Home Sports UFC 302 main card: Why each fight matters, including Dustin Poirier’s underdog tale vs. Islam Makhachev

UFC 302 main card: Why each fight matters, including Dustin Poirier’s underdog tale vs. Islam Makhachev

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MIAMI, FLORIDA – MARCH 9: Dustin Poirier reacts after his victory against Benoit Saint Denis of France in a lightweight bout during the UFC 299 event at Kaseya Center on March 9, 2024 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

If you’re the type of person who thinks betting odds have a story to tell leading up to a big title fight, UFC 302 has been an interesting case to follow.

After UFC President Dana White announced that Islam Makhachev would defend his lightweight title against Dustin Poirier this Saturday night in Newark, New Jersey, the initial reaction from bettors was measured, but very clear. Poirier opened as a +350 underdog, with champion Makhachev the -470 favorite.

Translation: The champion will probably remain that way, no matter how much Poirier’s legion of fans wish it were otherwise.

But then, didn’t Poirier also go into his last fight as the underdog? And didn’t he knock out the young thief Benoit Saint-Denis before coldly telling us all that he hoped we were smart enough to bet on him? Surely, Poirier’s many fans could move that line in his favor, as they jumped at the opportunity to get high odds on one of MMA’s most beloved figures.

However, here we are at the beginning of UFC 302 fight week and the opposite has happened. Makhachev is, at the time of writing, now a -650 favorite at BetMGM. And Poirier? He’s up about 5-1 right now. Those are the bettors who say that even with a juicy underdog line on a fan favorite, there aren’t enough fish biting.

After an underdog victory in his last fight, can Dustin Poirier conjure up more veteran magic at UFC 302? (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

The good news for Poirier is that this matchup has officially entered global shock territory. Do you want that freezing moment near the end of your career? The one where you win the unwinnable fight and triumph over long odds (literally)? Then go out and beat Makhachev for the UFC title. Easier said than done, of course. But it’s not that Poirier hasn’t surprised us before…

Here’s a look at what the PPV portion of UFC 302 has to offer this Saturday:

Who are they: Brown was something of a prospect for the UFC about eight years ago, and ever since then it seems like we’ve been waiting for him to live up to the full potential of his frame as a 6-foot-3 welterweight. Zaleski is one of those guys who has fought so many well-known names that it’s easy to forget that he actually has wins over Sean Strickland and Benoit Saint-Denis.

Because it is important: None of these guys have set the world on fire lately and none of them weigh 170 pounds. This could be one of those fights between veterans who also compete to see who has the most future in it. It could also be that the UFC matchmakers simply couldn’t believe these two hadn’t already fought and decided to rectify the oversight.

Who are they: Almeida is a Brazilian heavyweight with a suffocating running game, which isn’t always as fun to watch as it should be. Romanov is an Eastern European big man who seemed to be on his way to the top until he recently ran into a higher-class competitor and came away with two consecutive losses.

Because it is important: Heavyweight feels like a wide open division these days, and both guys have some promise lurking beneath the surface. Almeida seemed to have a brighter future until Curtis Blaydes knocked him out in his first UFC loss in March. This is the kind of bounce-back fight he needs to win to prove he can still be who we thought he was.

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – JULY 29: Kevin Holland poses for a portrait backstage during the UFC 291 event at Delta Center on July 29, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Kevin Holland (above) enters his UFC 302 matchup against Michal Oleksiejczuk as a -275 favorite. Oleksiejczuk is +220. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Who are they: Holland is one of those rare MMA mobiles that always provides some kind of fun, even when it doesn’t necessarily benefit him. Oleksiejczuk is a former light heavyweight with finishing power but not much consistency.

Because it is important: Holland is clinging to the edge of the middleweight rankings after two straight losses, including losing the battle of the lanky, unconventional strikers in a one-sided bout against Michael “Venom” Page in March. Oleksiejczuk is also coming off a loss in March and has yet to get more than two wins in a row since he joined the UFC. Normally, this is the type of fight where Holland wins and Oleksiejczuk loses. But are these normal times?

Who are they: Strickland had a cup of coffee with the middleweight belt after pulling off one of last year’s biggest upsets, then lost it to Dricus du Plessis in his first title defense. Costa is MMA’s biggest Silly Little Guy, to the point that you can never tell when he’s joking and when he’s not, until he hits you in the head.

Because it is important: Strickland has become a lightning rod for the culture war, increasing his visibility but also his polarity. In reality, he only needs to win one relevant fight to get back in contention for a middleweight title shot, and Costa should be the type of opponent he could carefully overcome en route to a decision victory. On the other hand, Costa looked good even in the loss against Robert Whittaker in his last start. He has that one-punch power that Strickland lacks. And a knockout win here could make him look like an interesting candidate for a title shot in that weird-enough-to-be-fun way.

Who are they: Makhachev is the UFC lightweight champion who, despite holding the belt for almost two years, has yet to defend it against an actual lightweight. Poirier is a fan favorite who, at 35, is having his last best chance to add “undisputed UFC champion” to his resume.

Because it is important: Title fights are always important, but this one has compelling narratives on both sides. Makhachev has that air of authority as a champion after dominating Charles Oliveira to claim the belt. However, he could still use some title fight wins over well-known names at lightweight, and Poirier is the type of opponent that draws a lot of eyes to any fight. That’s a huge opportunity for a champion trying to become a star. Poirier, on the other hand, should know that there probably won’t be any more last-minute title fight bids after this one. That’s all. This is his chance to put the whole story in a different light. And as with all great underdog stories, on paper it’s really hard to see how he could beat Makhachev.

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