Mandatory Credit: Jeff Bottari – Zuffa LLC

Durability — The ability to withstand wear, pressure, or damage. Since his lightweight division excursion began back in 2015, former interim titleholder, Dustin ‘The Diamond’ Poirier has been nothing short of truly spectacular. And with his move to 155-pounds from a diminishing 145-pound featherweight limit, the Lafayette favourite has become one of the most durable forces in the division’s shark tank. 

Back in September of 2014 at UFC 178, Poirier entered a high-stakes featherweight matchup with ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor as a favourite, however, an emotional, lacklustre performance from the Louisianan resulted in his first career knockout loss inside just two minutes of the first round. 

In January of 2021 at UFC 257, Poirier entered another high-stakes matchup with McGregor, this time at 155-pounds, as an underdog. History very rarely repeats itself in the Octagon, and Saturday night’s headliner is evidence to prove just that.

Tasked with putting right a haunting wrong from six-years prior, Poirier applied a rock-solid gameplan over his round and a half affair against McGregor — becoming coincidentally, the first to stop the Dubliner via strikes in his professional mixed martial arts career. 

The weekend’s defeat doesn’t speak to a potential fall off for McGregor, it just reminds a lot of onlookers that Dustin Poirier is undeniably one of the most elite fighters in the history of the sport, and certainly the lightweight division. 

Ya bastard — that was a good one“; McGregor’s internal response to an early calf kick from Poirier which would become a staple of Poirier’s masterful approach throughout the main event. It’s not even as if the fantastic barrage of calf kicks turned the tide in this rematch either. McGregor definitely had his moments beyond a couple of clinch knees and strikes after suffering an early, somewhat surprising takedown, but Poirier looked as cool as you like under fire. 

I noted prior to this rematch in The Breakdown how paying too much heed to McGregor’s blitzing of Poirier back in 2014 would be foolish. And along with the Crumlin native’s legitimate argument that a lack of activity over the prior twenty-odd months, I personally believe McGregor was confident that Poirier would be out of there with some of the shots he landed midway through the first round. 

Again that ultimately proved to be wishful thinking. Poirier has been involved in recent battles against Dan Hooker, Eddie Alvarez, and Justin Gaethje. And unless you somehow manage to drag him into the later rounds where you can set up some sort of punishing barrage, taking him out early is a non-runner. 

One aspect of Poirier’s defensive approach to the weekend’s rematch was something I noticed Nate Diaz employ in his first matchup with McGregor. Finding yourself backed up against the fence or within distance of that, circing is absolutely paramount. More often than not, Poirier did just that, expertly I may add — leaving McGregor swinging at thin air. 

We’ve seen it against Alvarez, Gaethje, and even in some moments of his clash with Hooker, when Poirier senses the development of a couple of cobwebs in his opponent’s vision, he has a great ability to swarm and follow up with sometimes wild yet meaningful combinations. Seizing on a now severely compromised southpaw lead of McGregor through his own offence, Poirier began unloading at the fence, and with a particularly flush right hook, sat the Straight Blast Gym staple down, before following up with a couple of ground strikes, the first of which shut McGregor’s lights off. Paid In Full.

It’s most certainly not as if McGregor underperformed against Poirier. Although I do believe a lack of awareness in regards to how durable Poirier has become since he can retain that extra ten pounds during fight week was telling. He had his moments, and perhaps some of those counter straights, particularly the first that really found the mark after they exited the clinch may have had a profound effect at featherweight, but not at lightweight.

It’s a sobering reality for McGregor. 3-3 in his last six Octagon outings, when before that he was unbeaten in fifteen. Like he detailed himself, you can’t exactly expect to go out and perform at peak levels if your Octagon time is sporadic, to say the least, however, his next step is going to prove hugely-important in regards to the trajectory of his future career in the sport.

Prior to Saturday’s main event clash, we witnessed the arrival of former three-time Bellator lightweight champion, ‘Iron’ Michael Chandler — with some style points. Debuting against what the consensus believed would prove a stout challenge in the form of the above mentioned, Dan Hooker — Chandler stunningly became just the second to stop the Kiwi with strikes, maybe in even more spectacular fashion than Edson Barboza’s 2018 barrage.

Aggressively closing down the City Kickboxing standout in the early goings, Chandler found a home for a couple of body shots before walking Hooker, for what seemed an age, onto a straight right hand. Dropping the striker, Chandler followed up with a ground-and-pound flurry of strikes, forcing the stoppage. 

It’s a massive statement from the 34-year-old Sanford MMA trainee, and although entertaining and shrewd, his callouts of current lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, as well as event headliners, Poirier and McGregor are likely to land on deaf ears in my opinion. Khabib is unlikely to make his Octagon return anytime soon. Poirier is a shoo-in for a title shot, interim or vacant, and McGregor most definitely needs to shoot lower than his current rank in his next walk.

Below, join me as I play matchmaker for Poirier, McGregor, Chandler, and Hooker as the lightweight division promises to welcome a new era over the coming eighteen months.

Dustin Poirier vs. Charles Oliveira:

If Khabib ‘The Eagle’ Nurmagomedov vacates his lightweight championship and given it’s almost set in stone that Poirier is involved in a title shot next, standing opposite the Louisianan has to be the streaking, Charles ‘Do Bronx’ Oliveira. It’s probably as simple at that and that’s not an exaggeration. 

Chandler has called for Poirier next, and while UFC leader, Dana White appears to welcome a title pairing of the two, Poirier doesn’t — and many would argue for good reason. Chandler looked magnificent on Saturday there’s no denying that, but a man of principle, Poirier wants the Missouri native to pave a body of work at lightweight of his own first, rather than a single title earning knockout — over the now two-fight skidding Hooker. 

Whilst the promotion were widely expected to look toward a potential title-eliminator of Gaethje and Oliveira next, I think you’d be doing the Brazilian a huge disservice if you elect against involving him in a vacant title matchup.

The victor of eight straight, Oliveira sliced through former interim title challenger, Kevin Lee with a main event guillotine in March on home soil, and in December, handed former interim champion, Tony Ferguson his second straight loss — completely dominating the Oxnard favourite.

He, like Poirier, has an extended body of work at lightweight, and to leave either out of conversation in regards to a title matchup next is inherently inequitable. April, May, or June seems ideal timing for the lightweight division to crown a new kingpin, in a matchup that on paper, promises something otherwordly. 

Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz III:

Both Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier spoke of the enigmatic, Nate Diaz in their respective post-fight press conference appearances, but it’s the former who I’d suggest stands opposite Stockton’s son next, not the latter.

Booking McGregor is quite frankly a numbers game, particularly when he’s coming off a loss. When he suffered his 2018 submission loss to Nurmagomedov, he took fifteen months away from active competition and returned against Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone at welterweight, rather than a jump right back into the fire pit at 155-pounds.

Penning him in against the likes of Gaethje, Ferguson, Oliveira, or even Poirier again isn’t going to draw as many eyes for the simple reason that he’s entering on a losing mark. McGregor wants activity and rounds in 2021, and while Diaz has yet to feature since November of 2019, I’m almost sure he would be open to a lightweight rubber-match against McGregor to snap that extended hiatus.

The pair have always welcomed a trilogy of battles, and for some reasons I’m going to list, the UFC Apex facility in Las Vegas, Nevada seems a really interesting, eerie backdrop for this potential clash.

Over two-thousand fans were in attendance at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, but the possibility of an empty arena housing a rubber-match between McGregor and Diaz really appeals to me. Certainly respectful of each other’s skillsets and overall personality, the pair would undoubtedly share some words in the Octagon, and with the Apex still hosting events as late as March, an April or May return for the Dubliner and the Californian would be nonpareil.

Conor McGregor vs. Rafael dos Anjos:

I find this potential reworked pairing of McGregor and dos Anjos, even more, intriguing than a trilogy clash with Diaz. It’s completely fresh. And if not for a broken metatarsal to the then-defending champion, dos Anjos back in 2016, we would’ve seen the two square off, and even more incredible, may have never seen McGregor or Diaz share the Octagon.

Niterol veteran, dos Anjos is back at the lightweight limit since November of last year, taking home a poorly judged, dominant, split decision win over five-day short-notice replacement, Paul Felder — earning the former division kingpin the #7 rank in his return to 155-pounds. 

Poirier chopped down McGregor’s calf with a series of brutal kicks, but dos Anjos has claimed his kicking ability would go one better than just setting up a knockout loss — and would ultimately retire the 32-year-old.

These two have been linked constantly since UFC 197 back in March of 2016, with a possible interim welterweight title matchup in Brazil floated between the two as well. I feel with dos Anjos eager to make one final run at his former title, and McGregor’s hope to amass more fights this year than usual, a heated pairing with the Brazilian may be something that suits him down to the ground. 

Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler:

Back in 2020, I listed a lightweight matchup between Justin Gaethje and then Bellator feature, Michael Chandler as one of my must-see bouts for that year. Ultimately, Gaethje would go on to beat Ferguson to claim the interim title, and then drop a subsequent unification clash with Khabib in October last. For Chandler, the UFC call didn’t come until September and after chopped and changed debut outings against both Ferguson and Poirier failed to materialise, he landed on Saturday’s victim, Hooker.

Gaethje sits at #1 in the official 155-pound pile and has himself claimed that he wouldn’t enter a title challenge under the promotion’s banner off the back of a loss. Given I agree with Poirier’s sentiment that Chandler needs a body of work before a title shot, one more win would leave him undeniable. 

A pairing of Gaethje and Chandler would serve as a title-eliminator if Poirier links with Oliveira in a vacant title affair, and like we’ve seen in the past, pairing two highly ranked lightweights as a headliner and co-headliner more or less, apart from Nurmagomedov and Ferguson in the past, likely see the winner’s of each respective bout face-off next. 

In an ideal set of circumstances, Gaethje earns either a rematch against Poirier with a win, or an absolute barnburner on paper against Sao Paulo’s Oliveira — while Chandler gets the opportunity to become a champion in a second major promotion and add to his already stunning professional trophy cabinet.

Tony Ferguson vs. Dan Hooker:

I don’t personally believe Chandler’s stoppage of Dan Hooker on Saturday tells us a complete story of where Hooker’s career is going. He, like both Poirier and suggested next opposition, Ferguson are two hugely durable forces, and Chandler has some real one-punch knockout power. That’s his third opening round knockout — following in suit after finishes of both Sidney Outlaw and former WEC and UFC lightweight best, Benson Henderson.

However, Hooker’s now lost two on the trot, and so has former interim gold holder, Ferguson. The latter is clearly in need of a change of pace, and an outing with Hooker promises that. The Kiwi isn’t as punishing with one shot as Gaethje, nor is he as dominant in grappling exchanges as Oliveira, granted, who is?

Poirier and Chandler both have supreme power, and particularly, boxing. Stylistically, Ferguson vs. Hooker is very interesting to me. Too lengthy, volume strikers with a wide array of tools on their feet, and the obvious advantage in any possible grappling scenarios fall at the feet of the former gold holder. A three-round pay-per-view slot for these two suits.

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