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There’s a tendency in MMA to attach inexorability to past results in star fighters’ careers. It’s so hard to imagine the trajectory of Anderson Silva’s career if he hadn’t beaten Dan Henderson at UFC 82 and so that result takes on an inevitability in hindsight that likely isn’t warranted based on their respective skill sets at that point in time. Of course, Fedor Emelianenko was going to beat Mirko Filipovic. What else could possibly have happened other than their fight transpiring exactly the way it did?
It was this mentality that in significant part made Conor McGregor such a sizeable favorite when he rematched Dustin Poirier in the UFC 257 main event on Saturday at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. McGregor knocked out Poirier the first time they faced each other, solidifying his status as the superior fighter. When Poirier won the rematch, it in turn was because McGregor had moved to a different stage of his career. He’s older, less focused and less hungry than he was when he fought Poirier in 2014. Both fights went the way they were supposed to go.
We don’t apply this approach heading into fights. There is broad recognition that there are so many ways to win an MMA fight, the margin for error is so slight and small gloves are a great equalizer. Most high-level fights have narrow odds that reflect great uncertainty over which way they will go. Yet, once the fight is over, what happened seems so much more obvious. The factors that cut against the fight going the way it did fade while the nature of the result reveals seemingly inescapable truths.
This is most understandable in the case of extended, dominant performances where we see over a prolonged period the strengths and weaknesses of each competitor and how their skills matchup. Max Holloway-Calvin Kattar was so one sided over the course of 25 minutes that it suggested a rematch has little chance of going differently. Perhaps Kattar could land the perfect shot or successfully implement a wrestling-based game plan, but we saw how these two fighters compared pretty clearly.
It makes a whole lot less sense to apply this approach to other types of results, like close decisions or quick one-shot knockouts. There’s nothing inevitable, after all, about a decision that could have changed on the basis of one person scoring one round. A quick fight decided by one shot can be reflective of what’s most likely to happen if the fight goes longer, or it can be Cain Velasquez-Junior dos Santos, where major trouble lurks if it doesn’t land.
In spite of the reasons to not let these types of fights create indelible impressions, that’s exactly what happens. That is particularly true in the case of explosive knockouts, where the oft-replayed highlights make it harder and harder to imagine anything different happening if that one punch or kick missed. As such, we often underestimate how easily a fighter’s career could have broken differently for the better or the worse.
The McGregor-Poirier rematch was a reminder of this reality. McGregor caught Poirier the first time they fought, and Poirier caught McGregor the second. There was nothing inevitable about either result. Poirier was not overmatched the first time. He had more MMA experience than McGregor, more UFC experience than McGregor and had taken out plenty of surging young stars at that point. Likewise, McGregor is hardly washed now. His boxing looked crisp, and he won the first round on all three cards against an opponent who decisively beat Justin Gaethje, Max Holloway and Eddie Alvarez.
With both men capable of beating the other in each fight, the example of Poirier and McGregor speaks to how fortunate it was for both men that the results broke the way they did. Had Poirier beaten McGregor the first time, it’s highly unlikely McGregor would have reached the peaks that he did. He was already a star at that point and it hardly would have derailed his career, but what elevated McGregor from a star to one of the biggest drawing cards in combat sports history was the way he spoke so boldly and backed it up for so long. He could handle a loss after having won seven UFC fights and knocked out the longtime king of the decision; a loss in his fourth UFC fight would have a completely different effect on his public perception.
Poirier, too, benefitted enormously from losing the first time and winning the second. Beating McGregor would have been great for his featherweight title shot prospects, but it certainly wouldn’t have made him a star to the general public. It also would have delayed his move to lightweight—a switch that has paid dividends. He built his reputation to the point he was able to secure a rematch and then knocked out McGregor, now the biggest superstar in the sport. It’s a career-defining win that should secure him significantly bigger paychecks for as long as he continues fighting.
Sometimes in MMA, the results break the wrong way. We never get Filipovic-Randy Couture, Khabib Nurmagomedov-Tony Ferguson or Ronda Rousey-Cristiane Justino. In the case of the Poirier-McGregor fights, two evenly matched opponents fought twice and split the results. The order made all the difference in the world.