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Conor vs. Dustin 2: An overly specific body language breakdown

McGregor walkout UFC 205 – from 1:22


McGregor walkout UFC 229 – from 1:08


McGregor walkout UFC 257 – from 1:08


Poirier vs. McGregor 2: Full fight



READ TIME: 12 minutes


When attempting to break down the body language of fighters the potential for errors is huge. The first dismissal of any analyst will likely be the charge that because they are not a fighter they have no idea what they're talking about… and I wholeheartedly agree. I don't know what it's like to be a fighter and I don't know what it's like to be in a fight. I don't even know what it feels like to spar or grapple in the gym.

However, an analyst does not necessarily need such experiences to observe and report on the behavioural changes in professional fighters themselves. The analysis being done here is not one of explanation (i.e., why a fighter did what they did), but merely of description (i.e., what the fighter did). Instead, this takes a keen eye for detail and a familiarity with the range of potential likely behaviours of any given fighter in any given moment.

For instance, this familiarity-with-the-fine-details allows us to recognise that Niko Price —current UFC Welterweight— will act like a bit of a goofball when he wins. After scoring a victory he will become giddy with a combination of uncontrollable adrenaline, a dorky excitement and a surplus of misfiring energy. He will start to behave a little goofy; often making a series of random, spasmodic body movements that he doesn't seem fully in control of, projecting some inappropriate over-friendliness with his opponent before garbling out a stream of semi-comprehensible non-sequiturs on the microphone.

This is what he usually does —he wins, he acts a little strange— and it's perfectly fine that he does it. However, if or when he doesn't do it then it's time to pay attention and to describe what it is that he has done differently. As I prefaced earlier, understanding why is an entirely separate endeavour and one that is always fraught with the kind of dubious assumptions and amateurish interpretational errors of the naive psychologist.

All fighters have tendencies; even fighters that would like you to believe otherwise. Not every action or movement is meaningful but every important action or movement is perceptible. At any one time, we can only consciously control a small number of behaviours. Movements we are not managing consciously —our gaze, our depth of breath, our posture— will instead find a natural choreographer in habit, instinct, curiosity and muscle memory. The most revealing, fractional tells are often unconscious, unplanned and —from a fighter's perspective— something they likely wished they had more control over.

This brings me to the topic of this article and the most revealing set of tells that I can remember in modern MMA history. It may now appear as a self-indulgent case of hindsight bias; of course, at the time I did not know how the fight was going to end, but Conor McGregor's walkout at UFC 257 on Fight Island before his fight with Dustin Poirier in January 2021 had about it an extraordinary impending sense of doom.

To many fans and casual viewers Conor here will have appeared confident, self-assured and characteristically unfazed by the magnitude of the moment. Here, undoubtedly, walking into what he would've known was going to be another record PPV event with a truly global audience, awaiting his eventual return to the division he once ruled over, against a known enemy and with a refreshing new look: "Daddy Cool McGregor".

However, sitting watching Conor's walkout at 5am on a snowy January morning in South Wales, the moment didn't feel like a McGregor classic.

With analysis like this it's tempting to break down a fighter's every breath, every look and every hesitation as a meaningful indicator of some ambient, underlying drive or mechanism. Analysis like this is tedious and, frankly, it's often wrong. That's why, in an era where prominent fight analysts spend hours breaking down every painstaking step and feint, here instead I present 3 glaring tells that —while most people will have observed them in the moment— many will not have fully appreciated un-Conor they truly were.

Additionally, I acknowledge that I cannot know the reasons why he behaved out of character; I would almost certainly be wrong if I tried. I will therefore leave it to you to ask yourself: are these the natural behaviours of a man brimming with a confidence that once made him the most recognisable combat sports athlete on the planet, or do they suggest something far more exposing?

THE THREE TELLS

Although I immediately sensed that Conor's walkout posture and gestures felt a little forced, it was his behaviour during his entrance into the UFC inspection area at UFC 257 that set alarm bells ringing. Traditionally Conor doesn’t observe a particular routine when he enters the inspection area and, to be honest, many fighters often make this process a lot more awkward than it needs to be.

Typically, upon approaching the pre-fight inspection area a fighter will remove all non-fight clothing and accessories, acknowledge their cornermen (most commonly with a handshake and/or a hug), check they are wearing their mouth guard and may even take a sip of water. Then, generally, they will turn towards the UFC inspector and begin the formal inspection process.

Like I said, Conor doesn't strictly have a routine, and strict routines here aren't overly common. Some fighters have their own minor idiosyncrasies and rituals, but Conor mostly follows the path of least resistance, which means getting through the process with as little fuss as possible. He will generally be wearing an Ireland flag so will hand that to one of his team, and often spends time wiping his feet (which is not overly common of any fighter). However, Conor's most enduring characteristic is his complete lack of hesitation, his unwavering composure and resolute presence of mind which combined allow him to fully appreciate the spectacle before the battle.

His UFC 205 walkout in MSG in his Lightweight title fight against Eddie Alvarez in November 2016 is a textbook example of a typical McGregor walkout: calm and expressionless, fully present in the moment, with body and mind wholly synchronised. In these fleeting moments in New York’s sporting mecca, he couldn't care less about the inspection necessities and just gets on with it, without worry or hesitation.

His UFC 229 walkout for his fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov felt a little less slick: a little forgetful and clunky. He appears to momentarily forget the general sequence of expected events here, approaching the inspection area before he'd even removed his footwear and still carrying the Irish flag around his shoulders. You’ll see that he needs a little guidance from his cornermen and the UFC inspection staff, but no one would begrudge Conor some nervous faltering in this particular moment. While he didn't seem as confident as his UFC 205 walkout, he appeared to keep any nerves well hidden.

The reason why Conor’s wavering at UFC 257 is so noteworthy is because, in all honesty, the fight wasn't really a big moment for Conor; that is to say, on paper, he had been in much bigger fights on much grander occasions with far more at stake. This fight wasn't a title shot, and any rivalry and ill-will between him and his known enemy Poirier seemed to have evaporated in the sweltering Middle Eastern sun throughout fight week.

I'm not going to say here that he *should* have been relaxed and that he *shouldn't* have been nervous and that there was *nothing* at stake for him, but I certainly wasn't expecting to see him as subtly out of sorts as he appeared. For comparison, consider how he has been able to handle himself in the same situation on some of the greatest stages the UFC has ever platformed.

TELL #1

The first tell concerns his approach to the pre-fight inspection area. This particular sequence of events at UFC 257 runs as follows [timestamped]:

1. Conor approaches the inspection area wearing his Irish flag and footwear [1:08]

2. As he pauses to wait for the inspection staff to take their positions, he looks up around the arena, appearing to take in the sights [1:55]

3. Once in position, instead of removing all non-fight wear and embracing his coaches, he takes a step forward towards the UFC cutman and points to his lips to signal that he is ready for the inspection process to begin [2:00]

4. The cutman, on the brink of applying the Vaseline, stops [2:03]

5. **Simultaneously it appears that another cutman [now obscured in-shot] addresses both Conor and the lead cutman** [2:03]

6. Conor acknowledges that he is not yet ready for inspection and shakes his head [2:03]

7. Conor turns around and begins to remove non-fight clothing [2:04]

The first major tell here is the shake of the head that he gives himself after the cutman appears to remind that he is not yet ready for inspection. It is a curious moment because Conor, usually so self-assured, smooth and unhesitating, shakes his head at his own forgetfulness, as if trying to shake this misstep from his mind. Speculating here, I sense that Conor entered the inspection area lost in thought, with the secondary cutman’s interjection bringing him back around to reality.

For someone usually too present in the moment to be caught self-scrutinising, acknowledging his own over-eagerness is a sign of mindlessness we hadn’t witnessed in him before. In the split-seconds before the cutman is about to apply the Vaseline, Conor tilts his head back confidently, as if to say, "I'm here and I'm ready". Not a second later, however, he’s shaking that over-confidence out of his head, correcting himself: "Wait a minute, no I'm not".

Hilariously, at exactly the same time as Conor begins to turn away from the cutman, Conor's head coach John Kavanagh raises both his hands as if to say "Hey fella! Don't forget what you're doing, now".

Previously when Conor had made an error in the inspection area proceedings— like forgetting to remove his footwear or forgetting to embrace his coaches as he did at UFC 229— he did not and would not have ever acknowledged it. He’d be too captivated by the moment to worry about making such an inconsequential mistake. It never fazed him before because —quite simply— his mind was elsewhere, focussing solely on the absolute essentials.

Not only did Conor acknowledge his mistake here, but his reaction suggests that it bothered him enough to provoke an overtly physical reaction. That is the crux of this tell; he was mentally jarred and also displayed it unwittingly. Whereas a previous iteration of Conor would've played it cool and cast this detail aside like the meaningless faux pas it is, he irked himself enough to cause a perceptible disturbance in his demeanour.

As I said earlier, there are only so many behaviours, movements or actions that we can consciously control in any one moment. The performative bravado of Conor's entrance —the pause he takes, the confident stride onto the mat and the "I'm here and I'm ready" head tilt— all collapsed in one moment where his real discomfort and genuine insecurity finally broke through the forced façade. No matter how much Conor had visualised, rehearsed and actively controlled these moments, he was simply unable to control every single reaction.

Even John Kavanagh —usually so measured and unreactive— recognised this as a weird deviation from Conor’s usual behaviour, so much so that he raises both arms as if to say, "Hey kiddo, here we are, remember?".

TELL #2

After this Conor goes through a series of slightly clunky preparations in what culminates in the traditional embrace of the coaches. After wiping his feet, Conor stands up and flashes John a mouth guard smile. It's right here then that Conor does something he's never done before in the inspection area for the UFC. Conor —still holding his foot towel— proceeds to clasp both hands in the middle of his chest, looks up at the crowd —still grinning— and turns to his right, completing a full rotation with hands still clasped at his chest.

Now, he might simply have been nudged to do this by team; following instructions to soak in the kind of atmosphere he’s found it difficult to come by in recent years. It might be simply because Conor —a true veteran of such rarefied stages— instinctively knows to value these small moments.

However, the closedness of his body language here is worryingly uncharacteristic. When Conor typically soaks up the pre-fight experience, he usually does so with broad, sweeping movements of the arms, with his chin high and exposed, as a predator exercising full control of his turf and relishing the freedom that his dominance affords him. No such thing here. Conor's withdrawing solo hug reads more like the soothing reassurance of a doting mother’s embrace to her distressed child.

Even more revealing is that his wide-lipped, mouth guard grin turns immediately into the face of someone holding back tears, when he brings his bottom lip up to meet the top. Here, he's not smiling. He's forcing a false smile; a painfully strained veneer… A grimace. Don't be fooled; Conor presents merely the illusion of a smile, and therefore presents merely the illusion of comfort. Momentarily at least, he's far from ease.

TELL #3

The final tell Conor displays in this fight was one that you would be hard pressed to find in any other Conor fight with the UFC. Even in the depths of the Khabib encounter —in the laboured stand-up exchanges of the third and fourth rounds— you won't see this tell. It may have been because Conor fought the second Poirier fight with a completely shaved head, but I'd never seen Conor's facial expression take such a form as it did from the very first seconds of the fight.

Conor's forehead was almost permanently creased throughout the seven or so minutes he remained conscious. From the camera close-up in the seconds before the clock began, Conor can be seen with a deeply wrinkled forehead; the symptom of a tension and activity that can make you question if you've actually ever seen this person look like that before; a sight so immediately jarring as when a close friend turns up with a radical new haircut and you’re instantly forced to recalibrate your perception of them in your mind's eye to fully integrate their new facial framing.

Even in his most hard-fought battles, Conor's face is usually one of expressionless calm and confidence; a Zen-like ease with the to-ings and fro-ings of the confrontation, even in moments that would shake battle-worn fighters to their core.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the tension radiating from Conor’s creased forehead alone was downright alarming. It seemed Conor was overthinking his part in the fight entirely. Instead of commanding his body and movement calmly, sensing his position in relation to Dustin while wearing his quintessential zero-fucks-given visage, Conor instead looked in disbelief or shock, like he'd just been given some awful and immediately concerning news.

This tell in isolation is not enough to claim responsibility for his staggering loss to Dustin. Physiologically, the creased and tensed forehead was simply a manifestation of the underlying reality that his energies and musculature orientation were especially concentrated in one particular part of his head.

The worst kept secret about this fight —and the most noticeable aspect to his movement that a fan of any level can recognise— was Conor's rigid flat-footedness. His lack of dynamicism has been attributed to boxing-heavy training; something not unusual to hear given Conor's recent involvement and interest in Boxing pursuits outside of the UFC.

However, his lack of range of movement and overall inertia —especially when paralleled with Dustin's speed and astute ringmanship— is obvious. In the first 40 seconds of the fight alone, Dustin takes more steps, throws more kicks and punches, covers more ground and successfully lands an easy takedown. Meanwhile, Conor looks like he's barely got going, at times appearing to try to force himself into activity with a series of little two-footed hops, as if to kick-start his misfiring leg cylinders.

In this fight, Conor most often sustains this tense look when anticipating an exchange from Dustin. On the ground and in the clinch, Conor seems relaxed and focussed. However, wide-stanced and slightly hunkered is when Conor's facial tension materialises. One possible explanation is that his flat-footedness, matched with his bent-kneed karate style, positioned his head and eye-level such that they were lower than Dustin's. Conor may have been forced to artificially elevate his gaze without raising and exposing the chin, the forced expansion of the eyes causing a subsequent creasing of the forehead.

As I've mentioned before, I can’t know exactly why Conor adopted this facial expression, or what produced his inspection area quirkiness; those underlying reasons will forever remain a mystery, likely even to Conor himself. But these behavioural abnormalities are available for all to see, on tape, and remain open for any interpretation one can muster.

These three tells are small signs of a radical deviation from what we have come to expect from Conor. While individual main event fights can seem to last for a significant amount of time (considering the walkouts, inspections, announcements, fight time and post-fight conventions), Conor was only on screen for a couple of minutes before the fight began at UFC 257, and already we had received sufficient warning.

What's most interesting about these types of tells is that, if one is familiar enough with the subject, no over-wrought analysis is required. Individual behavioural aberrations will jump out of the screen screaming to be noticed. You'll often find yourself asking aloud, "What the fuck is he doing? He’s never done that before." By the time Conor and Dustin had touched gloves and before any strike had been thrown, all signs were pointing to a difference in Conor's behaviour and movement: glaring outliers from all previous performances.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many possible explanations for the idiosyncrasies of Conor's UFC 257 performance. Given he is rumoured to be a late riser, the fact that this fight began around 9am Abu Dhabi time surely has a lot to answer for. Although he would've made some necessary adjustments for this, you have to feel that fighting at breakfast —whether fully acclimatised during fight week or not— is enough of an oddity to throw even the most prepared.

But with all that said, Conor's tells at UFC 257 were glaring and ominous. His demise had been written long before he draped himself in his customary Irish flag in the changing room. Although this is now pure speculation and narrative creation, I sense that I am not far off when I say that I believe John Kavanagh knew this as well.

John often displays a fatherly-teacherliness when handling his fighters. Between rounds he is straightforward and softly spoken, but always with an air of slight condescension. The word "buddy" comes immediately to mind. "Hey buddy. Remember what we discussed little fella? You wouldn't want to let your parents down now, would you? There's a good fighter."

Accuse me of reading too much into this, but John's reaction to Conor's inspection area clumsiness says it all; "Woah! Hold your horses little solider, that's not part of the plan. You'd forget your head if it wasn't screwed on. What are you like, eh??" It’s a bizarre couple of seconds that we've never seen between the two of them before, especially given John’s deference to Conor’s unpredictable demands in recent years.

A definitive moment came at the end of Conor's pirouette, where John's barely perceptible crows-feet imply a masked smile in Conor's direction. A series of nods from his coach appear to say, "That's right buddy, take it all in like we discussed". Conor, remembering that the path to success lie in reigniting their traditional student-master relationship, offers his compliance with the attempt of a reciprocated but phoney grin, as a distressed child embracing the reassuring comfort of the doting mother.

In the final analysis, whatever the factors at play here, they materialised in Conor's complete lack of instinct, loss of fluidity and zero-fucks-given ease; characteristics which made him the most brash and outwardly confident fighter in all combat sports. Conor didn't think his way to the dance; he felt his way there, with a reptilian sense for survival in one of the toughest arenas ever put on Earth. In this moment, thinking too much was Conor's great undoing.