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The Weekly Takedown: A world of possibilities awaits Dustin Poirier at UFC 281

The former interim lightweight champ knows a win Saturday against Michael Chandler opens options to challenge for the division belt.
dustin-poirier

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated's in-depth look at MMA. Every week, this column offers insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

Dustin Poirier is not UFC lightweight champion, instead carrying a different title with him at this point in his career.

Poirier is one of the most called-out fighters in all of MMA. Whether in his division (Justin Gaethje and Beneil Dariush both expressed their interest in the past few weeks for a fight against him) or even outside of it (Colby Covington is doing everything in his power to get his attention), Poirier is constantly name-dropped by other fighters. He takes pride in being a measuring stick, even if he cannot keep up with all the times he is called out.

"I can't keep up and neither do I try to keep up," Poirier says. "But that's a good problem to have."

Poirier steps back into the cage Saturday at UFC 281 for a pivotal lightweight bout against Michael Chandler (23-7 MMA, 2-2 UFC). If victorious, Poirier (28-7 MMA, 20-6 UFC) will instantly regain his place among top title contenders, perhaps even becoming the next to challenge the champion after Islam Makhachev makes his first title defense against Alexander Volkanovski.

"Everything I've been doing for the past 10 weeks of my life is to put myself in the best position possible to go out there, step in the octagon, and walk away with the victory," Poirier says. "It's been a little while. I'm excited to show everyone how I've been working my ass off every day."

A win against Chandler will allow Poirier to call out the champion, which is the only fight he is pursuing. Poirier last competed in December, when he was defeated by Charles Oliveira in a title bout. Oliveira's hot streak ended last month at UFC 280, where he was defeated by Makhachev. Poirier was thoroughly impressed with Makhachev, who took hardly any punishment before making Oliveira tap.

"I knew Makhachev could go out there and win and become the world champion, but I thought he would have to walk through fire to get it done," Poirier says. "He made it look pretty easy, and I thought that was super impressive.

"Now we have a new champion in the division, and that opens up a lot of possibilities. It's someone I haven't fought before, so we'll see. I'm not looking beyond next week. After that, we'll figure out what's next."

At 33, Poirier wants to take advantage of every moment he can to finally win the title. While he has been interim champ, becoming the undisputed champion would complete his career. The first step needed for that to happen is to defeat Chandler at Madison Square Garden.

"This has the potential to be a crazy, exciting fight," Poirier says. "Michael is a great opponent. Fighting at Madison Square Garden, that's a big deal. I'm honored to add this milestone to my resume and come away with the win.

"It's a perfect storm for me, and it's going to be a great night."

Esparza seeks first successful title defense

carla-esparza

Carla Esparza has always pushed herself to reach new heights. This weekend, she gets the chance to do so again.

The reigning women's strawweight champion, Esparza (19-6 MMA, 10-4 UFC) defends her title on Saturday at UFC 281 against former champ Zhang Weili (22-3 MMA, 6-2 UFC). The bout marks Esparza's first chance to fight in New York, let alone the famed Madison Square Garden. It is also her chance to finally deliver a successful title defense, a feat she failed to accomplish in her first title run.

"Fighting at MSG is an honor, but my dream isn't just to fight there," Esparza says. "My dream is to win there."

Esparza enters this title bout on a six-fight win streak. Her last fight took place in May when she defeated Rose Namajunas for the title, which was an encounter with sparse action. Esparza intends to make up for that in her title defense against Zhang, who will look to push the action with her striking.

"The difference against Weili is going to be my experience," Esparza says. "We've fought a similar number of years and fights, but I have more high-level experience. She's finished some of the top girls in the division, but my experience is going to make a big difference."

If Esparza is able to earn the win, there is no shortage of opponents looking for a title shot. That includes Namajunas, who would relish a third chance to finally solve Esparza in the cage. Yet all of that is secondary, as Esparza's sole focus is ensuring this becomes her first-ever successful title defense.

"Defending this title is the unfinished business I've been waiting almost eight years to do," says Esparza, who lost the title in 2015 during her lone title defense. "I've never been able to defend the title. That's the one piece I've been chasing.

"When I lost the belt last time, I was in the worst place mentally. I needed a break after winning the title. This time, I recovered physically and mentally after I won the belt. I'm going into this fight as the best version of me. I'm not looking ahead to anything else. There is business for me to take care of first."

Only days away from potentially rewriting a new chapter in her career, Esparza is prepared for the high-level challenge that Zhang presents.

"I'm enjoying the challenge of rising to the occasion against an elite opponent," said Esparza. "It's an honor to fight at Madison Square Garden, and I feel really blessed for the opportunity. I've put in a lot of work, and I'm ready to win."

The Pick 'Em Section:

UFC 281 middleweight title bout: Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira

  • Pick: Israel Adesanya

UFC 281 women's strawweight title bout: Carla Esparza vs. Zhang Weili

  • Pick: Zhang Weili

UFC 281 lightweight bout: Dustin Poirier vs. Michael Chandler

  • Pick: Dustin Poirier

UFC 281 bantamweight bout: Frankie Edgar vs. Chris Gutiérrez

  • Pick: Chris Gutiérrez

UFC 281 lightweight bout: Dan Hooker vs. Claudio Puelles

  • Pick: Dan Hooker

Last week: 3-1

2022 record: 127-70

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.