This weekend saw UFC 257 go down from Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. While the show reportedly drew a monstrous buyrate on pay-per-view, the UFC are unlikely to be pleased with the outcome of the main event between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier.
Conor McGregor suffered his first knockout loss in the UFC at the hands of Dustin Poirier, and the Irishman now finds himself at a serious crossroads.
UFC fans should probably prepare themselves not to see Conor McGregor for the next few months at least, purely because he’ll likely be under a lengthy medical suspension following his knockout. But the big question still remains – where does Conor McGregor go from here?
Why did Conor McGregor lose to Dustin Poirier?
Firstly, it’s probably worth looking at exactly why Conor McGregor fell to defeat at the hands of Dustin Poirier. After all, The Notorious One easily stopped Poirier during their first meeting in September 2014 at UFC 178.
This time though, things were hugely different. Conor McGregor still landed some heavy shots to Poirier, but The Diamond largely absorbed them without any real issues. And when he began to break the Irishman down using leg kicks, McGregor’s movement was compromised, leaving him open to the brutal fight-ending combination.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that Poirier is clearly a fighter at the top of his game right now. He had more UFC experience than McGregor in their first meeting but was quite blatantly overawed by the Irishman's hype and reputation. And that largely led to his downfall.
Now though, The Diamond is bulked up to 155lbs – something that’s probably helped to improve his chin. And more to the point, his pressure-striking game has allowed him to beat UFC greats like Eddie Alvarez, Max Holloway and Justin Gaethje.
And despite his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov, with the Russian’s retirement, there’s a very fair argument that Poirier is the UFC’s best Lightweight.
However, it’s definitely worth exploring the nature of the loss further than just stating that Poirier is now a better fighter than McGregor.
Was Conor McGregor too focused on boxing during the fight?
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Conor McGregor’s fight with Dustin Poirier was that the Irishman appeared to be looking to base his offense purely around boxing. There’s nothing wrong with that per se – Georges St. Pierre regularly won UFC title fights with his jab alone. But McGregor never used to be that way.
During his initial rise to fame in the UFC, The Notorious One was more than comfortable throwing kicks, even wild ones like spinning wheel kicks. He broke Chad Mendes down with front kicks to the body, chopped Nate Diaz down with low kicks, and won his fight with Donald Cerrone off the back of a head kick.
More worryingly, though, was McGregor’s lack of defense when it came to Poirier’s leg kicks. Rather than checking them, the Irishman simply absorbed them – and they led directly to his loss.
Interestingly, perhaps the closest parallel to Conor McGregor in this instance would be former UFC Light Heavyweight champion Quinton Rampage Jackson. Once a powerful wrestler-kickboxer, Rampage began to rely more and more on his boxing skills as his MMA career went on and became much diminished in the process.
So why has McGregor followed the same path? There are two possible trains of thought here, and neither bodes well for the Irishman’s future.
Firstly, it could be a case that after landing so many knockouts with his hands – over Poirier, Alvarez, and Jose Aldo to name three – McGregor has simply become too fixated on the idea of knocking his opponent out in one clean shot.
This issue reared its head before, in McGregor’s first fight with Diaz. There, it also led to a loss. But back in 2016, McGregor was able to regroup, right the ship, and beat Diaz in a rematch.
But secondly, the issue could also be down to a lack of focus in training. McGregor is still with his original fight team – SBG Ireland, under John Kavanagh – but he’s had so many distractions in recent months that it would’ve been easy for him to take his eye off the ball.
However, the Irishman looked to be in great shape physically, suggesting he did take his training camp seriously.
So is Conor McGregor simply past his best?
There is a third explanation, of course. That explanation would simply be that at the age of 32, Conor McGregor is now past his fighting prime.
32 isn’t old per se, even in the fight game. But in MMA, there does tend to be an unwritten rule that suggests fighters begin to struggle after their first full decade of professional fights.
Conor McGregor debuted professionally back in 2008 – almost 13 years ago – and he’s been in the UFC for almost eight years now. And while strikes hadn’t stopped him until UFC 257, he’s taken his fair share of damage in the Octagon over the years.
If McGregor is past his prime, then it’s a sad state of affairs. It would suggest that his prime years – the years he could’ve spent dominating the UFC either at 145lbs or 155lbs – were actually spent chasing Floyd Mayweather for what was essentially a bit of a freakshow bout.
Sure, it made McGregor untold millions of dollars, but it was a waste of time from a sporting perspective. And it may well end up keeping McGregor’s name out of the list of all-time greats in the UFC.
Where does Conor McGregor go from here?
Put simply, if he wants to remain relevant in the world of the UFC going forward, Conor McGregor needs to win. The UFC has seen massive draws come and go in the past – Chuck Liddell, Ken Shamrock, and Ronda Rousey all come to mind – and all of them saw their appeal diminish with each loss.
However, McGregor's problem is that due to his high profile, it isn’t easy to find him a bounce-back fight.
Were he a regular former UFC champion, the promotion could book him in a stylistically good fight for him against someone lower on the totem pole like Diego Sanchez or Beneil Dariush.
However, those fights simply wouldn’t draw the same amount of interest that a fight with a better opponent would. And given the money they’re forced to pay him, the UFC isn’t likely to want to offer The Notorious One an easy payday, not unless it’d bring millions into their bank account in the process.
That leaves the list of potential opponents for McGregor pretty short. Based on UFC 257, the likes of Michael Chandler, Max Holloway, Justin Gaethje, and Charles Oliveira would be hugely favored over the Irishman right now.
And even Tony Ferguson – who appears to be diminished – and the ever-inactive Nate Diaz would be incredibly devilish opponents for McGregor to face off with right now.
Perhaps the truth is that after his loss to Poirier, McGregor and the UFC simply need a clean break of sorts. Sure, the UFC won’t want their biggest drawing card to vanish overnight. But the fact is that if McGregor keeps losing, then his drawing power will diminish anyway.
That’s why, although it sounds insane, the best bet for McGregor would be to accept a fight with YouTube star Jake Paul, be it in the boxing ring with the UFC’s promotional muscle behind it or in the Octagon itself.
Sure, the fight would be a total freakshow and wouldn’t prove a thing, but it’d likely allow McGregor an easy win and would fill his bank balance back up to the top. And after that? Maybe it’d be best for the Irishman to hang his gloves up.
After all, as the old saying goes, it’s better to burn out than to fade away. And right now, Conor McGregor’s star might be fading fast.