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Among the notable reactions to Dustin Poirier’s second-round stoppage of Conor McGregor in the UFC 257 main event on Saturday, one post-fight thought from the winner jumped out while I attempted to understand the consequence of the most famous mixed martial artist of all-time getting finished in two of his last three fights.
After standing opposite McGregor during the promotional buildup to UFC 257, after eyeing the Irishman from across the Octagon, after trading strikes inside the cage and after blowing up McGregor’s prediction of a one-minute masterpiece with a second-round triumph of his own, Poirier said he saw just another fighter prior to short-circuiting the former two-division Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder.
Is that how this goes for the kid from Crumlin?
The head-gaming loudmouth who made his countrymen care about MMA. Mystic Mac, maestro of the Aldo knockout. The so-called “Irish Muhammad Ali.” The Notorious champ-champ. McGregor hadn’t snatched up these accolades when he met Poirier for the first time in 2014. Ahead of their rematch, however, Poirier prepared to fight a “man who bleeds just like me.” The aura that surrounds McGregor—the energy that makes shooting stars like him unbeatable until they are not—had been diminished when Khabib Nurmagomedov routed him in 2018.
Poirer’s knockout at UFC 257 further eroded McGregor’s place in MMA, as do the realities of his circumstance. McGregor turns 33 in July. This spring marks five years since he fought Diaz for the first time. Suddenly, 2016 feels forever ago. You remember what it was like when McGregor won 19 of his first 21 fights, including 15 in a row before the stunning match with Diaz that saw him defeated in the UFC for the first time? You recall his brilliance? Near the height of McGregor’s powers, he collected five consecutive finishes in the UFC—including the first encounter with Poirier back in 2014—on his way to a 7-0 start with the organization. Doing things his way sometimes bordered on the fantastical. Calling his shots made McGregor a must-watch attraction even before Diaz’s introduction into the Irish fighter’s fable, which was built on the premise that he was the world’s most interesting fighter.
McGregor’s UFC run had preordained qualities to it, elevating him, among other places, to an unrivaled Q Score. Tapping to Diaz somehow increased his popularity, and his revenge months later reinvigorated the feedback loop that this man was as a once-in-a-lifetime fighter. The smash-and-grab over Eddie Alvarez let McGregor stand as MMA’s Master of the Moment, and the rub of the UFC lightweight title locked in that impression.
This gave McGregor entry onto Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s playground for a very expensive playdate in 2017. Despite the money and attention that were sure to follow, the excursion into boxing carried easy-to-see risks. Yes, he made millions against Mayweather on top of the substantial money he already pocketed with the UFC, but what would that financial boon mean for his competitive desire? Even UFC President Dana White wondered.
McGregor’s flash was almost always buttressed by an awareness, forethought and excellence of movement that set him apart from so many others. Not anymore. Against Poirier, that resulted in his failing to account for ever-shifting patterns in a sport that evolves so fast that a man who often operated in the future tense must look back at choices he made along the way. Elements that made McGregor a great mixed martial artist have diminished. Timing- and reflex-based athletes like him can wilt in front of our eyes.
Whatever the size of the real or perceived gap was between McGregor and his competitors, it has clearly closed. Spending time trying to recapture old glory is no way to go, and McGregor’s failure to grasp the threat of something as simple as a calf kick—a technique that went from nonexistent to a staple of MMA while he concerned himself with other priorities—is proof enough.
“Things don’t go your way at times,” McGregor said after being stopped by strikes for the first time. “Well, pick yourself up and carry on. I’ve got a lot of good things going on in my life, so I just keep my head high. That’s it. Take the shots, take the licks and just keep on going.”
This reveals two pathways moving forward: competitor or showman. McGregor clearly wished to straddle the line during his career, and for several unforgettable years he did. Audiences rejoiced in his success or reveled in his failure. Either way, McGregor went home better off for his efforts.
In pursuit of business away from the cage, McGregor has fought three MMA bouts over the last five years. Essentially, what should have been the prime of his athletic career.
It’s hard not to think about what the sport and McGregor himself may have missed out. He noted the effect of inactivity after Poirier put him down, and this will be something he’ll have to face as lightweights in the UFC are eyeing him like a piece of meat. Fear far gone from their eyes.
Is this what happens when McGregor is mortal? Can he withstand future beatings in exchange for future earnings? Will he go the way of legends whose late-career records belie their lofty place in the sport? Will unfulfilled promises made in the buildup to these massive events turn off audiences?
If there's lasting truth to Poirier’s observation, this reality will soon cascade across the sport. You needn't be a mystic to see that time -- most notably time misspent -- will catch up to anyone.
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