UFC 264 fight week is nearly upon us, and an enormous amount of attention is rightfully being spent on the high-stakes trilogy fight headlining the July 10 card at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor.
But a second look at the pay-per-view lineup shows just how much is at stake beyond the main event. In the co-main, Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson faces Gilbert Burns, who's coming off a loss in a title shot against Kamaru Usman in February. If Thompson, who's won two in a row, can continue his current run of form and topple the former title contender, does he immediately become the most significant threat to Usman's dominant title run?
Just beyond that fight on the card, Greg Hardy and Tai Tuivasa square off in a matchup of heavyweights with flawed, yet entertaining in-ring styles. Will UFC 264 serve as a launching pad for a run up the list of contenders for Hardy, or is a win at this level the ceiling for what Hardy can do in MMA?
In the pay-per-view opener, Sean O'Malley looks to continue to build back from his August 2020 loss to Marlon Vera with a second consecutive win in 2021. As of Monday, O'Malley is the biggest betting favorite of the night according to odds listed by Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. So will he blow past Louis Smolka?
Finally, top-10 women's bantamweights Irene Aldana and Yana Kunitskaya face off with an opportunity to bolster their credentials for a future title shot. Amanda Nunes already has an opponent lined up in Julianna Pena, but could Aldana or Kunitskaya jump the line with a top-10 win?
Our panel of Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy digs into the heart of the UFC 264 card to separate what's real from what's not.
Thompson checks in on Neal midfight after punching him in the face
Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson lands a jab to Geoff Neal's face and asks if he's all right before returning to the fight in Round 4.
If he can get a win at UFC 264, Stephen Thompson is the biggest threat to Usman's title reign
Okamoto: Real! That's right, folks. A 38-year-old kickboxer, who not that long ago was knocked out by Anthony Pettis and more or less forgotten as a welterweight title challenger, is the biggest threat to Usman's dominance. One hundred percent.
We're talking a lot about welterweight title challengers like Colby Covington, Leon Edwards, and even Nate Diaz has somehow gotten himself into the conversation, because of Usman showing interest. But stylistically, I believe Thompson is the toughest fight for the champ. And in a way, I'm not even stepping out on a limb here, because Usman has already beat Covington. He already beat Edwards.
He has never fought Thompson.
And I will admit, there for a while, I was looking at Thompson all wrong. After he lost to Pettis in March 2019, his record dipped to 1-3-1 over a five-fight stretch, and yeah, I stopped thinking about him in the title picture. But if you look at that five-fight span, he fought Tyron Woodley -- the champ -- twice, once to a draw, then suffered a majority decision loss. Either of those fights could have gone his way. He beat Jorge Masvidal, who went on to get two title shots. Then he lost to Darren Till in another fight I thought could have been scored in his favor.
Then he got caught by Pettis, the only time he's been caught like that in his career. That span really wasn't as bad as the numbers make it look, and then he posted back-to-back wins over Vicente Luque and Geoff Neal. As good as Usman's stand-up has been, I don't think I'd favor him in a striking contest against Thompson. And Thompson is still putting together his best performances, despite entering his late 30s. This fight against Burns should be very competitive, but if Thompson wins, he's a real threat to Usman.
We've found Greg Hardy's MMA ceiling
Murphy: This is real. Hardy's professional fighting record is checkered with a DQ and no contest in early UFC fights, but make no mistake: Hardy was better than Allen Crowder and Ben Sosoli. Ignorance of rules cost him those win bonuses, not ability. Water got deeper for the former NFL Pro Bowler against the likes of Alexander Volkov and Marcin Tybura, and results reflected a relative lack of experience.
Hardy has proven himself worthy of a UFC roster spot, at least in terms of fighting ability, and the coaches at American Top Team deserve a world of credit. Heavyweight is the most volatile class in the sport. Large men wearing small gloves leave little margin for error, which Hardy learned the hard way against Tybura. Tuivasa is a slight favorite at UFC 264, even with enough reason to lean Hardy if you're looking at the fight stylistically. Tuivasa likes to brawl and is a former footballer himself -- in his case, the rugby league variety -- and this fight offers a realistic window for Hardy to get back in the win column.
Hardy continues to demonstrate growth, though not at the same meteoric levels from bout-to-bout as in his earlier UFC appearances. His athleticism and skill set have allowed Hardy to hold his own and move beyond the label of sideshow, even though Hardy's infamy -- stemming from a domestic violence arrest during his time in the NFL -- unfortunately attracts eyeballs and draws excess attention, adding to the incentive to continually book him.
But barring an unforeseeable level of polish against Tuivasa, Hardy seems to have a ceiling as a fringe top-15 UFC heavyweight.
The winner of the Irene Aldana-Yana Kunitskaya fight deserves to be the next bantamweight title challenger after Julianna Pena
Wagenheim: That's not real, but I say it with loads of respect for both fighters. Aldana and Kunitskaya are contenders, for sure, sitting at Nos. 6 and 7 in the ESPN women's bantamweight rankings. But they're not ahead of a pair of fighters, Germaine de Randamie and Holly Holm, who've already owned belts and had title shots, and are working their way back for another run at the top. They're not even ahead of Aspen Ladd.
A spectacular performance on Saturday could supercharge the winner's standing in an instant -- we've seen it happen -- but I envision this fight as more of a building block in a long-term project. One of these women will come out of the bout with a top-10 victory, which is something that both Aldana and Kunitskaya have struggled to notch. They each do have a win over Ketlen Vieira -- the Brazilian's only two defeats -- but Aldana's last fight was a loss to Holm. Kunitskaya, while currently on a two-fight winning streak, was knocked out by Ladd a year and a half ago.
While it's unlikely to be a title eliminator, this crossroads fight will be a great showcase for the winner, even if it's likely to fly under the radar on a Poirier-McGregor undercard featuring a lot of enticing names. Good for the UFC matchmakers for putting this one together.