This weekend at UFC 257, Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier will meet in the Octagon for the second time. Discussion in the leadup has focused on what may or may not have changed in the six and a half years since the first meeting between the two knockout artists. Both men are bigger, both men are better—and both got whooped by Khabib Nurmagomedov a couple years ago, so that one’s pretty much a wash.
For a sequel to a fight which only lasted 104 seconds, the main event of UFC 257 has taken on a deliciously complicated air. The possibilities seem endless, and endlessly violent, and… boy, we’ve just had a heck of a good time trying to wrap our heads around it, haven’t we?
But what if it wasn’t all that complicated? What if there really wasn’t so much to separate this pairing from those forgotten bouts filling the undercards of a hundred forgotten events? What if it were governed by the same absurdly simple dynamics? What if—and I realize I’m reaching here—MMA was just kind of dumb?
That’s right. It’s time to peel back the layers of artifice and reveal this humdinger of a matchup for what it really is: a good, old-fashioned war of attrition. Blood and guts. A classic meathead melee.
First things first, we need to understand that MMA is a sport where the guy who comes forward wins. Usually. Countless style matchups in countless permutations, and yet most amount to nothing more than a few different strategies for making the other guy step backward.
I know, I know. Right now you’re thinking, Surely it’s more complicated than that. Being the kind of person who reads technique articles like this one, you’re pretty damn sure you’ve heard this sport compared to chess at least four million times over the years. And I suppose it is like chess, a little, if the World Chess Federation rules said that you could score a checkmate by getting super pissed and flipping the board.
Maybe that makes MMA more like Monopoly, I don’t know.
But chess, Monopoly, Settlers of Catan—whatever board game you want to compare it to, the truth is that MMA, a sport with a move list as long as a Cheesecake Factory menu, is frequently decided on the most blockheaded, button-mashing terms.
Now, if you know Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier, you know that, despite their prodigious power, neither man is a dumb bruiser. Both know how to hurt people even while moving backwards. Dustin Poirier, in particular, has gotten remarkably good at getting the last word in exchanges, as in this sequence against Dan Hooker.
1. Dan Hooker follows a grazing knee into a loose, framing clinch, with Poirier’s back to the fence.
2. As Poirier reaches up for the collar ties, Hooker snatches the opening downstairs, sending a left hook to the ribs.
3. Hooker loads up on another left to the body, and Poirier spots his own opening. He winds back just a few inches—
4. —and smashes Hooker on the side of the head with a pair of short, but evidently hard, hammerfists.
5. Hooker strafes with a hook upstairs on his way out of the clinch.
6. And promptly steps back in, nestling under a Poirier jab...
7. ...and winding up on another left to the body. Poirier partially blocks the shot—
8. —then comes right back with a whistle-clean left hand down the pike.
9. And though the fence gives him little room to run, he manages to roll under a parting shot from the staggering Kiwi
This is an area in which Poirier certainly has improved since 2014. Since abandoning the featherweight cut and adopting a humbler, calmer attitude in the cage, Poirier has learned to trust in his power like never before. Against Max Holloway, he flicked out retreating counters with apparently no effort behind them, and it didn’t matter. Holloway’s head snapped back again and again; by the end of the fight, his face was hamburger. Every shot Poirier lands has the potential to be a killer, whether he means it to be or not. Now that he is aware of that fact, he has become a very difficult man to chase after.
But then Holloway-Poirier was merely a very sophisticated version of the Meathead Melee. MMA’s First Law prevailed: in the end, the guy who spent more time coming forward won. That was Dustin Poirier. And what can you even say about that Dan Hooker fight? If that wasn’t a dumb action fight, then I don’t know dumb action. And yet it was peppered with lovely little counters like the one above.
Dustin Poirier is not a dumb fighter, no more than McGregor is; he just has a habit of getting into dumb fights.
But hold on, you’re saying to yourself. This guy has repeatedly told me that MMA is a silly game where the guy who comes forward wins? Why is he showing me an example of Poirier countering off the back foot?
Well if you would just STOP INTERRUPTING and let me get to it—
So here are the problems both men face.
Poirier has always been a crushing counter puncher, and now he’s sharper than ever. You could argue it’s actually the strongest aspect of his game, even when his back is against the fence. But Conor McGregor has knocked down a lot of guys in exactly that position. In fact, he’s put all but two of his UFC opponents on their asses, and only one of those men survived to see the final bell afterward. And grimy as he may be, Poirier has never quite been Nate Diaz tough. For Dustin, relying on his best skills would mean standing in the crosshairs of one of the most accurate snipers MMA has ever seen.
It could work, but as a Plan A it’s a hard sell when the guy you’re hoping to outgun has already slept you once before.
As for McGregor, he has a few famously devastating counters of his own, none more dangerous than the hop-step left hand with which he knocked out Jose Aldo in 2015. And Dustin Poirier can be a bit of a mess coming forward, the very sort of lunging, shifting puncher that McGregor loves lining up for a devastating collision.
Most of McGregor’s counters come off a single, expertly timed backstep. Make him take two steps back, however, and he freaks the hell out. Throughout his entire career, every opponent who has ever managed to turn the tide against the Irishman, even for a few seconds, has done so by pushing him backward. And when his back actually touches the fence, he practically implodes.
So McGregor has just as much reason to stay on the front foot as Dustin. But he has always been quite open to the counter as well—at least when opponents are brave enough to throw back. McGregor comes in tall, carrying his chin high, and falls in after his punches. If Poirier’s counter punching has improved even a scintilla—as his bravery certainly has—then both men will be walking a deadly fine line.
That’s if McGregor insists on pressuring. Which, like Poirier, he has to do.
So we’re talking about plenty of exchanges like this one, from their first fight.
1. After backing McGregor off briefly with a few counters, Poirier meets him in center cage.
2. Poirier steps—a little brashly—into range, drawing a measuring jab out of McGregor.
3. Poirier takes a step back to reset, having gathered the information he needs.
4. Poirier’s next move forward comes behind a feint.
5. McGregor pops out his measuring stick, as expected, and Poirier slips inside the punch. The trap is sprung, but McGregor’s eyes stay lasered-in on Dustin’s chin.
6. Poirier lands a thudding left over the top of McGregor’s jab, right on the temple, just as McGregor clubs him with a short hook to the jaw.
7. Both men retreat, but McGregor’s is only a short hop backwards, his eyes staying focused on Dustin Poirier, who suddenly seems more interested in staying safe than fighting.
The rest of this fight—and there isn’t much of it—is all downhill for the Diamond. While his legs stay mostly together after that trade of left hands (until the next left hand, anyway), he retreats in a visible panic. And McGregor senses it. He proceeds to stalk forward, eyes wide, nostrils flared, and arc a few left hands wide of Dustin Poirier’s desperate guard. The fight ends as most of McGregor’s do, with a series of savagely efficient ground strikes. And all thanks to a simple, brutish exchange of single power shots.
If this feels vaguely nostalgic, you may be recalling the many battles fought by your childhood action figures. The kind where you put Captain America in one hand and Cheetara in the other and mercilessly bashed them together until someone’s head popped off.
In the case of McGregor-Poirier 1, that head was Poirier’s.
On reflection, maybe this fight is a little more complicated than I made out. In addition to who comes forward, it may also be about who has the harder chin.
Not a cerebral dynamic, perhaps (not in the way we were hoping for, anyway), but a true one. Both McGregor and Poirier have improved defensively since their first fight, but neither man will be able to avoid exchanges. Poirier is sloppier coming forward, but McGregor is worse going backward. Both men have dynamite in their fists, and neither can afford to let the other have his way for long. Sooner or later, they have to stand and trade. Chin versus chin.
So both guys need to come forward, and both guys need to survive whatever comes back at them. Combined with that glance back at their first fight, those pearls of dumb guy analysis would seem to suggest that Conor McGregor is simply going to win this Saturday.
Officially, the Notorious has never been knocked down—though one wonders how he persuaded UFC Stats to ignore the time that Khabib definitely did knock him down. But UFC Stats doesn’t count Poirier’s first-round knockdown versus Max Holloway, either, and Poirier has been shaken up plenty more times than that over the years. Certainly more than the iron-chinned McGregor.
One thing stats do tell us is that, since UFC 1, rematches have been won by the guy who won the first fight 60 percent of the time. Most of the time—not always, but definitely most of the time—the style matchup that governed the first fight has just as much sway over the second. Or maybe, in tune with the rest of this article, we should say that the guy who got more mad and came forward more in the first fight succeeded in doing the same in the rematch. That is, after all, how it tends to work.
But don’t despair, Poirier fans. When we butt up against an unpleasant truth, we simply rationalize our way out of it. And it’s okay to do that here, because while MMA may be stupid, it is also random. Kevin Holland knocked out all-time great grappler Jacare Souza with a breakdancing move from his back not two months ago. Anything is possible, my friends, even if a few happy accidents are required to see it done.
So let’s wrap up by examining some of the ways Dustin might manage to think his way out of this brainless matchup without getting brained.
There are the leg kicks, of course. Poirier landed nearly every one he attempted in the first fight—seven in less than two minutes—and never got countered doing it. McGregor’s inwardly rotated lead leg presents a juicy target to any fellow southpaw, and while Dustin may lack the Irishman’s grace, he is a willing and powerful kicker. Poirier is also a fearsome body puncher when he wants to be (which, admittedly, is never quite as often as he should). Both tactics would be an excellent investment against McGregor, who can fade if he fails to get the quick finish. Maybe the early going is hell regardless of what he does, but between the two of them, it’s Dustin who has earned a reputation for heroic comebacks, not McGregor. I said he wasn’t Nate Diaz tough, but Poirier has recovered too well from too many tough spots not to wonder if he hasn’t gotten close.
But long range is where McGregor is most dangerous, and unless you’re Justin Gaethje, that tends to be where you throw most of your kicks. Body punches can be countered just as well as the usual meathead variety. And toughness is one of those traits best left untested.
So how about the clinch?
Poirier is more than happy to wrestle his way out of a sticky situation. The same timing that makes him such a good counter puncher lends itself just as well to reactive takedowns. But it seems an unlikely course against McGregor. At least, not without seriously fatiguing him first. Both guys got swamped by Khabib Nurmagomedov, but McGregor stuffed four of seven takedowns, compared to Poirier’s one of eight. Ouch.
Still, those same wrestling instincts could easily be channeled into the clinch.
While McGregor has some skills in the clinch, he is never happiest tangling with an aggressive opponent. Strong pummeling, shoulder strikes, and the occasional elbow on a break may not be enough if Poirier manages to slip inside McGregor’s reach and tie up with him. Especially if he can drive McGregor back all the way to the fence, or spin him into it.
Poirier is an MMA native, and his clinch game doesn’t really fall into any of the traditional categories. Like a stubby Jon Jones, he’s as apt to control position with an overhook and wrist control as he is to grab collar ties and blast away with a few knees. He holds the head and punches the body, but he’ll frame off and land a neat elbow when the opportunity arises. He’ll throw nifty, creative strikes like the hammerfists in our first example. And when all of this starts to overwhelm the foe, he’ll drop for takedowns.
The clinch might be the best path to victory for Dustin Poirier, but McGregor isn’t going to give it to him. At the end of the day, we’re right back where we started. To comfortably throw kicks, Dustin Poirier has to go forward. To enter the clinch, he has to go forward. He’ll find moments on the back foot, almost certainly, but if he wants to see the later rounds, only one tactic will keep those from being mere moments. You guessed it: he has to go forward.
And Conor McGregor will be waiting for him, just as he was six and a half years ago.
It may not be all that clever a fight, but tell me you don’t want to see that.