Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
It might have been the biggest fight in UFC history not involving a title belt.
Conor McGregor (22-5) stepped inside the fencing for the first time in more than a year Saturday for a rematch with fellow lightweight contender Dustin Poirier (27-6-1) in the curtain-closer for UFC 257, which went down at Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
McGregor was a healthy favorite at or around -300 on the big betting sites, per DraftKings. But Poirier and the MMA gods were in spoiler mode, sending the Irishman plummeting to Earth with a technical knockout at 2:32 of the second round.
“I felt like this was the title fight,” Poirier told broadcaster Jon Anik in the cage after the bout. “If [semi-retired lightweight champ] Khabib [Nurmagomedov]’s not coming back, me and Conor are the two best guys, and I think this was the title fight, [so] I’m the champion.”
Maybe not just yet, but given Nurmagomedov’s uncertainty, Poirier might be the closest thing to an active champ the 155-pound division will have for a while.
To be honest, though, the big story of the fight wasn’t its winner. McGregor is now 1-2 in his past three MMA fights, dating back to 2018. That’s not the kind of stat line you tend to associate with the global face of your sport.
“It’s hard to overcome inactivity over long periods of time, and that’s just it,” McGregor told Anik after the fight. “And the leg kicks was good. That low calf kick was very good. The leg was dead, and then I just wasn’t as comfortable as I needed to be.”
About those kicks. They were a weapon of choice for Poirier in the first, and the Diamond used every tool at his disposal to try to take away some of McGregor’s kickboxing dynamism. A takedown attempt entered the picture early as well, and although McGregor never really found himself flush on his backside, the process did result in clinch time that wicked away his energy stores.
McGregor had plenty of his own moments in the first, particularly down the stretch when he had a chance to get established in space. The one-two combinations routinely found a home, and he probably outstruck Poirier overall. The round would have been close, and it may well have gone to McGregor on at least some cards.
Plenty of people saw the first fight between McGregor and Poirier in 2014, which ended with a McGregor knockout in less than two minutes, and expected the same thing, or some variation of it. It turns out, though, that skill sets can change in the span of six years. The original also took place in the 145-pound featherweight division. Poirier has repeatedly described how steep his cut to 145 was, which in turn can have an effect on a fighter’s chin.
All of this is to say, and I hope you’re sitting down, but there was reason to think the rematch might go differently. And in the second round, it did.
Early on, it seemed Poirier’s leg kicks were starting to add up, with McGregor noticeably limping. He caught a few of the kicks but didn’t do anything meaningful from there. At one point, he appeared to lose significant mobility, and Poirier moved in with a casual but steely resolve. Rights and lefts came in big combinations and were squarely aimed. McGregor attempted to skitter out of danger and reset, but Poirier hounded him relentlessly, pursuing him along the fence.
A big punch put McGregor down. Poirier pounced, and soon the Irishman was out.
“I’m happy, man, but I’m not surprised. I put in the work,” Poirier said after the fight. “We’re 1-1, so maybe we have to do it again … The goal was to be technical and pick my shots. I brought it all. I have a big tendency to just get crazy, trying to hurt guys and getting out of position. But I showed a little bit of counterboxing here.”
Poirier referred to a rubber match between himself and McGregor. Nurmagomedov is in the picture until he says he isn’t (although you have to imagine this McGregor loss certainly scuttled an easy narrative for a blockbuster rematch). Former Bellator champ and longtime lightweight great Michael Chandler won his own UFC debut with authority in the evening’s co-main event when he knocked out Dan Hooker. And that’s before we even begin to think about Charles Oliveira or Justin Gaethje.
If lightweight isn’t the best division in the UFC right now, I don’t know what is. Unless or until Nurmagomedov returns, Poirier’s the guy calling the shots.
At this point, McGregor just needs to find a way to win a fight. He’s right to point out that he’s been out of the grind for some time.
“I’ll need to dust it off and get back in here, and that’s what I’m gonna do,” he told Anik.
“I need activity, guys, come on. You don’t get away with being inactive in this business, and that’s the way it is, so I’ll take my licks.”
If that holds true, fans will see McGregor soon. And while his fame will assure that he’ll have a prominent spot on any fight card, it will take more than that to get him back to the very top of the division, especially with this level of competition all around him. After Saturday night, Poirier no longer has that problem. He’s made his point.
Now, it’s the other guy who has something to prove.