In the first UFC pay-per-view of 2021, we were promised the best version of Conor McGregor we’ve ever seen. What we got was far from it.
The dialogue leading up to his rematch with Dustin Poirier was dominated by who had improved more since their first meeting in 2014? What had changed in the 6 years since McGregor’s dismantling of Poirier?
MMA is ruled on recency bias, so McGregor’s inactivity in the last 4 years left us with little to go off in terms of predictions. All we got was the unofficial promise of something special. After all, a McGregor fight week is unlike any other fight week.
In the aftermath of January 23rd, it has been levelled at the Irishman that he gave up when the going got tough in this rematch. Firas Zahabi accused McGregor of ‘giving up’ when the fight got tough and his shotgun left hand didn’t make a dent on Poirier’s chin.
It’s not like Conor hasn’t been in tough fights. Look at his fight with Chad Mendes, for example. He gets dumped on the ground and pounded into the canvas for half of the opening round. Then, as the referee calls them back for round 2, Conor – bloodied and battered – offers Chad an enormous, toothy grin that the Joker would recoil from, beckoning his opponent on for more.
Imagine that. You’ve just unloaded everything you’ve got on your adversary and they get up looking like that, asking “Is that the best you can do?”
He goes on to take the same punishment in round 2 before knocking Chad out with seconds left of the round. There you go. He didn’t ‘give up’ there. However, that Chad Mendes fight – going back to 2015 – is the last time we can say McGregor overcame adversity to win. Since then, adversity has resulted in losses.
Losing used to devastate McGregor. Back when Conor-mania was climbing to the summit it now sits on, losing cut deep. After his first fight with Nate Diaz, which resulted in a submission loss, the sorrow was on display for all to see.
With tears in his eyes at the official decision, he accepted it in his octagon interview:
“I am humble in victory or defeat.”
He had faced adversity and lost. The left hand was a dud again. But the important feature of this post-fight interview was that he had lost and was visibly devastated about it, even humbled by it.
Fast-forward 5 years to January 2021. He loses to Dustin Poirier on his much-anticipated return and…
he’s all smiles.
If this is the new Conor McGregor seeking to reclaim the lightweight throne, he’s no longer humble in defeat – he’s happy. Whatever your opinions on McGregor, this isn’t a good look.
Now that some time has passed since the Poirier rematch, many pundits have concocted their own theories on the loss. Everyone is asking ‘why’. Why did he lose? Why was he grinning ear to ear about it? What could he have done differently?
One very simple reason could be money. He’s got it falling out of the kitchen cupboards. You don’t need to fight and you don’t need to win if you’ve got all the money in the world and you’ve already been to the top your sport. His coach – John Kavanagh – remarked to Ariel Helwani:
“He’s had belts, he’s got the money, he has the fame.”
He’s right. If you press ‘display balance’ at a cash machine and the number can’t even fit on the screen, what else have you got to fight for apart from liking the sport?
UFC president Dana White chimed in at the post-fight press conference too:
“When you get off a 310ft yacht… you know what I mean? You’re living that good life? It’s tough to be a savage.”
McGregor didn’t stay in the fighters’ hotel in Abu Dhabi during fight week in January. He stayed on this thing. Dana has a point. ‘Savage’ isn’t the word you’d associate with a guy who sails around the Middle East on a boat bigger than most people’s houses.
A second explanation for the loss has indeed been that mystical left hand. Or rather, the severe lack of it. In the real McGregor era, his left hand dropped everybody with no exceptions. Jose Aldo, Eddie Alvarez, and Chad Mendes all fell victim to it. Even Dustin Poirier couldn’t take it in their first fight.
Second time around though, it didn’t work. On the Tristar Gym YouTube channel, Firas Zahabi suggested this as a possible reason for his disappointing efforts:
“He’s not used to hitting guys with a big left and them keep fighting. He’s used to hitting guys with a big left and them dropping down to the floor.”
(Source: Tristar Gym YouTube Channel)
With the ‘big left’ almost being its own character in the McGregor multiverse, it would be fair to say its inefficacy played a role. If something isn’t broke, you don’t try to fix it do you? That left hand launched him from being a plumber’s apprentice to a world champion MMA fighter, beating multiple now former champions in the process. Suddenly, against Dustin Poirier, it didn’t work. What now?
This is where Zahabi’s earlier comments come back into play. When the left hand failed, McGregor checked out. It might just be testament to Dustin Poirier’s chin that he can absorb such power. After all, his previous fight against Dan Hooker proved his steel beyond all doubt. Only time will tell, when Conor gets back in there with another lightweight, whether the power is gone or if Poirier is just that tough. One thing’s for sure: he can’t rely on it anymore.
The conversation surrounding UFC 257 has also been dominated by what McGregor could have done differently. There was an obvious change in style from January 2020 to January 2021. A seemingly boxing-based fight camp has morphed him from a dynamic Taekwondo style of striking to a closed-off boxing style.
The Conor we saw in most of his previous fights bounced in and out of range, utilised flashy kicks, and didn’t get his legs hacked off.
There came a point where the lead leg might as well have been hung in a butchers’ front window. It was dead. A pre-fight comment from John Kavanagh came to mind when McGregor’s lead leg became inanimate:
“Would training mostly in orthodox stance for this whole camp have paid off?”
(Source: Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show)
To Ariel Helwani, he passed this as a flippant detail of the camp which, at the time, was taken to be true. After the fight, he revealed that this was a joke, a ‘tongue in cheek’ comment. Looking back now, it might’ve been a good idea to train in the opposite stance, John.
So where does McGregor go from here? The immediate trilogy with Poirier would be exciting but it seems impossible to justify. Justin Gaethje – the second-ranked lightweight, only behind Dustin Poirier – dismissed it:
“If he [McGregor] fights for a title, I will never fight in the UFC again.”
(Source: ESPN MMA)
The reality is that the aura around McGregor has dissipated. At least for the time being. Purist fans will shun the idea of a title fight after such a resounding loss, although you can imagine the PR meetings already taking place about posturing for that spectacle.
Aside from Poirier, a rematch between McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov has been mentioned, but Javier Mendez – Khabib’s coach – begged to differ:
“He [McGregor] would’ve got smashed. Khabib’s better. He’s better than he was when they fought two years ago. Conor didn’t appear to be better.”
(Source: Submission Radio)
So that’s off the table. Mendez even went as far to tell us we’ll never see that rematch. Gutting.
Which leaves… Nate Diaz. 4 and a half years on, their trilogy is still gathering gravitational potential energy. However, just as McGregor is in need of a high profile fight that doesn’t disrupt the rankings, Diaz calls out… you guessed it, Dustin Poirier.
The MMA Gods have got eyes bigger than their bloodthirsty bellies it seems. McGregor against Diaz surely makes more sense. Conor hasn’t won a fight at lightweight for over 4 years and Nate hasn’t even fought in the division for 5. Plus it would make the UFC a disgusting amount of money.
Is this the end of Conor McGregor? No. It is not the end. But the blueprint to knock him out is now in circulation and it’s going round faster than a love note in a GCSE maths class. So whatever the UFC decides to do with the Irishman, it’s sure to be fireworks.