Fighters looking forward to this weekend as their big chance to draw attention to themselves should head back to the gym to work on their timing. They picked the wrong Saturday to expect to make the night's biggest splash with fans, since they will be competing for oohs and ahhs with an expected slugfest between Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje at UFC 291.
As I set out to rank the weekend's fights, let's just get this out of the way: No. 1 is not up for discussion. That position is securely in possession of Poirier and Gaethje, for whom expectations are always transcendent. Poirier has won eight fight of the night bonuses (tied with Nate Diaz, Frankie Edgar, and Edson Barboza) -- no one in UFC history has pocketed more. Gaethje is right behind him with seven of those $50,000 checks.
And then there's their joint history. The first Poirier vs. Gaethje tussle was one of the best fights of 2018, one that forced many to hold their breath throughout those turbulent 15½ minutes. Poirier won the back-and-forth scrap by TKO early in Round 4. He's gotten better since then. So has Gaethje. I know I'm not alone in impatiently counting the minutes until Saturday's main event in Salt Lake City (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV).
But there are some pretty tasty appetizers on the menu prior to the weekend's main course. Thanks to UFC 291 sharing Saturday night with a Bellator and Rizin co-promotion over in Japan, we have to give these rankings the full top-10 treatment.
Both events are packed with appealing fights. Maybe some fighters other than Poirier and Gaethje will find their way under the spotlight after all.
1. Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje 2 (UFC 291)
Don't talk to me about a BMF belt being on the line. The shiny trinket's purpose is to add grandeur to a nontitle matchup, but the belt is totally unnecessary when this fight is already as humongous as can be. Plus, the "baddest motherf---er" label doesn't apply to either of these gentlemen of the sport; they just happen to fight like they have nothing to lose. Tell you what, UFC: Leave the silly strap back at headquarters and instead give us a Round 6. Deal? There's no other fight scheduled for the rest of 2023 that has more viscerally captivated my interest, not even the ones with real title belts at stake.
2. Kyoji Horiguchi vs. Makoto Shinryu (Bellator x Rizin 2)
It feels like just yesterday that the UFC was on the brink of doing away with its men's flyweight division. Now that weight class is flourishing. And here comes Bellator to join the fast-paced fun. Horiguchi, a former bantamweight champion in both Bellator and Rizin, has a stellar résumé at 125 pounds. His only loss at that weight was in a 2015 challenge of then-UFC champ Demetrious Johnson. Now "The Typhoon'' is going for the brand-new Bellator belt against a 23-year-old who's on a 10-fight winning streak.
3. Jan Blachowicz vs. Alex Pereira (UFC 291)
Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev fight to a split draw in the main event of UFC 282.
Blachowicz is a former UFC light heavyweight champion, the last one to successfully defend the title. Pereira is a former middleweight champ who's about to learn whether his potent punching power will move up in weight with him. With the 205-pound title vacant, wouldn't this be a fine time to decide who will be fighting for the belt next? Any chance the UFC actually makes that announcement?
4. AJ McKee vs. Patricky 'Pitbull' Freire (Bellator x Rizin 2)
Not long ago, McKee was Bellator's prized homegrown star. He could be that guy again. But his joy ride hit a bump in the road last year in the form of a "Pitbull." Not Patricky, but his older brother Patricio. After dethroning the featherweight Freire in 2021, then losing the rematch -- and the title -- nine months later, McKee moved on to a new weight class. Now he will try to break a tie with the Freire family in this quarterfinal of the Bellator Lightweight World Grand Prix.
Editor's note: Early Wednesday, Bellator and Rizin announced that McKee is out of the Pitbull fight and Grand Prix because of an unspecified medical issue, replaced in both by Rizin lightweight champ Roberto de Souza. The promotions also announced that Patricio Freire has taken a short-notice fight on the card against Chihiro Suzuki.
5. Seika Izawa vs. Claire Lopez (Bellator x Rizin 2)
Izawa is the one Rizin fighter who has garnered votes in the ESPN women's pound-for-pound rankings. And yet for many fight fans in the U.S., this will be the first time seeing the 25-year-old "Supernova," who competed in judo, wrestling and even sumo prior to coming to MMA in 2020. She won the super atomweight (108-pound) championship in her sixth pro fight in April 2022. And while she has competed four times since then, this will be her first title defense. Izawa is worth staying up really late to see.
6. Stephen Thompson vs. Michel Pereira (UFC 291)
Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson and Kevin Holland give the Orlando fans their money's worth in the main event of UFC Fight Night.
This one is right out of a multiplex action flick, something like Jean-Claude Van Damme vs. Jackie Chan. "Wonderboy" Thompson has a karate flair to his game, but he's buttoned down compared to the high-flying Pereira. Get your popcorn ready.
7. Derrick Lewis vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima (UFC 291)
Lewis has lost his three most recent fights and four of his past five. That means the fans have lost, too, because they were deprived of the hilarious heavyweight's raunchy postfight interviews. But win or lose, Lewis is always swinging those sledgehammers, and that's entertainment. An extra large popcorn, maybe?
8. Michael Chiesa vs. Kevin Holland (UFC 291)
Chiesa has not fought since November 2021, and he lost his last two bouts prior to the layoff (following a four-fight run of success). Holland was on a two-fight losing streak as well before getting an impressive TKO win over Santiago Ponzinibbio in April. Throughout their ups and downs, both guys bring it every time, so this should be a fun one.
9. Kai Asakura vs. Juan Archuleta (Bellator vs. Rizin 2)
This is for the Rizin bantamweight championship, which was left vacant at the end of 2022 when Horiguchi (see above) moved to flyweight. The man he'd dethroned two years earlier is Asakura. In order to regain the title, he'll have to get past Archuleta, a former 135-pound champ in Bellator. Even if this belt doesn't matter much to fans new to Rizin, the fight for it will entertain.
Editor's note: Asakura dropped out of the fight with an injury, leaving Archuleta to compete for the vacant title against Hiromasa Ougikubo.
10. Tony Ferguson vs. Bobby Green (UFC 291)
Nate Diaz and Tony Ferguson give the fans their money's worth in the main event of UFC 279.
Prepare to be saddened ... or maybe surprised. Ferguson has dropped five fights in a row and has looked lost while doing so. But those defeats came against Gaethje, Diaz, Charles Oliveira, Beneil Dariush and Michael Chandler. Green represents an appropriate step down in competition, one that might allow Ferguson, 39, to reprise flashes of the "El Cucuy" who, before the skid, had won 12 consecutive fights. Or am I dreaming?