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UFC 264 takeaways: Conor McGregor’s angry desperation was an ugly end to an ugly week

UFC 264: Burns v Thompson Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

All of the trash talk meant nothing once the cage doors closed as Dustin Poirier defeated Conor McGregor via first-round doctor’s stoppage due to an grisly ankle injury in UFC 264’s main event, taking the lead 2-1 in the trilogy between the two bitter rivals. What mattered most from a busy Saturday night? Let’s hit our five biggest takeaways from UFC 264.

1. An ugly end to an ugly week

In the end, the image is a lasting one: Conor McGregor stuck down on the canvas, his ear bloodied and face twisted with hate, the icon of a generation reduced to hurling foul insults at the wife of an opponent and doubling down on death threats in the throes of defeat. That will be the legacy of UFC 264. It’s an ugly one, but maybe it shouldn’t be surprising. McGregor’s angry desperation in the aftermath of a fight that ended in a way no one wanted, but a fight that he was getting dominated in all the same, was par for the course after a ugly week. An injury is never cause for celebration, but it’s also impossible to ignore the irony of McGregor spending an entire lead-up vowing to send Dustin Poirier out on a stretcher, only for fate to deliver his words back to him in the most miserable of ways.

“Karma’s not a b*tch,” Poirier said post-fight. “It’s a mirror.”

UFC 264 was supposed to be a legacy-defining fight for McGregor, a chance for the biggest star MMA has ever known to rediscover what he’d lost and right his old wrongs. Instead, two of the three judges scored a 10-8 opening round in Poirier’s favor, McGregor was once again turned into a wrestler in the heat of the moment after spending UFC 264’s whole lead-up decrying the takedown, and the Irish hero who — for all his faults — used to be one of the more gracious losers in the fight game? He became consumed by his own contempt.

McGregor is now 1-3 in four fights as a lightweight and hasn’t beaten a relevant opponent in nearly five years. An entire fan base whose fandom was originally rooted in his journey, those who jumped aboard the MMA train in 2014-16 and stuck around to catch a firsthand glimpse at the supernatural rise of the charismatic two-division champion, have now watched a slow and shameless descent. We saw it all week. McGregor tried to play his hits and ended up sounding more like a trashy cover band. The man who used to be a cocky yet inspiring overcomer was reduced to a spiteful caricature of his better days.

McGregor will still awake on Monday as the most popular figure in combat sports, and that won’t change anytime soon. People will always be drawn to watch him fight, and we already know where these roads lead. McGregor will run with the narrative that Saturday’s result was merely a freak injury and that he would have come back and won the trilogy fight. UFC President Dana White will talk ad nauseam about unfinished business, and at some point next year, McGregor and Poirier will be booked for a fourth attempt. McGregor will probably even get an automatic title shot if Poirier is UFC champion by then.

Hell, even Poirier seems to want a fourth fight, albeit for different reasons.

“We are going to fight again whether it’s in the octagon or on the sidewalk,” Poirier said at UFC 264’s post-fight press conference. “You don’t say the stuff he said.”

Considering the laundry list of affronts that were thrown Poirier’s way over the last few days, not to mention the inscrutable payday that accompanies any McGregor date, who could blame the best lightweight in the world for wanting another chance to run this one back?

But right now? It’s hard to muster up any interest. Because lost in Saturday’s ugliness is the beauty of what’s next: It’s all but certain that Poirier’s next fight will be against Charles Oliveira, a fellow underdog who’s scratched and clawed for everything he’s gotten in MMA. There’s 39 combined UFC wins and 21 combined years of UFC experience between the two men, for both of whom nothing was ever given and nothing was ever easy.

Let’s celebrate that instead of the delusions and sour grapes of a sore loser, because Poirier is right — past a certain point, why continue to focus on the noise and the negative? Especially when there is so much good in this game.

1b. Diamond strong

One quick aside before we move on: Poirier is sneakily climbing into all-time territory in the lightweight pantheon. The run he’s on right now is starting to be difficult to deny.

After Saturday’s win, Poirier sits at 12-2 as a UFC lightweight with one no contest. Some notable scalps included in that stretch of dominance: McGregor (x2), Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez, Dan Hooker, Anthony Pettis, Jim Miller, Max Holloway (x2, though only once at lightweight), and Diego Ferreira. As far as résumés go, that’s fairly spectacular.

UFC 264: Poirier v McGregor 3 Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Khabib Nurmagomedov is the greatest lightweight who ever lived, but outside of that the No. 2 spot is anyone’s to grab. Poirier has entered the same stratosphere as the B.J. Penns and Alvarezs and Frankie Edgars of the world. The only blemish on his résumé is his lack of a true undisputed UFC title. If he can snag that from Oliveira’s grasp, do it in impressive fashion, and mount a defense of a belt? It may be time to elevate Poirier into a more permanent position on that all-time No. 2 spot. We’re not there yet, but it’s within range.

2. Welterweight’s next steps

I fear we may have just witnessed the death of Stephen Thompson’s title aspirations. As much fun as it would’ve been to see “Wonderboy” challenge Usman — and Usman attempt to decode the karateka’s one-of-a-kind puzzle — it doesn’t seem like it was meant to be.

At age 38, with the way welterweight is currently situated, it’s going to be difficult for Thompson to mount another title run. His loss in Saturday’s co-main event to Gilbert Burns ensured that. Thompson may still be youthful in his appearance, but 170 pounds isn’t a division that’s historically kind to its fighters approaching their fifth decade of life. And for what it’s worth, UFC 264 did feel a bit like a preview of what an Usman vs. Thompson scrap could’ve looked like. Burns stifled “Wonderboy” with takedowns and top pressure, won the striking battle by a 101-59 margin, and racked up more than seven minutes of control time.

(It’s also worth mentioning that had referee Marc Goddard taken a point from Burns for his flurry of illegal blows to the back of the head at the end of the third round, Thompson could’ve actually been staring at a majority draw right now. But hey, fouls don’t actually matter, remember?)

Either way, Saturday’s outcome does help to simplify the UFC’s endlessly log-jammed welterweight division. In an already crowded field, there’s now one less deserving name to throw into the title picture. If Colby Covington is indeed next, Burns vs. Leon Edwards is right there if the UFC wants it. If Edwards somehow lucks into the title fight, Covington vs. Burns is just as nice. Or you could throw whichever two of those three names don’t get the title fight against Vicente Luque and Michael Chiesa and really shake things up. No matter how it goes, welterweight makes a tad more sense today than it did yesterday, which is all you can really ask for in a perpetually frustrating division.

3. Too soon or too late?

I’ll admit it: When Herb Dean first jumped in to save Kris Moutinho from Sean O’Malley, my knee-jerk reaction was righteous outrage. The green-haired zombie, as Joe Rogan so appropriately dubbed everyone’s new favorite UFC rookie, marched through the depths of Hell for 14-and-a-half minutes with a purpose. Even after the tenor of the fight was well established and the outcome was inevitable, it felt as if nothing was going to stop Moutinho from reaching the final horn, no matter what O’Malley did — almost as if Moutinho had earned his right to leave Las Vegas with a moral victory and a decision loss under his belt, and that referee Herb Dean deprived him of that dignity.

Now that I’ve had some distance from my initial moment of bloodlust, however, I’ve come around to the other side.

Just look at some of these numbers: O’Malley landed a stunning 230 significant strikes at an even more staggering 72 percent accuracy clip. That’s the second-best mark all-time for a three-round UFC bout, only falling slightly behind Nate Diaz’s infamous 2011 romp against Donald Cerrone. It’s also the fourth-best all-time in overall UFC history, trailing only Max Holloway’s pair of gems against Calvin Kattar and Brian Ortega as well as Diaz vs. Cerrone.

But the most revealing stat of all: 76 percent of those 230 significant strikes cracked Moutinho in the head. The UFC newcomer went all-in on the Rocky Balboa strategy, allowing himself to become a walking punching bag that refused to be deterred. But those final few seconds? They felt different. Watch the replay after O’Malley landed that hellacious right uppercut — the last 30 seconds were about to get really dangerous.

In retrospect, it’s hard for me to say Dean made a mistake. Even if I may not have particularly enjoyed his decision, at least in the romantic just-let-this-guy-have-his-moment sense, I also understand that moral victories have zero tangible value in the real world, and allowing “just another 30 seconds” of O’Malley teeing off with unabated head shots is how far too many athletes have lost their lives in the boxing ring.

Besides, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it much matters. No one walked away from UFC 264 anything less than impressed with the otherworldly heart of Moutinho. It was somewhat reminiscent of Tony Ferguson vs. Lando Vannata, only far more one-sided. The UFC booked Moutinho in an effort to get O’Malley some shine on a big card, and in a weird way, the opposite happened as well. That’s always the fun with these short-notice opportunities. Sure, O’Malley is going to continue on and keep riding his upward trajectory, but now there are going to be a parade of people lining up to tune in for Moutinho’s next fight as well. Let’s just hope he learns some head movement before then.

4. Not yet

It was always going to be a long shot for Carlos Condit to drag out one last vintage performance and keep his late-career surge alive. Even if he strolled into Saturday on his first winning streak since 2012, the reality is that streak came against Court McGee and Matt Brown, two old warhorses whose years in the game nearly match Condit’s own. That’s not who Max Griffin is, and to expect anything else was to set yourself up for disappointment.

But it wasn’t all bad for “The Natural Born Killer.” While Griffin put on a stellar performance — perhaps the best of his career — the Condit who showed up to UFC 264 was an infinitely more competitive fighter than the Condit who was stuck wading through no man’s land just a few years ago. His old ferocious self was back in spurts against Griffin, and his adamantium chin remains impossible to crack. Altogether, it was a welcome sight.

The quotes didn’t make it into the final piece, but last week when I spoke to Condit for our stroll down memory lane, he confided that it took him a long while to rediscover his love of MMA — along with a small part of his own self-belief — after his failed title shot against Robbie Lawler in 2016 (a fight I maintain to this day that Condit should’ve won). But that love? It’s back in droves now. With how acutely aware he is of his window shutting, Condit told me that he’s treasuring every last moment he has left in this game, and I’m here for it.

Newer fans reading this may not understand, but Condit was an all-violence first-teamer in his heyday. A legend like him deserved better than to exit MMA on the down note of the losing streak he suffered through from 2016-19. He’s never going to be a real UFC contender again — that much is clear after Saturday night — but as long as “The Natural Born Killer” wants to continue competing against the McGees and Browns of the world, I’ll happily sign up to watch.

5. Two for one

On a night where violence and weirdness stretched as far as the eyes could see, too much happened to condense it all down to just five takeaways, so I’m going to cheat a little for this last one. Because I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I failed to mention two fighters before we wrap up: Ilia Topuria, and of course the god of entertainment himself, Michel Pereira.

First, let’s hit on Topuria, because the 24-year-old Georgian-Spaniard is going to a force to be reckoned with in this UFC featherweight division, probably sooner rather than later. Topuria showed again on Saturday that he is a physical force. His offense is devastating and springs from seemingly every angle, and his defensive grappling was a sight to behold against one of the most accomplished and awkward grapplers in the UFC today. Topuria counteracted Ryan Hall’s bread-and-butter better than anyone since “The Ultimate Fighter 22,” and in doing so, he officially graduated from undefeated prospect to genuine intrigue.

Seriously, the man asked to fight the weirdo no other featherweight wanted to fight — and he won in less than a round. No one else at 145 pounds can make that claim.

As for Pereira, what is there even to say other than to drop to the floor and thank the MMA gods for blessing us with this beautiful, nonsensical bastard? The mad lad tried a standing moonsault into full mount and somehow it, A) wasn’t even surprising; B) totally worked.

(Let’s ignore, for a second, the fact that Pereira definitely smashed Niko Price with an illegal kick to the head during that sequence. In the future when I’m elected Sports Czar of the World, you better believe that one of my first decrees is going to be to legalize stomps, but only if MMA fighters hit them with standing moonsaults. Why not, right?)

Pereira’s fight against Price may not have been the fully-off-the-rails affair we expected, but it was still tons of fun and ended on a real high note. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but at this point if you don’t enjoy Pereira for what he is, I’m sorry but we can’t be friends.

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