Storylines: Makhachev’s next big test and new glove debut

A little over a month ago, fans witnessed one of the most dynamic fight cards in the history of mixed martial arts. That festive night was a hard act to follow, so it’s fair to say the sport has been experiencing a bit of a UFC 300 hangover.

But this weekend brings a gentle antidote.

UFC 302, which goes down Saturday in Newark, New Jersey (ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m. ET), is nowhere near as stacked from top to bottom as April’s milestone event, but the headline attraction is as good as it gets. The pound-for-pound king, Islam Makhachev, will defend his lightweight championship against a longtime luminary of the weight class, Dustin Poirier. It’s a fight that needs no added selling points but nonetheless has one: Poirier, at age 35, will likely be making his final bid for gold.

While UFC 302 doesn’t boast wall-to-wall star power, there’s intrigue up and down the fight lineup. Here are some storylines that we will get to see play out.

Just getting started vs. a possible grand finale

Lightweight championship: Islam Makhachev (c) vs. Dustin Poirier

It would be foolhardy to claim that Makhachev (25-1) has had it easy during his 20-month reign with the 155-pound belt. His first title defense, after all, came against the consensus No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter at the time. But while Alexander Volkanovski was a fellow champion, he reigned in a division 10 pounds south at featherweight. Their February 2023 superfight was tightly contested, and when Makhachev got the judges’ nod, that boosted him up to the P4P peak. Eight months later, in a rematch, he solidified his top-shelf status by knocking out Volkanovski in the first round.

Both were big-time performances, but now it’s time for Makhachev, winner of 13 fights in a row, to finally fight someone his own size. And there’s a long line of fearsome 155-pounders assembled behind Poirier, waiting for their crack at the belt.

Poirier (30-8, 1 NC) is fully appreciative of the preciousness of this opportunity, because he’s been here before. In 2019, he challenged Khabib Nurmagomedov, a longtime friend and training partner of Makhachev, for the lightweight belt and lost by submission. Two years later, in a second attempt at the title, Poirier was tapped out by Charles Oliveira. Those defeats along with last year’s knockout at the hands — shin to head, actually — of Justin Gaethje led to UFC matchmakers casting Poirier in a gatekeeper role. “The Diamond” responded by slamming the gate in the face of rising young contender Benoît Saint Denis in March. That knockout earned Poirier this one last shot.

Poirier has not come out and said this is his final fight, but he has questioned whether he’d have the will to build another championship run if he falls short this time. And if Saturday sees him finally succeed at making it to the very top of the sport, might he take his belt and go home — for good? If he does walk off into the sunset, Poirier will leave behind a memorable legacy not at all defined by the two failed title shots. He won an interim belt in 2019 and owns victories over several who have worn UFC championship straps: Anthony Pettis, Eddie Alvarez, Max Holloway and Conor McGregor twice. Poirier already has done himself and his sport proud, but Saturday could be a glorious culmination.

A sizable step down

Heavyweight: Jailton Almeida vs. Alexandr Romanov

Losing is not the end of the world in MMA. Unlike in boxing, where the young careers of potential contenders are carefully curated, cage fighters seldom remain unblemished for long. Losses are part of the game. And yet there are consequences.

For Almeida (20-3), a knockout defeat to Curtis Blaydes in March was a momentum stopper. Before his six-year, 15-fight winning streak ended in a fight that Almeida was winning right up until he wasn’t, the big Brazilian appeared to be close to the front of the line among heavyweights. (That’s a dubious place to be, of course, with the queue at a standstill thanks to a Jon Jones injury and the UFC’s insistence on having “Bones” return against an out-of-mothballs Stipe Miocic.) After Almeida’s loss, matchmaking priorities seemed to shift.

Almeida originally was slated to face fellow top-10 heavyweight Alexander Volkov on this card, but Volkov was moved to a June 22 matchup with fellow contender Sergei Pavlovich. Almeida was rebooked with Romanov, who has lost two of his last three fights, including a first-round KO by Volkov. Romanov (17-2) is several rungs down the ladder, but he’s no pushover as a grappler. Almeida has work to do.

Can Holland steal the show once again?

Middleweight: Kevin Holland vs. Michal Oleksiejczuk

Some fighters are fan favorites because of their greatness as competitors, but others are crowd pleasers simply because of how they fight, win or lose. Robbie Lawler and the recently retired Matt Brown come to mind. Nick and Nate Diaz, too. Conor McGregor, even setting aside all the prefight razzmatazz, is entertaining in the way he performs inside the cage.

Holland belongs somewhere in that group, and I’m sure he would tell us so, whether or not we ask. The man loves to talk, not in the fake trashy verbiage we usually hear in MMA, but in endearingly daft running commentaries during his fights that make me wish the broadcast analysts would shush for a minute and let me listen to the guy Dana White calls “Big Mouth.” White is among those Holland has been known to talk to while the UFC boss is sitting cageside, and the same goes for the cageside announcers (“DC, where’s my wrestling advice at?”).

And let’s not forget what Holland can pull off as a fighter. His 2020 knockout of “Jacare” Souza — from a seated position — is one of the most astounding finishes in UFC history. At other times, Holland looks lost in there. His results are inconsistent, but this guy is always worth watching.

Bite victim is back for a fight

Men’s flyweight: Mitch Raposo vs. Andre Lima

The last time we saw Lima, he won his UFC debut in one of the strangest results ever. He and a fellow undefeated debutant, Igor Severino, were locked in an all-action scrap in March when, during a clinch against the cage, Lima suddenly recoiled and motioned to the referee. Severino had bit him on the upper arm, leaving behind clear evidence in the form of teeth marks. Severino was disqualified disqualified by the ref and released by the UFC.

Lima (8-0) returns Saturday, opening the show against Raposo (9-1). Originally, Lima was booked to face a fighter from the “Road to UFC” show, who then was replaced by a different competitor from the promotion’s Asian talent search series. Finally, just last week, Raposo was brought on. One might say finding an opponent for Lima was like pulling teeth. Sorry.

Will the glove get love?

UFC 302 will be the formal debut of new fighter gloves, which the promotion announced last month were designed to, among other things, reduce the number of eye pokes.

Although any foul inside the cage can be a game changer, eye pokes are especially problematic, in that their lingering effect can rob fighters of the vision necessary to defend themselves for the rest of a bout. A 2021 study by researchers led by a Yale ophthalmologist found that MMA fighters who sustain an eye injury in the first round go on to lose 74% of the time. Not all of those eye injuries are the result of pokes, of course, but anecdotally we have seen many fight results directly impacted by a finger in the eye. A 2022 study by the Association of Ringside Physicians found that eye pokes occurred in 10% of UFC bouts.

The new glove was tested covertly in “Dana White’s Contender Series” fights, but now the UFC is providing a true proving ground. Will the redesign be a success?

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