Conor McGregor returns to the octagon on Sunday in the headline bout at UFC 264 – a blockbuster trilogy clash with Dustin Poirier. With a sell-out crowd promised at T-Mobile Arena, here’s three of the main-card fights to most look out for in Las Vegas.
Dustin Poirier v Conor McGregor (lightweight bout)
Almost six months removed from their rematch in Abu Dhabi, which Poirier won via a blistering second-round TKO, the pair go up against one another again in the series decider.
For McGregor, who won their first encounter in 2014, the stakes are arguably much, much higher: the UFC’s biggest star has lost three of his past six outings in the promotion, and another defeat would in theory rule out a title shot any time soon.
McGregor rebounded brilliantly to his 2016 loss to Diaz and immediately got that back, but that was five years ago now. The Irishman, a former two-division champion, has competed in the UFC only four times since, and chalked up his January defeat to inactivity.
However, McGregor says he used his Dubai training base to refocus, and will surely have revised a gameplay to neutralise Poirer's punishing leg kicks from the rematch. In a peaking Poirier, he knows exactly what he’s getting: for many, the American is the finest lightweight around, even if Charles Oliveira currently holds the gold. Defeat McGregor again, and a championship match is next. Survive the first couple of rounds, and his rival’s famed explosive power, and Poirier will be in pole to end the trilogy victorious.
Gilbert Burns v Stephen Thompson (welterweight bout)
Sunday’s co-main event may have slipped somewhat under the radar, such is the hype and hullabaloo around McGregor, but it promises to be a cracker. Combining match-up intrigue and title repercussions, Burns views the bout as a chance for redemption, while Thompson realises there is an opportunity to take a sizeable step towards welterweight supremo Kamaru Usman.
In Burns’ case, he lost last time out, in February’s hugely emotional battle with his former teammate, when Usman came through an early scare to prevail by third-round TKO. Thompson, meanwhile, stands as the only legitimate contender to have not yet felt Usman’s wrath; yet, at 38 now, time seems to be running out for the impressive American.
Coming off two successive victories, “Wonderboy” boasts an accomplished 16-4-1 CV, with the draw coming in his two close calls against then-champion Tyron Woodley back in 2016 and 2017.
Stylistically, Burns-Thompson is set up brilliantly: the Brazilian’s sublime jiu-jitsu versus his opponent’s expert karate. Thompson is a master at controlling range; Burns, needing to find a way to close the space, can dominate on the ground. The bout should deliver plenty.
Sean O’Malley v Kris Moutinho (bantamweight)
OK, so O’Malley against original opponent Louis Smolka was a rather more exciting match-up, but any time “Sugar” steps into the octagon constitutes compulsive viewing. The American, 26, is unreservedly brash but typically backs it up, having first caught attention when he delivered a spectacular knockout on Dana White’s Contender Series 2 in 2017.
The unbeaten O’Malley quickly reeled off four victories in the UFC before Marlon Vera deadened his leg last August and burst his bubble. However, O'Malley has since consigned that to the past - he doesn't even acknowledge the reverse on his official record - defeating Thomas Almeida by third-round knockout in March. And so to Moutinho, a veteran of regional promotion CES MMA.
Smolka withdrew because of an infection, and while a number of fighters put their hands up for the chance to take down the outspoken star, O’Malley plumped for a UFC newcomer - much to everyone’s surprise. By agreeing to take on a promotional debutant, O’Malley (13-1) has everything to lose: defeat Moutinho, and it was an easy fight that he cherrypicked; suffer a shock loss, and his standing is nowhere at the level he claims it to be. Given his track record, only another stunning O'Malley knockout performance will suffice.