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UFC 264 Aftermath: Welcome to Conor McGregor’s mid-career crisis

UFC 264: Poirier v McGregor 3 Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

On Saturday night at UFC 264 we were supposed to witness a coronation, the return of Conor McGregor, the Jester King of MMA. But in the end it was revealed that in truth the emperor had no clothes, much less a crown.

Heading into Saturday night, we were promised “the old Conor McGregor” but in truth what we got was a bad impersonation. At the pre-fight press conference, McGregor hurled insults and made threats but it was a far cry from the quick-witted, self-assured Irishman who once ended Jeremy Stephens’ entire career with a quip. It all felt forced, like a man trying to rekindle the magic of a long-dead relationship. There was sense that even McGregor himself didn’t believe it. That he knew the well had run dry so he dialed it up the antics even more in an attempt to wring the last drops of magic out of it.

As Poirier himself said, it reeked of desperation.

Then we got the in-cage product, which was not much better. McGregor came out firing kicks and trying to time a left hand, but when Poirier cracked him with his own left hand that rattled him, McGregor ducked under for a clinch and then tried to jump a guillotine. This from the man who said “first one to shoot is a dusty b*tch” and that submissions don’t count. Well, this one certainly didn’t as Poirier extricated himself quick enough and proceeded to beat McGregor down, a la Khabib Nurmagomedov. For the better part of three minutes McGregor made little attempt to actually stand up, instead firing off elbows from the bottom and eating much bigger shots in return. Then, with time short, Poirier complained that McGregor was blatantly cheating and grabbing his gloves and McGregor finally stood up, only to shatter his own leg moments later.

In the end, Conor McGregor, whose best round is always his first round, was on the wrong side of a 10-8 round and then snapped his leg in half.

The worst, though, was still yet to come. For all of the “Notorious” bravado, McGregor has consistently been one of the sport’s best losers, at least in the immediate aftermath. Each time he has been defeated, McGregor has taken his lumps at the press conference and given credit — sometimes begrudgingly — where due. Not in this instance though. Laying bloodied and broken on the floor, McGregor was unable to muster even a semblance of humility, saying he’d take this outside if he needed to and resorting to an ugly diatribe about Poirier’s wife.

Remember in “A Few Good Men” when Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise he’s going “to rip the eyes out of your head and piss into your dead skull!”? It was like that (made all the more apt by McGregor’s own post-fight “You want me on that wall!” statement).

The margins in MMA are so small that any minute decline can result in an enormous change in outcomes; moreover, maintaining your skill level doesn’t guarantee success. The game is advancing at a rapid pace, every day. At this point, it’s undeniable that, at best, McGregor has stagnated and, more likely, he’s regressed. Shots that used to drop opponents now just get a wince and punches that previously bounced off McGregor’s head now make him back up. Some of this can be attributed to no longer having the enormous physical advantages that he used to have at featherweight, but it’s also a matter of having become predictable. Everyone knows how McGregor fights now and they are all far more prepared to counter it.

Aging gracefully in MMA is nearly impossible and, to be frank, McGregor was never the type of person who was going pull it off. Staying at the top of the mountain requires a humility that is anathema to McGregor’s state of being. Despite having his ass kicked, repeatedly, over the last few years, McGregor has been entirely unable to accept that what he is doing isn’t working. He has maintained that the reasons he lost were small oversights or, pardon the pun, bad breaks, and not a fundamental shortcoming in his game. McGregor would be well-served to take a lesson from Poirier in this instance. When Poirier found he was coming up short, he grappled with his deficiencies and reinvented himself, adding tools and becoming one of the very best fighters in the world. McGregor just doubled down on the same old stuff and keeps getting beaten as a result.

It’s pretty clear now that what we are seeing is Conor McGregor’s mid-career crisis. A man he once put away in under two minutes has now beaten him twice, and as much as his fans and Dana White may want to say this third one was controversial, even McGregor knows the truth of the matter: Poirier is simply the better fighter than he is. The proof is in the punching and McGregor is having a hard time reconciling that with the stories he has told himself his entire career. Can he turn it all around and come back from this? Sure, it’s possible, but it doesn’t seem likely. If McGregor was able to truly set aside his ego and reckon with his failings, he wouldn’t be Conor McGregor at all.

It’s said all the time but the greatest thing about MMA is that regardless of the hype and the trash talk and whatever else, at the end of the day the truth will out in the cage. The cage has spoken and Conor McGregor has been found wanting.

UFC 264 Quotes

“We are going to fight again whether it’s in the octagon or on the sidewalk. You don’t say the stuff he said. My wife’s solid as a rock, I’m not worried about that. That’s noise. He was saying that he was going to kill me. You don’t say stuff like that. That he was going to murder me. You don’t say stuff like that.” - Dustin Poirier on a fourth fight with Conor McGregor.

“I was boxing the bleeding head off of him, kicking the bleeding leg off. This is not over. If I have to take this outside with him, it’s on outside. I don’t give a bollocks.” - Conor McGregor, also setting up a fourth fight.

“The fight didn’t get finished. You can’t have a fight finish that way, so we’ll see how this whole thing plays out. Who knows how long Conor is out, so Poirier will do his thing until Conor’s ready.” - Dana White, ALSO setting up a fourth fight.

“One was a hot sauce. I think the hot sauce took everything else. F*ck, I was like, ‘Ugh.’ I think it was Poirier’s too. God!” - Tai Tuivasa on his many shoeys as he exited the arena after knocking out Greg Hardy.

I think 30 seconds left, I wanted to put his lights out. People want to see people get their head battered in. Thirty more seconds and I could have landed another 15-20 head shots, added to the record or caught up to whatever record there is. Herb is the man. He knew what he needed to do.” - Sean O’Malley on his controversial stoppage over Kris Moutinho.

Stock Report

Stock Up

Dustin Poirier: Though McGregor and White are attempting to create controversy, there is none here. Poirier beat McGregor down, and until someone beats him, he’s the best lightweight in the world.

Tai Tuivasa: Not much to speak of from the fight itself but Tuivasa is clearly building a connection with the fans as his exit from the arena shows. With all the shoeys he’s being given, the man will never need to buy a beer again.

Irene Aldana: After a lackluster performance in her last bout, Aldana bounced back by putting the boots to Yana Kunitskaya. In bantamweight division desperate for new title challengers, the win puts Aldana right back in the mix.

Sean O’Malley: It wasn’t the highlight-reel KO he wanted, but O’Malley put on a clinic that will have casual fans wanting to tune in for more from the rising star.

Ilia Topuria: Topuria has been touted as an elite prospect for some time now and Saturday was his coming out party. Ryan Hall is a guy no one wanted to fight and Topuria obliterated him. Welcome to the rankings, “El Matador.”

Kris Moutinho: It’s tough to say a man who absorbed a record-breaking beatdown saw his stock rise, but coming into Saturday, Moutinho was viewed as a sacrificial lamb. And despite being hopelessly outmatched, Moutinho showed he’s tough as nails and probably belongs in the UFC.

Stock Down

Conor McGregor: McGregor looked even worse against Poirier than he did back in January, and then he shattered his leg. 2021 has not been his year.

Stephen Thompson: Aside from losing one of the most underwhelming bouts on the card, at 38 years old, that was probably the end of Thompson’s title aspirations, at least in the UFC.

Greg Hardy: Every time Hardy is given a chance to prove he belongs in the UFC he falls flat on his face. This time, he did it literally thanks to a counterpunch from Tuivasa. It’s time for Hardy to get some seasoning outside the UFC.

Ryan Hall: On the plus side for Hall, he probably won’t have trouble finding people to fight him now. But Hall got put on a poster with authority and with his mystique now cracked, the vultures will be coming.

Official Matters

Arguably the biggest non-main event story coming out of UFC 264 was the last minute stoppage in the O’Malley-Moutinho bout made by Herb Dean. Many people, including the UFC’s own commentary team, were incensed that Dean stopped the fight with less than 30 seconds left, especially as Moutinho was still on his feet. Those people are wrong.

With a minute left in the fight, Moutinho had already absorbed 200+ strikes, most of them to the head, and O’Malley was pouring it on in search of a stoppage. Moutinho had zero chance of winning that fight and when warned to defend himself, he instead zombie-walked forward into another combination. It’s not Herb Dean’s job to facilitate moral victories, it’s to protect the fighters. And Moutinho needed protecting from himself. If anything, Dean’s stoppage could have come earlier, though I understand why it happened when it did. Herb Dean did nothing wrong and the real screwups here are Moutinho’s cornermen who allowed that fight to continue after the first minute of the final round.

Oh, and Marc Goddard should’ve deducted a point from Gilbert Burns for punches to the back of the head at the end of the third round, but as we all know, cheating is totally allowed in MMA.

Fights to Make

Dustin Poirier vs. Charles Oliveira: Poirier is the best lightweight in the world and Oliveira currently has the belt. This is straightforward and it’s what is coming.

Conor McGregor vs. Tony Ferguson: Everyone will say it’s time for McGregor-Diaz III and that’s almost certainly what we will actually get but at this point, that’s a risky fight for McGregor. Ferguson, in contrast, could get him back on the horse in a major way.

Gilbert Burns vs. Neil Magny: These aren’t the fights Burns called for but after getting starched by the champion, Burns needs to defend his ranking another time before getting a top-5 guy.

Stephen Thompson vs. Belal Muhammad: Thompson’s title aspirations are shot at this point but he can still serve as gatekeeper to the stars. Muhammad should get the chance to keep climbing.

Sean O’Malley vs. Ricky Simon: There is a good backstory here. Just run with it.

Carlos Condit vs. Nate Diaz: Make this the first seven-round fight in UFC history and take all my money.

Top 10 Takeaways from Saturday night

  1. Dustin Poirier is the best lightweight in the world not named Khabib Nurmagomedov and his current run is among the most incredible in the history of the sport. We do not appreciate enough just how good this man is. Chucky Olives is in trouble.
  2. Give McGregor credit for this: He handled that leg break better than any person I’ve ever seen. Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman looked, understandably, like someone had taken an ax to them. Meanwhile McGregor was more concerned about making sure it was a doctor’s stoppage TKO and even gave an interview while splinted. Dude is tough as a coffin nail.
  3. If Conor McGregor has any actual interest in getting back to the top of the MMA world competitively, he HAS to change gyms. Yes men don’t make for good career comebacks.
  4. I understand why everyone is pitching a fourth fight — McGregor can’t handle the loss, Poirier wants an easy paycheck, and White is hoping against hope that McGregor can high roll again — but good lord is that an awful idea. Poirier beats McGregor 9 times out of 10 at this stage and running it back endlessly just makes McGregor look like Wile E. Coyote. Put McGregor in there against the Donald Cerrones of the world and build him back up.
  5. Jolie Poirier is a legend.
  6. He’s finally done it: I believe that Gilbert Burns is legitimately a good welterweight. It still doesn’t make sense to me but I can no longer die on the hill. Too many great performances.
  7. Michel Pereira remains the best. Backflip head stomps for the win.
  8. Ilia Topuria is going to hold a title one day. That man is a problem.
  9. That cut on Jessica Eye’s forehead. Yeesh.
  10. Every time the lightweight division is highlighted, I can’t help but think about how good Khabib was and what we lost with his retirement.

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