The Notorious” has won exactly one fight over the past four years. But as the former UFC lightweight and featherweight champion is about to make his octagon return after a year’s absence, one thing became clear this week: For better or worse, his events are still the biggest, the ones that get the rest of the mainstream sports world to pay attention.
McGregor (22-4 MMA, 10-2 UFC) and Dustin Poirier will square off in the main event of UFC 257 on Saturday night, and the stakes are high.
Consider his fights over the past five years and a month: Jose Aldo for the featherweight championship. Defeating Eddie Alvarez to claim the lightweight belt and become the UFC’s first champ-champ. A boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, which was as massive as it was preposterous. The MMA grudge match of the decade against Khabib Nurmagomedov. A fight with Donald Cerrone presented as a “fun fight,” which was in actuality a bout that McGregor needed to prove he could still win a fight, a test he passed with flying colors.
All of them major events, despite long absences and legal issues and controversies that would have derailed other careers — a history which surfaced again this week, as news about a multimillion-dollar lawsuit over an alleged sexual assault in 2018 filed back home in Ireland made headlines around the globe.
After finishing Cerrone in under a minute last January, McGregor wanted an active 2020 – what he hoped would be a “season” – but coronavirus altered everyone’s plans, not just his. But now he’s back, and the anticipation is at a fever pitch. It’s fitting McGregor-Poirier culminates a run at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi in which (a limited amount of) fans are back in attendance, because it’s been clear all week that McGregor fight buzz is back.
And the hype is justified. Rarely has there been a more consequential rematch that has been so far removed from the original bout than when McGregor and Poirier run it back.
There have been plenty of enormous rematches in MMA history that have occurred during a time frame in which the duo were more or less on the same level between the first fight and the second. Think Jon Jones’ two bouts with Daniel Cormier two-and-a-half years apart, or the entire Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell trilogy.
But nearly six-and-a-half years have passed since McGregor and Poirier (26-6 MMA, 18-5 UFC) first fought at UFC 178. That’s an eternity in MMA time. McGregor, in September 2014, was still viewed by many as a loudmouth who was getting special treatment from the UFC, someone who hadn’t yet earned his keep. He had rag-dolled a young Max Holloway despite blowing out a knee in the process in 2013, an injury that kept him sidelined nearly a year, but we didn’t know about Holloway what we do now, so it didn’t “count.”
Poirier, though only 25 at the time of the first McGregor fight, had been on fans’ radars since debuting with the WEC in 2010. While he hadn’t hit the heights he’d later reach, he’d already proven himself an exciting competitor, win or lose, as proven in his “Fight of the Year”-caliber matchup in a loss to “Korean Zombie” in 2012.
This was put-up-or-shut-up time for McGregor. The fight didn’t last two minutes, the lethal left hand of McGregor dropping Poirier and ending things quickly.
McGregor’s rocket ship took off, and 15 months later that lethal left hand stopped Aldo in 13 seconds. Poirier, for his part, took the long route to the top. He was the rarest of breeds: somehow managing to mature his game without sacrificing his penchant for delivering the fans excitement, going back to lightweight and eventually taking out a murderer’s row of world champions in Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, Alvarez, and Holloway, the latter for an interim UFC lightweight title.
Both McGregor and Poirier lost to Nurmagomedov, both rebounded with victories, and he we are. The UFC lightweight title remains in limbo as Nurmagomedov makes it obvious he’s retired, and UFC president Dana White continues to recognize him as champ anyway.
But it’s still fair to assume the winner of this fight will feature prominently in the immediate title picture. McGregor, who never actually put the lightweight belt on the line when he held it, seems to know it.
“I never got a good stint at 155 pounds, a consecutive stint like I’ve done in the featherweight division,” McGregor said. “I would like to do the same here in the lightweight division that I’ve done in the featherweight division – give it a good run and tear through the division.”
Poirier, for his part, turned 32 this week, but his endless string of wars has tread on his tires that belie his relative youth.
Six-plus years ago this duo was on its way up. Their paths reconvene at the top, but the loser could head on the path downward.
Khabib and White, as it turns out, had more drama surrounding them this week than McGregor and Poirier, who were intense but cordial throughout fight week. McGregor has pledged to donate $500,000 to Poirier’s foundation.
This fight hasn’t needed any manufactured drama or artificial grudges. It’s a hell of a matchup on its own merits, and it’s still managed to capture the sports world’s imagination.