In what will almost certainly go down as the most-watched MMA pay-per-view of 2021, a pair of lightweights who were not the notorious Conor McGregor made two enormously memorable statements with their fists. In just a little over seven minutes, Dustin Poirier gained revenge for a 2014 loss to McGregor with an absolutely killer KO, while in the opening act to this highly anticipated bout, UFC newcomer Michael Chandler destroyed Dan Hooker with an instantly star-making blow.
Let’s start with Chandler, who delivered what would have been a show-stealing performance if this had been nearly any other show. Though a familiar name to MMA fans due to his reigns with the Bellator lightweight championship, the 34-year-old fighting out of Nashville qualifies as an unknown for those who only tune in for the three or four biggest fights of the year, or even those who (like me) keep their eyes pretty much exclusively in Dana White’s realm.
But if Chandler started the night as a well-hyped question mark in the minds of his new audience, he ended it as an exclamation point. Going up against the New Zealand boy Hooker—a 30-year-old foe who despite being just on the wrong side of “contender” is still prominent, well-respected, and a “lightweight” only in the most literal sense—Chandler inarguably demonstrated that he was a cut above his competition. In just the very first round, Chandler got the TKO with just a booming left hand that hit flush and dropped his opponent, then a flurry of follow-up punches on a helpless Hooker that forced the ref to intervene. It was quick and merciless and makes Chandler a very intimidating threat for whomever he matches up against next.
And afterwards, he cut an energetic, charismatic, and seemingly well-rehearsed post-fight promo designed to vault him into the thick of the lightweight title conversation. Considering that Poirier needed 25 minutes and three judges to best Hooker just seven months ago, and considering what Poirier would do to McGregor just moments later, I think he has a point.
But even though Dustin’s earlier battle against the same opponent unfavorably compared to Chandler’s destruction, Poirier topped the hotshot debutante with his showing in the main event on Saturday. He maybe didn’t better the Chandler win in terms of speed or wall-to-wall dominance—and one could even claim that the caliber of his opponent wasn’t as strong—but a UFC fighter can do nothing more emphatic than strip Conor McGregor of his ability to function, and that’s exactly what the former interim champ did in round number two. After a fairly slow and clinch-oriented first five minutes, Poirier took control in the second round by hurting McGregor’s legs with a series of kicks. Once Conor’s movement was compromised, the Cajun cage fighter pounced, sending a barrage of punches at McGregor’s face until the Irishman was flat on his ass. After that, Poirier only got two strikes in on an entirely defenseless McGregor before the bout was stopped.
This was really a great night of fighting for anyone not named Conor or Dan, and it’s especially invigorating because it happened in a lightweight division that’s kind of been shrouded in mystery and confusion because of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s supposed retirement. Particularly for Poirier, though it probably wasn’t his most difficult or hard-fought win, this redemptive victory with the whole world watching was a crowning achievement for a longtime staple of this sport who has nevertheless failed to ever hold a true championship. And even if this KO eventually helps lead Poirier to the ultimate glory, it’s possible and maybe even probable that what happened on Saturday will remain the most important moment of his career. The most foolproof way to create new stars is to have them kick the ass of a current star. And Dustin Poirier just kicked the ass of the biggest star in the world.