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After a few appetizers, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s 2021 campaign kicks off in earnest much like 2020 did—with Conor McGregor headlining a solid card. Most of the focus for UFC 257 this Saturday is rightfully on McGregor’s main event with Dustin Poirier, the clear highlight both inside and outside the cage. Most of the promotional support comes from the co-feature, where former Bellator MMA champion Michael Chandler makes his long-awaited Octagon debut in a difficult matchup with Dan Hooker. Beyond that, there is not the firepower the UFC reserves for its most stacked events, but there is a lot to like in terms of depth. Potential star Amanda Ribas opens up the main card against Marina Rodriguez, while the featured prelim between Arman Tsarukyan and Nasrat Haqparast matches two of the best prospects in the sport.
Now to the UFC 257 “Poirier vs. McGregor 2” preview:
LightweightsNo. 4 | Conor McGregor (22-4, 10-2 UFC) vs. No. 2 | Dustin Poirier (26-6, 18-5 UFC)
ODDS: McGregor (-300), Poirier (+250)
It is now time to get the UFC’s fiscal year truly started, as McGregor fights for the second consecutive January. McGregor has been a transformational figure inside the sport and the UFC, where his savvy towards chasing big-money fights and jumping around weight classes had ripple effects throughout the entire roster. The example McGregor set led to many champions using their leverage to push back and maximize their possible income, which in turn caused the UFC to become more focused on making sure no one fighter got bigger than the brand—issues that only became worse once the promotion was sold to Endeavor. McGregor’s 2014 and 2015 campaigns were a particularly wild ride. Coming off of an ACL tear suffered against Max Holloway, the “Notorious” one seemed to continually call his own shot, from a homecoming bout against Diego Brandao and a win over Poirier to his 13-second unseating of featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo. Much is made of McGregor’s talent for talking, but the way in which he won his fights was just as important a part of his rise. The Irishman has a rare ability to immediately read his opponent, which, when combined with his knockout power, makes an even marginal advantage appear like an absolute blowout that is over within minutes. McGregor’s 2016 loss to Nate Diaz seemed as if it would halt his momentum but instead turned him into an even bigger star now that he had the perfect foil; McGregor’s victory in a rematch headlined what was then the biggest UFC pay-per-view of all-time. By the end of 2016, McGregor was back on track, having taken apart Eddie Alvarez to become the first UFC champion in two different weight classes concurrently—another trail that many followed once McGregor blazed it. Looking back, that was probably the pinnacle of McGregor’s mixed martial arts career, with his real crowning achievement being his subsequent boxing match with Floyd Mayweather. There, McGregor talked his way to an all-time profitable fight despite a lack of any professional boxing experience. That has also been a pivot point for McGregor’s career since. While his UFC run prior was all about new challenges and doing things never seen before inside the cage, nowadays, the Irishman’s success is mostly measured in terms of box-office business, with the fights themselves feeling secondary. If that did not turn with the Mayweather match, it certainly did with McGregor’s return fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov, as McGregor had his moments but eventually tapped to a neck crank in the fourth round. The talking points afterwards either focused around the fight’s status as the new best-selling UFC card of all-time or the ugly post-fight brawl that built to a rematch that will seemingly never come. Since then, there has not really been a clear focus for what is next with each McGregor fight. Half the headlines regarding McGregor involve some sort of problematic legal trouble, while most of his discussion about his own career has focused on re-litigating the Nurmagomedov fight with little thought given to his actual opponents. McGregor’s 2020 victory over Donald Cerrone might have built to something if not for the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has taken a year for McGregor’s return, which comes amid a muddled lightweight title picture thanks to the UFC not seemingly accepting Nurmagomedov’s retirement. In the moment, this rematch against Poirier should provide some excitement and a little bit of clarity.
As for Poirier, this provides a long-overdue opportunity at some manner of revenge, along with a chance to get right back into the lightweight title mix after Nurmagomedov’s apparent retirement. His loss to McGregor marked the end of his days at featherweight, and Poirier was a clear example of someone who was better off at a higher weight class. With more strength and energy, he looked like an absolute terror at 155 pounds, running through Diego Ferreira and Yancy Medeiros before scoring an impressive win over Joseph Duffy. However, Poirier was still the same often overaggressive brawler at heart, and he got sparked by a Michael Johnson counter in a main event. The next few years saw Poirier obviously try but often struggle to keep his brawling tendencies in check, though things seemed to finally click with a run of wins over Alvarez, Holloway and Justin Gaethje that saw Poirier turn a corner in application of his offense. All three were still excellent wars, but “The Diamond” no longer had the reckless moments that saw fights suddenly turn against him in the past. His own title fight against Nurmagomedov was a bit of a failure. Given what the champion showed against Gaethje, it is unclear now if there was ever a winning fight for Poirier, but he fell into the same trap as many before him, giving Nurmagomedov his type of fight and eventually falling victim to a third-round submission. Poirier’s lone fight of 2020 saw him win a war over Hooker to stay near the top of the division, and he could be one of the UFC’s big winners of 2021. If the lightweight title winds up vacant, a win here makes him as good a choice as any to finally become an undisputed champion.
It is a theme throughout many rematches: With very few exceptions, the core tenets of the fight remain the same, which also seems to be the case here. Again, the thing that makes McGregor so spectacular is his ability to pick up reads on his opponents as quickly as anyone in the sport and attack with knockout power. While fighters like Aldo and Alvarez may be on the same level as McGregor, the Irishman’s ability to turn a minor advantage into a sprint towards a finish turns what would be an impressive victory in a vacuum into an absolute blowout. That is what happened in the first fight against Poirier, and there is a decent chance it happens again. While Poirier is a much more poised fighter whose durability has been helped by the move up to lightweight, he is still hittable while he feels out his opponent early in bouts. On the plus side, this is good a time as any in terms of Poirier’s chances to turn this into the first Diaz fight. He will get hit early and often, but McGregor is also more than willing to dump his gas tank while trying to pursue a finish—a tendency that would allow Poirier to take over and likely finish the fight by the later rounds. However, at a certain point, if McGregor is going to get the opportunity to get off to a hot start, it is difficult not to pick him to just end the fight right there. This is an interesting fight, but the likeliest scenario—and the pick—is still McGregor via first-round knockout.
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