Everything about this fight going in was obvious to Phil and I: Conor McGregor would eventually win, and probably in dramatic fashion. Dustin Poirier was a little too blue collar in his approach in my estimation. But I want to quote myself because I didn’t get everything wrong:
“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.”
As I said earlier in the preview: effective counterpunching and effective counterfighting are not synonymous. Poirier exhibits all of the right mechanics, customs, and habits that make a good counterpuncher. But when thinking about Poirier’s success, you wouldn’t consider his success to be based on a counterpuncher’s body of work. Did that change this weekend at UFC 257? Yes and no.
As with every sober play-by-play, I’m not interested in the grand narrative here. This tends to be a blind spot in traditional analysis, and something I myself fall victim to — the idea that within each fighter is a static truth about one or more abilities. Whether it’s big power, slippery grappling, or durability, we tend to think of these talents as immutable. When they’re neutralized, then it must be because the other fighter had more power, or more durability, etc. This is silly, but it’s easier to logically accept than that fights are inherently volatile — that fights operate a continuum of luck and skill. We know this basic truth not only because we’ve seen the impossible happen, like Matt Serra beating GSP, but because we saw McGregor beat Poirier once, only to lose the rematch. So what did we learn on rewatch?
Sweep the leg, Dustin
If you think of first strikes like first impressions, then Poirier’s first strike said a lot: it was a lead leg kick. It was the one strike Poirier made it a point to establish early. He threw a few overhands (including the one to set up the eventual takedown early on the fight), but it was all about the kicks. The first few caught Conor’s lead leg until Dustin switched to the outside calf kick. The message was clear: take away Conor’s posture and balance and avoid getting punished on entries.
I counted four kicks total just a minute in before Poirier scored a nice takedown. It was well masked, scored it while ducking in for an overhand left. It didn’t lead to much except forcing McGregor to work harder to keep the fight standing. They get up around the 3:30 mark, and that’s when they start exchanging lots and lots of shoulder strikes.
I’m not gonna talk about the shoulder strikes. They’re nothing new. You can find them in old Dan Henderson training videos. I don’t think they’re examples of disruptive blockchain level innovation, but if you want fun insight into what they mean to the fighters themselves, Chael Sonnen has a lot to say about them. To me, the most notable part about this exchange is not the shoulder strikes, but seeing Poirier largely win this brief battle of leverage.
From check hook to check mate
There’s a good minute and a half left of the first round when they finally separate. Poirier immediately slaps Conor him with a lead leg kick. Dustin is doing a lot of good here, but he’s still doing things I didn’t think would win him the fight. He’s still fighting around the edges, executing the kind of tactics that can lead to eventual rather than immediate victory. For all the technically brilliant things he’s doing, Conor’s timing is still on point.
The exchange that basically wins Conor the round is when he feints with a jab. He repeats the feint, and then chambers a one-two, connecting with his left flush. And I mean flush.
Not many fighters can take that shot. These are exactly the kind of exchanges I envisioned Dustin getting trapped into more often. Conor’s followup was just as good. McGregor immediately stiffens Poirier up with a jab, then feints the left only to crack Poirier with a shovel punch.
Even though Conor was finding his rhythm, Poirier finally had the timing for his check hook. Whether it’s because he’s finding more openings of his own, because Conor seems to be lunging more than ever, or because Conor’s jabs appear to be slowing a bit, when Conor lands another straight left through Dustin’s high guard, Conor gets greedy. The straight left is followed by a right, left, and another right. And that’s when Poirier lands a smooth check hook. He even calls attention to it, saying ‘I gotcha.’
From this point on, Poirier is throwing that check hook every time Conor comes in with a right. At 0:22 left in the first, McGregor goes in for a right hook, and Dustin counters with that check hook. It doesn’t land, but it opens Poirier’s offense a bit as he throws and lands several jabs while Conor tries to walk him down. Conor throws another right hand, and Poirier throws another right hook. The end of the first round ends up looking a lot like the end of the second.
‘This is the puncher’s path, and it leads to oblivion’
This was my colleague, Connor Ruebusch, talking about George Foreman vs. Ron Lyle. And also McGregor, making the point that punching power corrupts as much as it compounds. If this fight feels vaguely familiar, it’s because their first fight functioned very similarly. Poirier opened up with a lot of leg kicks (attacking mostly the outside), and Conor opened up with a lot of left hands.
It’s fitting that the second round begins the way the first round of their initial match begins. Conor was leading with his left a lot more, perhaps anticipating the check hook at this point, and two seem content to fight fire with fire. When Conor throws his last combo, he’s practically parallel with Dustin’s waist. Yet again he’s in the middle of throwing a right hand, Dustin is in the middle of throwing a leg kick, and as Conor tries to regain his balance off a greedy combo, Poirier cracks Conor with a check hook. It’s more of a straight right, as McGregor is lowered while Dustin his just moved his head back and away from McGregor’s shovel punch. And that’s it. Poirier unleashes hell on McGregor soon after.
So why were the results so drastically different the second time despite the styles being functionally the same? I see a lot of explanations: Poirier fighting better under duress, Conor being less prepared, Poirier being more technical, Conor not throwing enough kicks, etc. These are perfectly fine points, with some explanations much more thoughtful than others.
Ultimately I think this fight speaks more to the volatility of fighting itself. How much different would this fight have looked if Dustin had attacked Conor’s leg from the outside versus in? How much different would it have looked if Conor threw more spinning, or front kicks? How much different would the first fight have looked if it had gone past the first round? These are not ‘what if’ questions, meant to give us a reductionist if-then explanations about possible scenarios; ‘if Conor threw more kicks, then Dustin would have lost like last time.’ Rather, these are ‘how often’ questions, meant to give us a constructivist explanation about probable scenarios. There aren’t easy answers to these questions, but when you combine planned purpose (calf kicks), and planned action (check hook), even the most volatile scenarios should favor you.