Risk x Reward: UFC 264 could very easily have been billed as; UFC 264: Risk x Reward. Dustin Poirier risks his well-deserved shot at undisputed lightweight gold. But as far as rewards go in professional mixed martial arts, very few things come better than the acclaim of besting Conor McGregor. Poirier has already done it once. And to do it for the second time would be nothing short of exceptional for him.
Conor McGregor risks not only distancing himself further from another siege at the lightweight gold with another blemish against Poirier — but also risks backing himself into a career corner most definitely. The Dubliner will always command attention no matter what comes beyond July 10th., however, faltering thrice in his last four Octagon appearances sends him firmly down the pecking order at 155lbs, as well as severely limiting what kind of fights he can demand from here on out — regardless of his unmatched profile in the sport.
Personally, I don’t believe it’s wrong to suggest that it was almost a foregone conclusion in McGregor’s mind that he would find the target in quite timely fashion against Poirier in January on ‘Fight Island’. And, truth be told, he did. I also suggest that it was a foregone conclusion in the mind of McGregor that Poirier would eventually succumb to strikes, akin to September 2014. However, that’s where we must pump the brakes.
Despite catching notable counters from Poirier, particularly a masterful short, check right hook from the Lafayette native as he overextended himself on occasion — it appeared to the watchful eye at least, that McGregor was in not just decent nick at the first buzzer, but also landing the more impactful shots — upstairs at least.
Two floors lower, and Poirier was slowly setting up the eventual beginning of the end for the Crumlin counter striker. Within let’s say, 20-seconds or so of the first round, Poirier had dug twice into the calf of McGregor with very heavy kicks as the latter walked into range. And from those two really noticeable strikes, the Louisianan continued to put money in the bank up and until midway through frame two.
As pointed out numerous times since by Poirier himself, while those calf kicks were pertinent in his successful rematch against McGregor — that’s not what stopped the fight. Sure, the last calf attack that landed seemed to really affect the former two-weight champion, but it’s the squaring up, stance switch right hand from Poirier as he circles his back from the fence, which immediately put McGregor on his heels and leads to the eventual stoppage via a lengthy barrage.
Another real notable exchange that ended in Poirier’s favour came with less than a minute remaining in the first round. Once more forced to fight off the fence against the plodding McGregor, Poirier blocked a jab as McGregor moved into range, before slipping a patented straight left, and whilst blocking that almost upward trajectory uppercut-come hook from McGregor’s right hand — clipped with his own check right hook as the latter overextended. It was telling. Poirier points in glee. McGregor shakes his head in denial.
September 17th. 2016; the last time Dustin Poirier was finished by strikes in professional mixed martial arts. Against the often unorthodox and somewhat herky-jerky and unnatural striking of Michael Johnson, Poirier was countered with a massive right hook almost midway through the first round, sending him whipping back to the canvas.
In the time since, the Lafayette favourite has established a cool 8-1 (1) record in the lightweight division — with his sole loss coming against common-foe, Khabib Nurmagomedov. Amongst that positive winning record, you’ll find five former champions. McGregor, Max Holloway, Eddie Alvarez, Justin Gaethje, and Anthony Pettis. It’s a real murderers row for the timeframe at 155lbs — and against some of the more dynamic and particularly punishing punchers at lightweight, Poirier emerged victorious against all five.
It’s a testament to Poirier’s decision to move from featherweight to lightweight. Outside of his knockout to Johnson as well as some notable flurries against Dan Hooker in June of last year, Poirier really has absorbed some significant strikes at 155lbs — without more than a readjustment, at least on the surface, it appears. And that really makes me question, if even someone of McGregor’s power and placement output could even stop Poirier at lightweight.
It’s quite fascinating — usually, you can — maybe not determine outright, but at least give an educated guess as to how a prominent striker would find themselves on the receiving end of a finish on the feet. But when it comes to Poirier, I’m not sure volume striking is the answer. And I’m not willing to hedge bets that one, massive shot would put the brakes on his will either.
A lot has been made of Poirier’s use of calf kicks in the January re-run, as well as McGregor’s boxing-oriented, flat-footed, southpaw stance, which left him hugely susceptible to those offensive strikes, with many suggesting a return to a stance which he utilized against the likes of Diego Brandao, Jose Aldo, Dennis Siver, Eddie Alvarez, and even Poirier seven years ago to attempt to disguise some of his own attacking options.
Against the likes of Chad Mendes, Alvarez, and even on occasions against Nurmagomedov, McGregor had some varied success with body strikes via his back leg — particularly with front kicks. In the time since, against Nate Diaz, beyond leg kicks early, and for as long as his fight with Donald Cerrone lasted, despite the high-kick, and even this year’s rematch with Poirier, a real, fleshed out kicking game has really been abandoned.
Not only does the implementation of kicks, particularly front variations and roundhouse strikes vary McGregor’s attack, but it also forces him to be a lot lighter on his feet and his southpaw lead especially, in a bid to swivel, pivot, and load his hips. The saying goes, Don’t forget what got you to the dance — and while kicking isn’t McGregor’s most lethal weapon, it at least got him to the front door of the ballroom.
Even if McGregor struggles with impactful strikes from his lower limbs, especially to the body or the head of Poirier — the implementation of not necessarily a kick-heavy approach, but more so the willingness to attempt kicks forces a light-footed approach, which in turn goes hand in hand with his renowned distance management.
For the success he had in the striking exchanges against Poirier, I’m still between two minds as to if the latter can be removed from a fight via strikes at the lightweight limit. Sure, Johnson managed that feat five years ago, but since then, even when faced with certain worry against Holloway, Gaethje, and Hooker in particular, he never really seemed on the brink of insensate.
Given the fact Poirier managed to absorb McGregor’s heavier strikes following a lengthy period of clinch work in January, that can only help grow and give him confidence from the onset of this weekend’s rubber match.
I picked McGregor to eventually switch Poirier off in January, and admittedly, I thought the shot which has put so many down before then would find it’s home, but alas, we’ve got a pivotal rubber match in the desert on July 10th.
Senior writer for FightBook MMA. An aspiring mixed martial arts reporter based in Ireland. Producer of news articles, interviews, opinion features, and exclusive features such as, ‘The Fallout’, ‘The Breakdown, and, ‘This Week In MMA’.
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