Well, it’s finally upon us. UFC 264 takes place tonight and in the main event Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor will do battle for the final time. It’s a fight steeped with backstory and one that will likely shape the future of MMA for years to come. In other words, it’s a Conor McGregor fight. So let’s talk about what’s in store for tonight and the days to follow for both McGregor and Poirier, and a few other notables from this evening’s card.
Conor McGregor’s decline
Which is the biggest reason we have not seen the best of Conor in the last few fights (exclude the Alvarez fight which was flawless) Age, fighting at featherweight, skill development and camp, or all that cash?— Scot McCreight (@Scot_McCreight_) July 9, 2021
Arguably the biggest story heading into this weekend is the decline of Conor McGregor, both inside the cage and on the microphone. McGregor became the biggest star in the history of MMA by consistently delivering sensational knockouts and exceptional quotes but over the past few years, both have come few and far between. McGregor has lost three of his last four fights (if you count his boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr.) and, even worse, his trash talking has become rote and mundane. At the pre-fight press conference this week, McGregor had all the trappings of a man trying fruitlessly to rekindle his glory days. Like Vanilla Ice performing his one song to frat party, it was mostly just sad and the true answer is, there are many reasons for this drop off from “Notorious.”
The reason many fans reflexively turn to for McGregor’s decline is the fact that he is RICH and there’s certainly something to that. McGregor now has more freedom than the vast majority of human beings in history and that undoubtedly is an impediment to his fighting success. Even if you love fighting (which he does) it’s probably pretty damn hard to go get punched in the face every day when you could do literally anything else in the world that you want to do. I absolutely love writing and working for MMAFighting, but if I was McGregor rich, it’s unlikely I’d still be doing this because the freedom to do anything at anytime is thoroughly intoxicating.
But though I’m sure McGregor’s wealth contributes at least in some part to his overall decline lately, it’s far from the biggest problem he faces. Similarly, age isn’t doing him any favors but it’s not the main culprit either. The real problem McGregor has is that, to some extent, McGregor’s rise was a lot of smoke and mirrors and now the chickens have come home to roost. Let me explain.
McGregor is an extremely talented fighter with a pretty sharp mind for MMA. Given his talents and drive, I think it’s safe to say that he likely would have become a champion in any version of his life. However, if you replayed his UFC career 1,000 times, in 99 percent of them he doesn’t get to the level of supreme stardom he currently occupies. There are too many variables and he’s too limited a fighter to believe this was a likely outcome as opposed to the Wyatt Earp Effect. The man basically rolled 7s for six years straight.
At his core, McGregor is a one-tool fighter (left hand) with a myriad of tricks to implement that tool. But when that tool doesn’t work, McGregor has no Plan B, and because Plan A has consistently delivered for him, he still can’t quite fathom when it doesn’t work. He’s said it himself many times: “No one can take my left hand.” Well, at lightweight at least, many people can and because he hasn’t come to grips with that and adjusted, he’s found himself on the wrong end of a few ass-kickings. Which brings us to the true problem at hand.
Like with all tragic heroes, McGregor’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness: hubris. Insane self-belief enabled McGregor to rise up the UFC and claim two world titles while capturing the imagination of millions. But that same belief has also led him to become blinded to his own shortcomings and to stay with a camp that is, frankly, not great. For all the talk of “win or learn,” McGregor’s team doesn’t seem to do much of either lately. Following his losses, McGregor is gracious in the immediate aftermath but ALWAYS makes excuses. “I was inefficient with my energy”, “All he did was wrestle”, “I didn’t train for leg kicks”, those aren’t the statements of a man who is reckoning with defeat. Those are the statements of a man trying to explain away why he didn’t roll a 7 this time. A more humble man would look at his recent track record and realize that something major needs to change, specifically with the team around him but if McGregor were able to do that, then he wouldn’t be Conor McGregor at all.
What if Conor Wins?
If conor wins, should he forego fighting for the belt? He doesn’t need it to make money, it does nothing for his legacy because Khabib retired, and it just restricts his potential next fights if he wins.— strike.mx (@strikemxnyc) July 7, 2021
As you can probably surmise from above, I don’t like McGregor’s chances tonight. Sure, maybe McGregor is able to roll one more 7, it’s MMA after all, but barring something drastic, Poirier should win this fight 9 times out of 10. He’s simply the better, more durable fighter in almost every aspect of the game. Conor has about 8 minutes to find a knockout and if he doesn’t then this will be a replay of January. But let’s say he does pull it off. Crazier things have certainly happened. If so, what comes next? Should he fight for the title? In short, absolutely.
Though the UFC have done their level best to entirely devalue their own titles in recent years, the simple fact of the matter is that UFC belts matter because the UFC champion is the de facto world champion. Does that always translate to more money? No. but it does bring with it a level of cache that matters. Make no mistake, Conor McGregor will say 1 million PPVs fighting a snowman, but he’ll sell more if he does so with a UFC belt around his waist.
On top of that, it’s important to remember that the real game for McGregor is not MMA but boxing. It’s in boxing that he can draw make the most money but, in lieu of transitioning full time to a sport where he would be beaten soundly by any club-level fighter thus tarnishing his brand, instead McGregor needs to continue to succeed in MMA so he can sell crossover fights with the biggest names in pugilism. Rest assured, if Conor McGregor reclaims the lightweight title, his next fight will 100 PERCENT be against Manny Pacquiao. Carve that sh*t in stone.
Finally, it’s probably the least important part to McGregor but if he reclaims the lightweight title, that will actually be a huge accomplishment in terms of legacy. He’d have accomplished something no other lightweight ever had before and will have shown that his title win wasn’t solely the result of good timing. Sure, he’ll still have never defended a belt in his life which precludes him from any possible inclusion in GOAT discussions, but a two-time UFC lightweight champion is pretty damn special and it would make even his most ardent haters have to respect him.
What if Conor loses?
If Connor loses does he quit MMA?— John Kearney (@J_Kearney) July 8, 2021
Of course not. For better or worse, McGregor clearly still loves the sport and he loves what the sport gives him. There’s almost no chance if hangs up the gloves, even if Poirier steamrolls him tonight. If McGregor loses, we’re all in store for McGregor-Diaz III. It will sell 2 million PPVs and everyone will love it, especially McGregor and Diaz who will be getting PAID.
Where can Conor’s legacy go from here? Winner is supposed to get a title shot but then what? If he wins? If he loses? Yes he’s always “champ-champ” but he continued to fight for a reason. Where can he take his legacy and does he want to?— Mike Pendleton (@MP2310) July 7, 2021
I touched on this above but let’s dive in a little bit more here because at this stage of his career, McGregor probably cannot affect his legacy too much.
If McGregor were to retire tonight, win or lose, his legacy is that he’s the second-most important fighter in UFC history, behind only Royce Gracie. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s the GOAT, far from it, but no other fighter aside from Royce has had more impact on MMA than McGregor. He fundamentally changed everything about the business of the sport and we’ve only just begun to see the ripple effects. Until someone actually unionizes the fighters, McGregor will remain number two on that list and as such, he’s a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer.
From a fighting standpoint, McGregor’s legacy will be that he was a great fighter with a high ceiling but some fatal flaws, who accomplished a lot but much less than was expected of him. Basically, he’ll be remembered as B.J. Penn is. Now, if McGregor is somehow able to recapture the lightweight title, that will undoubtedly give a boost to his MMA legacy but the fact that he has never once defended a title, or even shown an interest in doing so, is a huge knock on any GOAT conversations he may want to insert himself into and the nature of his losses is also pretty damning in that regard. Still, when your legacy is a combination of B.J. Penn and Royce Gracie, that’s pretty damn good.
What about Poirier?
Who does Dustin fight next if he loses on Saturday?— Daniel Pompilio (@elpompilio) July 7, 2021
It’s interesting that nobody asked about what happens to Poirier if he wins, I guess because the answer is so clear: Poirier goes and gets the title that belongs to him now that Khabib is retired. Fair enough, but what if the other thing happens? Well, my guess is that Poirier shakes it off and gets right back to work, God willing, against Justin Gaethje.
Lost in the lightweight shuffle that has taken place these past few months is that Justin Gaethje may well and truly be the best lightweight in the world. Since losing to Poirier in 2018, Gaethje has entirely reinvented himself and become, for my money, the scariest fighter in the division. When Khabib Nurmagomedov retired, Poirier and Gaethje should have fought for the vacant strap but since that didn’t happen, now everything is a cluster. If McGregor wins, he’ll go fight for the title, and that means Gaethje should get the chance to avenge that loss and earn his own title shot.
The co-main event
Do you think with a good performance on Saturday that Wonderboy can usurp and perhaps take Leon's spot as rightful next contender? And if Burns wins does he go into a #1 contender fight with Leon or smthn??— Daniel (@TPDGNCR) July 7, 2021
Lost in all the hubbub surrounding the main event is that UFC 264’s co-main event is actually quite a good fight, particularly because of the stakes involved. Gilbert Burns and Stephen Thompson are both former title challengers and among the best welterweights in the world and thought champion Kamaru Usman knocked out Burns earlier this year, Thompson would be a fresh challenge for “The Nigerian Nightmare” and arguably the most difficult style matchup possible for him.
Unfortunately for Thompson, Gilbert Burns is going to give him hell. Thompson is getting up there in years and Burns has the fast hands and power to cause Thompson heaps of trouble. But, if “Wonderboy” can successfully navigate those rough waters, given Usman’s clear disinterest in a rematch with Colby Covington, it seems like he will be getting the next title shot.
On the other side of things, Burns would have to do something truly miraculous to snag a title shot so quickly after falling to the champion. But should Burns get a highlight reel KO, he’ll probably find himself in a title eliminator match next, perhaps against Leon Edwards.
The return of Nick Diaz
How will Díaz do against Lawler this time around?— Daniel Pompilio (@elpompilio) July 8, 2021
Trick question because despite reports to the contrary, Nick Diaz will not be rematching Robbie Lawler this year, or ever. As the old saying goes: fool me 27 times and I’m an idiot. This happens every year and I refuse to be that idiot. A rumor gets started that Nick wants to return, possible matchups are thrown out, and everyone gets excited, then Nick run a triathlon and nunchucks some stuff and realizes that he doesn’t actually care about fighting and goes back to living his life. Nick Diaz is the biggest purveyor of wolf tickets in MMA history (ironic as he is the one who brought the term into the MMA lexicon) and I will not believe he is fighting until he has made the walk to the cage, fought, and I’ve woken up the next day and can confirm it wasn’t all a dream.
The sleeper fight of the weekend
Besides the Main and Co-Main which fight u r looking forward to ?— HONG KONG (@AbdullahShwihdi) July 7, 2021
Easy: Michel Pereira vs. Niko Price. Don’t get me wrong, the entirety of UFC 264 is actually a very fun fight card, but if I could only watch one fight this weekend, it’s not the main event, it’s Pereira-Price. Both men are absolute psychopaths with zero regard for their own health and safety and, seemingly, the physics of the observable universe. Price knocked a dude out with hammerfists from his back! Pereira tried to bicycle kick someone in the cage like it was a soccer match! This is like if you gave the Tazmanian Devil and Wile E. Coyote and six shots of espresso and told them the winner gets to eat Bugs Bunny.
In other words: this is going to rule.
Thanks for reading this week, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about things at least tacitly related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your Hot Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew and I will answer them! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane. Get weird with it. Let’s have fun.