Newly crowned UFC interim champions Dustin Poirier and Israel Adesanya had to overcome the toughest opponents of their careers on Saturday night at UFC 236 in Atlanta to secure interim gold. But now that the fighters have achieved championship status, they appear to be headed toward clashes with even more dangerous rivals.
Both winning close decisions in Fight of the Year candidates, Poirier (25-5) defeated UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway (20-4) for the interim lightweight title while Adesanya (17-0) defeated Kelvin Gastelum (15-4) for the UFC interim middleweight title.
Despite their epic performances, both Poirier and Adesanya were tabbed underdogs by online bookmakers on the early UFC betting market for their assumed next fights against sitting UFC divisional champs Khabib Nurmagomedov (UFC lightweight champion) and Robert Whittaker (UFC middleweight champ).
Nurmagomedov Big Favorite Over Poirier
Nurmagomedov (27-0) opened as a -333 (1/3) favorite per Betfair in a proposed unification bout against new interim champ Poirier, who was a +275 (11/4) underdog.
While the 30-year-old Russian is currently suspended for the cage-side melee Nurmagomedov helped incite after defeating Conor McGregor at UFC 229, he’s expected to be back inside the Octagon in September against Poirier.
There’s no question Nurmagomedov is one of the top fighters in the sport. He’s undefeated as a professional, 27-0 overall and 11-0 in the UFC, and he arguably possesses the top ground game in the sport. While Poirier was able to overcome relatively long odds to upset Halloway in a fight 10 pounds above the division in which Halloway had done his best work, beating Nurmagomedov for the UFC lightweight championship is another thing altogether.
Nurmagomedov is a puzzle no other fighter has yet solved. He’s a brutal takedown artist and once he gets his opponents on the mat, he completely dismantles them. Poirier's win over Halloway was impressive, but to upset Nurmagomedov he’ll need to better than he’s ever been before. Nurmagomedov is both an excellent wrestler and an underrated striker.
In fact, Poirier, 30, doesn’t seem to have any real advantage over Nurmagomedov in any area. However, it’s possible the American could use heavy leg kicks combined with hard strikes elsewhere to nab what would be a huge upset win.
Whittaker Opens Slight Favorite over Adesanya
Also per Betfair, UFC middleweight champion Whittaker (20-4) opened as an -138 (8/11) favorite over Adesanya, who is +110 (11/10), in a hotly anticipated middleweight title unification fight that UFC’s Dana White said would probably be in front of Whittaker’s home crowd in Australia.
Whittaker had taken the interim championship road to the title himself, beating Yoel Romero by unanimous decision in July 2017 at UFC 213 before being promoted to full champion when Georges St-Pierre retired.
Whittaker was originally supposed to face Gastelum in February in his first middleweight title defense but that fight had to be canceled due to injury.
Whittaker last fought in June 2018 at UFC 225, when he defeated Yoel Romero by split decision in a rematch of their UFC 213 encounter meaning when he finally defends his middleweight title he will have been out of the Octagon for over a year.
Meanwhile, Adesanya has been on a tear since entering the UFC in February 2018. The 29-year-old has yet to taste defeat and appears to be on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars in the UFC.
While Adesanya was pushed to the brink by Gastelum, at the end of five grueling rounds he ultimately won by decision in what will probably turn out to be the fight where Adesanya truly proved to the masses he belonged at the top level of the sport.
Whittaker, 28, has already done that, winning eight straight fights while solidifying himself as the best middleweight in the world. If Adesanya really believes he has what it takes to someday move up in weight in order to challenge the likes of light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, he’ll need to be the kind of fighter who beats Whittaker first.