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“The Diamond’s” last stand.

After a rare week off, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will return to the pay-per-view (PPV) market for the upcoming UFC 302 mixed martial arts (MMA) extravaganza, locked and loaded for this Sat. night (June 1, 2024) inside Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Nicknamed “The Rock,” the Prudential Center is located on Lafayette street and headliner Dustin Poirier — who challenges lightweight champion Islam Makhachev for the 155-pound strap, hails from Lafayette, Louisiana.

Coincidence … or fate?

We’ll find out when the cage door closes for their five-round main event tomorrow night in “The Garden State.” Before that championship showdown gets underway, former middleweight champion, Sean Strickland, looks to punch his ticket to the next 185-pound title shot by punching one-time title challenger Paulo Costa. “The Eraser” has dropped three of his last four and needs a big performance this weekend in Newark to keep himself afloat in the division title chase. Kevin Holland, Jailton Almeida, and Randy Brown round out the UFC 302 main card, streaming live on ESPN+ PPV.

Who wins and who loses? Let’s try to figure that out below.

155 lbs.: UFC Lightweight Champion Islam Makhachev (25-1) vs. Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier (30-8, 1 NC)

Win or lose, former interim lightweight champion Dustin Poirier is already one of the greatest fighters in the history of the division, and perhaps any division, after a remarkable career that started with an upset victory over then-Uber prospect Josh Grispi at UFC 125 all the way back in early 2011.

In the 13 years that followed, “The Diamond” racked up 22 wins, 15 finishes, 14 post-fight performance bonuses, and 13 main events — seven of which were pay-per-view (PPV). How many times has Poirier been in a boring fight? And we’re not talking about a recent hot streak or late career resurgence, the former featherweight has been racking up $50,000 bonus checks since 2012 (go watch his war against “Korean Zombie” on Fuel TV).

That body of work is why Poirier is fighting for the lightweight title, though he did get a little help from No. 1-ranked title contender, Arman Tsarukyan, who passed on the UFC 302 headliner to focus on recovering from his Charles Oliveira win at UFC 300. Poirier’s last attempt at securing the 155-pound strap ended with a submission loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 242, which is one of many reasons why I’m not feeling overly-optimistic about his chances against Islam Makhachev.

Makhachev is essentially a carbon copy of Nurmagomedov, which is not surprising when you consider they’ve been training partners for most of their careers. In addition, “The Eagle” will be coaching and cornering Makhachev against Poirier and will likely feed him the same blueprint that worked at UFC 242. That’s really the unfortunate part of this fight, at least for Poirier fans, because everyone knows what’s coming — including “The Diamond” — and there’s not a whole lot Poirier can do to stop it.

Makhachev is tied for first place in the lightweight division with a 12-fight winning streak. In addition, he places fourth all time in takedown accuracy (61.2%) and second in takedown defense (90.9%). Poirier is a good offensive wrestler thanks to the tutelage of head coach Mike Brown but his defense remains a liability. Even if you discount his performance against Nurmagomedov, where Poirier was taken down seven times before getting submitted, he was still outwrestled by Benoit Saint-Denis, Michael Chandler, and Dan Hooker by a mark of 10-1. Safe to say that Poirier is getting dragged to the canvas at some point this weekend in “The Garden State.”

Jump the gilly!!!!

Poirier is the better boxer and holds the advantage for as long as this fight remains upright. He doesn’t have Conor McGregor’s left hand of doom, but can usually do enough damage with his combinations to melt his opponents. In order for that to become a reality at UFC 302, the bigger and heavier (post-hydration) Makhachev has to stay in the pocket long enough to make himself vulnerable, or somehow go rogue like Nurmagomedov did against Al Iaquinta at UFC 223. Possible, but not plausible, and I would be surprised if this fight made it out of the second round.

Prediction: Makhachev def. Poirier by submission


185 lbs.: Sean “Tarzan” Strickland (28-6) vs. Paulo “The Eraser” Costa (14-3)

This marks the first fight for Sean Strickland following his UFC 297 loss to Dricus Du Plessis, a judges’ decision that cost “Tarzan” the 185-pound title. Strickland is convinced he won the fight; but if we’re being honest, it wasn’t his best performance. It kind of reminded me of Steven Seagal slapping up Rafael Cavalcante at the UFC 148 open workouts. Strickland has gone to a decision in seven of his last 10 fights and earned the label “Mr. APEX” for his recurring Vegas headliners on ESPN+.

Strickland was seen as that guy with just enough name value to headline a “Fight Night” card, but not enough pizazz (or perhaps not enough mental stability) to anchor a major pay-per-view (PPV) lineup. That all changed with his career performance against former middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, a short-notice fight that was gift wrapped by the vacationing Du Plessis in summer 2023. Whether or not Strickland remains an integral part of the promotion’s PPV plans moving forward likely rests on his output in the UFC 302 co-main event, which could turn out to be a complete dud — or one of the best fights of the year.

That all depends on opponent Paulo Costa, who falls somewhere between Strickland and Chael Sonnen on the middleweight sanity scale. The Brazilian appears to be just as unbalanced as “Tarzan,” based on his social media shtick, but is far more charming and hasn’t threatened to murder anyone (yet). Costa finds himself in a must-win situation after dropping three of his last four, especially when you consider his only victory since summer 2019 came over Luke Rockhold. The former Ralph Lauren model left UFC after losing three straight, only to get his face rearranged by Mike Perry under the BKFC banner.

Costa, who is the same age as Strickland at 33, has a muscular frame and hits with power, but will be at a distinct disadvantage on fight night. While he’s just as tall as Strickland at 6’1”, he gives up four inches in reach to an opponent who actually knows how to use the jab — and use it well. How “The Eraser” deals with said jab will determine the outcome of this contest. The bad news, at least for Costa fans, is that Strickland is also a pretty good wrestler. If the Brazilian can eat a couple of shots and bulldoze his way into the pocket, much like Du Plessis did at UFC 297, he’s got a pretty good chance of winning. If not, get ready for 15 minutes of Brazilian Whac-A-Mole.

Prediction: Strickland def. Costa by decision


185 lbs.: Kevin “Trailblazer” Holland (25-11, 1 NC) vs. Michal “Hussar” Oleksiejczuk (19-7, 1 NC)

It’s been six years and 22 fights since Kevin Holland made his debut on Dana White’s “Contender Series” back in June 2018, locking up a UFC contract with a unanimous decision victory over Will Santiago Jr. to kickoff Season 2. Holland has oscillated between welterweight and middleweight and currently holds the No. 15 spot in the 170-pound rankings. There’s no question Holland is talented. He’s got slick submissions and hits with power. I just wonder if he’s fully committed to making a run at the title or just here to whoop some ass and cash those checks. His in-cage antics and out-of-cage frustrations would seem to support the latter.

Holland has dropped four of his last six and outside of his Jack Della Maddalena split, the 31 year-old “Trailblazer” did not look competitive in any of his losses, including the Michael Page fight at UFC 299 back in March. That said, Holland is rarely in a boring fight, having racked up seven post-fight performance bonuses, which includes his “Fight of the Night” against Stephen Thompson at UFC Orlando to close out his 2022 fight campaign. Expect more of the same this weekend in “The Garden State,” though part of me can’t help but wonder how that now-fizzled Nick Diaz fight would have turned out.

Michal Oleksiejczuk got off to a rocky start in his UFC career, earning a unanimous decision victory over Khalil Rountree Jr. at UFC 219, only to see the win overturned after testing positive for clomiphene, a banned estrogen blocker typically used in conjunction with performance-enhancing drugs (previously surfacing in cases involving Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar). Following a one-year suspension, Oleksiejczuk returned at UFC Prague and blew the doors off Gian Villante, then flattened Gadzhimurad Antigulov with a one-punch knockout at UFC St. Petersburg. Since then he’s been … well, nothing special.

Oleksiejczuk is 5-5 across his last 10 and coming off a submission loss to Michel Pereira at UFC 299. The 29 year-old Pole has 14 knockouts in 19 wins and will no doubt be looking to land heavy leather against Holland. Unfortunately, the shorter “Hussar” will need to somehow overcome a staggering seven-inch disadvantage in reach. Holland doesn’t have the best takedown defense but Oleksiejczuk is a below-average wrestler and may not have the chops to exploit it. I would expect Holland to spend a good portion of this contest styling on Oleksiejczuk, picking his spots while the former Thunderstrike Fight League headliner chases him around the cage, winging power shots in frustration and leaving himself open to a “Trailblazer” counterattack.

Prediction: Holland def. Oleksiejczuk by submission


265 lbs.: Jailton “Malhadinho” Almeida (20-3) vs. Alexandr “King Kong” Romanov (17-2)

Jailton Almeida quickly established himself as one of the most dominating heavyweights in the division, capturing a submission victory over Nasrudin Nasrudinov on Dana White’s “Contender Series” before rattling off six straight wins with five nasty finishes. That includes back-to-back nods over feared strikers Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Derrick Lewis. That said, “Malhadinho” did not win any new fans with his grapple-heavy approach to the “Black Beast” decision at UFC Sao Paulo, which came after five rounds of tepid action punctuated by six unanswered takedowns.

That same approach served him equally well against the notoriously durable Curtis Blaydes; however, “Razor” sliced through a second-round takedown attempt to finish the fight with hammerfists of doom. The loss dropped Almeida to No. 7 in the official UFC rankings but let’s not forget this is the same heavyweight who racked up three straight performance bonuses within a span of eight months, so let’s not do that MMA thing and jump ship after a pair of less-than-spectacular outings.

Alexandr Romanov migrated to UFC in late 2020 after an impressive career on the International circuit, most notably for Eagles Fighting Championship in Moldova. Like Almeida, the Moldovan bruiser jumped out to a perfect 5-0 start with four violent finishes and seemed destined for greatness at 265 pounds. Then came heavyweight spoiler Marcin Tybura, who was able to shut Romanov down across three rounds of action at UFC 278. A couple of months later, “King Kong” tried to climb his way back to the top, only to get blasted right back into the loss column at the hands of Russian stalwart Alexander Volkov. Fortunately, matchmakers gave him an easy layup in the form of Blagoy Ivanov, allowing Romanov to register a decision win and get his confidence back at UFC Vegas 76.

Against Almeida, Romanov will be at a disadvantage in both height and reach and more importantly, in strength. The fact that Almeida was able to rag-doll a wrestler with Blaydes’ credentials should give you an idea of his grappling prowess and in six trips to the Octagon, “Malhadinho” has out-wrestled his opponents 25-0. To be fair, Romanov is no slouch himself, compiling 20 takedowns in eight UFC fights. The most telling stat comes against Juan Espino at UFC Vegas 24, when “King Kong” was outwrestled 4-2. Expect a similar outcome at UFC 302, with Almeida finishing the undersized Moldovan late in the fight.

Prediction: Almeida def. Romanov by submission


170 lbs.: Randy “Rude Boy” Brown (18-5) vs. Elizeu Zaleski “Capoeira” dos Santos (24-7-1)

It’s hard to believe that Randy Brown has been with the promotion for more than eight years across a span of 17 fights with a UFC record of 12-5. That includes back-to back victories over Wellington Turman (UFC Jacksonville) and Muslim Salikhov (UFC Vegas 85), the latter of which ended by way of knockout.

Brown is currently unranked at 170 pounds and one of the reasons “Rude Boy” can’t crack the Top 15 is because he always seems to come up short against ranked opponents, like Belal Muhammad, Vicente Luque, and Jack Della Maddalena. Brown is a tall welterweight, standing 6’3” with a 78” reach and has serviceable wrestling. At 33 years old, it’s now or never for the well-traveled Jamaican and a big performance at UFC 302 this weekend in Newark is likely to lead to bigger and better opportunities.

Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos is another longtime veteran who signed with UFC in late 2015, a few months before Brown. The Brazilian is currently 10-3 inside the Octagon with victories over Sean Strickland and Benoit Saint-Denis and is currently coming off a majority draw opposite Rinat Fakhretdinov at UFC São Paulo back in November. “Capoeira” has 14 knockouts in 24 wins, though it’s a little concerning that he hasn’t scored a knockout in nearly six years. What happened to that 170-pound phenom who was destroying opponents with spinning wheel kicks and flying knees?

Against the welterweight “Rude Boy,” Dos Santos will give up four inches in height and five inches in reach, which could be a problem when you consider Brown’s durability — coupled with the Brazilian’s below average wrestling skills. With just three rounds to work, “Capoeira” is going to have to find a way to get inside without getting plunked upon entry. He’s certainly got the chops to win this fight, but he also turns 38 this fall and hasn’t finished a fight in over five years, which has me leaning toward Brown on the judges’ scorecards in what is likely to be a close (and very exciting) contest.

Prediction: Brown def. Dos Santos by decision


MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 302 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the remaining undercard balance on ESPN2/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 302: “Makhachev vs. Poirier” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here. For the updated and finalized UFC 302 fight card and ESPN+ lineup click here.

Staff
Author: Staff

Please go to MMAMania.com to read full article.

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