If Conor McGregor loses this weekend, his MMA career is finished.
It’s a sentiment that has been spoken before, mainly ahead of the Irishman’s rematch with Nate Diaz in 2016 and before his meeting with Donald Cerrone last year.
On each occasion, McGregor triumphed, quelling any outside talk of a premature end to his time in the sport.
This weekend, in the main event of UFC 264, the former dual-weight champion will have to save his career for a third time, as he fights Dustin Poirier – for a third time.
Poirier is not Diaz – a durable fighter but not one of an elite level – nor is he Cerrone, who was on a losing run coming into his bout against McGregor and whose experience had finally given way to weariness.
Instead, Poirier (27-6) is the best lightweight in the UFC right now, regardless of the glinting gold around the waist of Charles Oliveira. The American is a fighter who has shown he can adapt and overcome, as he did in January to knock out McGregor in the second round – seven years after being finished by ‘Notorious’ in just over 90 seconds.
Can McGregor similarly make the relevant adjustments that are required to settle this rivalry with the ‘Diamond’? There was a time when that would not have been up for debate. In fact, McGregor’s rematch against Diaz was the perfect example of the Irishman setting out to learn from a loss and improve as a mixed martial artist. He worked on his cardio and did not overcommit in pursuit of a finish, recovering from a second-round submission defeat by Diaz to outpoint the Stockton native five months later.
In some ways, that performance and result once felt symbolic of the fighter McGregor was: They embodied the determination to better his skillset and prove wrong the doubters.
Whether or not McGregor, 32, still has that hunger – or any kind of hunger in MMA – has been questioned for some time now. It was a fair question when he amassed millions of dollars and competed just once in three years. It was an especially fair question when he expressed such shock at the effectiveness of Poirier’s leg kicks after their rematch this January. The technique, a very common one in modern MMA, proved decisive in the fight in Abu Dhabi, destabilising McGregor’s base and leaving him vulnerable to a knockout in the second round – which marked the first time the Irishman (22-5) had ever been stopped by strikes.
Dustin Poirier knocked out Conor McGregor in January
The question has never been more appropriate than now, though.
There is a tendency, given McGregor’s profile, to read deeply into everything that he does, yet maybe it is something that he himself should be doing. Ahead of his rematch with Poirier in January, ‘Notorious’ played Mr Nice Guy. He was finished in the main event of UFC 257, emphatically. Coming into the trilogy bout in Las Vegas this weekend, McGregor has been back at his old tricks: taunting his opponent menacingly and making morbid predictions for fight night.
But if his key takeaway from January’s defeat was that he should present himself in a meaner fashion this time, he is unlikely to have made the right in-ring adjustments to outfox Poirier, who took McGregor down with ease in the first round as well as damaging the Irishman’s legs and – ultimately – his face in the second frame.
Furthermore, McGregor’s posturing all feels a little forced, as though he is trying to hype himself up.
Either way, by emulating – or imitating – his old persona, he is putting more pressure on his shoulders.
The allure of McGregor during his run to the UFC featherweight title between 2013 and late 2015 was in his ability to make the boldest predictions and fulfil them unequivocally in the Octagon. He thrived under pressure.
Whether or not he still can will be revealed in the T-Mobile Arena on Saturday.
But if McGregor has not properly dissected his defeat by Poirier, he is likely to be dissected by the ‘Diamond’ once more.
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