In the week leading up to Conor McGregor’s U.F.C. 257 main event against Dustin Poirier, the folks promoting the bout proclaimed that the king was back. McGregor is the most marketable fighter in U.F.C. history, fighting for the first time in 53 weeks, and figured to use a win over Poirier to catapult him into a year of big fights and big paydays.
Except Poirier, 32, of Lafayette, La., beat the Irish superstar McGregor to the punch, knocking him out in the second round and forcing McGregor and the U.F.C. to recalibrate their 2021 plans.
During pre-fight hype, U.F.C. President Dana White spoke as though a McGregor win were guaranteed, and mused openly about matching him with Khabib Nurmagomedov, who dominated McGregor in 2018 and who retired after a win in October. A year ago, after McGregor blew out Donald Cerrone, White discussed matching him with Nurmagomedov in a football stadium. This year, arranging that rematch depended on luring Nurmagomedov out of retirement, which, in turn, depended on McGregor winning impressively.
McGregor said immediately after the fight that he’d like to compete more often in 2021, but a big-money rematch with Nurmagomedov seems less likely than ever, and an immediate shot at the vacant lightweight title also seems remote.
Poirier’s win should move him to the front of the line, and Michael Chandler, a former Bellator lightweight champion, made his case by winning his U.F.C. debut in the co-main event via first-round knockout over contender Dan Hooker.
White acknowledged after the fight that a Nurmagomedov comeback was unlikely. He said they had spoken and that Nurmagomedov had told him: “Dana, be honest with yourself.”
But White did say a third fight between Poirier and McGregor was very much possible — a prospect Poirier raised in the octagon after his win.
“There’s always a trilogy when you got 1-1,” White said.
Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor seemed to be fairly evenly matched. McGregor easily defeated Poirier back in 2014 and has had the better career, but since a loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018 he hasn’t had a competitive fight. Poirier, on the other hand, has been through a gauntlet of fights at lightweight, beating Justin Gaethje, Max Holloway and Dan Hooker and losing to Nurmagomedov, who is undefeated and recently retired.
But according to bettors, there was an obvious overwhelming favorite for U.F.C. 257: McGregor.
At most sports books McGregor opened at around a -180 favorite, meaning a bettor would have to bet $180 on him to win $100. By the time the fight started, McGregor was around a -340 favorite. The sports books kept making the odds worse and worse, and yet bettors continued to back McGregor at those worsening odds.
With Poirier’s win, sports betting executives are popping the champagne. “It was a massive win for us,” a PointsBet spokesman told betting news site The Action Network. “About as big a single event win as you see.”
Dustin Poirier crushed Conor McGregor with a right hand in the face halfway through the second round, knocking McGregor to the ground and leading to a stoppage and a victory seconds later.
Poirier opened the round by repeatedly kicking McGregor’s lead leg, with commentator Daniel Cormier declaring that McGregor was “dead in that leg already.” McGregor looked to continue his first round strategy and land punches, but the injured leg seemingly sapped his strength. He managed to catch a couple of Poirier’s kicks, but wasn’t able to convert them into a takedown or any other advantage.
McGregor was soon backed up against the cage, and when one of Poirier’s punches in a flurry connected, the fight was over.
“The low calf kick was very good,” McGregor said after the fight.
The victory by Poirier will surely get him a lightweight title shot, whether against an unretired Khabib Nurmagomedov or for a vacant belt, while McGregor’s U.F.C. future is now a lot more uncertain.
McGregor promised he’d knock Poirier out in less than 60 seconds. Didn’t happen.
Poirier might not have won the round, but he managed to take McGregor down midway though, and land a solid right hook. But by late in the round Poirier looked tired and McGregor still looked fast and explosive.
Michael Chandler may have been making his U.F.C. debut, but he’s no mixed martial arts newbie. Chandler has fought 23 times for Bellator, a competing M.M.A. organization, twice winning its lightweight championship.
In 2021, there is no doubt that most of the best fighters in the world compete in the U.F.C., but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great ones in Bellator, One Championship or elsewhere. That Chandler could stop Dan Hooker, the sixth ranked fighter in one of the U.F.C.’s most stacked division, proves that.
Michael Chandler dispatched Dan Hooker in less than two minutes in his heavily hyped U.F.C. debut, and then he risked everything.
Hooker, a 30-year-old New Zealander nicknamed The Hangman, didn’t pose much danger to Chandler while the fight lasted. Chandler, a 34-year-old champion in the Bellator promotion who finally signed with the U.F.C., stalked Hooker for most of their fight before landing a right hand to the body and left to the face that dropped Hooker. When he hopped on Hooker and pummeled him some more, the referee stopped the bout.
Then Chandler scrambled to the top of the fence and did a back flip, placing himself in more danger than Hooker ever did. He landed safely in the middle of the ring.
Chandler, an immediate title contender at 155 pounds, improves his record to 22-5, and used his post-fight interview to call out main-eventers McGregor and Poirier, and retired lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Early in Round 2 of their flyweight bout, Joanne Calderwood dumped Jessica Eye on her back, and could have pounced. Instead, she let her downed opponent stand and keep fighting. In another circumstance the move might constitute a tactical error but Calderwood, a Muay Thai kickboxing expert, was reluctant to break the rhythm that had her winning the fight.
In close, she’d clinch the 34-year-old Eye and land hard knee strikes to the rib cage. From a distance Calderwood, a 34-year-old Scot who now lives in Las Vegas, landed long-range punches and kicks. When Eye tried to close the distance, Calderwood would land front kicks to the stomach. And when she succeeded in fighting at close range, Calderwood would pound her with those knee strikes.
After three rounds, all three judges awarded the bout to Calderwood, who improves to 15-4, and figures to move up the U.F.C.’s flyweight rankings.
As the U.F.C. approaches its 30th birthday, it has matured into a big money sports organization. But a big reason for its prosperity is under a direct threat.
An antitrust lawsuit was recently granted class action status by fighters who claim the U.F.C. is a monopoly that illegally suppresses their wages. Should the fighters win, the U.F.C. could be forced to pay out billions of dollars and fundamentally alter its business model.
The U.F.C. pays a lesser percentage of its revenues to its athletes than other professional sports organizations in the United States whose players are represented by unions.
A new presidential administration could mean more scrutiny for the U.F.C., whose president Dana White spoke on behalf of his friend Donald Trump at two different Republican National conventions and even invited Trump to a fight in 2019. A bill that would regulate mixed martial arts much like boxing was introduced in Congress in 2016, but went nowhere. Could it make a comeback?
There is also the question of Conor McGregor’s legal troubles, and whether they could prematurely end the career of the U.F.C.’s biggest draw.
After Round 1, Andrew Sanchez’s coaches told him to keep pressing because his opponent, Makhmud Muradov, was already fatiguing.
Sanchez, 32, a former college wrestler, pressed forward as instructed but Muradov, a strong and long-limbed striker from Uzbekistan, was nowhere near tired. He responded to Sanchez’s pressure with well-timed right hands, and stout defense when Sanchez tried to turn their bout into a wrestling contest.
After Round 2, Sanchez’s coaches begged him not to blow his nose, which Muradov had bloodied with well-timed punches. And midway through Round 3, a counter right hand from Muradov wobbled Sanchez. Then came a flying knee strike and the flurry of punches that prompted the referee to stop the fight.
The victory extended Muradov’s win streak to 14 bouts, and prompted him to seek out U.F.C. President Dana White, who was seated near the octagon, to ask why White doesn’t follow him on Instagram.
Muradov like forget the bonus, I just want an IG follow. I respect it.
— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) January 24, 2021
If you paid to watch tonight’s main event but cannot get ESPN+ to work, you’re not alone. Plenty of U.F.C. fighters are dealing with technical difficulties too:
The problems seem to be concentrated in the United States, where Disney sells the pay-per-view through ESPN+, and not internationally, where it varies depending upon the country but generally is handled by the tech platform of Endeavor, U.F.C.’s parent company.
“We are aware of an issue impacting some fans’ ability to access to tonight’s PPV event and are working to resolve it as quickly as possible,” a Disney spokesman said in a statement.
That crowd noise you hear isn’t piped in.
About 1,800 fans were allowed to purchase tickets to U.F.C. 257, meaning the newly built Etihad Arena on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island will be about 10 percent full. It is the first time spectators have been allowed at a U.F.C. event since last March.
To attend, fans must have obtained a negative coronavirus test within 48 hours of the beginning of the event, and once inside they must wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines.
Abu Dhabi, which is one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, had been closed to tourists for months, but began easing restrictions in late December.
Herb Dean is widely considered to be the best referee in mixed martial arts, especially after John McCarthy, known as Big John, retired a few years ago.
But like all referees, he’s made his share of curious decisions, and the nonstoppage after Marina Rodriguez dropped Amanda Ribas with a right hand is one of them. He seemed an instant away from stopping the fight before pulling out, awkwardly trying to step out of the way after he’d gotten in too close to the fighters. The move prompted Rodriguez to stop fighting and walk away as if she had won.
Commentator Jon Anik speculated that Dean “saw something” in Ribas’s eyes that led him to continue the fight.
Ultimately, the blunder had little consequence, as Rodriguez resumed, landed a few more punches and Dean stepped in.
Dean will have a chance to redeem himself in a couple of hours: He’s refereeing the main event between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier.
Early in the first round, Amanda Ribas, the betting favorite, dumped underdog Marina Rodriguez on her back, then spent the next few minutes grinding her opponent into the canvas, the fight unfolding the way bettors figured it would.
But Rodriguez, 33, is a Muay Thai kickboxing specialist, and dangerous in fights that don’t go to the ground. So in the second, when Ribas waded in close, looking to engage, Rodriguez popped her with a straight right hand. When Rodriguez pounced to finish the fight, referee Herb Dean moved in and appeared to tap Rodriguez, which could have signaled an end to the fight. An awkward pause ensued. Then the fight resumed. Then Rodriguez landed another home run of a right hand and Dean waved the fight off before Ribas, standing but barely conscious, could absorb more damage.
Rodriguez improves her record to 12-1-2, while Ribas, 27, falls to 10-2.
Arman Tsarukyan’s bio at the M.M.A. database Sherdog.com says he’s from Russia. According to the U.F.C.’s website, the 24-year-old lightweight is from Georgia — the former Soviet republic, not the battleground state in last November’s U.S. presidential election.
Fight night settled it: Tsarukyan is from Armenia.
But there wasn’t much ambiguity about his fight night strategy. He came to suffocate American lightweight Matt Frevola, dragging him to the mat seconds after the opening bell, then body slamming him moments later. Frevola landed some flurries of his own, and even opened a cut in Tsarukyan’s hairline with a hard punch.
But Tsarukyan, a 5-foot-7 pit bull of a fighter, spent the final round stalking, tackling and mauling Frevola on the way to a unanimous decision win.
The victory improves Tsarukyan’s record to 15-2. Frevola is now 8-2.
Late in Round 1, Brazilian grappler Antonio Carlos Junior nailed Hawaiian striker Brad Tavares with a knee that landed hard. The shot was Carlos’s best of the night, but there was one problem.
It landed between Tavares’s legs. Right on his protective cup. An illegal low blow.
That meant Carlos’s best shot of the night wouldn’t count, but Tavares’ most effective blows did. A right hand dropped Carlos late round two, and the 33-year-old landed several more decisive blows in the third, as Junior labored in vain to turn their fight into a grappling match.
Tavares, who broke a two-fight losing streak, won a unanimous decision, with two judges scoring the fight 30-27, and a third scoring it 29-28.
When the rest of the sports world shut down in March because of the coronavirus, U.F.C. President Dana White vowed that he would not be deterred by a pandemic.
The beginning was rocky. Five previously scheduled events were canceled. Plans to hold an event on Native American tribal land in California — in order to bypass state restrictions on large gatherings — were abandoned after Gov. Gavin Newsom of California asked Disney to intervene. When the U.F.C. did find a more hospitable host, in Florida, the U.F.C.’s employees and fighters struggled to follow policies designed to limit the spread of the virus.
But over the summer, the U.F.C. found its footing. It established American and international home bases, in Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi, alternating several weeks of fights between the two locations. In total the U.F.C. held 41 events in 2020, just one fewer than the 42 it held in 2019.
Like other sports that eventually resumed competition, keeping the coronavirus out has proved impossible. At least 53 fighters were reported to have tested positive, according to the M.M.A. news site Bloody Elbow, and headlining fights — like a scheduled welterweight championship bout between Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns — had to be scrapped because one of the fighters tested positive.