3 storylines to watch at UFC 289
UFC 289 is upon us.
In Saturday's main event, women's two-division champion Amanda Nunes will defend her bantamweight title - for the first time of her second reign - against short-notice replacement Irene Aldana. Perhaps more anticipated, though, is the co-main event, as former lightweight champion Charles Oliveira looks to get back in the winner's circle against Beneil Dariush.
Here are three key storylines heading into the Vancouver pay-per-view event, which marks the UFC's first trip to Canada since 2019.
What's left for Nunes in the UFC?
Nunes is the greatest women's fighter in MMA history and one of the best to ever do it, period. She has beaten every UFC women's bantamweight and featherweight who's once been champion, and she dominates more often than not.
Of course, how we view "The Lioness" has changed a little in recent years. She is getting up there in age at 35 and isn't too far removed from a shocking loss to Julianna Pena in 2021. She is no longer the invincible fighter of her first title reign. That said, her lopsided win over Pena in last year's rematch certainly did as much as it could to restore her stature.
The perhaps literal answer to the above question is a trilogy bout with Pena. That was the original main event for UFC 289, but Pena withdrew after breaking her ribs. It is by far the most fascinating matchup for Nunes at 135 pounds, Despite the fact Nunes left Pena puzzled in their second meeting, they're still tied 1-1. The score needs to be settled eventually, right?
In fairness to Aldana, she's looked good in her last two fights and is part of the current wave of fighters pushing Mexican MMA to the forefront alongside undisputed UFC champions Brandon Moreno and Alexa Grasso and interim champ Yair Rodriguez. Maybe Aldana, as a significant underdog, can do what Pena did two years ago.
But on a larger scale, this matchup makes it clear there isn't much left for Nunes in the UFC.
Women's bantamweight is one of the promotion's weakest divisions. It's been ages since a promising prospect rose to contention. The top five are currently Pena, Raquel Pennington, Holly Holm, Ketlen Vieira, and Aldana. The first three - all of whom Nunes has beaten - have been around forever, and the others have bounced between winning and losing.
Aldana being the second-best option for Nunes says all you need to know. This matchup - which some would argue isn't worthy of being a pay-per-view main event - sheds a lot of light on the women's bantamweight division, but probably not how the UFC marketing machine intended.
Can Dariush finally get over the hump?
Speaking of being around forever, Dariush has been grinding since his seventh pro fight in 2014, trying to work his way up the ladder and eventually into a UFC title opportunity.
Well, he's finally one fight away. Or at least better be.
Dariush is in the midst of a career-best streak, having won his last eight fights. He hasn't fallen short since a knockout defeat to Alexander Hernandez in March 2018. He's beaten the likes of Tony Ferguson, Mateusz Gamrot, and Drew Dober, and if he can defeat his first ex-UFC champion Saturday, there will be no denying him a shot at Islam Makhachev's belt.
Dariush first reached the lightweight top five by beating Michael Johnson all the way back in 2015. But he couldn't quite get over the hump at that point in his career, and the Hernandez loss dropped him to winless in three straight fights. It took him a while to climb out of that hole, and for an increasingly underrated fighter, it's ironic that Dariush is only now at his peak.
The stakes are also extremely high for Oliveira. He had won 11 in a row before losing to Makhachev in a rather one-sided vacant title bout last October. If the Brazilian can halt the surging Dariush, he'll be right there with the winner of Dustin Poirier versus Justin Gaethje 2 - which headlines UFC 291 in July - as most deserving of the next title shot.
How will Canada fare?
Five Canadian fighters are slated for the UFC's long-awaited return to the Great White North.
Mike Malott and Marc-Andre Barriault get main-card treatment, while Jasmine Jasudavicius, Aiemann Zahabi, and Kyle Nelson will all battle on the prelims.
Malott has to be the most interesting name of the bunch. The 31-year-old Ontario native, who spends time at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, is 2-0 in the UFC, beating both Yohan Lainesse and Mickey Gall by first-round submission. The welterweight joined the promotion after a win on Dana White's Contender Series in 2021.
If Malott gets past Adam Fugitt this weekend as the betting odds suggest he will, it could be time to start talking about giving him a top-25 opponent.
Barriault is a slight favorite to beat Eryk Anders, while the other three Canadians are underdogs. It could be a night of mixed results for the country - or, if Jasudavicius, Zahabi, and Nelson surprise, perhaps the start of a Canadian takeover.