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Conor McGregor & Dustin Poirier Face off at the UFC 257 pre-fight press conference
Highlights

THE 10 | AMAZING FIGHTS IN ABU DHABI

As We Prep For Our UFC 294 Return October 21, We Look Back On The Best So Far From Abu Dhabi

Kattar is an excellent fighter — a legitimate Top 5 featherweight — and Holloway beat him with scores of 50-43 twice and 50-42 once. He set multiple records during the 25-minute affair and spent portions of the final round doing his best Muhammad Ali impersonation, shouting at Kattar and the broadcast crew that he was “the best boxer in the UFC” before dodging an incoming shot and countering with a no-look right hand that landed flush.

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The popular Hawaiian was fired up for this one and turned in an absolute masterclass in striking, pace, and pressure, making it crystal clear that despite entering off consecutive losses, he was still a force to be reckoned with in the 145-pound weight class.

Dustin Poirier vs Conor McGregor II (UFC 257)

Dustin Poirier points at Conor McGregor of Ireland in a lightweight fight during the UFC 257 event inside Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on January 23, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Dustin Poirier points at Conor McGregor of Ireland in a lightweight fight during the UFC 257 event inside Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on January 23, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

There are times when fights stand out as much for the anticipation and feel they create in the audience before the action gets underway as they do for what actually transpires inside the Octagon, and this is one of those times.

McGregor had returned at the start of 2020 intent on competing multiple times and attempting to make another run at the lightweight title, but the pandemic put him on the sidelines for the remainder of the year following his January win over Donald Cerrone. Now, a year later, he was back, and facing off with an old rival in Poirier, whom he beat when the two were featherweight hopefuls at UFC 178.

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Poirier was coming off his unanimous decision win over Dan Hooker the previous summer and still very much at the top of his game. Where McGregor was the electric rising star when they met the first time, “The Diamond” was the entrenched, top-tier talent heading into their second meeting, but the Irishman still carried that aura of being able to dial up a big performance on command heading into this one.

McGregor closed the distance immediately, but Poirier worked to keep him off balance, taking him down early before they battled in the clinch for much of the round. Just when McGregor started connecting with shots in space, Poirier got busy landing calf kicks and cracked him with a right hook that prompted him to smile and point at the former two-weight champion.

McGregor kept attacking early in the second, but Poirier beat up his lead leg, and when “The Notorious” one started over-extending on his shots and reaching a little, Poirier cranked up the pressure and output, eventually putting McGregor on the canvas to bring their series even at one win each.

Petr Yan vs Cory Sandhagen (UFC 267)

Petr Yan of Russia punches Cory Sandhagen in the UFC interim bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 267 event at Etihad Arena on October 30, 2021 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Petr Yan of Russia punches Cory Sandhagen in the UFC interim bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 267 event at Etihad Arena on October 30, 2021 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

This is the kind of fight that really sticks with me long term, probably even more than some of the more iconic, memorable bouts that take place inside the Octagon because while we see the highlight reel finishes and shocking upsets on loop, bouts like this come and go, forgotten far too soon.

Yan was initially scheduled to face Aljamain Sterling in their bantamweight title rematch here, but a month before the bout, “Aljo” was forced out and Sandhagen stepped up, with an interim belt added to the mix.

The Russian won the fight by unanimous decision, garnering 49-46 scores across the board, but it was a more competitive fight that those numbers indicate, and even more than that, it was a wonderful high-level battle between two elite talents in the most competitive division in the sport.

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This fight wasn’t won on big moments and massive blows — it was a fight built on sharp fundamentals, with small adjustments, good reads and better reactions dictating the action. It was cerebral and technical; two standout strikers engaging in a cat-and-mouse game in four-ounce gloves for 25 minutes.

There were bigger moments on the card, and more memorable fights during the year, but this was a quiet classic that deserves to be remembered and mentioned alongside the rest of these standout contests and individual efforts.

Sean O’Malley vs Petr Yan (UFC 280)

Sean O'Malley punches Petr Yan of Russia in a bantamweight fight during the UFC 280 event at Etihad Arena on October 22, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Sean O'Malley punches Petr Yan of Russia in a bantamweight fight during the UFC 280 event at Etihad Arena on October 22, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

It’s crazy to think about people’s reactions when this fight was first announced, given everything that has transpired since, but that’s part of what makes this sport so incredible.

Yan had been the undisputed champion and the interim champion and was coming off four consecutive title fights. O’Malley was the first breakout star from Dana White’s Contender Series, and while he’d amassed a 7-1 record with one no contest in his first nine UFC starts, he’d yet to beat a ranked opponent.

Everyone was waiting for “Sugar” to get a step up in competition, and just a couple months after his fight with Pedro Munhoz ended in a no contest, the technicolor standout skipped several steps and jumped in with a former champion that was still at the top of his game.

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Regardless of how you scored this fight — O’Malley won by split decision — there was no way to watch this contest and not come away impressed by each man. Yan showed that despite some recent setbacks, he was still one of the very best bantamweights on the planet, while O’Malley showcased toughness and grit that he was never previously forced to exhibit, taking some big shots and responding in kind more often than naught.

This was the night everyone learned without a shadow of a doubt that O’Malley was a legitimate threat in the 135-pound weight class, because as he told me before his title win earlier this year, “You don’t beat Petr Yan if you’re not as good as I am.”

Paul Felder vs Edson Barboza (UFC 242)

This is one of two instances in this list where fans tend to get lost in the official result and scoring of the contest and miss the forest for the trees.

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As much as wins and losses are important and you want the judges to get it right every time, sometimes you have to just sit back and appreciate two veterans going toe-to-toe for 15 minutes, blasting each other with punches and kicks and knees and elbows, and seemingly having a wonderful time doing it.

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Barboza has fought one of the strongest strengths of schedule of any non-champion in UFC history — and he adds to it in a couple weeks when he headlines opposite Sodiq Yusuff — and Felder was constantly in this exact type of fight: close, competitive battles with standout talents that could have gone either way.

Petr Yan vs Jose Aldo (UFC 251)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JULY 12: (R-L) Petr Yan of Russia punches Jose Aldo of Brazil in their UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 251

We talk all the time in this sport about “passing of the torch” moments, where a great from one era is overtaken by an ascending standout from the next generation, and this fight played out like a perfect physical representation of that idea.

Fighting for the vacant UFC bantamweight title, the long-time featherweight champion Aldo kept things close through the early stages of this one, running level with Yan as the two traded blows on the feet. But as the fight wore on, the Russian inched further and further ahead until it became clear that he was too much for the Brazilian legend, with Yan earning a fifth-round stoppage win to claim the title.

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Few people expected Aldo to push Yan the way he did early, let alone to watch the legend rebound with three straight victories to get back into the title hunt following this fight. At the same time, what seemed like the start of a potentially long title reign for Yan turned into not even eight months atop the division, though despite some recent struggles, he remains one of the best fighters in the 135-pound weight class.

This fight proved to be an odd turning point in each of their careers, but it was also an entertaining clash that seemed to signal the end of one era and the start of another, even if that isn’t quite what ended up happening.

Alexander Volkanovski vs Max Holloway II (UFC 251)

Alexander Volkanovski e Max Holloway se cumprimentam antes do início da luta no UFC 251. (Foto por Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Alexander Volkanovski of Australia and Max Holloway face off prior to their UFC featherweight championship fight during the UFC 251 event at Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 12, 2020 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

This is the other “let’s not talk about the scoring and focus on the fight itself” fight that I was talking about in the Felder-Barboza section because, to this day, folks are still ready to throw hands about this hotly debated split decision verdict.

Volkanovski ended Holloway’s reign atop the featherweight division in December of the previous year, but just as Holloway had to beat Aldo in consecutive outings to really stake his claim as the new ruler of the weight class, you knew Volkanovski was going to have to do the same.

“Blessed” came out of the gates sharp, winning the opening two rounds on all three scorecards before Volkanovski started clawing his way back. All three officials gave the Australian the third and fourth rounds, sending the rivals into the final stanza even at two rounds apiece, with the final five minutes determining who would leave as the featherweight champion.

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Volkanovski landed on the happy side of the verdict, and Holloway supporters are still annoyed about that, but beyond the contested result and ridiculous claims that Max got robbed — it was a close fight, people — this was a tremendous clash between two elite competitors who remain the top two fighters in the featherweight division.

This was as close a fight as I can remember in recent years, and losing sight of that to squabble about the scoring feels like a mistake.

Brandon Royval vs Kai Kara-France (UFC 253)

Brandon Royval elbows Kai Kara France of New Zealand in their flyweight bout during UFC 253 inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on September 27, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Brandon Royval elbows Kai Kara France of New Zealand in their flyweight bout during UFC 253 inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on September 27, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Here’s a list of things that happened in the opening 30 seconds of this fight:

  • Kara-France cracks Royval with a right hand that turns his legs to jelly
  • Royval stumbles like a baby deer trying to instantly work forward after getting cracked
  • Royval lands a spinning back elbow at the same time as Kara-France connects with a right hand to the side of his head
  • Royval maybe hits Kara-France with an illegal knee as he’s trying to scramble to his feet
  • Jon Anik and Paul Felder understandably lose their minds on commentary

Royval then started working his limber, awkward, attacking jiu jitsu before dropping Kara-France with a knee and looking for a guillotine choke late in the first. They continued trying to decapitate one another out of the chute to start the second round, with Royval climbing into a guillotine choke after Kara-France looked to change levels and drive forward for a takedown, forcing the City Kickboxing man to tap.

Though it lasted less than six minutes, this one rightfully took home Fight of the Night honors at UFC 253, and stands as a permanent reminder of the kind of action you can expect whenever either of these two men step into the Octagon.

Ilia Topuria vs Youssef Zalal (UFC Fight Night: Moraes vs Sandhagen)

Ilia Topuria punches Youssef Zalal of Morocco in their featherweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on October 11, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Ilia Topuria punches Youssef Zalal of Morocco in their featherweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on October 11, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Collections like this always feature a “one for me” selection — a matchup that might not seem as memorable or anticipated as some of the others that really resonates with me — and this is it.

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Zalal was in his first year in the UFC, having debuted in February with a win over Austin Lingo before adding additional victories over Jordan Griffin and Peter Barrett to move to 3-0 inside the Octagon and establish himself as an emerging name to track in the featherweight ranks. Topuria was a late replacement for SeungWoo Choi, taking the fight nine days out and arriving with an unblemished record, but without any real fanfare.

The reason it makes the list for me is that in addition to being an entertaining fight — which Topuria won by unanimous decision with scores of 29-28 across the board — it became a key moment in the careers of both men.

Just when Zalal looked like someone that was going to make a push towards the rankings, his run of success was halted, kicking off a four-fight run without a victory that led to his exit from the promotion. Conversely, the unheralded Topuria returned later in the year, knocking out Damon Jackson, and has since gone on to emerge as the No. 1 contender in the featherweight division, with a date opposite Volkanovski looking like a real Q1 possibility in 2024.

Brian Ortega vs Chan Sung Jung (UFC Fight Night: Ortega vs. The Korean Zombie)

Most of the fights on this list were competitive battles, but this one and next one had to be included, even though they were completely one-sided affairs.

Ortega looked like a completely different fighter in every imaginable way in this fight.

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Returning for the first time since getting stopped by Max Holloway at UFC 231, “T-City” turned up with his head shaved, brandishing crispy hands that we had never seen from him before. Sure, he didn’t mind getting into a dust-up and would willingly trade lefts and rights, but Ortega looked like a standout striker in this one, picking apart and busting up “The Korean Zombie” over five rounds to get himself right back into the win column and the championship chase.

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I honestly don’t know what was more memorable — the fact that Ortega was rocking a cue ball or that his hands looked so darn good but, either way, this was a standout effort that remains one of the best performances to take place in Abu Dhabi.

Max Holloway vs Calvin Kattar (UFC Fight Night: Holloway vs Kattar)

Max Holloway punches Calvin Kattar in a featherweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on January 17, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Max Holloway punches Calvin Kattar in a featherweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on January 17, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Not only was this the best individual performance to take place in Abu Dhabi, but it’s on the short list of the best performances of all time for me, and that’s saying something because I have watched a ton of fights.

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Kattar is an excellent fighter — a legitimate Top 5 featherweight — and Holloway beat him with scores of 50-43 twice and 50-42 once. He set multiple records during the 25-minute affair and spent portions of the final round doing his best Muhammad Ali impersonation, shouting at Kattar and the broadcast crew that he was “the best boxer in the UFC” before dodging an incoming shot and countering with a no-look right hand that landed flush.

The popular Hawaiian was fired up for this one and turned in an absolute masterclass in striking, pace, and pressure, making it crystal clear that despite entering off consecutive losses, he was still a force to be reckoned with in the 145-pound weight class.