Dustin Poirier vs. Conor McGregor 3 headlines UFC 264 this July 10, 2021 at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada, United States.
One sentence summary
Phil: The fight so nice they did it thrice
David: Violence begets violence begets violence
Record: Dustin Poirier 27-6-1 NC Conor McGregor 22-5
Odds: Dustin Poirier -120 Conor McGregor +102
History / Introduction to the fighters
Phil: The Conor McGregor Show is changing. There used to be a sense of history being made, of people being drawn in by an irresistible charisma. That tone is no longer there, and instead there’s more of a rubbernecking feel to the whole shebang, a bit more of an impression of slow motion disaster. McGregor was always someone who thrived on moving onwards and upwards, but Khabib beating him and then retiring seems to have left the Irishman with nowhere to go. Does he try for the Consolation Belt that Chucky Olives holds? Does he just take action fights? Or does he just enjoy being extremely rich and becoming progressively less relevant? I’m not sure if I’m being too harsh here, but the trash talk seems tired and I’m not sure even Conor believes it any more.
David: Are we in McGregor’s prime? Out of it? It’s hard to say. What we do know is that Conor gets paid, which means payday fights. How that affects his fight game is anyone’s guess. He’s no longer following a curve of contender, champion, tune-up fight, etc. He’s just bouncing around different weight classes for whatever challenge offers the most venture capital money, and tripping balls in Vegas the day after. It’s nice that we’re getting a conclusion to the Poirier fights, but really — what was the rush?
Phil: Poirier may not ever make it to being the UFC champion, but he has cemented himself as perhaps the greatest action fighter of his generation, and with a solid shout at being the greatest of all time. He’s had wars with Alvarez, Holloway, Gaethje and McGregor, and as a lightweight he’s come out on top in all of them. The most gratifying part of this is that, after a long time in the sport, it finally allowed Poirier to call his shot. He could have fought for the new lightweight belt, or he could have taken the McGregor rematch, and who can blame him for going for the money? UFC belts aren’t what they once were.
David: You bring up a great point about belts. Sure, we’re getting a visceral reminder with all of Dana White’s revisionist nonsense about Francis Ngannou, but still. Deserve has nothing to do with anything in the UFC at this point, so might as well enjoy the intriguing matchups we have instead of lament the loss of purer sports competition. Poirier has given as the former and the latter, but the jury’s still out on whether or not he can be champion again.
What’s at stake?
Phil: Should McGregor lose, the wheels are officially off the bandwagon, and he moves directly into “fun fights” territory. Who would he be willing to fight after that? Diaz again? It’s hard to see him trying to battle his way up the division. Meanwhile, Poirier would be moving on to presumably fight Chucky Olives for the belt. If McGregor wins, he gets to put this trilogy behind him and go back to doing what he does best: holding divisions up.
David: Surprisingly little for such a high profile fight. Mainly because a McGregor loss puts him further and further away from anything resembling a meaningful fight with title shot implications. But a Poirier win is big for the division since I think he matches up quite well with Oliveira.
Where do they want it?
Phil: McGregor’s approach has typically been variants on a theme, with alterations in stance and initiating tools to cloak the core of his game: the left hand. We’ve seen a long stance back in his lightweight days, and a more squared one when he fought Diaz, and the dressing has changed from wheel and front kicks to low kicks and jabs, but the main course is still the big left. This has admittedly been a bit more effective in the open stance matchup, but McGregor still remains an accurate and powerful puncher. He can jab and work the body when necessary, and has a number of nasty tricks to land the left. The weaknesses include that he doesn’t have the greatest endurance in the world, that his typically excellent cage craft masks a profound weakness when confined in space, and that the tricks to land the left can occasionally be exposed as just that. That being said, he is still ferociously potent and perhaps still the single quickest starter in MMA.
David: McGregor used to be a better range fighter with a variety of tools — or I should say gave himself a more dynamic posture with which to execute more offense from — but he didn’t get worse so much as condense his approach. I mean, he kind of did get worse, but I also think that comes with the territory of fighting higher quality competition along with taking random detours that strain the body just as much as MMA. At this point he’s doing something similar to what Alistair Overeem eventually did: finding ways to channel his power more deliberately without expending as much effort. Where McGregor used to apply more tools to pressure to swing the pendulum back into counters, now he bides his time to apply counters in a more linear way. That makes him sound lazy, and less dimensional, but the word ‘linear’ gets a bad rap. Even though Conor might fight on a linear axis, the decision trees involved are still complex. Very few fighters (if any) employ an up-jab, slip inside for lead rights and uppercuts, or handfight as meticulously as Conor does. In this case, ‘linear’ refers to the fact that McGregor cares less about what his opponent is trying to do since he wins one way. Not that has nothing to do with the amount of decisions or actions needed to do his fight thing. He’s still a premiere technician, and sometimes that gets lost in the (often self-inflicted) noise around him.
Phil: Poirier has become one of MMA’s greatest examples of turning weaknesses into strengths. His tendency to shell up on defense gradually turned into a systemic guard system which allowed him to parry, block and counter incoming strikes. His shonky cage craft meant that he became one of MMA’s best fighters at actually surviving with his back to the fence. He’s a legitimately great boxer for MMA now, with a tremendous jab and right hook, which allowed him to be the safer party in their last encounter. The flaws haven’t gone away, though: getting put into the cage still isn’t a great place to be, especially against someone like McGregor, and on offense Poirier is still prone to huge shifts into massive punches which could (and have) get his clock cleaned against a counterpuncher who sees them coming.
David: Poirier still has the ectoplasm of a studied barfly. Parts of his game steel feel raw, and dirty. The way his defense is sometimes susceptible, you wonder if he simply believes in the Jim Kelly ‘Get Sacked to Wake Up’ school of philosophy, and that’s why he takes the punishment he does. His defensive movement remains suspect, but it matters little in the aggregate. Poirier will use feints to setup counters rather than obvious pressure, and he’s not afraid to diligently transition despite owning the profile of a savvy puncher. That’s important because I think says a lot of Dustin’s ego or lackthereof. A lot of fighters refine certain techniques, and keep using them because a dominant application of them should mean a constant application of it. Obviously, it doesn’t have to. This is the fight game’s version of the naturalistic fallacy: ought and is do not follow each other like a double helix. Like with Deiveson Figueiredo, it’s great to recognize your strengths, but you have to accept the limits of those strengths as well. People talk about his calf kicks like some a quantum computer, but that’s a tool he even had available in their first bout.
Insight from past fights
Phil: Two of McGregor’s best advantages were missing in their last bout: size and the open stance matchup. Without these, it became harder for him to play with distance, and he started to step harder and harder into the left hand changeups. The biggest surprise for me was less in the tactics (calf kicks etc) that Poirier employed, and more that he was so able to survive with his back to the cage quite as well as he did, and that his shifting entries were paired with level changes to make them harder to counterpunch. It honestly makes it harder to see a McGregor victory: he had so much of their last fight in his own wheelhouse, and didn’t really have any major moments of success. The one thing I think he absolutely needs to do is avoid the clinch: Poirier has a pronounced and obvious cardio and mental durability advantage down the stretch, and while McGregor might have won the first round, that’s also where he typically hurts or finishes his opponents.
David: The part about Conor’s more narrow stance is important, and if he does the same thing, and loses, we’ll wonder if his boxing detour went to his head. But I saw Conor as having a decent bit of success with it too. After all, he won the first round. The problem was maybe less about how Poirier was able to punish Conor’s stance, and more about how Conor failed to adjust within it. There are, after all, a lot of ways to deal with kicks and McGregor abandoned every single solution possible. We saw against Chad Mendes how effective something as routine as a front kick to the body could be in managing distance and stuffing an opponent against the cage — something Poirier has been guilty of against lesser fighters than Conor.
Phil: For once, McGregor getting in his opponent’s head does not seem to be an issue. Poirier has largely laughed off the trash talk, not that this is particularly difficult to do: if there’s any area of McGregor’s game which has deteriorated the most, it’s his ability to deliver memorable zingers. That being said, it’s worth considering that the last time McGregor’s back was against the metaphorical fence in this way (namely the Diaz fight), he came out with one of his smartest and most gutsy performances.
David: The best McGregor has been able to muster in terms of trash talk is botching a charity agreement. Yes, the bar is low here, and it’s not serving proper twelve.
Phil: As mentioned, I find it genuinely hard not to pick Poirier. The flip side of McGregor starting quickly is that he cannot sustain his initial level of intensity. He’s dialed in and focused for about 7 minutes of the fight, give or take, and if he hasn’t badly hurt or compromised his opponent by then, then he is typically in trouble. Poirier has shown that at lightweight that he has the composure and durability to take the left, and he has both a cardio advantage and the more reliable lead hand, so can conserve his energy better. Dustin Poirier by TKO, round 3.
David: I do believe that an McGregor adjustment would yield more results than whatever Poirier has planned. Dustin has to adjust more because while he has a wider base of tools, very few of those tools put him in position to outright end the fight whereas Conor still owns that left hand brick of his. And it’s not like Poirier is unbreakable. He’s improved yes, but Conor is a student of the game no matter how foolish he acts. The Diaz rematch isn’t a perfect template (Diaz has no power) but I’m gonna go back on what I said in the predictions and say Conor adjusts. Conor McGregor by TKO, round 2.