But Daniel Cormier thinks that as much as we know about UFC stars, it could come down to the intangibles when the two cross paths for a second time this Saturday in the main event of UFC 257 in Abu Dhabi.
Poirier and McGregor hadn’t even turned 27 when they first fought as featherweights at UFC 178 over six years ago. They both seemed destined for greatness, with Poirier being touted as a future world champion and McGregor just beginning to realize the immense stardom that lay ahead of him. McGregor defeated Poirier by first-round TKO to continue his march to his first UFC title.
That fight feels like a lifetime ago now, and one can understand the expectation that the rematch may look nothing like the first encounter. Poirier is now a former interim lightweight champion, McGregor has held two UFC titles and boxed Floyd Mayweather. Both are fathers now.
Cormier gave his take on what could be different for Poirier and McGregor on Saturday, emphasizing that much of the outcome depends on Poirier’s perspective of his loss to “The Notorious.”
“I think this is a story or a fight that has just a lot of different questions,” Cormier said at a media day for coaches and UFC broadcasting talent Thursday in Abu Dhabi. “I don’t know if we’ve seen Conor as motivated or as focused as he has seen for a very long time. And Dustin Poirier, you wonder if the experiences he’s had since that first fight have prepared him for taking that challenge on again. It’s a very difficult fight to call because there are so many unknowns, because for as good as we know Dustin Poirier has gotten, has he closed the gap?
“There’s some mental things that Dustin can rely on to allow him to feel more propped up. He got knocked out, he didn’t get beat over an extended period of time, it was a very close fight. You can call back on that like, ‘Hey, I got caught with a shot. I don’t know what would have happened over the course of 15 minutes.’ You get caught with a shot again like that, then you know that guy just knows how to find that spot on you. So I don’t know, I really don’t know.”
Cormier, 41, speaks from experience when it comes to rematches. In his esteemed 26-fight MMA career, there are three opponents that he fought more than once: Jon Jones, Stipe Miocic, and Anthony Johnson. He defeated Johnson twice, but lost twice to Jones (the second bout was later overturned to a no-contest when Jones tested positive for banned substances), and came out on the losing end of a 2-1 score in the trilogy with Miocic that closed out his career.
If framed properly, Cormier can see a scenario where Poirier uses his stumble at UFC 178 to push him to a better result.
“It’s insane,” he said. “I think thinking back to your fight career and the positions that I was in as a guy that fought a guy twice after winning, and then fought a guy twice, or a third time after losing. When you lose to a guy – even though now it may seem a little bit less nasty, it was nasty initially. And you had that with him. You’re never more motivated than the time you get a chance to fight him again. So if that stays the way it has been, especially in my case, Dustin Poirier will feel and be more prepared than he ever could have imagined Saturday night.
“But it is very important for him—and I’ve said this on multiple occasions—the mental aspect of this game for Dustin is probably the biggest factor, because he has to figure out how to look past what happened the first time. Because all week or for the last month—because it’s Conor McGregor so the promotion is much longer, people pick it up faster—Dustin has seen himself get knocked out a thousand times. In every promotion, there’s Dustin getting knocked out. Every time Conor speaks, he talks about knocking him out. It’s just a constant reminder, so you’ve got to get over that as an athlete. Sure, you knocked me out the first time, but can you do it again. This game, it’s so important inside the game. Before we get to the fight, how does Dustin prepare himself up top to approach Saturday? It’s fascinating.”
Conventional wisdom appears to favor McGregor early and Poirier late, with Poirier having a penchant for becoming stronger as his fights go on. Cormier says that’s one major improvement Poirier he’s made, as he believes his fellow Louisianan used to have a habit of becoming overwhelmed and discouraged when he was younger.
He also thinks that McGregor’s cardio deficiencies may be overstated, citing McGregor’s five-round majority decision win over Nate Diaz. Cormier went on to break down the keys to each fighter making the best use of their most effective weapons.
“Everybody would think that if you’re Dustin Poirier you’ve got to avoid the left hand, that’s Conor’s best weapon,” Cormier said. “But that’s not necessarily it. It’s all the traps that he sets before he throws the left hand. That’s why you always see Conor do some crazy stuff at the very start of the fight. It’s always a spinning heel kick, a spinning back kick, it’s always something to put you on aware. So I think if I’m Dustin Poirier, it’s the unexpected that I’m really on high alert for early in the fight. A jumping knee, a spinning heel kick, a spinning back kick.
“Something that’s going to hit you and will you into the range of the left hand. Because it’s not just Conor going in and throwing the left hand. … It’s all those little tricks that Conor does before he lets go of his ultimate weapon that I think Dustin should be very aware of.”
And for McGregor?
“For Conor, it’s Dustin Poirier’s boxing,” Cormier continued. “He has a good left hand, but the shot from Dustin Poirier is the right hook and it’s off of a check too. So when Conor enters, Dustin throws that check right hook and it’s nasty because ultimately, that’s his power hand.
“He’s a right-handed guy. He just fights with it in front, so for him to have developed the power that he has in the left hand, fantastic. But it’s that right hand, that hook that Dustin throws, he hit Max Holloway with so many of those. And he hit Dan Hooker with so many hooks every time they were in close because [the left hand’s] always up. Dustin’s not throwing that hook and this hand’s down at his waist, it’s right here, right in place, and he’s throwing that check hook and he’s landing and he’s landing it beautifully.”
The last X factor that Cormier shared his insights on was the possibility that Poirier may be satisfied with finally getting a second shot at McGregor, regardless of how it goes. It’s a notion that Cormier dismissed, even with pundits arguing that the sheer magnitude of a matchup with McGregor may have had an effect on his most recent opponent, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.
“The ones that he’s fighting, no one thinks, ‘I got the Conor fight and I’m good,’” Cormier said. “Those guys are way too good. Because ultimately he’s fighting the best of the best. Now, the Cowboy Cerrone fight, I know Stephen A. Smith and a lot of other people said he didn’t fight, he kind of gave up… the reality is Donald Cerrone of old would never have lost to Conor McGregor in  seconds. There was a time when Donald Cerrone said [McGregor] was too small to fight lightweight. He beat him up at welterweight, so even for a longtime veteran like Cowboy, the appeal of Conor McGregor got to him.
“But the guys that he’s fighting now… I don’t think the guys that he’s going to fight going forward will ever feel like the victory’s already had, I’m in here with Conor McGregor, because when you’re in there with Conor he’s trying to beat you. He ain’t trying to let you win, he’s trying to knock your head off. Dustin Poirier doesn’t feel happy to be here. I saw Al Iaquinta say something like that a while back, ‘Dustin’s showing too much respect.’ But that kid, man, that kid’s from Lafayette, Louisiana, and he is a dog and he’s gonna fight with all of his heart. He might not win all the time, but you watch Dustin fight, he’s a nasty son of a gun and he wants to fight, and he shows up and he’ll fight Conor to the best of his ability. I don’t know if he’ll win, but he will fight him hard. He’ll fight him hard as he can.”