Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier headlines UFC 257 this January 23, 2021 at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
One sentence summary
Phil: Conor McGregor continues his heroic road to redemption that began with Donald Cerrone, tried to pass through Diego Sanchez, and now goes through a man that he knocked out in one round.
David: Conor McGregor versus Not Another Edgelord
Record: Dustin Poirier 26-6-1 NC | Conor McGregor 22-4
Odds: Dustin Poirier +260 | Conor McGregor -290
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: I honestly don’t know where we’re at in the Conor McGregor saga. Is he fighting Jake or Logan Paul? I forget which Peaked in High School influencer he’s got beef with. Is he going to jail? Of course not. We don’t take sexual assault seriously unless the women making the accusations is a nun. Is Dana still mad at him? Of course not, Conor’s back to make him money! Etc. It sucks to have to talk about non-fight related Conor material, but that’s just the nature of the beast. Conor is here to do what Conor wants, and no dolly is safe.
Phil: The McGregor express has rolled up again, the doors have opened and the same old stories are being duly distributed. Is he in the best shape of his career? Well, he looks a bit more yoked, which doesn’t bode incredibly well for someone whose gas tank has historically been a significant flaw. Is he one match away from a title shot? Probably, if he cares enough, and if he doesn’t get derailed by, like, jail. Is he more motivated than ever? His current approximate schedule of “one cherry-picked opponent per year” suggests that the answer is no.
David: Six of Dustin’s last eight fights have earned him performance bonuses, so he’s doing the Action Fighter tour, and getting the big matchups. I’m not sure this is the fight everyone wanted or asked for, but it’s a good fight for Dustin that can answer a lot of key questions. He’s an elite fighter who is either on the verge of being crowned once more, or a year removed from being an elite gatekeeper. The stage is set for him to be the former if he can get past McGregor.
Phil: Dustin Poirier seems to be in the cashing in stage of his career, and that makes a lot of sense. The man has been in non-stop action fights for essentially his entire run, and seemed… more at peace with losing to Khabib than you expect from someone who still had dreams of holding championship gold. The McGregor fight offers redemption of a sort, sure, and offers a quick route to that elusive championship gold as well, but mostly I think it just represents a nice, fat payday that makes all the brain trauma worthwhile. And Dustin Poirier deserves one of those, as much as anyone in the sport.
What’s at stake?
David: Conor has the ability to do great things, but beating Dustin for a second time — following up a match that was both definitive and anticlimactic all at once — won’t exactly excite the MMA Greatness gods. Still, we can’t exactly complain. This is a great In a Vacuum fight that has more divisional implications if Dustin wins than if Conor wins, because well, it’s Conor we’re talking about.
Phil: If Conor wins, he either drifts off into a meme fight with Manny Pacquiao or Jake Paul or something, or gets an immediate title shot. I am fairly unconvinced by the idea that Khabib is coming back, but surely Conor will make loud noises at him to try and change his mind. If Dustin wins, they almost certainly book an immensely lucrative rematch.
Where do they want it?
Phil: McGregor analysis has become a rearranging of the same few solitary facts. For the biggest star in the sport, he’s both incredibly well-scrutinized, and yet specialized enough that much of the focus becomes on just how big or small the holes in his game are, and how these differ from popular perception. Have we finally moved past the “Conor’s ground game is underrated” phase? He did alright against Khabib, and handled himself well against Diaz. I think we can put the idea of him being a whitebelt to bed, but I still wouldn’t particularly like his chances grappling with specialized lightweight (or god forbid, welterweight) grapplers for any length of time. The main thing, of course, is that most of his game stops that from ever happening. Thick wrists and big fists, long arms, wide shoulders and an acute eye for early positional errors mean that he either knocks out or badly hurts most opponents before they have a chance to get going. My main takeaway from McGregor is that his enemies are less stuff like grappling than they are things like pace and space (which simply happen to synergize a bit better with a grappling approach for those fighting him). He works best forcing his opponents backwards, and is thus far a genuinely fairly mediocre fighter when backed into the cage, resorting to running away or bizarre, ineffective juking and jiving. Similarly, he also tends to become a bit more ragged once the power of the first seven minutes or so is out of the way. He remains skilled and dangerous, but his shocking early focus makes for a keen edge which blunts comparatively quickly.
David: The Cerrone fight didn’t show us anything new except that shoulder strikes can break a nose if properly applied. McGregor’s game hasn’t changed because it doesn’t need to. He’s still a fantastic pressure fighter who doesn’t need to swarm an opponent to create a swarming effect: keeping fighters guessing with attacks from his rear side, and corralling them into his center of punch gravity with front kicks and ‘spinning shit’. As he’s become more interested in countering, his kicks seemed to have increased (less his output, and more his selection), which is worth noting against Poirier, who often ducks during his punch entries. McGregor’s always been pretty comfortable on the ground, less for his technical acumen, and more for his raw agility. His basic understanding combined with his nimble ability to shift into and out of pressure makes him a fairly neutralizing force, so I don’t expect Poirier to draw out Conor’s grappling “weakness.”
Phil: It’s so rare to find someone who overcomes their mental limitations in this sport. If a fighter loses a particular kind of fight early in their career, it’s generally worth assuming that they’ll simply lose the same fight again if they encounter it again at a higher level. Poirier is one of those rare fighters that seems to have learned something very difficult: he has learned heart. I didn’t become a full believer after the Alvarez and Gaethje fights, but the Holloway fight finally convinced me. The blend of technical improvements (a functional jab and consistent stance to go with the shifting swings and swiss-army-knife clinch assault) and mental improvements were the difference between an action fighter for fight night cards, and a contender on one of the biggest PPVs of the year. However, for all the transformation that Poirier has undergone, it is still worth pointing out that his early self is still in there somewhere: he’s going to throw at least one humongous shifting punch every two rounds or so. He’s still going to back up and forearm guard for longer than he might want to every now and again. While he has weaponized pace, he also tends to fight in bursts of furious activity rather than at a steady, Holloway-esque clip.
David: Poirier reminds me of Robbie Lawler if we’re talking about career progression. Lawler was a meat and potatoes striker who gradually became more nuanced and patient without losing the velocity of his primary attack. Poirier hasn’t become more patient, but he’s no longer the Warhammer chaos marine of old — with a limited blast radius, and one-note centerline brawling. Not that Dustin was ever one-dimensional, but I like that Dustin has embraced his counterpunches. I’m not saying he’s a good counterfighter. That’s an important distinction because I think he can throw good counterstrikes, but that doesn’t mean he’s got those ice in his veins counterfighter instincts. Still, it adds layers to his already-layered wide-angled attack. His punch entries are a lot better too. He caught Max Holloway a lot coming in with his head dipped, and fists raised, avoiding a lot of Holloway’s posturing and screwing up his rhythm. Is this enough to beat McGregor? I don’t think so.
Insight from past fights
Phil: There is obviously a reason why McGregor picked this fight, and it comes through in the footage of their first bout, albeit not quite as much as you might expect. The main risk for Poirier is on offense: wading after McGregor with big shifts and swinging at him. Yet even in their first fight, when Poirier was much more of a loony, McGregor wasn’t able to just counter Poirier cleanly the way he did Alvarez. Part of it is, I suspect, the closed stance dynamic, partly it’s Poirier’s reach, and partly it’s that McGregor wasn’t quite the savage counterpuncher that he would become. Still, the point remains: it wasn’t the counterpunching that won McGregor the fight, but more him forcing Poirier backwards into the cage and clipping him. The way that Poirier has specifically improved his defense with a far more active, malleable and dangerous guard should at least serve to save him from getting knocked out the first time he’s backed into the fence(?).
David: I always hated how the first fight ended. It’s not a criticism. I just hate seeing fights get cheesed out from behind the ear strikes. Let’s face it. We love the aesthetic of Gonzaga’s shin severing Mirko’s head, or Dan Henderson giving Wanderlei the dead holy ghost arms with that left hook. Conversely, who watches replays of Cain Velasquez getting knocked out by JDS? I mention this because I think the instinct for Dustin fans is to say: ‘well that can’t obviously happen again.’ But everything prior to the KO was Conor lasso’ing Dustin into his usual cone of fire. I don’t see any reason to think Poirier can avoid the same firefight. While I don’t think Poirier can counterpunch effectively, he does have effective counterpunches and he nearly caught Conor with a few in their first fight. If Poirier can maintain a rhythm where he’s punishing Conor with counters as much as Poirier is getting punished by Conor’s counters, I can see Dustin nickel-and-diming his way to victory.
Phil: It becomes harder to accept Conor coming in “in the best shape of his career” when he spends one quarter of the year in training camp and the rest partying. I trust Poirier’s professionalism, but it is also worth pointing out that he looked more troubled by Dan Hooker than I honestly would have suspected. Constant training camps and fights might keep you sharp, or they might just wear you out.
David: Khabib and his crew aren’t gonna be there, right?
Phil: I wish I could pick Poirier… but I’m not going to. His forearm guard should actually be fairly effective against a closed-stance McGregor, and Poirier is a larger man and bigger hitter than most of the smaller men that McGregor likes to feast on. Nor is he as glacially slow as Nate Diaz, or as stylistically snookered as Cerrone. However, the core problem remains the same: McGregor can probably take Poirier’s shots, but until I see otherwise I’m not sure that Dustin can take McGregor’s. Similarly, in a matchup defined by forward pressure, Dustin is the more likely to leave his chin out there as he shifts inside to land a big bomb. Essentially, I must agree with my Heavy Hands co-host in his latest article. Conor McGregor by TKO, round 2.
David: Poirier, I think, is more likely to get sucked into fighting Conor’s game than vice versa. That doesn’t mean a whole to begin with since it’s not like Poirier has another axis to fight Conor on, but as aesthetically unpleasing as the end result to the first fight looked, I still see it as a proper template of their conflicting forces. Holloway doesn’t have anything close to Conor’s power and even Holloway clipped him coming in. Fighters like Poirier are the kind McGregor can feast on for days. Conor’s weaknesses can only be explored against kaiju level toughness toughness (Diaz) or kaiju-level strength (Nurmagomedov). Technically-gifted strikers without an equalizer — be it in the form of massive power like Chandler, or some Aeon Flux-drawn fighter with that ‘cheater’ physique like a Young Tony Ferguson — will be the guys that eventually cave in because Conor’s game is built off forcing an equal amount of reactive and proactive lines from the opponent. If you can’t avoid getting stuck in this midrange rhythm, you’re done. Conor McGregor by KO, round 3.