UFC 302 main card: Why each fight matters, including Dustin Poirier's underdog tale vs. Islam Makhachev

If you’re the kind of person who thinks that betting odds have a story to tell in the lead-up to a big title fight, UFC 302 has been an interesting case to follow.

After UFC president Dana White announced that Islam Makhachev would defend his lightweight title against Dustin Poirier this Saturday night in Newark, New Jersey, the initial reaction of oddsmakers was measured, yet very clear. Poirier opened as about a +350 underdog, with the champion Makhachev the favorite at -470.

Translation: The champ is probably going to stay the champ, no matter how much Poirier’s legion of fans might wish it were otherwise.

But then, didn’t Poirier also come into his last bout as the underdog? And didn’t he knock out the young whippersnapper Benoit Saint-Denis before cooly telling us all that he hoped we were smart enough to bet on him? Surely, Poirier’s many fans might move that line in his favor as they jumped on a chance to get long odds on one of MMA’s most beloved figures.

Yet here we sit at the start of UFC 302 fight week and the opposite has happened. Makhachev is, at the time of this writing, now a -650 favorite at BetMGM. And Poirier? He’s up near 5-1 at the moment. That’s oddsmakers saying that even with a juicy underdog line on a fan favorite, not enough fish are biting.

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MARCH 09: Dustin Poirier reacts after his victory against Benoit Saint Denis of France in a lightweight fight during the UFC 299 event at Kaseya Center on March 09, 2024 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
After an underdog win in his last fight, can Dustin Poirier summon some more veteran magic at UFC 302? (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

The good news for Poirier is that this matchup has officially entered shock-the-world territory. You want that freeze frame moment near the end of your career? The one where you win the unwinnable fight and triumph over great odds (literally)? Then go out there and beat Makhachev for the UFC title. Easier said than done, of course. But it’s not like Poirier hasn’t surprised us before …

Here’s a look at what else the pay-per-view portion of UFC 302 has to offer this Saturday:

Who they are: Brown was something of a prospect find for the UFC some eight years ago, and since then it feels like we’ve been waiting for him to live up to the full potential of his frame as a 6-foot-3 welterweight. Zaleski is one of those guys who’s fought so many known names that it’s easy to forget he actually has wins over Sean Strickland and Benoit Saint-Denis.

Why it matters: Neither of these guys has lit the world on fire lately and neither is ranked at 170 pounds. This might be one of those fights between also-ran veterans to see who has more of a future left in him. It could also be that UFC matchmakers simply couldn’t believe these two hadn’t already fought and decided to rectify the oversight.

Who they are: Almeida is a Brazilian heavyweight with a suffocating ground game, which is not always as fun to watch as it should be. Romanov is an Eastern European big man who seemed like he might be on his way to the top until he ran into a higher class of competitor recently and came away with two consecutive losses.

Why it matters: Heavyweight feels like a wide open division these days, and both these guys have some promise lurking under the surface. Almeida seemed to have the brighter future until he got knocked out by Curtis Blaydes for his first UFC loss in March. This is the kind of bounce-back fight he needs to win in order to prove that he might still be who we thought he was.

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - JULY 29:  Kevin Holland poses for a portrait backstage during the UFC 291 event at Delta Center on July 29, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Kevin Holland (above) enters his UFC 302 matchup vs. Michal Oleksiejczuk as a -275 favorite. Oleksiejczuk is +220. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Who they are: Holland is one of those MMA weirdsmobiles who always brings a certain kind of fun, even when it doesn’t necessarily benefit him. Oleksiejczuk is a former light heavyweight with finishing power but not a ton of consistency.

Why it matters: Holland is clinging to the edge of the middleweight rankings after two straight losses, including losing the battle of the lanky, unconventional strikers in a one-sided match against Michael “Venom” Page in March. Oleksiejczuk is also coming off a loss in March and has yet to string together more than two wins in a row since joining the UFC. Normally, this is the kind of fight that Holland wins and Oleksiejczuk loses. But are these normal times?

Who they are: Strickland had a cup of coffee with the middleweight belt after pulling off one of last year’s biggest upsets, then lost it to Dricus du Plessis in his first title defense. Costa is the biggest Silly Little Guy™ in MMA, to the point where you can never tell when he’s just messing around and when he’s not — until he wallops you upside the head.

Why it matters: Strickland has made himself into a culture war lightning rod, which has increased his visibility but also his polarity. He realistically only needs to win one relevant fight to be back in the mix for a middleweight title shot, and Costa should be the kind of opponent he could carefully outpoint en route to a decision victory. Then again, Costa did look good even in defeat against Robert Whittaker his last time out. He’s got that one-shot power that Strickland lacks. And a knockout win here might make Costa look like an interesting candidate for a title shot in that just-weird-enough-to-be-fun sort of way.

Who they are: Makhachev is the UFC lightweight champ who, despite having the belt for nearly two years now, has not yet defended it against an actual lightweight. Poirier is a fan-favorite who, at 35, is getting his last best shot to add “undisputed UFC champion” to his résumé.

Why it matters: Title fights are always significant, but this one has compelling narratives on both sides. Makhachev has this air of authority as the champ after dominating Charles Oliveira to claim the belt. He could still use some title fight wins over known names at lightweight, however, and Poirier is the kind of opponent who brings a lot of eyeballs to any fight. That’s a big opportunity for a champ trying to become a star. Poirier, on the other hand, has to know that there probably won’t be any more last-minute title fight offers after this one. This is it. This is his chance to put the whole story in a different light. And as with all great underdog tales, on paper it’s really hard to see how he might possibly beat Makhachev.