Sports

Two Title Fights Highlight U.F.C.’s Last Pay-Per-View of the Year

Two blue-collar men with mutual respect.

The greatest female mixed martial artist of all time looking to add a win against a chattering rival.

A promoter happy with those differences.

Those draws on Saturday, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship will hold its last pay-per-view card of the year, don’t generate the instant mainstream recognition of Conor McGregor, Israel Adesanya or Jon Jones. But the matchups offer a diverse showing of fighters whom the company has leaned on for several years, a circumstance that was evident on Thursday as the fighters stared each other down after a news conference.

The U.F.C.’s president, Dana White, said he appreciated the fighters’ different approaches. The lightweight champion, Charles Oliveira (31-8-0), and the No. 1 contender, Dustin Poirier (28-6 -0), who will headline U.F.C. 269, looked each other in the eyes intently, but briefly talked.

Amanda Nunes (21-4-0), who will defend her bantamweight belt, wore a Gucci bucket hat while she bickered with her challenger, Juliana Peña (11-4-0). White said each card had a unique dynamic regardless of the common spotlight.

“Fans respect these types of fights,” White said in a telephone interview.

These fights conclude a year that heavily featured Poirier, who will be competing for the lightweight title for the second time in his career. In July, he fought McGregor, the brash Irish star, in the U.F.C.’s most heavily marketed event of 2021. He defeated McGregor by technical knockout in the first round of what was their third fight since 2014. McGregor landed awkwardly after a blow and fractured his left tibia, a surprise conclusion to a week of hostility as McGregor repeatedly insulted Poirier and Poirier’s wife, Jolie.

Beyond money and elevated stardom, the fight was risky. Poirier, who entered the U.F.C. in 2011, had won six of his last seven fights — the loss coming against the former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2019 — and could have argued instead for a title shot with Oliveira. He jeopardized an essentially guaranteed championship fight and risked having to climb up the ranks again if he lost. But he bet on himself and is now in position to potentially end the year with gold and leather.

“These lessons I’ve learned, I’m very grateful for,” Poirier told reporters. “Being the world champion is forever — 25 minutes until eternity. That’s what’s going through my head every night when I go to sleep.”

Oliveira became the champion in May when he defeated Michael Chandler by technical knockout in the second round. Nurmagomedov (29-0-0) retired in 2020 with an unblemished record and when he competed, he essentially held the division hostage. This will be Oliveira’s first title defense, and an interesting matchup for him as a jiu-jitsu specialist against a well-rounded fighter like Poirier. The parity at the top of the lightweight division for the first time since 2018 excites White.

“You never know who is going to win, and there’s going to be some exciting fights,” White said. “Khabib was incredible and dominating everybody, and now you don’t know who could possibly be the champion.”

Nunes, similar to Nurmagomedov, has cemented herself as one of the best athletes in the sport. She entered the U.F.C. in 2013 and has lost just once in the company. Women’s mixed martial arts grew through fighters such as Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm, Miesha Tate and Cris Justino, known as Cyborg.

Nunes defeated Tate to become bantamweight champion in 2016 and easily dispatched the rest afterward, showing versatility in all of her fights with strong punches, head kicks and submissions. Her knockout of Justino in 2018 for the featherweight belt made her the first woman in U.F.C. history to be a simultaneous champion in two weight classes.

Nunes, who is a lesbian, and her partner became parents last year, and Nunes has been open about motherhood and her sexuality. In a bloody, male-dominated sport like mixed martial arts, White said her identities are important for representation.

“She touches so many different types of people and that’s awesome for reaching them and converting them to fans,” White said. “But above all that and everything she is, she’s an awesome human being and I love working with her.”

Nunes contracted the coronavirus in July, canceling an earlier scheduled fight with Peña in August. The delay frustrated Peña, and she has mentioned it frequently during media tours. Peña has for years said she felt Nunes was avoiding her. Now, the matchup is set.

“No matter what she does Saturday, I will finish her,” Nunes said. “This belt isn’t going anywhere.”

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