UFC 264 is expected to produce the next challenger to lightweight champion Charles Oliveira, as Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor complete their trilogy in the main event. But could there be a wrinkle in those plans?
Few doubt Poirier will pursue the title if he wins. He could already have fought for the gold, but he chose the more lucrative option of facing McGregor a third time. But what if McGregor wins? Will he challenge Oliveira, or could he choose to complete another trilogy with a blockbuster against Nate Diaz? Even if he were to lose to Diaz at a higher weight, that theoretically might not affect his chance to challenge for the lightweight title in his next fight.
The title picture at heavyweight became more interesting -- unnecessarily so? -- last week when UFC president Dana White announced the creation of an interim belt. That will be on the line for Derrick Lewis and Ciryl Gane in the main event of UFC 265. Was that the right move, considering Francis Ngannou just won the title on March 27?
ESPN's panel of Mike Coppinger, Carlos Contreras Legaspi, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim separates what's real from what's not for UFC 264 and beyond.
If McGregor wins, he definitely will fight for the title next
Raimondi: This is only a question because he's Conor McGregor -- the biggest star in UFC history -- and can essentially call his own shot. So if McGregor wanted to complete his trilogy with Diaz next -- whether he wins or loses against Poirier -- the UFC probably would get behind that. You never know with McGregor. Maybe he'll want to box again, though it seems like that discussed Manny Pacquiao matchup is gone now that McGregor's representation, Paradigm Sports Management, is suing Pacquiao for breach of contract.
If McGregor loses to Poirier, the Diaz trilogy might be the fight to make. But if McGregor wins, the most logical step is challenging Charles Oliveira for the belt. McGregor already has been a UFC lightweight and featherweight champion, but surely he is motivated by the possibility of becoming the first fighter to win the UFC lightweight title more than once.
It seems like he has been viewed as more of a popular attraction than elite fighter since losing in his boxing foray to Floyd Mayweather in 2017 and to Khabib Nurmagomedov the following year. McGregor surely would relish getting back the title he once held, etching his name in the UFC history books yet again and proving a lot of people wrong. And that's why it's title or bust next if he beats Poirier.
Win or lose, Poirier will not regret passing on a title fight to complete the Conor trilogy
Legaspi: Definitely real. Minutes after he knocked out McGregor at UFC 257, Poirier expressed his intention to close the trilogy with McGregor over fighting for a vacant title. He even played matchmaker and mentioned that Michael Chandler should fight Charles Oliveira -- which eventually happened four months later. The 155 belt wasn't on his mind, and he was clear about it from the start.
Poirier embraced his short tenure as an interim champion back in 2019 and put that run with the moment when he evened the score with the Irish superstar as the high points of his long career. Now, for the first time in over 25 fights in the UFC, he had the leverage on the money fight and knew that McGregor was going to push for the third one over any other choice.
Passing on the trilogy fight would have opened a different path for Conor, full of options like Nate Diaz, Justin Gaethje and probably Jorge Masvidal. All of them with a higher PPV sell potential than Poirier versus any deserving lightweight contender (and there's no guarantee he would've won that fight, which would've been the ultimate disaster: no big purse, no title).
Poirier is confident that he's the best fighter in the division and that he will fight for the belt again sooner or later, but opportunities like this only come once, maybe twice in a lifetime.
A Conor McGregor event in Las Vegas is bigger than anything boxing can currently offer
Coppinger: Real. McGregor is the biggest star in combat sports at the moment. Canelo Alvarez is second, with Manny Pacquiao and heavyweight champ Tyson Fury right behind them.
Those three boxers are all major draws on The Strip, but none boasts the star power of McGregor, a genuine crossover attraction who takes over Vegas every time his fight week arrives.
His events instantly sell out, regardless of the competition. A fight with major underdog Cowboy Cerrone? Still a mega-event.
And now with Las Vegas emerging from the pandemic, who better than McGregor to be the first star to take advantage of full capacity?
That it's a trilogy fight with another popular fighter in Dustin Poirier makes the event even more monstrous.
And the stakes are high, as McGregor looks to rebound from his KO loss to Poirier in January. With another loss, McGregor will remain a star, but as far as the top fighter in Vegas, Alvarez is hot on his heels and eyeing a Sept. 18 bout with Caleb Plant in Vegas for all four belts.
The UFC made the right move in booking an interim heavyweight title fight
Okamoto: Not real. It was a puzzling decision by the UFC, and one that I think caught most of us off guard.
Ngannou took a long road to the UFC championship: He was basically a No. 1 contender for years but was forced to wait for his shot due to timing and circumstances out of his control. In all that time, he never got an opportunity to fight for an interim title -- but now, three months into his reign, the UFC creates one for Lewis and Gane?
This feels like a hard thing to justify. As far as how this all actually impacts him, it could be very minimal, really. Yeah, there will be an interim champ in his division come Aug. 7, but what does that even mean? No one will consider Lewis or Gane more of a champion than Ngannou. That winner will just essentially be a No. 1 contender.
There were two interim champions crowned during Khabib Nurmagomedov's reign as the UFC's lightweight champ, but did anyone ever consider his title to be something less than "undisputed"?
Frankly, I don't mind seeing Lewis and Gane make more money for their fight on Aug. 7, which they will now that it's for an interim title. So ultimately I think Ngannou will come away from this just fine. But if he feels the UFC disrespected him and what he's accomplished in making this decision, that's certainly valid -- and it doesn't feel like the UFC had to do it.
Instead of interim titles, the UFC should look to the BMF belt for inspiration
Wagenheim: No one is going to complain about being given the opportunity to watch Lewis and Gane throw punches at each other. And yet the booking of their Aug. 7 fight has created a windstorm of blowback from everyone from fans to media, promoters to managers. It's all about that damn interim belt.
The UFC clearly likes topping the marquee with a title fight, and if there's no champion available on a given date, the promotion sometimes just makes one up. At least that's the way it seems to us on the outside. And the problem with that business plan is that it distorts reality. Everyone knows that Ngannou is the greatest heavyweight in the world, so why must we pretend that someone else is champ?
Instead, put the imagination to more creative use. Think like Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz, who both understood the value of injecting their 2019 fight with a storyline bigger than themselves. The winner, they decided, would be the BMF. Fans loved the idea, and the UFC bought in by creating a belt. It was fun. It was lucrative.
Of course, there's only one BMF -- and only one Jorge and one Nate, for that matter. But sprinkled throughout the UFC's roster are fighters who aren't (yet) at a championship level but could be part of quirky "title" bouts that might resonate. Nicest MF. Ground-and-pound pound-for-pound. King of the leg kick. Gimmicky, I know, but this approach feels a lot more real than messing with weight class hierarchies. And a gimmick title can build its own narrative -- like, Lewis and Gane battling it out for the Third-Baddest Man on the Planet belt.