Two belts and two big opportunities up for grabs: A complete guide to UFC 236

Just mentioning the words “interim title” is enough to stir debate in mixed martial arts. The UFC has, at times, created interim championships seemingly for the sole purpose of selling a pay-per-view event — and perhaps has devalued its title belts and undisputed champions in the process.

So you can imagine the initial response when the promotion booked two interim title fights to headline UFC 236 on Saturday at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. That word “interim” stuck out like a sore thumb. Two sore thumbs.

But as Saturday has neared, so has public opinion on the decision to create two interim belts. For good reason. The bouts at the top of the marquee are both legitimate high-level fights.

The lightweight division has seen two — two! — official title fights in the past 29 months. The middleweight division has seen two — two! — official title fights going back 34 months. Both champions are currently unavailable. The time is now for a pair of interim title fights.

Max Holloway, who is moving up from the 145-pound weight class for this fight, doesn’t belong anywhere near a nontitle bout. He is already the featherweight champion and a top-five fighter in ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings. His opponent, Dustin Poirier, defeated former champions in two of his past three fights and has been working toward a title shot since his UFC debut in 2011.

By the numbers

13: Consecutive victories by Holloway, the longest active streak in the UFC. Only Anderson Silva (16) won more consecutive fights in the promotion.

4: Current streak of knockouts by Holloway, tied for second-longest UFC run in both featherweight history (behind Conor McGregor‘s five in a row) and title fight history (behind Chuck Liddell‘s five).

1,627: Significant strikes by Holloway in his UFC career, making him the promotion’s all-time leader.

22: UFC fights for Poirier, counting Saturday’s. Only Michael Bisping (26) had more before his first title shot.

7.1: Strikes landed per minute by Poirier, the second most among lightweights in UFC history. Holloway lands 6.8, the most in UFC featherweight history.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information research

Fighting words

“These guys should just release me.” — Poirier, tweeted on Feb. 20 as reports that the UFC was targeting an interim title fight between Holloway and Tony Ferguson. (Two days later, the promotion announced that it actually would be Holloway vs. Poirier.)

“The best way to describe it is, like, me right now, I would kill that guy. I would literally put him in a cemetery. There is a cemetery down the road from my house. I’d probably go visit him every day.” –Holloway, talking to ESPN about Holloway, whom Poirier defeated seven years ago.

Film study

Best of Max Holloway:



Take a look back at the highlights of UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway before he challenges Dustin Poirier for the interim lightweight belt.

Holloway’s favorite fight (Poirier was there):



UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway reviews film of his first fight with Dustin Poirier seven years ago and says he’s excited to avenge the loss.

Brett Okamoto’s prediction

Sometimes a fighter gets on a special run, and you just can’t bet against him. That’s Holloway right now. Poirier has the tools to beat him, but I won’t pick against the streak Holloway has been on.

Holloway via TKO, third round.

Waiting in the wings

It must be Khabib Nurmagomedov, right? He’s the 155-pound champion, so once he’s back from suspension, it would seem to be a slam dunk that he’d put his belt on the line against whomever owns the interim strap. That is, unless the UFC opts to make a fortune on a McGregor rematch, which for Saturday’s winner would be most unfortunate.

Kelvin Gastelum was supposed to fight for the middleweight title in February, but the opportunity was ripped away on the day of the fight when champion Robert Whittaker required an emergency hernia surgery. And Gastelum’s opponent, Israel Adesanya, is arguably the hottest fighter in the sport, racking up five wins in the past 14 months.

By the numbers

11-1: Gastelum’s record in fights that ended via stoppage.

9: Winners of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality TV show who have gone on to become UFC champions. Gastelum is seeking to be the 10th — six years to the day after he won Season 17.

1: Africa-born UFC champion (Kamaru Usman, welterweight). Adesanya, who like Usman is a native of Nigeria, is trying to become the second.

69.1: Percent of significant strikes successfully defended by Adesanya, the highest rate in UFC middleweight history.

306-142: Ratio of strikes landed by Adesanya to those landed by opponents in his five UFC fights. He lands 69 percent of his attempts, making him the most accurate striker in the middleweight division.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information research

Fighting words

“Kelvin, put that belt down. Seriously.” –Adesanya, after defeating Anderson Silva at UFC 234, addressing Gastelum, who was walking around at the event with a borrowed title belt and declaring himself champ after his bout with titleholder Robert Whittaker was canceled because of Whittaker’s fight-day hospitalization.

“I don’t think he’s been through the fire that I’ve been through. He hasn’t fought the quality of opponents that I have.” –Gastelum, speaking about Adesanya to a gathering of media earlier this month.

Film study

Undefeated Adesanya ready to take on Gastelum:



Israel Adesanya (16-0) looks to extend his win streak vs. Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 236. Check out ESPN+ for exclusive UFC coverage.

Adesanya’s year of domination:



From making his UFC debut in February 2018 to defeating Anderson Silva in February 2019, Israel Adesanya became a title contender in short time.

Brett Okamoto’s prediction

Tough one to call. Adesanya might prove to be a generational talent, the type of fighter who could hold on to a UFC title for an extended amount of time. But this is his toughest test stylistically. Gastelum is durable, willing to press forward and has multiple ways to beat you.

Gastelum via submission, fourth round.

Waiting in the wings

Whittaker owns the middleweight belt, the real one. Once he has returned from February’s surgery for a hernia and collapsed bowel, he should be next for Saturday’s winner. In a sport with some complicated divisional hierarchies, this one is pretty simple.

What to watch for (beyond the main event)

Most in need of a win

It might seem like an unlikely scenario for a 17-4 fighter, but Curtis Millender really needs a strong performance in his welterweight bout with Belal Muhammad during the early preliminaries (6:15 p.m. ET, ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass). Neither man is in jeopardy of losing his job, but Millender, in particular, is at a crossroads. He fought just last month in a co-main event, and he went into that fight on a high, riding a nine-fight winning streak. But after getting choked out by Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos in the first round, Millender is quickly back in the Octagon — but way down in the prelims — hoping to reestablish some career momentum. A loss to Muhammad (14-3), who is no slouch, could mire Millender in the prelims for some time to come.

You’ll see this fight on SportsCenter in the morning

The light heavyweight clash between Nikita Krylov and Ovince Saint Preux kicks off the pay-per-view (10 p.m. ET, available on ESPN+) for a reason. These guys are finishers. Krylov has had 30 pro fights, and the Russian has gone to decision zero times. Zero! He has 10 knockouts and 14 submissions. Saint Preux knows how to end fights, too. He has 11 KOs and seven subs, including a 2014 choke-out of a guy named Nikita Krylov. OSP had a run of fight straight finishes (one not in his favor) end in his last fight, which he lost via decision to Dominick Reyes. Saint Preux is not easy to look good against, but Krylov has already experienced that awkwardness. Let’s see if he’s able to figure out OSP this time.

The card’s best nickname is …

As much as it makes our skin crawl, let’s go with Jalin “The Tarantula” Turner, who faces lightweight Matt Frevola in the feature prelim (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The nickname isn’t any better than Frevola’s “Steamrolla,” really, until you know the back story, which includes the fact that Turner collects tarantulas and has had as many as 200. Apparently stamp collecting wasn’t creepy enough for him.

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