In any Conor McGregor fight, the former two-weight champion is at his most dangerous when he’s fresh in the early stages of the bout. After being knocked out in the first round in their previous meeting, Dustin Poirier made a special effort to navigate those treacherous waters at UFC 257.
Wrestling with McGregor is easier said than done. Although the legendary Khabib Nurmagomedov made it look fairly straightforward, he had a unique ability to work through shots from space, and was eventually able to pressure McGregor and hit different finishes on the cage. The highly explosive and specialized Chad Mendes was really the only other fighter we’ve seen have that kind of success scoring multiple takedowns on the Irishman. It’s fair to mention he didn’t really fight that many wrestlers with that skill-set in the first place.
Those with short memories may label Poirier as a bit of a void when it comes to wrestling, but the American Top Team product is fairly capable as an offensive wrestler - he leaned heavily on that skill in tough fights with Joe Duffy, Jim Miller and Anthony Pettis. However, on paper, Poirier’s style as a takedown artist is often incompatible with his goals as a striker. Ringcraft has never been a great concern for Poirier, he’ll pressure or concede space situationally, without any focused effort in one direction for an entire fight. As a wrestler, Poirier’s greatest strength is working doubles against the cage. If he’s constantly backing up and looking to counter, it’s unlikely to find opportunities of that nature.
I have to give a lot of credit to American Top Team and coach Mike Brown - they cooked up a very specific takedown setup in open space that allowed Poirier to surprise McGregor early.
How Dustin Poirier took down Conor McGregor - Countering the Counter
Dustin Poirier grew leaps and bounds as a striker between his first two meetings with Conor McGregor. However, the inherent stylistic challenge remained. McGregor was still a sharp and deadly counter puncher, and Poirier had shown some fairly sloppy and vulnerable looks on the lead - especially in his recent bout with Dan Hooker. Poirier had grown into much more of a counter puncher, leading him to thrilling victories over excellent strikers like Max Holloway and Justin Gaethje.
The problem with that strategy was that Poirier let McGregor lead fairly often in their first fight, and McGregor found his target one too many times. Fortunately, every fighter has habits and limitations, and matchups aren’t quite this binary. Poirier and his coaches knew that McGregor would be looking to counter specific shots in specific ways, there was so much data available to demonstrate McGregor’s deeply ingrained reflexes. One counter in particular was his most famous - the left hand over top of Eddie Alvarez’s lead straight.
This is by far McGregor’s most common counter, one that is essentially instinctive at this point. An important note is that McGregor slips outside before throwing back, it is not a simultaneous counter. This means that there is a beat in-between the lead strike and the counter - even a small amount of time presents an opportunity.
So, knowing that McGregor was going to throw a counter up top after Poirier shifted in with his rear hand, there was a window of safety underneath it every time. Of course, McGregor often follows up with a lead uppercut, so the margin for error was slim.
Sure enough, McGregor took the bait, throwing his left hand high to counter the shifting entry of Poirier. As Poirier stepped in, he bent over at the waist and brought up his rear leg to close in on McGregor’s hips.
Mechanically, there are some issues here, depending on the attacking fighter’s goals. While that relatively square stance and foot positioning could set up an outside step single, for example, it’s not a great position for a penetration step on a double - which is what Poirier ends up going for. However, so often in MMA, a well-timed entry can make up for potential deficits on the finish.
This finish itself was a fairly interesting idea, one that played off McGregor’s tendencies yet again. As seen in his fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, McGregor is fairly decent at dealing with double legs from space, provided the offensive wrestler’s level change is higher on the hips rather than lower on the legs. McGregor keeps his hands low, digging underhooks and pulling his opponents up into the clinch to stifle their shot.
Dustin Poirier’s shot off the shift was shallow, and McGregor was able to get his hips back and hit that same defense, turning his crossface into an underhook. However, Poirier wasn’t done.
Poirier continued to drive in, rising up from the double into an upper body position. The underhook prevented him from level changing, but Poirier was still able to block the outside of McGregor’s leg with his right hand, and his left hand was controlling the far hip.
Taking a big step outside that right hand side, Poirier pulled in the leg and pivoted to his left, guiding the hip with his other hand. Typically this maneuver could function as a step to debase an opponent and set up further chain wrestling, but Poirier was looking to put him down then and there.
This was possible because of the “falling” motion. Not only had Poirier stepped outside McGregor’s left leg, he had stepped fully behind McGregor’s base and blocked the far leg with his foot. This is a totally unsustainable position, Poirier could only utilize this block while falling to his hip.
It was all one simultaneous effort - Poirier hit that drop step behind McGregor, then had to pull in the near leg and guide the fair hip to the mat, all while falling to his right hip. The trick here is that Poirier had to square his hips up with the mat as soon as possible so he could cover and complete the takedown.
His gambit paid off, Poirier was able to put McGregor’s butt on the floor and the sequence led to an extended clinch exchange. However, it speaks to the risky nature of the takedown and the lack of control on the finish that he was really only able to cling to McGregor’s legs as he scooted back to the cage. It wasn’t very difficult for McGregor to adjust to this entry after seeing it once, either.
By simply checking the hands and getting his hips back even further, Conor McGregor was able to avoid a repeat takedown with ease.
Despite only finishing this technique once in the fight, it continued to serve a purpose. McGregor’s counters were dulled, he had something new to consider that affected his reactions and swayed him to fight more on the lead, which played right into Poirier’s gameplan.
Will Poirier unveil new tricks for the trilogy? Will McGregor have some counter-counters of his own? Will Conor McGregor choose to offensively wrestle? We’ll find out at UFC 264 this Saturday.