Rubber matches are a class of their own. Even when they lack class — like when the UFC decided we had an appetite for watching Tito Ortiz beat up a hapless old Ken Shamrock for three consecutive fights in a row — there’s something unique about watching two fighters tell a three-act story about how bloody a confrontation between them can get.
Dustin Poirier vs. Conor McGregor, on the other hand, has plenty of class. Well, inside the cage at least. The first match was at featherweight. McGregor was the blue chip prospect on the rise while Poirier — having suffered recent losses to Cub Swanson and Chan Sung Jung — was the blue chip prospect on the mend.
When they met again, Poirier and McGregor had already won titles, lost titles, and, in McGregor’s case, posed for mugshots. Sounds like a lot, right? Like two guys competing to recover what they lost in a psychological fire. You could practically smell the drinks they shared in whatever dive bar reminded of them of their former glory. But in point of fact, they’re both 32 (!). It’s rare for us to get a full trilogy in both fighter’s primes like this.
Most MMA trilogies have felt more accidental than predestined. Nick Diaz getting some revenge on Jeremy Jackson was just a formality. We didn’t need a rubber match to know that Charlies Oliveira was better than Nik Lentz, but like a generic movie assassin, we got the double tap anyway. The UFC has yet to give us its Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales. And it may never. But while neither ‘Diamond’ nor ‘The Notorious’ are champions, they aren’t that far removed from their peaks. So how do they stack up against MMA’s most historic trilogies?
Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard
Unlike most great trilogies, did anyone really care about how this one got started? Yes, as a technical display, it was a solid fight between two prospects, but Edgar had followed up a brilliant performance against Tyson Griffin in 2007 with a couple of good, but standard performances against Mark Bocek and Spencer Fisher. Conversely, Maynard had the stereotypical reputation of a lay and pray artist. Subduing action hero’s like Nate Diaz, Roger Huerta and Jim Miller didn’t endear Gray to fans.
Honestly, re-watching their first bout, Maynard’s worst impulses were on display. It’s a good fight. But the excitement came from watching Edgar jailbreak Maynard’s strength with his trademark cephalopod’s touch. Edgar turns otherwise rote double leg sequences into switches, scrambles, and counter-exchanges. Of course, the rematches were what defined the trilogy. Maynard turned into a real lightweight contender, they met for the title, and the rest is history.
Everybody remembers the knockdowns. Well, everyone except Edgar (something he later admitted). But take away the knockdowns, and you’re left with a series of fights that was more about the future of so-called “wrestle-boxers” than anything else. Edgar’s resolve and toughness got all the credit, but it was his technique and timing that held everything together. He managed to take the bigger guy down with speed, and landed the heavier punches late in the fight off of his timing. Transitions in MMA have changed a bit. As boxing has improved, MMA fighters don’t need to be confined to double leg feints into right hands, and vice versa. But it was still a fantastic display.
Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz
Let’s not kid ourselves. The only reason a third fight exists at all is because some promoter decided a guy who finished his career inside an octagon coffin could be reanimated eight years later against a fighter-turned-policy donk. Liddell belonged inside that cage in 2018 as much as Ortiz belonged on unemployment.
There’s not much story between the two, fight wise. The story was all about the hype, and the rumors about Tito sparring with Chuck. One body shot that sent Tito to the mat during training, and the UFC brass were convinced Liddell, not Tito, was their star. It’s a lot of unnecessary drama, but at UFC 47, Liddell did exactly as predicted. It wasn’t a competitive fight, but that was the Liddell way.
The second fight is a match I find fascinating because of how mischaracterized it is. Yes, Tito lost again in a barrage eerily similar to their first fight. But up until that third round, he found a home for his straight punches. He was keeping Liddell at range, even getting a takedown briefly. Things didn’t go south until he decided to exchange punches with Liddell, which Ortiz was getting the better off until Liddell caught him with a trailing left hook. This is where I believe a third fight is kind of warranted. Just not when it was.
This trilogy existed because an organization got desperate and needed old names. I’m not interested in saying anything about the third fight I didn’t already use too many analogies for. The rubber match was a tragedy of pugilism made palatable only by seeing Tito’s gravedigger schtick for a brief moment. Still, their battles are a historical one for spanning the UFC aeons.
Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos
Velasquez vs. JDS is a strange trilogy. Mainly because it happened so fast. There’s very little history to it. After nine fights, Cain became the UFC heavyweight champion. dos Santos was the next challenger. Within two years, they were done and Cain took the rubber match at UFC 166 for his second (and last) title defense.
The trilogy tells us more about the nature of heavyweight than the fighters. Both men were clipped early on in their first two bouts. The difference was that Cain couldn’t survive, whereas dos Santos endured, for the worse. In the end, all we learned is that sometimes it takes more than one fight to figure out who the best fighter is.
Sure, there are other trilogies we can reference. Andrew Arlovski vs. Tim Sylvia is technically not a trilogy but is still important. Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson put on a memorable show. For the MMA nerds, you might find similarities in the excellent battles between Ali Bagov and Abdul-Aziz Abdulvakhabov.
The one constant is that trilogies in MMA tend to be a little rushed. Still, Poirier vs. McGregor is unique in the way it’s difficult to predict. Will McGregor be better prepared for the calf kicks? If so, he has the power to keep Dustin guessing. Will he go to the body more, which he’s recently struggled to dedicate his offense to? Will Poirier’s feints pull McGregor into more exchanges that favor Dustin? Their interactions leave us clues rather than broad takeaways, which makes the rubber match a fitting conclusion no matter how it happens.