It frequently gets lost in the hoopla amid all of his chatter during the pre-fight build-up, but it’s important to remember that Conor McGregor is far more than hype and bluster.
He’s one of the best fighters in the world; one of the best ever, actually. And good fighters in their primes who have prepared diligently and tried to cover every angle have lost to him. McGregor doesn’t win just because he has a quick wit and is good at trash talking.
He’s got fast hands and feet, great balance and an instinctive feel for how to move in the cage. The definition of greatness is beating other great fighters at their best, and McGregor has done that over and over.
He did that already to the man he’ll fight on Saturday in the main event of UFC 257, former interim lightweight champion Dustin Poirier. Poirier was 25, in the prime of his career with a 16-3 record that included a win over Max Holloway when he first met McGregor on Sept. 27, 2014.
Poirier was ranked fifth at featherweight at the time, while McGregor was ninth. But McGregor won the fight in Las Vegas in just 106 seconds.
They’ll meet again six-plus years later on Saturday at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi with much more at stake. The winner will move on to fight for the UFC lightweight championship in his next bout, either against champion Khabib Nurmagomedov or another challenger for the vacant belt if Nurmagomedov stays retired.
The build-up, as it usually is, is all about McGregor, but that overlooks one very significant fact:
It’s a vastly different Dustin Poirier who will meet McGregor on Saturday than the guy who admittedly let the trash talk get to him in 2014.
“I do think it’s a possibility,” said lightweight contender Dan Hooker when asked if he felt Poirier could defeat McGregor. Hooker, who lost a Fight of the Year-type decision to Poirier in June, fights ex-Bellator champion Michael Chandler in the co-main event.
He made the point that McGregor had better be prepared for an improved Poirier.
“I think that one is up in the air,” Hooker said of McGregor-Poirier II. “It’s definitely not going to be how the first fight played out. Dustin has grown so much and I feel like it’s a different fighter at this weight. I feel he’s one of the more durable guys in the division and has an incredible gas tank. They match up very well, a very fast starter versus a guy who can weather that early storm and who can come back.
“I feel it’s going to go the full five rounds. I feel it’s going to be a close fight and it’s hard to pick a winner.”
The first step to correcting a problem is recognizing it, and Poirier clearly understands he got caught up in all the hype going into the first fight. It took him out of his plan and he didn’t fight like he’d normally done.
McGregor was calm, confident and efficient, hurt him early and chopped him down.
But Poirier has evolved greatly. Since he fought McGregor, he’s beaten a who’s who of some of the greatest UFC fighters of the previous decade, including Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez, Holloway and Hooker.
All but Hooker have held a UFC championship at some point in their careers, and Poirier defeated them all, winning two by KO and one by submission.
He understands what went wrong in the first fight and now has the tools to address it. The difference in the 25-year-old Poirier and the 32-year-old veteran Poirier is stark.
“I’m more mature, more skilled, more battle-tested, more patient,” Poirier said to Yahoo Sports of the differences between the 2014 and 2021 versions of himself. “There’s a lot that’s changed.”
The fight game is so mental, and it’s even more so when one faces an iconic opponent like McGregor. In 2009, a movie was released called, “Facing Ali,” in which many of Ali’s opponents, like Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes, discuss what it was like fighting him.
Those fights require not only incredible physical abilities to win, but mental skills, as well. If Poirier had a weakness in 2014, it was being sucked into McGregor’s world. Clearly, it’s something he’s addressed in the interim.
“I felt from that fight I needed to make an adjustment with my emotions and the way I lead into these fights,” he said.
Poirier knows now that he doesn’t get anything extra for winning in 30 or 45 or 90 seconds. All that matters is getting his hand raised.
McGregor’s weakness has long been his durability. He hasn’t been the same guy in the second half of fights that he has been in the first half.
Poirier is the opposite. He’s a gritty, tough and smart guy who, as Hooker said, is as durable as anyone in the UFC.
It’s fairly obvious how much better and more dangerous Poirier is now than he was in 2014, but McGregor is still one of the greatest. There is no argument about Poirier’s improvement, but McGregor could still win this fight because that’s what elite superstars do.
But if you would be shocked by a Poirier win, here’s a word to the wise:
Don’t be. Poirier is good enough to win this fight and if you don’t believe it, look what he’s done since 2014.
If wins over Gaethje, Alvarez and Holloway aren’t enough to convince you, nothing will.
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