, New Zealand, which is the home of world champions Israel Adesanya and Alexander Volkanovski. Consistent with his team’s blueprint, Hooker is an elite striker. He possesses a unique arsenal of kick-punch combinations and uses his length to manage distance masterfully. The Muay-Thai high knee has become somewhat of a signature move, scoring him knockouts and knockdowns in multiple pro fights. In his most recent fight against Poirier (my pick for 2020 fight of the year), Hooker displayed an unbelievable amount of heart and toughness, standing and trading blow-for-blow with the former champion before getting edged out on the scorecards.
Standing is exactly what Hooker will want to be doing the entire time he’s in the Octagon with Chandler. If you’re not familiar with Chandler, I’ll give a brief summary. Chandler has fought in Bellator for nearly his entire pro career, going on solid win streaks, mowing down lightweight opponents en route to becoming a three-time lightweight champion and re-upping contracts multiple times. He has notable wins over Eddie Alvarez, Benson Henderson, Patricky Pitbull and Brent Primus. Granted, the talent pool in Bellator isn’t as abundant as it is in the UFC, but Chandler has made a major name for himself in the MMA world even without competing in the world’s leading promotion.
An All-American wrestler at the University of Missouri, Chandler has used his wrestling-savvy background to his advantage. His takedowns are smooth and his ground game can be suffocating. Chandler is such an experienced grappler that he very rarely makes mistakes, constantly working for dominant head position and proper weight distribution in order for him to land punches and elbows from the top. His stand-up game is solid, but not on the level of any in the upper-echelon of the UFC lightweight division. While he has a good boxing foundation, he tends to load up on his punches and his striking defense can be porous at times.
It’s so tough to gauge exactly how Chandler’s skills are going to translate from the Bellator cage to the UFC Octagon, but given the fact that he’s been essentially the face of the entire Bellator promotion for so long, it’s reasonable to think he has the ability to find success in the UFC. I would have liked to see him crossover about five years ago when he was still ripe and in his prime, but even at 34 years old a potential title run isn’t out of the picture.
While Chandler’s ground game is elite, it’s going to be Hooker’s ground game that makes or breaks this fight. Hooker has a very underrated set of jiu-jitsu skills and I think the general public is assuming that if Chandler can land takedowns he’ll have his way with Hooker on the mat. I don’t see that being the case. Hooker has proven that he can hold his own in the clinch and on the canvas against some of the best wrestlers in the division. If he does, Chandler will be forced to strike with Hooker, in which case Hooker will pick him apart until Chandler can no longer open his jaw.
Either way, I don’t see this fight going well for Chandler. Hooker is a masterclass striker and I suspect his six inch reach advantage will be a major factor. For those reasons, I’m backing the slight favorite to spoil the former Bellator champion’s coming out party.
Best Bet: Hooker moneyline (-130)
Value Bet: Hooker inside distance (+180)
– Nick Stavas (@nickstavas)
Jessica Eye (-105) vs. Joanne Calderwood (-125)
JoJo Calderwood and Jessica Eye are facing off in a ranked flyweight title eliminator. Neither fighter will earn a title fight based solely off of a victory here, but the winner will put themselves in the top contender conversation (again) and the other will drop into a spot where another title fight would become unlikely, especially at their age combined with the state of the flyweight division.
Calderwood (14-5) is a veteran of the UFC since 2015 and has put together a decent resume, but one that has disappointed at its peaks. Whenever she gets to the points like these, fighting the likes of Chookagian, Calvillo, Andrade, Maia, she falls short. Her best win in her career came against Arianne Lipski in 2019, a very active year for the Scot, but her 1-2 record since speaks loudly. Calderwood is only 34 and her hands and stamina are great, but it might just be that she doesn’t have the edge to win these big fights. Very few do, which is why the honor of winning is so great, so it isn’t a slight on Calderwood if she can’t get over the hump, but it’s something we need to level with. She hasn’t knocked someone out since 2016 and I think that’s the only way she beats Jessica right now.
Jessica “Evil” Eye (15-8) has a slightly worse record than Jojo and their ages are identical, but I still have a feeling that Jessica deserves to be the slight favorite here. She too has fallen short at the precipices, but she has reached slightly higher points than Calderwood in her career. Her victory over Chookagian is the point at which she tips the scales in her favor over Calderwood in my eyes. The only time Jessica has ever been knocked out was against Valentina Shevchenko with a devastating head kick, so I think weathering the hands of JoJo shouldn’t be too much of an issue. If Eye keeps to her game and protects herself well enough, she should win the fight.
Best Bet: Eye moneyline (-105)
Value Bet: Eye by decision (+175)
– Zack Lambert (@bigbird8224)
Ottman Azaitar (-155) vs. Matt Frevola (+125)
It’s the third-most thrilling lightweight bout on the main card for UFC 257 but it’s still a very intriguing matchup. Ottman Azaitar puts his 13-0 professional record (2-0 in UFC) on the line against Matt Frevola (8-1-1, 2-1-1). The Moroccan, Azaitar, picked up knockouts in the first round of both fights in the UFC against Teemu Packalen in his debut and Khama Worthy in September of 2020. Frevola is on a two-fight win streak as well, winning by unanimous decision over Jalin Turner in April of 2019 and more recently defeating Luis Pena via split decision in October 2019. The long layoff for the wrestler, Frevola, is due to canceled fights. After having a bout canceled in April, Frevola had a cornerman test positive for COVID in June, scratching yet another fight.
As for how these two stack up against each other, they’re practically identical in body size. Frevola is 5-foot-9 while Azaitar is 5-foot-8 in and both men weigh 155 pounds with a 71-inch reach. Although they are indistinguishable in stature, their fighting styles couldn’t be more different and that’s why this fight caught my eye. Ottman “Bulldozer” Azaitar has one thing in mind when stepping onto the canvas – to knock your ass out. In fact, he has never attempted a takedown and 10 of his professional wins have come via KO/TKO. 67% of his significant strikes landed come from the standing position. The motives are clear for both fighters in this matchup as “The Steamrolla” Frevola will have to win this fight by getting the Moraccan to the mat. Frevola averages 1.88 takedowns per fight and has three wins by both decision and submission.
This line opened at a pick ‘em and was quickly bet up to Azaitar -155. I agree with the early betting action. I think the Bulldozer bulldozes in this one, so I’ll lay the juice with Azaitar. This guy is quick, hits hard and we’ve already seen Frevola’s jaw fail him once before in his UFC debut. While I think Frevola is a really solid wrestler and he’s going to be prepared, it won’t matter when he steps into the Octagon. If the Steamrolla makes one mistake Azaitar will make him pay – just like what happened with Worthy. Once the gap closed between them, Azaitar started throwing and landing powerful punches and it was over just seconds later. This is a packed lightweight division but I see the Bulldozer carving out his own spot in the top ten soon. And finally, it’s also worth noting that Frevola has never fought outside of the United States and he’s only fought outside of Florida four times (2-1-1). Take that for what it’s worth, but regardless of location, Azaitar gets it done on Saturday night.
Best Bet: Azaitar moneyline (-155)
– Trent Pruitt (@trentbets)
Brad Tavares (-140) vs. Antonio Carlos Junior (+110)
On our UFC 257 prelims, we have an exciting bout between two savvy UFC vets both in need of a win. Brad Tavares (17-6) has been in there with the best of them, but is coming off of a brutal KO loss against elite prospect Edmen Shahbazyan a little more than a year ago. For Antonio Carlos Junior (10-4) this marks an opportunity to get a win over a top-15 contender and hopefully vault himself back into the rankings. It’s been over a year since we saw Carlos Junior in the Octagon as well, in which he lost a very close split decision to Uriah Hall.
For Carlos Junior, he is comfortable on the feet with his awkward style of stand-up, but the ground is where he really is elite. When the fight hits the mat, he is dangerous from top or bottom and is always searching for the submission. For Tavares, the key is keeping this fight standing at all costs. He has a pretty significant advantage in the striking department, and will be able to pop in and out to land his shots. Tavares isn’t exactly the easiest guy to take down either with 77% takedown defense.
So what is the best play in this fight? It is truly a pick ‘em that I can see going either way in terms of the outcome. But two outcomes stand out to me most. I either see Tavares being able to keep the fight standing and eventually landing one of his big power punches and getting a finish. Or I can also see Carlso Junior dragging Tavares to the floor and locking up either a rear naked choke or arm triangle. Both of these outcomes result in a finish, which is exactly where my money is.
Best Bet: Fight doesn’t go to a decision (+120)
Value Bet: Carlos Junior by submission (+385)
-William Burke (@w_burke22)
Julianna Peña (+105) vs. Sara McMann (-135)
At some point a fighter begins to run out of gas. We’ve seen it time and time again and it’s always ugly, hard to watch, and painful for both parties involved. We’ve seen it countless times: fighters past their primes trotting out to the Octagon because they love the most violent sport in the world, facing younger, stronger, faster versions of themselves who show no mercy to their elder statesmen. Sara McMann (12-5) felt headed in that direction for a while, starting her tumble a few years ago with back to back submission losses. She took a couple years off and some people thought she may never return to the promotion, but a victory in January 2020 over Lina Lansberg not only marked her return, but halted her slide. The 40 year old isn’t getting any younger and even though she’s young in terms of fights, 40 is old even for this sport. She’s still an expert wrestler, something that will play into negating the age disadvantage, but the unanimous decision against Lansberg wasn’t too convincing for me. She’s still a top 10 talent at bantamweight, but she’s not a fighter I love. Those 2017 and 2018 losses are still quite prominent in my mind.
On the other hand we have Julianna Peña (9-4), “The Venezuelan Vixen”, a 31 year old fighter who is just entering her prime. Her career hasn’t been sterling, evidenced by her record to date, but she has improved over the course of her campaign and she still has a lot of fight left in her. Her last three fights have seen two losses, but they’re excusable. One loss was to the indomitable Valentina Shevchenko in a title bout, while the other, more recent loss was to Germaine de Randamie in which the ageless Dutchwoman sunk a guillotine. Peña has shown versatility in her career with a variety of stoppages, but the fact of the matter is that she hasn’t won by stoppage since 2015, nearly six years ago. We know that Julianna is plenty capable of beating other fighters at the top of this division. She toppled Jessica Eye and Cat Zingano. The question is whether or not she can revive her title hopes with a win over McMann.
I believe that age is a major factor in this sport. With age comes experience (generally) and with experience comes growth. Too old and you can lose your edge. Too young and you can get lost in the lights and talent across from you. There isn’t a set mark for when a decline begins, but there are indicators, and Sara McMann is beginning to check the boxes. She’s a lovely fighter with plenty of skill, but I think she’s starting to slide. Peña is more than capable of taking advantage of that.
Both of these women are stars in their own right, but Peña’s can get brighter yet. Another win will land her another top fight, a chance at getting back with Nunes. She knows that and will be fighting with that added win. McCann’s win over Lansberg, an equally aged fighter, won’t mitigate the steps backward she’s taken recently. I like Peña to get her hand raised.
Best Bet: Peña moneyline (+105)
– Zack Lambert (@bigbird8224)