UFC 269: Five fights to make after Dustin Poirier falls at final hurdle and Julianna Pena stuns Amanda Nunes

Here’s where the pair should turn next, plus match-making for Charles Oliveira, Dominick Cruz and Sean O’Malley

Alex Pattle
Combat Sports Correspondent
Tuesday 14 December 2021 15:48
UFC 264 Poirier vs McGregor 3 highlights

In the main event of UFC 269 on Saturday night, Dustin Poirier’s second shot at undisputed lightweight gold saw the “Diamond” suffer heartbreak once more.

Two years on from his submission defeat by Khabib Nurmagomedov, Poirier again tapped out to a rear naked choke with the lightweight belt on the line, beaten by champion Charles Oliveira in the third round.

What’s next for the American? It’s tough to say, but we’ll make some suggestions here, as well as looking at who is next for Oliveira and new women’s bantamweight champion Julianna Pena.

In Saturday night’s co-main event, Pena stunned Amanda Nunes – the consensus greatest women’s fighter in MMA history – by submitting the Brazilian in the second round to pull off one of the sport’s biggest ever upsets.

UFC 269 featured a number of other intriguing bouts, allowing us to have some match-making fun. Here are five fights to make next.

Charles Oliveira vs Justin Gaethje

This one is pretty obvious. When Gaethje vs Michael Chandler took place in November, it was widely agreed that the winner would challenge the victor of Poirier vs Oliveira. This month, UFC president Dana White essentially confirmed that would be the case, too.

After Poirier was submitted by Khabib, two impressive wins were enough to essentially get the “Diamond” back to a title shot, given the nature of his first run towards the belt. Instead, Poirier elected to complete a trilogy with Conor McGregor, though another victory there only enhanced his credentials as title challenger.

For Gaethje, the situation is similar. He made a searing run to interim lightweight gold before being submitted by Khabib, so an impressive points win against a game Chandler in a fight of the year contender already has him back in the conversation for a title fight. Furthermore, other potential contenders Islam Makhachev and Beneil Dariush are set to face one another in late February, clearing the path for Gaethje to challenge Oliveira this spring in what represents a fresh and fascinating match-up.

Gaethje has heavy hands and great wrestling skills, but Oliveira has shown improved resilience in recent outings, and his jiu-jitsu prowess is second to none. Now with 10 straight wins to his name – as well as the most finishes and submission victories in UFC history – Oliveira should finally be considered a favourite on the big stage, no matter how dangerous Gaethje is.

Justin Gaethje (right) outpointed Michael Chandler in November

Dustin Poirier vs Michael Chandler

While Oliveira’s next move is straightforward, Poirier’s is not. In recent weeks, the American has mentioned a possible move up to welterweight. After losing on Saturday, however, he expressed uncertainty about starting from scratch in a new division at 32 years old.

Poirier is better off staying at lightweight; even though a third shot at the belt seems further away than it has in years, stranger things have happened than the Louisianan getting one last chance. It feels like he needs three big wins in a row, realistically, but two and a new lightweight king on the throne might be enough for Poirier.

First, he should try to get past new fan favourite Chandler, who has lost his last two but came close to winning both contests – against Oliveira and Gaethje, no less. Although Chandler’s stock would fall with a third straight defeat, Poirier would still have something to show for beating his compatriot – a former three-time Bellator champion. Then, Poirier could look to face the loser of Makhachev vs Dariush.

Yes, this hypothetical route has him facing fighters coming off of a loss or two, but they’re still top-level opponents – with Makhachev in particular likely to give Poirier scarring flashbacks to his clash with Khabib. Most importantly, if Poirier can navigate these contests unscathed, Oliveira might have been unseated by then. He might have even been unseated by Gaethje, over whom Poirier holds an emphatic victory.

Of course, Poirier could always pursue a fourth money fight with Conor McGregor... but instead, the American should now move forwards in his career and life.

Julianna Pena vs Amanda Nunes 2

This is another straightforward choice. Nunes was unbeaten in seven years prior to her defeat by Pena. In that time, the “Lioness” won the UFC women’s bantamweight title and defended it successfully five times. She also won the featherweight gold, retaining it twice.

New UFC women’s bantamweight champion Julianna Pena

The consensus women’s GOAT is deserving of a rematch, regardless of how shockingly lacking in composure and energy she was as Pena brawled towards a finish on Saturday. It was the kind of performance that MMA fans familiar with Nunes’ younger self might have recognised, but it still stunned most of them.

The Brazilian was a heavy favourite over Pena ahead of UFC 269 and will be again in a possible rematch, but the idea of the new champion getting past Nunes once more is not all too hard to grasp.

Dominick Cruz vs Rob Font

At 36 years old, Dominick Cruz is still getting it done at a very high level – if with a little difficulty.

After returning from a three-and-a-half-year hiatus last spring, the former two-time bantamweight champion failed to regain the belt against Henry Cejudo, but Cruz has now won back-to-back fights and he produced a vintage performance at UFC 269. Having overcome Casey Kenney via split decision in March, Cruz was again tested at the weekend, recovering from an early knockdown to beat Pedro Munhoz on points.

Munhoz is a high-level bantamweight, and a win over the Brazilian has allowed Cruz back into the top 10 at 135lbs. The division’s landscape combined with Cruz’s legacy means he can now eye a clash with fifth-ranked Rob Font or fourth-ranked Cory Sandhagen.

The former was on a stellar six-fight win streak before losing to ex-featherweight champion Jose Aldo earlier this month, and he would be an ideal opponent for Cruz next time out, allowing the veteran to test himself against a top-tier foe with a good reputation.

Sean O’Malley vs Marlon Vera 2

Sean O’Malley is a potential future star for the UFC

The UFC is taking it slow with Sean O’Malley, though everything about the American suggests he could be a huge star for the promotion.

At 14-1, the sharp-minded 27-year-old has been compiling an impressive record and reel of highlight knockouts, both of which he added to on Saturday night by stopping Raulian Paiva in the first round. The level of O’Malley’s opposition has generally been increasing gradually with time, and Paiva was no sacrificial lamb on paper. Still, O’Malley dispatched the Brazilian with relative ease at UFC 269, and the now-ranked American should faced a ranked opponent next.

A fine option would be Marlon Vera, who handed O’Malley the first loss of his professional career last August. The Ecuadorian injured O’Malley’s leg in that fight before finishing him, and Vera picked up a huge win against former featherweight champion Frankie Edgar just last month. Down on the scorecards, Vera finished Edgar with a stunning front kick KO.

While the eighth-ranked bantamweight may understandably want to look up the rankings right now, he could be lured into a rematch with No13 O’Malley; that contest would be of greater profile than Vera vs Munhoz or Vera vs Marlon Moraes, for example, and “Chito” will see it as winnable – given he beat O’Malley before.

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