Ranking the top 10 fights to watch at UFC 269, including Oliveira-Poirier and Nunes-Pena

Sports

UFC 269 is not just the promotion’s final pay-per-view event of 2021, it also is among the year’s best offerings. Wrap up Saturday night’s event in colorful paper and put a big, bright bow on this holiday season gift for fans.

There are two championship fights — one of them featuring a two-division belt holder, the other a consensus uncrowned champ.A pair of former titlists are trying to work their way back to the top, with one taking on a whole different climb in a lighter division.

Fifteen ranked fighters feature on the fight card at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, including six bouts in which both combatants are in a division’s top 15. There’s also a showdown between a couple of fighters from ESPN’s brand new top-25-under-age-25 rankings.

Headlining the show is one of the most highly anticipated title fights in recent memory, as Charles Oliveira puts his UFC lightweight championship on the line for the first time against Dustin Poirier, who is looking to add a golden shimmer to a masterful year. Poirier knocked out the biggest star in MMA, Conor McGregor, in two massively lucrative bouts in January and July This weekend, he looks to fulfill his career-long dream and win a UFC title.

The other title fight features Amanda Nunes, the greatest fighter in the history of women’s MMA. She owns both the UFC bantamweight and featherweight belts, and this weekend her 135-pound belt is up for grabs as she takes on uber-confident Julianna Pena.

Prior to this weekend’s main event and co-main, UFC 269 will deliver a whole night of appealing fights. So here’s one observer’s ranking — mine — of Saturday’s top 10:

1. Charles Oliveira vs. Dustin Poirier, for the UFC lightweight championship

Breaking news: The main event, a fight for the storied lightweight title, is No. 1 in this ranking. Shocking, right? But would anyone on Earth — short of the undercard fighters’ friends and family — put a different bout atop this list? This headline fight is deserving of the biggest, boldest font spread across the top of the sports page.

Oliveira is making the first defense of the belt he won in May to establish himself as the successor to the retired, undefeated, unstoppable Khabib Nurmagomedov. And then there’s Poirier, who could have had one of the two slots in that springtime fight for a vacant title. He opted instead to set up future generations of Poiriers financially for a life of comfort and means by knocking out McGregor at UFC 264 in July.

It was a risk for Poirier, turning his back on a championship opportunity, but if he wins the title on Saturday, “The Diamond” will have pulled off a sparkling gem of a year.

2. Kai Kara-France vs. Cody Garbrandt, men’s flyweights

There’s mystery and a bit of a new frontier vibe surrounding this matchup — enough to bump it up to near the top of these rankings. Garbrandt is a full four years removed from a short reign as bantamweight champion, and he has lost four of his last five fights — three by knockout. Now he is trying to reinvent himself as a flyweight.

Garbrandt has to be aware that the extra 10 pounds of weight cutting is no joke in the lighter divisions. If he had any doubts about that, all he had to do was watch the 32 seconds of video from when his good friend and former teammate TJ Dillashaw got himself quickly knocked out by Henry Cejudo when he moved down from 135 to 125 pounds in 2019.

Unlike Dillashaw, Garbrandt isn’t sliding right into a title challenge. But Kara-France is a top-10 hurdle whose high-energy engine adds to the intrigue.

3. Amanda Nunes vs. Julianna Peña, for the UFC women’s bantamweight championship

So the fight card’s other title bout doesn’t end up being ranked second? That might seem disrespectful toward Nunes, the greatest woman not just in today’s MMA landscape but also in the history of the sport. But she’s an 8-to-1 favorite to successfully defend her bantamweight title for the sixth time, and that casts this co-main event as a mismatch.

Of course, any appearance by the GOAT is must-see, and this fight’s other draw is Peña’s brazen confidence. She’s been dismissively surly toward Nunes, almost in the way that Bethe Correia sneered at Ronda Rousey before getting KO’d in 34 seconds back in 2015. Like Correia, Peña appears unwitting, even delusional, as she heads straight toward the buzzsaw. That makes this pairing a can’t-miss.

4. Pedro Munhoz vs. Dominick Cruz, men’s bantamweights

At age 36, with a body that has been through surgery after surgery and perpetual periods of inactivity, does Cruz still have what it takes to recapture the championship he twice owned? This will be a legitimate test of where he stands.

While Munhoz has never been a champion, he has been a mainstay of the top 10 for years. He will put Cruz through the kind of battle that separates faded former stars from reinvigorated legends. How will it all unfold?

5. Miranda Maverick vs. Erin Blanchfield, women’s flyweights

Neither of these women is in the flyweight top 10 … yet. Maverick, 24, was ranked sixth in the recently released ESPN top 25 fighters under age 25 list. Blanchfield, who is just 22 years old and has had only eight pro fights, was ranked 20th. One of these fighters will take a big step forward with a win.

And there’s even good news for the fighter who loses this one. The woman who does not have her arm raised will still be young enough to learn and grow and perhaps become a great one down the road.

6. Alex Perez vs. Matt Schnell, men’s flyweights

Perez will be fighting for the first time since his unsuccessful challenge of then-champion Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 255 in November 2020. And here he is, down the card in the early prelims. That’s the plight of the flyweights — oft overlooked, even when it’s a matchup between one fighter who is still ranked in the top 10 and another, Schnell, who was in the rankings prior to dropping two of his last three fights. The matchmakers can’t fool us, though. This fight will make it worth tuning in early.

7. Josh Emmett vs. Dan Ige, featherweights

Here’s another fight that is flying under the radar, as neither Emmett nor Ige is Mr. Personality (see below). But who cares? This matchup of top-10 featherweights offers the promise of an action-packed 15 minutes. What else could a fight fan want?

8. Raulian Paiva vs. Sean O’Malley, men’s bantamweights

Is this too low on the list for the high-profile “Suga Sean”? Maybe. But while O’Malley has an exciting fighting style and exudes confidence from every pore, he has been in the UFC since 2017 and most of the noise he’s made so far has been with his never-in-silent-retreat mouth. He’s produced some fighting highlights, for sure, but have any of them been as bold of an attention grabber than that colorful hairdo of his?

Paiva has won three fights in a row and owns 21 career victories, but would a win over him be enough to boost O’Malley into the rankings? Maybe if it’s followed by a flashy post fight interview.

9. Ryan Hall vs. Darrick Minner, featherweights

Hall is an acquired taste for some fans, and watching his one-dimensional, single-minded performances can be bittersweet, even for those who enjoy it. But his unwavering pursuit of grappling scrambles is admirable for its persistence and its success. Or at least its success prior to Hall getting knocked out by Ilia Topuria at UFC 264 in July.

Miner is a former collegiate wrestler, and it would be wise for him to use those skills to try to prevent the fight from ever getting to the canvas.

10. Augusto Sakai vs. Tai Tuivasa, heavyweights

This clash of heavyweight has “slobberknocker” written all over it … inscribed in beer stains inside a smelly shoe. What else do you need to know?

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