UFC 291: Seven biggest takeaways from a wild night in Salt Lake City

UFC 291: Lewis v de Lima
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

There must be something in the water in Utah, because the state keeps delivering highlights to remember. This time it was Justin Gaethje who blasted Dustin Poirier into orbit to claim the vacant BMF title at UFC 291, which took place Saturday at Delta Center in Salt Lake City. The monster finish headlined a wild night that also saw Alex Pereira announce his presence at 205 pounds, Derrick Lewis continue to be one of a kind, plus a whole lot more.

With so much to discuss, let’s dive into our seven biggest takeaways from UFC 291.

1. It is a beautiful irony that after Fight of the Year predictions dominated so much of the conversation heading into Saturday, it was three-time FOTY winner Justin Gaethje who actually stood up and said, ‘Nah you dum-dums, how about Knockout of the Year instead?’

Never forget: The more we think we know in MMA, the less we actually understand.

Just 11 months after Leon Edwards wrapped his foot around Kamaru Usman’s skull and nearly caused the Delta Center to burst into flames, history repeated itself all over again, this time with Gaethje exacting revenge on Dustin Poirier in a mirror image of Edwards’ famous kill shot at UFC 278. It was the finest highlight of Gaethje’s already electric career, one that instantly rocketed up the KOTY short list alongside Adesanya-Pereira 2 and Lawler-Price. It was also proof positive of what Gaethje and the wizard Trevor Wittman have been trying to tell us for a while now: This is no longer your mother’s version of “The Highlight.”

If the Gaethje who fell short to Poirier five years ago was Justin Gaethje version 1.0, and the Gaethje who tapped out in a more-competitive-than-you-remember fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov marked the best of Justin Gaethje 2.0, the beast who stands before us is a man reborn into his final form — a marauder who’s perfected his strengths and reined in his most frenzied weaknesses enough to be a genuine threat to anyone at 155 pounds.

Islam Makhachev vs. Charles Oliveira 2 may already be booked, but I suspect this fully-realized version of Gaethje 3.0 is the toughest stylistic test available to Makhachev of the current crop of top lightweights, Alexander Volkanovski notwithstanding. Conor McGregor of course tried to do Conor McGregor things and insert himself into the conversation, but if I’m on Gaethje’s team, I’m telling him to sit out and wait for the winner of UFC 294.

The more difficult (and interesting) question, to me at least, is what comes next for Poirier? The sight of Poirier’s unconscious body splayed out on the canvas had been a relatively foreign image at 155 pounds. Other than his Michael Johnson loss seven years ago, it really hadn’t happened until UFC 291. Poirier has always been one of the most durable fighters in the division, so at age 34, perhaps the wars are finally catching up to him. He certainly sounded like a man whose days are numbered at his post-fight presser, where he outright admitted his disinterest in facing many of the division’s up-and-coming names. If Poirier isn’t clamoring to face a top 5 fighter like Beneil Dariush at this stage, there’s zero chance he’s fighting an Arman Tsarukyan or Grant Dawson anytime soon just to do it.

“What am I fighting for?” Poirier said when asked about his future. “I’m not fighting just to fight. I did that my whole life. My whole life, I’ve done that. I don’t want to fight just to fight. I want it to be for something. And if it’s just another fight, you know…”

Then he just sort of shook his head.

That sort of reluctance is understandable considering the long road Poirier has traveled and the wealth he’s finally accrued in recent years, so realistically, only one name jumps out to me as the type of foe who may entice “The Diamond” to do this all over again: Nathan Diaz.

Diaz already made it apparent he’s down to return to the UFC after his one-off payday against Jake Paul. Does a world where Poirier-Diaz suddenly materializes on the schedule sometime in 2024 after Diaz re-signs with the promotion really sound too far-fetched?

I’m calling it now: Don’t be surprised if the next time we see Poirier in a cage, it’s against Stockton’s finest.

1b. Listen to this clip below and try to tell me Dustin Poirier isn’t someone to admire.

From his post-fight tweet to his demeanor at a post-fight press conference he very much didn’t need to attend, DP is consistently one of the classiest presences in pro sports.

We’re lucky to have this man in MMA.

2. Alex Pereira is speed-running a potential Hall of Fame UFC career in record time.

It’s really absurd when you think about it. Less than two years ago, this man was fighting (and struggling against) the immortal Andreas Michailidis as a fun curio on the undercard of UFC 268. Now he has a UFC belt hanging on his mantlepiece, is the only MMA middleweight to ever defeat Israel Adesanya, is one of only two light heavyweights to best Jan Blachowicz in the division’s post-Jones era, and is one win away from becoming just the eighth two-division champ in UFC history. That’d be a hell of a résumé for anyone, much less someone with just 10 MMA fights to their name who started this damn thing in their mid-30s.

But Pereira looked every ounce of a threat to the light heavyweight strap on Saturday. He dwarfed a former 205-pound champ, fended off five of Blachowicz’s eight takedown attempts, and even showcased impressive submission defense when thrust into a tough spot in the opening round. His growth from fight to fight continues to be remarkable.

Make no mistake: Pereira vs. Jiri Prochazka is the title fight this division deserves. That’s a FOTY contender on paper if I’ve ever seen one, two monstrous Tasmanian Devils who exude unpredictability and carry the Death Touch at all times, a matchup that screams chaos in the best possible way. At long last, the post-Jones malaise that befell 205 pounds may finally be over.

(It also very much feels as if some mystical forces are barrelling us toward an inevitable conclusion to the Adesanya-Pereira storyline, doesn’t it? This game works in mysterious ways, and right now seemingly every unseen power in MMA is conspiring to make a Return of the Jedi epic final chapter to one of the wildest and most unique UFC rivalries in recent memory. We’re just two results away from Adesanya vs. Pereira 3 for the 205-pound belt. That’s plenty left to go, but I’m just sayin’, the blood gods tend to get what the blood gods want.)

UFC 291: Blachowicz v Pereira
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

3. As he continues his agonizing march toward the reaper, it is a great tragedy that Tony Ferguson has so thoroughly come to represent the cruelty of the fight game.

“El Cucuy” used to be one of the most fun viewing experiences in pro sports. Now he can’t walk into an arena without a thick sense of dread looming over the air, accompanied by acceptance that whatever we’re about to see is likely going to get pretty ugly. Combine that with the fact that Ferguson already was the quintessential tragic figure of his era, a man who strung together one of the longest win streaks in UFC history yet never fought for a real title due to a variety of existential factors outside of his control — timing, bad management, the McGregorification of the game, and supernaturally awful luck — and we’re seeing a profoundly sad portrait get painted of one of the greatest lightweights to ever do it.

Saturday night against Bobby Green was no different. At UFC 291, Ferguson looked old, slow, and painfully in need of a next chapter. This is nearing a worst-case example for the plight of the fallen legend who’s destined to hang on too long, someone who embodies the “this guy is going to be the last one around himself to understand this is over” trope that’s plagued combat sports since the beginning of time. It’s all just one giant bummer.

I don’t know if this is the nadir of the Tony Ferguson experience. I hope it is. At age 39, I hope he can be convinced to walk away, the UFC can matchmake him a winnable fight to depart on, and he can experience the Robbie Lawler treatment and get his flowers before he moves on to whatever’s next, because El Cucuy deserves that. He deserves to feel that love after the many gifts he’s given to this sport. I just don’t believe that’s going to happen, if only because Ferguson has always struck me as the type of person who’s going to ground himself into dust and ignore the obvious signs out of sheer stubborn self-belief.

There’s no other way to say it: everything about this sucks.

4. Speaking of depressing, what the heck happened to Michael Chiesa? At some point, the two-and-a-half minutes he lasted against Kevin Holland at UFC 291 became one of the more bizarre performances we’ve seen all year. Chiesa looked lost in a way that was alarming. He’s a tremendous analyst and has a bright future ahead of him in the broadcast booth, so at least Chiesa has the fallback of knowing he’ll be part of the UFC for years to come. But let’s also not ship him off to the old folks’ home just yet. I’m willing to hand a mulligan to anyone coming off a two-year layoff. At age 35, his next fight should be more telling.

Holland jumping back up to 185, though? Not a huge fan. We’ve already seen those bigger wrestlers aren’t going to be any easier for him than the opportunities at 170 pounds.

5. Robbie Lawler may have set the table for a memorable July by pulling off The Greatest Retirement of All-Time — but y’all, Derrick Lewis just delivered us a full-course meal with all the fixings with The Greatest Free Agency Announcement In The History Of Organized Sports.

I’m still in awe.

In a span of a minute, “The Black Beast” flying kneed a man into oblivion, snatched the all-time record for UFC knockouts, ripped off his fight shorts, chucked his cup into the Salt Lake City crowd, fired off at least 20 DX Crotch Chops, then announced his services as available to hire for the highest bidder. Five stars. A+. Ten out of 10. No notes. What a hero.

(Not bad for a 38-year-old who had plenty of people calling for his retirement heading into Saturday night, eh?)

Lewis reiterated in his post-fight presser that he wants to remain a UFC fighter, and that’s not surprising. The promotion obviously will want him back. But allow me a moment, if you will, to pitch a superior two-step plan for “The Black Beast” rather than just re-signing so he can rematch Marcin Tybura at a random UFC APEX event. If you’re a fading name with this sudden burst of momentum, why not just scoot over to the PFL and secure that $2 million bag for a one-off to rematch Francis Ngannou? Sure, their first fight sucked, but Ngannou vs. Lewis 2 is easily one of the biggest bouts PFL can make with its new prized heavyweight. And then? Once Lewis is rolling in cash? He can finally fulfill his destiny by becoming the most natural fit to ever grace the bare-knuckle boxing ring! Just think about it. There isn’t a big man alive more built for the BKFC than Mr. Swang and Bang. We could watch Lewis nuke 5-foot-9 hairy fat guys with those big ol’ meat paws for the next five years!

It probably won’t happen, but it’d be a lot cooler if it did.

6. Prior to this past week, the last time Stephen Thompson’s opponent badly missed weight was in 2018, when Darren Till came in 3.5 pounds heavy in what was essentially a welterweight title eliminator at UFC Liverpool. Thompson is one of the nicest individuals in combat sports and the quintessential company man, so he accepted the fight regardless.

Do you remember what happened next? “Wonderboy” lost a controversial decision that screamed home cooking even in the most generous framing, then watched as Till waltzed into a title fight and suffered zero consequences for his unprofessionalism. That was five years ago and Thompson hasn’t come close to sniffing a title eliminator since.

So you can see where he was coming from on Friday when Thompson’s PTSD kicked in and he refused to give a 174-pound Michel Pereira the same leeway at UFC 291.

“This isn’t a video game,” he wrote in a statement. “Both of us are putting our health and our careers on the line.

“Fighters who miss weight face far too few consequences and are often allowed to fight with a significant competitive advantage. This appears to be happening more and more these days. Hopefully the decision to not move forward with the fight will discourage others from missing weight in the future. I also hope to encourage fighters that face this situation to follow suit and not allow this to happen to them.”

Thompson did his job. He invested into a three-month training camp. He left his family and flew to Salt Lake City. He fulfilled each and every fight week obligation and hit his contracted weight of 170.5 pounds at Friday’s weigh-ins. He signed a contract to fight at welterweight, not middleweight. At age 41, his window as a contender is quite literally one loss away from slamming shut for good. Thompson knows that, so he made a stand and refused to reward unprofessionalism. And what did the NMF reportedly get for his 11 years of being nothing but a company man? Nada. Zilch. A big fat zero in his bank account. The guy who made weight and actually showed up reportedly didn’t earn his “show” money.

It’s not as if paying “Wonderboy” for his professionalism would’ve broken the bank — UFC 291’s budget already allocated out show purses for both fighters. But no, Thompson’s options for fulfilling his contractual duties were seemingly either: A) Don’t get paid; or B) Fight with a disadvantage at an age where he can’t afford to lose a fight. If the UFC wants to set the precedent that fighters have to fight even when their opponents try to game the system, that’s how you do it. It’d all be depressing if it wasn’t so damn unsurprising.

But hey, he can always take solace in the inevitable story next February about how his bosses generated record revenues for parent company Endeavor in 2023, I suppose.

7. Bear with me here … but … Priscila Cachoeira, the Rousimar Palhares of this generation?

At worst, she’s officially claimed the Paul Harris Championship Belt as MMA’s new dirtiest fighter, no?

Who knew so many prestige titles would be handed out at UFC 291?

UFC 291: Ceremonial Weigh-in
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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