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Why Dustin Poirier Is the Last Man in the UFC Who Can Beat Conor McGregor

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterNovember 11, 2020

Dustin Poirier
Dustin PoirierGregory Payan/Associated Press

(This article has been updated.)

What do we talk about when we talk about Conor McGregor? You know the laundry list, and you know that his social media foot-fights—including most recently with Dustin Poirier—are far more likely to break out than an actual one.

Thankfully, on Thursday the MMA world got to talk about the latter, with a rematch purportedly sealed and delivered between McGregor (22-4) and Poirier (26-6-1), per MacLife, McGregor's personal website. It took McGregor a while to sign on the dotted line, though he'd indicated his willingness a while back.

Betting sites have McGregor as a healthy -200 favorite to handle the Louisianan. But I'm here to tell you that the underdog has a legitimate chance to defeat the world-famous Irishman. Not only that, but Poirier has the best chance to defeat McGregor—after kinda-arguably-but-not-really lightweight GOAT Khabib Nurmagomedov announcing his retirement—of anyone on the UFC roster.

It's always a bit surreal to remember that the 32-year-old McGregor has only three MMA fights in the past four years. He went 2-1 in that stretch, with the wins being his double-champ victory over Eddie Alvarez and a drubbing of fan-fave Donald Cerrone earlier this year. So the quality was there, just not the quantity.

Poirier has both. In the same timeframe, the Louisianan went 6-1-1. His only loss in that stretch? Nurmagomedov. The victims: Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, Alvarez, Max Holloway, Dan Hooker and Jim Miller. That's pretty good; there are four champions on that list. He's 10-2-1 since returning to lightweight after three years of mixed results down at featherweight.

The weight-class change is an important piece of the puzzle, because when these two first fought, it happened at featherweight. McGregor flattened Poirier in under two minutes, but Poirier has said repeatedly that he suffered through horrendous weight cuts to reach the 145-pound weight limit, to the point he viewed the cut as more daunting than the fight itself. Weight cuts are also notoriously rough on the chin. So the "scales," if you will, are perhaps more even now.

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McGregor (right) walks away after finishing Poirier in 2014.
McGregor (right) walks away after finishing Poirier in 2014.John Locher/Associated Press

So, a clear edge in experience and activity go to Poirier. But that doesn't settle the question of why Poirier is going to beat McGregor. Never let it never be forgotten that McGregor is simply a brilliant fighter, particularly because of the standup phase and the morningstar attached to the end of his left arm. 

McGregor is so much more than the left hook, though. He knows exactly when and how to mix in a full array of kicks, which are more illustrative of the fighting computer he careers around upstairs than any single devastating combination or knockout shot. He just has a very deep bag of tricks. (Shoulder strikes, anyone?) 

It's probably why a back-of-the-napkin analysis might suggest that Poirier will want to take the match to the ground. There's some validity there, as McGregor has suffered all four of his pro losses by submission. But let's be clear: McGregor is not the limp fish most people picture once the action goes horizontal. 

McGregor's ground game isn't always flashy or aggressive (only one career submission win) but it is steady and calculated, a useful tool he can use to at least get back to his feet. Although McGregor's takedown defense has never been impenetrable—it's a solid-but-unspectacular 70 percent, per UFC statistics—against Nurmagomedov it was good enough to stop four of seven takedown attempts. Gaethje, much more ballyhooed than McGregor for his defensive wrestling, stopped only one attempt out of three. 

So it's not enough to point out that Poirier has seven submission wins, McGregor has four submission losses, and that's that. Unlike the Irishman, Poirier is a gun fighter on the ground. At all times, he's hunting and fishing for submissions—sometimes to his strategic detriment. McGregor is an opportunistic grappler who could take advantage of such things.

Poirier (right) lands on Max Holloway
Poirier (right) lands on Max HollowayMichael Zarrilli/Associated Press

As for striking, the opposite holds true as well. Poirier's footwork has improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years, giving him more options and better defense in the standup phase. His instinct is to wade in and duke it out, but he has remarkable instincts inside the phone booth that go way beyond brawling. 

But here's the real rub on the standup phase, and it could be a huge one for McGregor: He's a southpaw. Poirier seems to have difficulty with that. It's a big reason why McGregor's left hand was such an effective finisher in their first meeting. It's why Poirier once got flatlined by Michael Johnson, a fighter as middling as he is left-handed.

But here's what I think will be Poirier's ace in the hole, more so than any stylistic advantage or disadvantage: cardio. 

It's never easy to go beat for beat with Holloway, as Poirier did in taking a five-round decision last year. It was impressive to watch him find the stamina to finish Gaethje in the closing seconds of the fourth round of a grueling affair that earned Fight of the Night honors. Although Poirier struggled with it earlier in his career, cardio—and everything else—gained serious amplitude since he relocated to the gold-standard American Top Team gym. 

Cardio is always an Achilles' heel for a high-octane, fast-twitch athlete like McGregor. If he can keep his spurs from jangling, Poirier should be able to neutralize and deplete McGregor, racking up minutes on the ground and pounding the rib cage with knees and working for the neck all the while. 

Time is on Poirier's side. Pure and simple. If this does go down on January 23, it will have been a year since McGregor has faced live ammunition. For Poirier, it will have been half that.

Poirier's too smart not to fight a smart fight. McGregor will be as rusty as the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, and Poirier will show the audience he has brains to spare. Then, fight fans and McGregor fans will have something new to talk about.