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2021 World Junior Championship Primer: Canada seeks back-to-back golds – Sportsnet.ca

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As the COVID-19 pandemic caused the IIHF to cancel almost every single international tournament on its schedule, many feared that the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championship would be next. However, the IIHF found a way to go ahead with the marquee event of the year and worked together with Hockey Canada to move the event to the NHL’s former bubble in Edmonton.

Canada enters the 2021 World Juniors as the defending champions, in a weaker Group A with Finland, Germany, Slovakia and Switzerland. Canada’s roster is stacked, headlined by six returnees and 19 NHL first-round draft picks. Their biggest matchup of the round robin will be against the Finns on New Year’s Eve. A first-place finish in the group is critical for Canada, as anything lower than that will likely see them play a very difficult hockey power from Group B in the quarterfinals.

The United States, Russia and Sweden will battle in an extremely tight Group B, along with the Czech Republic and newly promoted Austria. Group B won’t be the ‘Group of Death’ that it was last year, but there could be a potential bloodbath in the round robin. Sweden will put its monumental 52-game round robin win streak to the test against the Americans and Russians.

Several teams saw COVID-19 breakouts occur, with key players and coaching staff ruled ineligible for the tournament in the weeks before travelling to Canada. After all 10 teams completed a five-day quarantine in Edmonton, the IIHF announced that eight players on the German team and two Swedish staff members tested positive, and promptly placed both teams in quarantine.

That puts both countries at a significant disadvantage, as neither team will be able to play in exhibition games prior to the tournament. However, the hope is that there won’t be any more positive tests now that all 10 teams have entered the bubble, and that the 2021 World Juniors will be played as planned.

GROUP A

Canada (2020 Finish: 1st)

Strength: Returning Champions

Canada’s recent history at the World Juniors has proven that the more returning players they bring, the better they fare. That’s especially pivotal for 2021, where Canada will bring back four forwards and two defencemen from their 2020 gold medal-winning team. On top of that, Canada will be coached by Andre Tourigny, who led this age group to gold at the 2018 Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, and 10 players from that team will play at the 2021 World Juniors. Canada will rely on the championship experience of returnees Dylan Cozens (BUF), Quinton Byfield (LAK), Connor McMichael (WSH), Dawson Mercer (NJD), Bowen Byram (COL) and Jamie Drysdale (ANA) to lead the country to back-to-back gold medals – and Canada’s first gold medal on home soil since 2015.

Weakness: Player Rust

Canada’s depth at this tournament every year is tough to match, but they may be at a disadvantage this year. While the American and European players have been playing fairly regularly this season, the majority of Canada’s players haven’t played a competitive game yet, including all three of the team’s goaltenders. Only five players on Canada’s roster have played games in the QMJHL or NCAA this season. Canada being forced to shut down its World Juniors camp for two weeks and cancel scrimmages because of two positive COVID-19 tests didn’t help. How quickly the 25 Canadian players can shake off the rust will be critical, because this tournament goes by so quickly.

X-Factor: Quinton Byfield (LAK)

They won’t be getting Alexis Lafreniere back, and Canada received another big blow when captain Kirby Dach (CHI) was injured in their lone pre-tournament game. However, Canada’s depth should be able to withstand the loss of Dach on the ice, and the player who should be tabbed to fill Dach’s role is Quinton Byfield. The Los Angeles Kings’ second overall pick from 2020 played a minor role for Canada at last year’s tournament, but is expected to have a larger impact this time around. Byfield’s unique package of size, physicality and skill will allow him to slide into Dach’s spot on Canada’s top line and hopefully the increased role will give Byfield the opportunity to flourish.

Finland (2020 Finish: 4th)

Strength: Offensive Weapons

Since the New York Rangers didn’t loan Kaapo Kakko for the tournament, Anton Lundell, the most recent first round pick of the Florida Panthers, will take centre stage for Finland after missing last year’s tournament with an injury. He’ll bolster the Finnish offence, along with Kasper Simontaival (LAK) and Antti Saarela (CHI). Although the Finns opted to not bring back eligible returnees Patrik Puistola (CAR) and Aatu Raty (2021), keep an eye on 2022 draft-eligible forward Brad Lambert. Lambert, an exceptional talent, debuted in the Finnish men’s league as a 15-year-old last season and is back playing there this year.

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Weakness: Goaltending

Neither Justus Annunen (COL) nor Jasper Patrikainen are eligible to return for this year’s tournament, so Finland will be in tough to replace both – especially Annunen, who was one of the best goaltenders of the 2020 tournament. Finland’s likely goaltending tandem will be Kari Piiroinen, who was the team’s third goalie last year, and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Joel Blomqvist, who has experience representing his country on the international stage but will be a World Juniors rookie. Whether or not either of them can replicate Annunen’s success remains to be seen, but whoever takes over his reins in goal will need to be at their best for Finland.

X-Factor: Ville Heinola (WPG)

Five of the eight defencemen Finland brought to the World Juniors last year have aged out. Winnipeg Jets top prospect Ville Heinola is still eligible to return, and he will likely take on the role as Finland’s number one defenceman. Heinola was the highest scoring defenceman on Finland at last year’s tournament and is expected to have a similar offensive impact. It will be up to Heinola to lead the way for what will be a relatively young and inexperienced blue line, as Finland attempts to better their disappointing fourth-place finish from 2020.

Germany (2020 Finish: 9th)

Strength: Returning Stars

Though Dominik Bokk (CAR), Germany’s leading scorer last year, is too old to return, Germany still has offensive weapons at its disposal. Ottawa Senators third overall pick Tim Stuetzle will lead the offensive charge alongside Buffalo Sabres prospect J.J. Peterka. Though they will be without Lukas Reichel (CHI) because he tested positive for COVID-19, Stuetzle and Peterka can shock defences. If they can get off to a fast start, Germany could do some real damage in the round robin.

Weakness: No Moritz Seider

Germany was able to avoid relegation from the top group last year, but if they want to better their finish in 2021, they’re going to be without top defenceman Moritz Seider (DET). Seider, who captained Germany last year and is still eligible for the 2021 tournament, made the decision to remain in Europe this year. While the Germans still have the offensive weapons to make certain games interesting (especially against Slovakia and Switzerland), losing Seider is a tremendous blow to their blue line. It will take a total team defensive effort, especially against Canada and Finland, as it will be next to impossible for Germany to replace a player of Seider’s calibre.

X-Factor: Tim Stuetzle (OTT)

Though Stuetzle finished the 2020 tournament a point-per-game player, he couldn’t find the back of the net at all last year. That should change in 2021. Stuetzle will be relied on heavily to produce most of Germany’s offence. The biggest question is how quickly Stuetzle will recover from having surgery on a broken hand back in October, and how effective he will be. Stuetzle will need to be the team’s most dominant player whenever he is on the ice, especially for Germany’s games against Slovakia and Switzerland.

Slovakia (2020 Finish: 8th)

Strength: Draft-Eligible Talent

Slovakia struggled mightily at the 2020 World Juniors and the expectations aren’t much higher for the 2021 squad. What might give Slovakia an edge is their draft-eligible talent. 2021 draft-eligible forwards Oleksii Myklukha and Robert Baco, and 2022 draft-eligible Juraj Slafkovsky will lead the offensive charge. However, Slovakia’s star might just be on the back end. 16-year old Simon Nemec (2022) is the youngest player to ever record a point in Slovakia’s men’s league, and blends size and mobility with poise and creative vision. Goaltender Samuel Hlavaj will return for his third World Juniors after being passed over yet again in the 2020 draft. A strong showing at this year’s tournament could mean he’s drafted in 2021, and Slovakia will benefit greatly from his experience in between the pipes.

Weakness: No Maxim Cajkovic

Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Maxim Cajkovic would have been a lock to make the Slovak team in 2021. As a returnee from last year, Cajkovic was one of Slovakia’s best players and the team would have counted on his experience. However, he was released from the team’s training camp after concussing one of his teammates in a scrimmage. It was a decision the Slovak national team had to make, but Cajkovic’s blend of offensive production and physicality was unique, and it will be difficult for Slovakia to replace him.

X-Factor: Martin Chromiak (LAK)

Chromiak was a surprise snub from last year’s roster, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He decided to join the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs while the tournament was being played and proceeded to light up the league playing alongside exceptional wunderkind Shane Wright (2022), who was cut from Canada’s camp. Slovakia will rely on Chromiak to both set up and score goals, especially off the rush. Although his role will be larger than expected, Chromiak has the potential to step into the hole left by Cajkovic and prove that he can lead the team.

Switzerland (2020 Finish: 5th)

Strength: Defence

The Swiss will have to replace almost their entire blue line heading into the 2021 World Juniors, but that might not be as tall a task as one might think. Having returnees Bastian Guggenheim and Rocco Pezzullo will help, but it will likely be Inaki Baragano leading the defence corps. The late cut from last year’s camp got off to an excellent start in Switzerland’s junior league this year, with 16 points in 22 games. He’ll likely play on the top pair with Giancarlo Chanton, whose name sounds almost like a certain New York Yankees slugger. Chanton and Baragano have both played in the CHL, and that experience will serve them well.

Weakness: Best Players Aged Out

Switzerland hasn’t played in the relegation round since 2016. Although the relegation round won’t be played this year, there is a chance that the Swiss find themselves at the bottom of Group A. Most of their top players from last year’s tournament have aged out this year, including six of their eight defencemen and all three goaltenders. Although Switzerland should be able to replace the blue line without much issue, the uncertainty and inexperience between the pipes will likely be a big issue against all of Canada, Finland and Germany. Given the strength of the German team this year, Switzerland’s youth and inexperience could mean a fight against Slovakia to avoid finishing last in Group A.

X-Factor: Simon Knak (undrafted)

It was surprising to many when Knak went undrafted in 2020, but the returning forward should drive the bulk of the Swiss offence after only scoring two goals through five games last year. Knak put up 34 points in 49 games last year with the Portland Winterhawks. With the WHL on pause until after the tournament, Knak has returned to Switzerland and is playing consistently in their top men’s league, one of the few members of the Swiss World Juniors team to do so. Knak will wear the ‘C’ for Switzerland at this year’s tournament after captaining U-16, U-18 and U-20 teams throughout his junior career.

The Big Show

Previewing the 2020-2021 World Junior Championship

December 23 2020

GROUP B

Austria (2020 Finish: Promoted from Division 1A)

Strength: CHL Talent

Although defenceman Thimo Nickl (ANA) was ruled out of the tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test, the Austrians are still bolstered by forwards Marco Rossi (MIN) and Senna Peeters, both of whom played in the CHL last season. Rossi spent the last two seasons with the OHL’s Ottawa 67s and Peeters played last season with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads. Both are expected to lead the Austrian forwards in a tough Group B. Although the team looks bound for last place in Group B on paper, with Rossi and Peeters, Austria won’t be a pushover in group play.

Weakness: Uncertainty In Goal

Neither Luca Egger nor Alexander Schmidt can return for the 2021 World Juniors, the tandem that helped get Austria promoted out of Division 1A last year. Austria has many options to replace them in goal, but there isn’t a clear-cut favourite to be the tournament starter, and the group doesn’t have much international experience. Their most likely starter is Sebastian Wraneschitz, who represented Austria at the U-18 Division 1B level back in 2019. However, Jakob Brandner has experience playing in Finland and could be a dark horse candidate between the pipes as well. Whoever ends up taking the reins as Austria’s starting goaltender will face a monstrous task: to stop the offences of Russia, Sweden and the United States.

X-Factor: Marco Rossi (MIN)

Austria hasn’t been at the World Juniors’ top level since 2010. Though there is no true relegation this year, if the Austrians are to avoid being blown out by the hockey powers of the world, Rossi will be the reason why. The Minnesota Wild’s ninth overall pick from 2020 lit up the OHL in his draft season, finishing atop the league with 39 goals and 120 points in just 56 games. Rossi is and will be Austria’s most dynamic and important player. Rossi can and will likely have to put the Austrians on his back in order for them to shock more than one team in the round robin and earn a stunning quarterfinals berth.

Czech Republic (2020 Finish: 7th)

Strength: Defence

The Czech Republic brought a very young blue line to the 2020 World Juniors that fared pretty well, allowing the fourth-least amount of goals in the entire tournament. Four of the six defencemen will return for 2021, older, stronger and tested. However, the Czech blue line will be pushed to their limits as they work to prevent the Americans, Russians and Swedes from wreaking offensive havoc. On top of the four returnees, an intriguing name to watch is Stanislav Svozil, who is a projected first round pick in 2021. The 17-year-old’s instincts and awareness make him an excellent defender, and he could very well be the Czechs’ best defenceman by the time the tournament is over.

Weakness: Lacking Offensive Catalysts

The Czech Republic lacked an offensive driver last year and it may be their undoing again in 2021. Chicago Blackhawks prospect Michal Teply led the team with five points last year, and he will return. However, the team will have to replace the goal scoring that Libor Zabransky provided last year, as the defenceman is too old to return. Look for returnee Jan Mysak (MTL) and newcomer Jaromir Pytlik (NJD) to add some offence up front. Simon Kubicek and Martin Hugo Has (WSH) will likely be pegged to fill Zabransky’s role on the blue line, but as a whole, the Czechs don’t really have the offensive catalysts to compete in a heavy group or to pull off upsets this year.

X-Factor: Jan Mysak (MTL)

The Czechs will rely on Teply for most of their offence, but the versatile Mysak has the potential to take over the reins in the scoring department. After joining the Hamilton Bulldogs following last year’s World Juniors, Mysak racked up points at a torrid pace, finishing his brief OHL rookie season with 15 goals and 25 points in 22 games. Though he only had two points at the 2020 World Juniors, Mysak was named captain of the Czech team and is expected to take on a more prominent offensive role this year. If he heats up, the Czechs could surprise in the round robin, and should be able to advance to the quarterfinals.

Russia (2020 Finish: 2nd)

Strength: Depth Up Front

Although the team only has two returning forwards in Vasily Podkolzin (VAN) and Maxim Groshev (TB), Russia’s offensive depth will be on display at this year’s tournament. Joining them will be CHL players Yegor Afanasyev (NSH), Mikhail Abramov (TOR), and Vasily Ponomaryov (CAR), and 2020 first round picks Rodion Amirov (TOR) and Yegor Chinakov (CBJ). Rounding out that offensive depth is the undersized yet speedy Marat Khusnutdinov (MIN), who will likely play on Russia’s top line with Podkolzin and Amirov. Russia’s forwards will be both physically taxing to play against and difficult to stop from scoring, and they’ll be a tough out in the medal round.

Weakness: Aged Out Defence

Russia will have to replace their entire blue line from 2020, which they usually aren’t strangers to doing. But it will be very difficult for the team to replace the likes of Alexander Romanov (MTL), Daniil Zhuravlyov (COL) and Yegor Zamula (PHI). 2020 first-rounder Shakir Mukhamadullin (NJD) will likely be tabbed to fill Romanov’s role. Semyon Chistyakov (NSH) and 2021 draft-eligible Daniil Chayka should help ease some of the load on Mukhamadullin, but there really isn’t a true number one defenceman on this Russian team in the way that Romanov was last year. If Russia does struggle, it will likely be the result of their blue line being unable to keep the puck out of their own end.

X-Factor: Yaroslav Askarov (NSH)

If there’s one solace to a weak Russian blue line, it’s that the team will have a metaphorical wall between the pipes. Askarov, the first goaltender selected in the 2020 NHL Draft, struggled as Russia’s starting goalie last year and was benched for the gold medal game. However, Askarov should return to his usual perfect form the second time around. Through seven starts in the KHL this season, Askarov has posted a remarkable .962 save percentage and a 0.96 goals-against average. Russia will need Askarov at his best, especially with a very lacklustre blue line in front of him. In the very unlikely event that Askarov struggles, Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Artur Akhtyamov should be able to pick up the reins. But when Askarov is dialled in, he’s incredibly difficult to beat.

Sweden (2020 Finish: 3rd)

Strength: Goaltending

Sweden will bring a strong team to the 2021 World Juniors, and that starts in goal. Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Hugo Alnefelt will return to the crease after backstopping Sweden to bronze last year with a .941 save percentage in his final game. If Alnefelt falters, Sweden will turn to 2021 draft-eligible Jesper Wallstedt, who has posted a .930 save percentage in eight SHL games this season and is the undisputed best goalie available in next year’s NHL draft. Alnefelt and Wallstedt are one of the strongest tandems Sweden has brought to this tournament in recent memory, and they’ll give Sweden their best chance to end their eight-year gold medal drought.

Weakness: COVID-19 Absences

This will be a fairly young group of Swedes expected to contend for a medal. On top of that, the team announced in mid-December that forwards Karl Henriksson (NYR), William Eklund (2021), Albin Grewe (DET) and defenceman William Wallinder (DET) would miss the tournament due to positive COVID-19 tests. Four of Sweden’s coaches, including head coach Tomas Monten, also tested positive and were ruled out of the tournament. Though they were able to find enough replacements before making the trip to Edmonton, it was a tough blow for the team. Sweden’s inexperience and youth could prove to be an issue as they play deep Russian and American teams in the round robin before heading off to the medal round. This could be the year that Sweden’s undefeated round robin streak comes to an end.

X-Factors: Lucas Raymond (DET) and Alexander Holtz (NJD)

Neither Samuel Fagemo (LAK) nor Nils Hoglander (VAN) will be able to return for Sweden this year, so the responsibility to lead the forward group falls on 18-year-old ‘Terror Twins’ Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz. Both now first round picks of the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils, Raymond and Holtz have proven offensive chemistry from the U-17s and U-18s and will be relied on heavily to produce for Sweden. If they can replicate the dynamic offence they produced at those tournaments, Sweden should roll towards another medal finish.

United States (2020 Finish: 6th)

Strength: Loaded Forward Group

Last year, the American offence completely dried up in their quarter-final game against Finland and the United States was sent packing. This time around, USA will bring back five returning forwards, led by 2019 first round picks Cole Caufield (MTL), Alex Turcotte (LAK) and Trevor Zegras (ANA). USA will miss Nick Robertson, who wasn’t loaned by the Maple Leafs, and John Beecher (BOS) and Thomas Bordeleau (SJ), who were ruled out of the tournament due to positive COVID-19 tests. However, USA will be bolstered by two new additions: Minnesota’s 2019 first-rounder Matthew Boldy, whom many viewed as a snub from last year’s team, and the top American eligible for the 2021 draft, Matthew Beniers. This will be a hungry American group seeking redemption from an early exit last year, and they’re going to be firing on all cylinders.

Weakness: Inexperienced Blue line

The United States’ Achilles’ heel might be their blue line again this year, as Cam York (PHI) is the only returning defenceman from 2020. For three of their defencemen, the 2021 World Juniors will be their first time representing the United States on the international stage. Aside from recent fifth overall pick Jake Sanderson (OTT), whose only experience representing Team USA was back at the U-17s two years ago, the defence group may struggle against faster opponents. Brock Faber (LAK) and Ryan Johnson (BUF) will provide mobility and potential offence, but because the U-18s were cancelled last spring, USA’s blue line will be fairly inexperienced this year.

X-Factor: Spencer Knight (FLA)

Knight didn’t necessarily struggle at last year’s World Juniors, but he was far from his usual self, especially as USA barely escaped with an overtime win against the Czech Republic in the round robin. However, Knight has been on a tear to start the season with Boston College, and left the Eagles on a two-game shutout streak and a .955 save percentage through four games. USA will need Knight on his game right away, as the team faces Russian wall Askarov to begin the tournament on Christmas Day. With a weaker blue line in front of him, Knight’s performance will likely dictate how far USA advances this year, and whether they can redeem themselves from a sixth-place finish in 2020.

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Dustin Poirier explains game plan for Conor McGregor rematch: ‘He was in bad position early’ – MMA Fighting

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Dustin Poirier handed Conor McGregor the first knockout loss of his career at UFC 257, stopping the former two-division UFC champion in round two of their lightweight contest in Abu Dhabi on Saturday. Six years after their first match, one pivotal part of his strategy was attacking the legs.

“The Diamond” spoke with the media after his big win on Fight Island and explained that his game plan was “not to be heavy on my feet and throw power shots and box early,” mixing it up with kicks, wrestling and boxing.

Mike Brown was real big on me throwing calf kicks in this fight,” Poirier said at the post-fight press conference. “Really big on it, and it worked. We compromised his leg and he was in bad position early, just from the repeated leg kicks.

“Even when he started checking, he wasn’t contacting with the shin, like a small rotation more, I would’ve been paying for those kicks, but I was still getting the muscle of his leg and that part of your leg and muscle is so small and thin that you can’t take many shots there. After the second leg kick, I knew he was hurting.”

McGregor weighed in on the effect of the strikes during his post-fight interview, saying his leg was “completely dead” and “badly compromised,” like “an American football in my shoe at the minute.”

“I just know from experience how bad those things hurt,” Poirier said. “And I knew it was a five-round fight so it would only get worse. He started catching it and trying to counter it with his left hand towards the end, but I knew they were still landing. He was catching it after they were making contact. I knew that was still hurting him.”

Not being afraid of takedowns made Poirier more confident on the feet, also.

“And if he did catch it and take me down, then I was gonna – it’s a five-round fight,” he said. “Of course you never wanna give up a round, but I’d to throw some submissions up and see what happens, you know? I’m a black belt in jiu-jitsu and I’m very confident in my jiu-jitsu, but I knew the leg kicks would be a problem because Jim Miller tore my leg up and that was a three-round fight, and I just know how painful it is.”

The UFC has yet to determine where Poirier goes from here. On a two-fight winning streak since his attempt to unify the UFC lightweight titles against Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2019, “The Diamond” is likely the next in line for the undisputed gold, whether it is against “The Eagle” himself or for a vacant throne.

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Dana White hates Chandler’s UFC 257 celebratory backflip: ‘Somebody’s going to get f—king hurt’ – Bloody Elbow

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Michael Chandler’s promotional debut at UFC 257 couldn’t have gone any better after knocking out Michael Chandler in the first round, but Dana White was not a fan of the newcomer’s celebration.

Chandler (22-5) stopped Hooker (20-10) in the co-main event of UFC 257 this past Saturday, winning a $50,000 bonus to make his victory even sweeter. After the fight ended, Chandler celebrated by doing a backflip off the top of the octagon.

Talking at the post-fight press conference, White said he hates this celebration and feels one day someone will get seriously hurt from it.

“Do you guys hate the backflips as much as I hate the backflips? It’s just f—king, it’s just — the kid gets his fight in the UFC then does a backflip that looks like it’s going to blow out both f—king ankles, knees, and his spine,” White said. “I just — I don’t get the backflip thing and I don’t like it. Somebody’s going to get f—king hurt doing that.”

It’s not the first time we’ve seen fighters in the UFC do this, with fellow lightweight Justin Gaethje also usually flipping off the cage after a win. The Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) has taken action to the celebration, banning fighters from backflipping off the cage when fighting in Vegas.

The unranked Chandler, 34, will likely take Hooker’s #6 spot when the new UFC lightweight rankings are published.

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UFC 257 Aftermath: Dustin Poirier proves that pressure makes Diamonds – MMA Fighting

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Heading into UFC 257, one of the pervasive questions surrounding the main event fight between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor was who had improved more since their first fight back in 2014.

Well, now we know. In the second round of the pay-per-view headliner on Saturday night, Poirier answered any such questions definitively, viciously knocking out McGregor with a series of punches against the fence.

McGregor has lost before – a lot, in fact, over the last few years. But this one felt different. Aside from the fact that this is McGregor’s most meme-able loss, it’s also his least explainable one. Nate Diaz? He had little time to prepare for a different stylistic matchup and he blew his gas tank. He then came back and won the rematch. Khabib Nurmagomedov? It’s Khabib. No one beats Khabib.

But Poirier? McGregor already had a knockout win over Poirier, and he was predicting a finish inside of 60 seconds. He spent much of the build up for this fight talking about how prepared he was and that this was the best version of himself. And he got knocked out in 8 minutes.

That’s not an accident. Poirier didn’t finish McGregor because he “had attributes” or because he is a bad stylistic matchup for him. He did it because for the last seven years, Poirier has been steadily improving. Because, in essence, Poirier took to heart the mantra of McGregor’s own team, “win or learn.”

In many ways, Saturday night was the culmination of that journey. McGregor is not just the biggest star in the sport, one who lifts others into the realm of wider public perception. For Poirier specifically, he was the archetypal villain, the man who handed Poirier his worst loss and forced him to reconsider his career in a fundamental way. After their first fight, Poirier moved up to lightweight and reinvented himself. He became a very good defensive fighter who boxed instead of brawled. He put together wins. In his own words, he became mentally stronger by learning to “stop caring about the noise”. He steadily kept improving. He won an interim title. He lost in his title shot. He bounced back with one of the best fights of the year. And then, finally, he conquered the man who set him down that path to begin with. It’s the plot of a Disney movie. The only thing missing was the championship, and that shouldn’t be far off.

Khabib Nurmagomedov is currently the UFC lightweight champion. But Poirier will not fight him next. No one will. Khabib retired after his win at UFC 254, and since then, he has made his thoughts on returning pretty clear: he’s not going to do it.

Now that the prospect of a pay-per-view shattering rematch between Khabib and McGregor is off the table (such that it ever was on the table in the first place), the UFC can move on to crowning a new champion, and Poirier will be one half of that fight. He certainly deserves it. Poirier now has wins over numbers 1, 4, 6, and 9 in the current UFC rankings (and the top-ranked featherweight). That’s more wins over ranked opponents than anyone in the division, other than Khabib.

If Poirier goes on to win the undisputed title and finally get “paid in full,” it would be the perfect conclusion to his career. There is literally not another person in MMA who would deserve it more. Poirier is universally respected by the MMA world, and the reason this fight even came about was Poirier and McGregor began publicly negotiating for a fight to benefit Poirier’s charity, The Good Fight Foundation. But even if Poirier loses in his next fight and never does end up capturing the undisputed UFC lightweight champion, that won’t take away from what he accomplished on Saturday night. He vanquished his demons and ascended to a rarified level of stardom. As the saying goes, pressure makes diamonds, and on Saturday night, none shown brighter than Dustin Poirier.


“Khabib reiterates he doesn’t want to fight any more – dude, I’m the champ. I’m not going to fight, some – and like I said, respect to Chandler – a new guy to the UFC who just beat a guy that’s coming off a loss that I just beat for the belt. That’s not exciting to me.” – Dustin Poirier on possibly fighting Michael Chandler for the UFC lightweight title.

“Just because he’s never had the opportunity. Gaethje just came out here and got beat, as I did. Not a knock on Gaethje, but he lost. I think Oliviera, probably, or let them fight to see who gets it.” – Dustin Poirier on why he thinks Charles Oliveira deserves the title shot.

“If he wants to have his disrespectful comments, come back and let’s go again, my man. I’m here for it. That’s fighting talk. If you’re coming back, come back. You try and do it. That’s that.” – Conor McGregor on Khabib.

“I did talk to Khabib. He said to me, ‘Dana, be honest with yourself. I’m so many levels above these guys. I beat these guys.’ I don’t know. I don’t know what he’s—it doesn’t sound very positive, so we’ll see.” Dana White giving up that Khabib is ever going to fight again.

“I’m by no means a perfect man inside that octagon, but I promise you I can beat that man. I promise you I can beat Khabib, so I told him… I didn’t tell him personally, but I told him through the camera lens. You’ve earned every right to be able to sail off into the sunset and continue living your life and making your impact because you’ve done it thus far. But, man, if you ever do come back, there’s a man over here waiting for you from High Ridge, Missouri.” – Michael Chandler on Khabib.


Stock up

Dustin Poirier: For all the reasons listed above. Poirier not only got back his worst loss, he did so on the biggest platform of his career. Poirier is set to receive the Conor McGregor bump in a huge way, and maybe even the lightweight title to go along with it.

Michael Chandler: Chandler had doubters coming into the UFC. Many of them. He has substantially fewer now. Chandler ran through Dan Hooker in a way no one else really has an immediately put himself in the lightweight title conversation.

Marina Rodriguez: Rodriguez came into this fight having had two subpar performances against grapplers. Well, third time is the charm, I guess. Rodriguez still got taken down, but when she got up she made it count.

Julianna Peña: Five years ago, Peña seemed destined for a bantamweight title shot, but then she lost to Valentina Shevchenko and hasn’t been able to build any momentum since. Finishing former title challenger Sara McMann is a good start and puts her right back in the mix at 135.

Neutral

Joanne Calderwood: Calderwood was supposed to fight for the title last year until an injury to Shevchenko prevented it. Instead, “Jojo” took a fight against Jennifer Maia and lost. This win over Jessica Eye probably doesn’t get her back to a title shot, but it does at least keep her in the conversation.

Brad Tavares: Tavares continues to be one of the most consistent fighters in the middleweight division, racking up wins against all but the very best fighters in the world. Another workmanlike performance against Antonio Carlos Junior just affirms his place in the 185 ranks.

Stock down

Conor McGregor: For all the talk of “win or learn,” McGregor hasn’t been doing a lot of either lately. McGregor has not beaten an elite fighter since the Obama administration, and now the book appears to be out on how to fight him. “Notorious” needs to make some changes.

Dan Hooker: Hooker had a big opportunity to make a name for himself on Saturday, and instead, he got folded up like a lawn chair by a UFC debutant. On top of that, Hooker just looked bad in the fight. He seemed overly concerned about Chandler’s wrestling and presented very little in the way of offense before getting clobbered.

Sara McMann: McMann is a former Olympic silver medalist and widely-respected MMA fighter, but she has a way of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and she did so again on Saturday. A win might have gotten McMann a title shot. Instead, at 40 years old she can’t have much time left in the cage.

Khalil Rountree Jr.: Rountree was one of the biggest favorites on the card and ended up losing a decision to Marcin Prachnio. He’s now 1-3 in his last 4 and in danger of being cut from the UFC.


Nik Lentz winning Eric Colón’s scorecard is not a great look. But at this point, it’s expected that there will be at least one weird decision happening on any given UFC card. Much more troubling, though, is the continued decline of Herb Dean. For many years, Dean was one of the best referees in the sport, but those years are pretty far removed at this point. Lately, he has been plagued by indecision or poor decisions with his choices in stopping fights (and last weekend stood idly by as Max Holloway may have taken years off the life of Calvin Kattar) and that problem reared its ugly head again on Saturday.

In the main card opener, Marina Rodriguez dropped Amanda Ribas with a right hand that had Ribas in all sorts of trouble. Rodriguez followed her to the floor and started rifling punches into Ribas who was holding onto a leg in desperation. Dean hovered by the two, preparing for his moment to jump in. He then appeared to do so, but changed his mind while stepping in. The result was that Rodriguez felt Dean make contact with her and walked away triumphantly, only for Ribas to stand up and for Dean to tell them to keep fighting. Rodriguez obliged and then cracked Ribas with a few more shots before Dean stepped in to waive things off.

There are two things here that make this so bad. First, is that Dean basically changed his mind about a stoppage. Had Ribas recovered and then gone on to win the fight, Rodriguez would have a very strong case that Dean negatively impacted the outcome of the fight, which is a core responsibility of the referee – to remain neutral. Secondly, he should have stopped the fight! Ribas was conscious, but clearly done, and instead of protecting her from taking more unnecessary punishment, Dean created a situation where Ribas stood back up and got lit up again. Overall, it was a terrible performance by Dean, and we’re lucky he didn’t do something similar in the main event.


Dustin Poirier vs. Charles Oliveira: Poirier deserves to fight for the title, and Oliveira is the man most deserving of the next one. This should be straightforward.

Conor McGregor vs. Rafael dos Anjos: The Nate Diaz trilogy is what everyone is thinking and probably what will actually happen next, but the RDA fight makes more sense. McGregor wants to stay active and he wants to remain in the lightweight title hunt, and with RDA once again a going concern at 155, there is plenty of backstory here to build on.

Michael Chandler vs. Justin Gaethje: For years this was the dream non-UFC fight and now it can happen in the octagon, with a title shot on the line. A no-brainer.

Dan Hooker vs. Tony Ferguson: There will be violence.

Joanne Calderwood vs. Lauren Murphy: Both women need another win to put a stamp on their title claims, and with things trending toward Jessica Andrade getting the next crack at Valentina Shechenko, this seems like the only true option.

Makhmud Muradov vs. Brad Tavares: No need to overcomplicate this. Muradov is on a 14-fight win streak and deserves a crack at the middleweight elite. That is practically Tavares’ job at this point.

Marina Rodriguez vs. Claudia Gadelha: It would be nice to give Rodriguez a break from people who are going to try and take her down but the strawweight division is not very accommodating in that regard. Gadelha would be a huge scalp for Rodriguez and put her on the path to true contention.

Julianna Peña vs. Raquel Pennington: It’s kind of surprising these two haven’t fought already. Both women are coming off wins, so now is the time.

Movsar Evloev vs. Shane Burgos. Burgos was supposed to fight at UFC 257, but an injury to his opponent forced him off the card. If Evloev is prepared to make a quick turnaround, this would be a good introduction for him to the top-15 of the division.

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