Only four days remain until the world’s leading MMA promotion stages a historic trilogy fight between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor at UFC 264 in Las Vegas. While the main event will be in the crosshairs of most media focus, the rest of the card features several under-the-radar storylines that are worth noting in the lead up to fight night. Below, I highlighted five things to look for on Saturday night before the superstars make their walk to the Octagon.
1. Wonderful Wonderboy or Burns Bloodbath?
Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is the owner of one of the more peculiar careers in all of MMA. A former kickboxing world champion, Wonderboy burst onto the scene with a Karate-based style that nobody had ever considered bringing to the UFC Octagon. His fluid striking and unusual movements proved to be a puzzle which few are able to solve.
After losing to Matt Brown in April 2012, Wonderboy rattled off seven straight victories en route to his first shot at UFC gold. He took then-champion Tyron Woodley to a majority draw, and then lost the immediate rematch by split decision. If it weren’t for a few punches here and there, it’s possible that Wonderboy could still be the UFC Welterweight champion today.
Wonderboy isn’t one to bathe in self-pity, however, and the 38-year-old South Carolina native knows Father Time is likely on his heels. This could very well be his last chance at a run for the sport’s most coveted prize. With consecutive dominant victories over Vicente Luque and Geoff Neal, Wonderboy has once again placed himself in a prime position to earn another crack at the strap.
Standing in his way is a Brazillian bulldog who gives new meaning to the word “dangerous.” Gilbert Burns is a jiu-jitsu master of the highest pedigree with a suitable boxing acumen, often combining dynamite punches with elite grappling. He’s the full package and he’s out for blood after faltering in his first title shot back in March when he was knocked out by Kamaru Usman.
This fight between Burns and Wonderboy carries a plethora of championship implications in the UFC’s 170-pound division. The winner tosses his name in the hat as the next challenger to Usman’s throne, while the loser takes a massive step backward in the contention picture.
2. The Suga Show, Episode 15
The latest installment of “The Suga Show” is set to take place in the first fight of the UFC 264 main card. “Sugar” Sean O’Malley is one of the most popular fighters on the roster and continues to flirt with superstardom, in search of a signature win to stamp his name in bantamweight contendership.
Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen Saturday. Yes, he’s still fighting, but against an opponent of which nearly all MMA connoisseurs, including myself, have never heard. O’Malley’s original opponent, Louis Smolka, was forced to withdraw from the bout last week due to a staph infection. This sent Dana White and Sean Shelby into a frenzy to find a new counterpart for O’Malley, who desperately wanted to stay on the card.
Enter Kris Moutinho, a 28-year-old newcomer with a 9-4 professional record and zero UFC experience. It isn’t ideal for O’Malley and his forward march toward the top of the division, but it’s an opponent nonetheless and something tells me O’Malley better be ready for everything Moutinho has to offer (whatever that may be).
Just put yourself in Moutinho’s shoes for a second: you get the phone call to debut against one of the most popular fighters in MMA on the curtain-raiser of a Conor McGregor card. A moment most athletes could never dream of and I fully expect him to try to capitalize on it. Sure, O’Malley will probably add yet another hair-raising knockout to his already-abundant highlight reel, but he mustn’t take Moutinho lightly.
As they always say in the world of sports: “crazier things have happened.”
3. Belated Fireworks Show
Over the weekend, people all across the United States celebrated the 4th of July with fireworks show, blowing things up in the name of freedom. Figuratively, the UFC’s fireworks show will come a week later.
Skill, precision, technique and discipline often rule as catalysts for success. All that stuff is great, but there’s no denying that us fans are suckers for a good ol’ fashioned slugfest every once in a while. That’s what we’re getting with Niko Price vs. Michel Pereira.
Two unconventional, high-volume, downright wild strikers who love to fly all over the Octagon throwing killshots. Sign me up. (I highly recommend watching the video above).
Not only is this fight virtually guaranteed to be entertaining, but it’s an opportunity for the winner to ascend into the top-15 in the welterweight rankings and begin the climb toward UFC gold.
You won’t want to miss this one.
4. Du Damage, Du Plessis
Dricus Du Plessis entered the UFC with a bang in his debut in October, starching Markus Perez in the first round to earn his first victory with the promotion. While this was the first time he gained notoriety with most fans, Du Plessis has been a dominant force on the MMA scene for nearly a decade.
Extreme Fighting Championship, or EFC, is a worldwide promotion that runs regional circuits. Du Plessis was signed to EFC Africa in 2013, and began an impressive run, at one point holding both the EFC welterweight and middleweight belts. He’s a certified killer in the cage, with bombs for hands and a full book of submissions, making him effective in every area.
At just 27 years old, Du Plessis has yet to reach his prime and has the potential to become a serious threat to the UFC middleweight division in the coming years.
On Saturday, Du Plessis will make his second appearance in the Octagon against UFC veteran Trevin Giles, who is riding a 3-fight win streak and looking to crack the top-15 with a victory.
5. The Return of the Wizard
Ryan “The Wizard” Hall is finally making his much-anticipated return to the Octagon on Saturday after a 2-year hiatus. Prior to the long layoff, Hall was touted as one of the hottest prospects in all of MMA. He competed on The Ultimate Fighter Season 22 in 2015 where he won all but one bout. He started off his UFC career with four straight victories over a murderer’s row of opponents, which included company legends BJ Penn and Gray Maynard.
Hall was kept sidelined from fighting due to a combination of injuries and fight cancellations. He’s back now, though, and it seems as if everyone is expecting big things from him. At 36 years old, it’s tough to imagine he’ll be as sharp as he used to be, but considering he only has nine pro bouts to his name, he’s still quite young in terms of fight years.
Also, this isn’t the first time he’ll be coming back from an extended pause. After he disposed of Maynard in 2016, he waited two whole years before coming back to fight Penn, who he submitted in under three minutes.
Clearly the UFC still believes in Hall as a potential star, considering they’re putting him in a pretty big spot on a Conor McGregor card. It’s going to take a flawless performance from Hall to triumph over Spain’s Ilia Topuria, who is the owner of a perfect 10-0 record. In his last outing, Topuria put away Damon Jackson with ease to earn his second win in the UFC.
This fight has all the makings of a high-level contest between two hungry featherweights.