Will Dustin Poirier-Dan Hooker winner get UFC title shot, or maybe Conor McGregor?

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Dustin Poirier versus Dan Hooker certainly has fight fans amped for UFC Fight Night on Saturday.

The main event pits two ferocious strikers who, with a victory, will at least remain in the title hunt in a loaded lightweight division. Once interim champ Justin Gaethje and world titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov unify the title — which UFC president Dana White has said will happen later this summer — the pecking order for next up will include Tony Ferguson and the omnipresent Conor McGregor, despite his retirement announcement a few weeks ago. Saturday’s winner also will be firmly in the mix.

The co-main event on Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas is an intriguing welterweight bout between Mike Perry and Mickey Gall. Making things even more interesting: Perry said he will go into this fight without a coach in his corner.

ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim will address this weekend’s biggest fights and more.

What’s at stake in the main event?

Helwani: First off, it’s a phenomenal main event pitting two of the best lightweights on the planet. I really think, given their styles, that this has potential to be one of the best fights of 2020. That should be good enough. In terms of what is at stake, it isn’t very cut-and-dried because as long as Khabib Nurmagomedov is the lightweight champion, I don’t think Poirier is getting a rematch anytime soon. As long as Conor McGregor is out there, I don’t think Hooker is jumping the Gaethje-McGregor-Ferguson queue to Nurmagomedov. So although a title shot or even a No. 1 contender spot isn’t at stake, a potential fight against Tony Ferguson is. Who wouldn’t want to see Poirier or Hooker fight Ferguson? Yes, I know Ferguson is coming off a loss, but I think the winner of this fight would be in line to fight him more than the loser. Side note: The UFC recently broached the subject of Ferguson fighting the streaking Charles Oliveira, I’m told, but there doesn’t appear to be much interest there. I can see there being more interest on Ferguson’s part to fight a Poirier/Hooker winner, especially if the winner looks really good.

Murphy: Slips when climbing the lightweight ladder lead to longer falls than in any other division. Since a loss plummets either fighter to the back half of the top 10, let’s take the glass-half-full approach and analyze avenues after a win. If Poirier wins, he should root for Gaethje against Nurmagomedov. Remember, Gaethje was handed his most recent loss at Poirier’s hands. If Gaethje loses the title unification bout, maybe we’ll finally get the elusive Khabib defense against Tony Ferguson. That leaves two big-money, top-contender rematches for Poirier: against Gaethje or calling McGregor out of retirement.

Hooker’s incentive is similar, and his hit list looks better by the week. Wins over Gilbert Burns and Jim Miller are objectively more impressive now than they were in 2018. With what would make eight wins in nine fights since his move up to lightweight, Hooker stares down a title shot, a No. 1 contender fight against Ferguson or — if Khabib beats Gaethje and moves on to Ferguson this winter — a rebound matchup for Gaethje in a cable main event.

Okamoto: A lot, actually. On the surface, it feels hard to quantify. Do I think the winner of Saturday’s fight will earn a UFC title shot? I don’t. Poirier just fought for a championship, and I don’t think one win would get him back into that spot. As good as Hooker has been, I don’t see it in his near future, either. The UFC has made it pretty clear that it would like to see McGregor in a lightweight title fight sooner than later — and there’s nothing Poirier or Hooker can do this weekend to change that (as long as McGregor and the UFC get on the same page). That said, there’s a lot at stake. The winner will be very, very relevant in the title picture. The winner will get some type of high-profile bout next, both in opponent and in card replacement. The loser won’t be guaranteed that. In a division that is crowded with big names and elite talent, any loss is going to really, really hurt one’s stature. It might seem like there isn’t much for these two to gain in this fight, but there is plenty for them to lose.

Wagenheim: Let’s do the math. This fight pits No. 4 in ESPN’s lightweight rankings against No. 5. With Nurmagomedov and Gaethje — Nos. 1 and 2 — expected to meet for the belt within the next few months and third-ranked Ferguson coming off a loss to Gaethje, this weekend’s main event is ostensibly a No. 1 contender showdown. That might not hold true for Poirier because he lost to Nurmagomedov just nine months ago. If Gaethje wins the belt, though, Saturday’s winner should be first in line for a title shot. Of course, UFC matchmakers do sometimes act like doormen at a chichi uptown nightclub, ignoring the queue and opening the velvet rope for the nouveau riche. Earnings trump earning it.

Should Conor McGregor fight Dustin Poirier if Poirier wins?

Helwani: I’ve never gotten the feeling that McGregor has much interest in running it back with Poirier, for the same reason that he has never wanted to run it back with Jose Aldo: His victories over both men were so quick and clean that it would be very hard for him to top those initial performances. I get it. There’s no real upside there for McGregor. However, these are weird times. McGregor is frustrated and really wants to fight again. Heck, he really wants at least two more fights in 2020 because that was his plan all along. What if Poirier looks phenomenal on Saturday and calls out McGregor? Could I see a scenario in which that fires up McGregor? Sure. I think it’s a long shot that fight happens next, but crazier things have happened.

Murphy: A win by Poirier opens a pair of appealing, career-making options. That’s what happens when you knock off a top-five opponent in the sport’s deepest division.

After beating Hooker, the first thing Poirier needs to do is grab the mic — or backstage headset, I guess — and cut a McGregor promo. The Irishman presents a money rematch unlike any Poirier has seen, and Poirier needs to seize that opportunity. The second thing Poirier should do is buy a Gaethje fight kit and cheer his lungs out for Nurmagomedov to taste defeat for the first time in the lightweight title unification bout. Then, Poirier needs to go into his drafts folder and start firing off highlights from his handing Gaethje an “L” in 2018. Something like, “This you?” and a video of referee Herb Dean peeling Poirier off a staggered, stumbling Gaethje should do. Give the matchmakers two options: PPV gold or UFC gold.

Okamoto: Through what lens are we answering this question? From a competitive standpoint? Absolutely. McGregor doesn’t deserve a lightweight title shot in his next bout, if we’re going strictly by wins and losses. It would be great to see him against another top-five lightweight to solidify that shot. But if we’re viewing it from McGregor’s point of view, should he fight Poirier? Of course not. Why? He already has a title shot if he wants it, and he has already knocked Poirier out. As much as I love Poirier and would argue that he is one of the most entertaining fighters in the sport, McGregor could make a lot more money fighting someone else, such as Nate Diaz or Jorge Masvidal. What would McGregor’s reason be to fight Poirier? I don’t see one.

Wagenheim: If retirement were once again a ruse and McGregor is up for a fight, I seriously doubt he’ll want Poirier. He has already defeated Dustin, and look at Conor’s track record when it comes to rematches. He fought a redo against Diaz, and he remains in hot pursuit of one against Nurmagomedov. What do those two men have in common? They beat McGregor. Conor is fueled by unwavering self-belief, and he could not let those losses go. By contrast, he has shown no interest in a rematch with Poirier, Aldo or Max Holloway. McGregor scaled those mountains and is not motivated to retrace his steps.

For Poirier, the opportunity to avenge a 6-year-old loss while earning a life-changing payday might sway him in the direction of McGregor rather than an earned title shot. But good luck getting Conor to take that fight. Here’s an outside-the-box scenario that would not shock me: If Nurmagomedov were to lose the belt, I could envision McGregor pushing for a Khabib rematch rather than a title shot against Gaethje. I believe Conor wants that mulligan more than anything else.

What do you make of Mike Perry?

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Scoop Jackson describes how UFC welterweight Mike Perry is the human embodiment of his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Order UFC 245 on ESPN: https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.

Helwani: He’s an interesting guy, no doubt. Here are a few things you can’t deny: Perry is rarely, if ever, in a boring fight. Unfortunately for him, though, he doesn’t always win those fights. He is currently on a two-fight losing streak, but we all know MMA fans don’t get hung up on details such as that, unlike boxing fans. As long as you entertain, MMA fans will support you. Heck, some of the most popular fighters ever — Randy Couture, Nathan Diaz, BJ Penn — have double-digit losses on their records. The problem with Perry is that sometimes he can offend, too. He’s quite polarizing online and has no filter. That can certainly turn people off. I’m all for fun, eccentric characters, but there’s always a line. I don’t want to see him cross that line ever. Also, is he really going to have his new girlfriend corner him for this fight, as he recently proclaimed? I asked him last week, and he said yes. If so, that would be very unique … and very Mike Perry.

Murphy: Platinum normally doesn’t tarnish. But we’re a long way from the shiny “Platinum” Mike Perry who rattled off four knockout wins in his first five UFC appearances. This Mike Perry is 2-5 in his past seven fights. This Mike Perry has made headlines for insensitive antics more than indelible Octagon moments. Being a heel is difficult; very few fighters have done it well. In an unscripted sport, effective villainy is an art. Perry is out there sculpting with a shovel.

Perry is an incredibly tough, captivating, stand-up fighter who entered the promotion on a dead sprint. A loss Saturday could leave his UFC career dead in the water. If Perry turns back the clock three years — and tones it down on social media — the welterweight division could add another must-watch fighter to its menu.

Okamoto: Say anything you want about Perry — he has definitely opened himself to justified criticism in the past — but I find him entertaining. I don’t think he’s a future UFC champion, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Perry “moves the needle,” as they say. He gives you a reason to watch, and I find him to be an honest individual. He isn’t cheesy, and he isn’t really putting on a show. He turns his personality up a bit when the cameras are on, but I get the feeling that what you see is what you get, which I appreciate. When this fight came together, I saw reactions on both sides of the spectrum. I saw, “Perry is going to knock Mickey Gall’s head off,” and I saw, “Perry has no chance against Gall’s ground game.” I have no idea which side is right. That makes for an intriguing fight.

Wagenheim: Perry’s recent proclamation that he is finished working with coaches and that for Saturday’s fight he will have only his girlfriend in his corner “to pass me the bottle of water,” as he told MMA Junkie, sounds ill-advised and even self-destructive. I wish Perry nothing but the best, but I say that while cringing.

Other than the main event, which fight intrigues you the most?

Helwani: I’ll go with Perry vs. Gall. For a few reasons: Again, will Perry really use his girlfriend as a corner person? If so, what is that going to be like between rounds? Also, what kind of shape is he in? Conversely, I still don’t feel like we’ve seen the best Gall has to offer, and this could be a chance for him to come up big in a big spot. If that one feels too obvious, I’ll go with Luis Pena vs. Khama Worthy. Pena looked good in his most recent fight — his first as a member of American Top Team — and Worthy has won six in a row, including his upset win over Devonte Smith in his UFC debut in August, which just so happens to be the last time we saw him in action. I like that fight a lot.

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“Violent Bob Ross” Luis Pena lands a devastating flying knee to the head of Matt Frevola in Round 2. For more UFC, sign up for ESPN+: http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

Murphy: Pena came through “The Ultimate Fighter” house as a heralded lightweight prospect and — despite an injury-abbreviated run on the series — lived up to the billing in his sanctioned UFC debut, winning by first-round guillotine. Two years on, the only blemishes on Pena’s record are a pair of split-decision losses, the most recent of which against Matt Frevola was an absolute coin flip.

Pena is a massive lightweight, standing 6-foot-3, with a diverse array of strikes and aptitude on the mat. If the 26-year-old can shore up his takedown defense, he could be a lightweight Yair Rodriguez. But that 155-pound division is unforgiving and has no need to excuse close losses at a certain point. The task at hand Saturday, Worthy, is one of the rare opponents whose reach rivals Pena’s. This showing could shift whether Pena gets a number next to his name or sinks further down the prelims.

Okamoto: I like Pena vs. Worthy. Pena has been busy in the UFC. This is his fourth fight in 12 months. It seems like he has been here for a minute, but he’s only 26. He has trained at American Kickboxing Academy and American Top Team. He’s huge for the division, which I think we comment on every time he fights, but damn if it isn’t true. Worthy had an absolutely incredible UFC debut last year, when he accepted a short-notice fight against a highly touted prospect in Devonte Smith and knocked him out in the first round. This matchup won’t impact the top-10 rankings, but it’s a fun fight.

Wagenheim: It’s slim pickings this weekend, honestly, especially with Aspen Ladd dropping off the card. But I am intrigued by the lightweight prelim between Pena and Worthy. Pena’s dynamic fighting style elevates his fan appeal well beyond his simply having the best nickname in MMA (“Violent Bob Ross”). Worthy made a big splash in his UFC debut in August, scoring a first-round knockout in a fight in which he was a 5-1 underdog. I’ll tune in early for those guys.

What’s your bold prediction for Saturday?

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Mickey Gall and Salim Touhari battle on the feet in the third round of their bout at UFC Fight Night. For more UFC, sign up for ESPN+: http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

Helwani: The easiest prediction to make is that Poirier vs. Hooker will be an amazing fight, but that doesn’t seem very bold, now does it? How about: Perry vs. Gall will be weird in some way, shape or form? No? How about: Gian Villante won’t stick around at heavyweight after this? Nah. OK, I’ll go with: Poirier vs. Hooker won’t end in a finish. It’ll go the distance. Final answer.

Murphy: We’ve seen a diminishing finish rate in each of the past three events at the UFC Apex facility, particularly among more experienced fighters on main cards. It’s a surprising trend in the smaller Octagon, and I think it will stop in this final Apex event until August.



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