ABU DHABI, U.A.E. — When Conor McGregor is involved, there is always potential for hyperbole. When you have a star that big, everything tends to dial up a notch — including any comments related to him or an upcoming fight. But allow me to say, I have genuinely looked forward to this moment since the end of 2016.
Whether this all comes to fruition, only time will tell. But I believe we might finally realize the true fighting potential of McGregor in 2021. If you go back to the end of 2016, McGregor was the reigning featherweight and lightweight champion. He’d avenged his submission loss to Nate Diaz. He wasn’t considered the absolute best fighter in the world, but he was on the radar for that honor.
Of course, we all know what happened next. McGregor (22-4), who fights Dustin Poirier in a nontitle lightweight fight at UFC 257 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi (main card at 10 p.m. ET, purchase here on pay-per-view), pursued a lucrative boxing match against Floyd Mayweather in 2017, proceeded to run into various legal troubles, lost a championship fight to Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018, didn’t fight at all in 2019 and competed once in 2020 for less than a minute.
And frankly, all of that isn’t hard to understand. McGregor rose to never-before-seen levels of fame in 2016, and he cashed in with the Mayweather fight. That match was entertaining and it paid McGregor more than any MMA fight would have, but it was also a farce and a monumental pivot from what he might have accomplished in MMA.
It’s wild to think: McGregor has been in the UFC since 2013, and one could argue he has competed in his most natural weight class only twice. His cut to featherweight was manageable but brutal. And he’s not even close to the average size of a welterweight. McGregor is a lightweight, and we’ve seen him compete there only in 2016, when he won the belt from Eddie Alvarez, and 2018, when he failed to regain it against Nurmagomedov.
Look, we know who McGregor is as a celebrity and a public figure. He has had an obvious impact on the entire combat sports industry, as well as on the sports media industry as a whole. And we know a lot about him as a fighter, too. We know he’s supremely talented. We know he was the UFC’s first “champ-champ.” We know he’s good — great even.
But we don’t know how truly great he is. That’s the part that’s left to be defined. Had he never deviated into the world of a “Money Fight” with Mayweather and more or less disappeared from competition after, what might he have done? Defended the lightweight championship multiple times? Challenged for a third belt? Might he even have beaten Nurmagomedov under different circumstances, if he’d maintained all the momentum of 2016?
I truly, truly hope we’re about to find out. McGregor has repeatedly said he’s committed to this 155-pound frame, and he’s looking to be active in 2021. We know McGregor is an amazing fighter. I want to find out this year exactly how amazing he can be.
By the numbers
91: Percentage of McGregor victories that he has ended with finishes (19 knockouts and one submission in 22 wins).
1.95: Knockdowns per 15 minutes in the cage for McGregor, the eighth-highest rate in UFC history.
8: Pay-per-view events headlined by McGregor since 2015, including this one. Only Daniel Cormier (9) has done it more. This will be the fourth McGregor PPV main event that’s a nontitle fight, the most of anyone in the past 10 years.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
A look back
Since then …
Five vs. five
Dustin Poirier’s most recent results
Win: Dan Hooker (UD, June 27, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Khabib Nurmagomedov (Sub3, Sept. 7, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Max Holloway (UD, April 13, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Eddie Alvarez (TKO2, July 28, 2018)
Win: Justin Gaethje (TKO4, April 14, 2018)
Conor McGregor’s most recent results
Win: Donald Cerrone (TKO1, Jan. 18, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Khabib Nurmagomedov (Sub4, Oct. 6, 2018; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Eddie Alvarez (TKO2, Nov. 12, 2016; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Nate Diaz (MD, Aug. 20, 2016; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Nate Diaz (Sub2, March 5, 2016; watch on ESPN+)
Dom & Gil’s film study
Dominick Cruz on why Poirier-McGregor 1 went the way it did:
On Unlocking Victory, Dominick Cruz breaks down how Conor McGregor set up his knockout win vs. Dustin Poirier in 2014.
Gilbert Melendez on how Poirier-McGregor 2 can go differently:
On Unlocking Victory, Gilbert Melendez displays how Dustin Poirier can avoid Conor McGregor’s counter left hand.
And the winner is …
“I think Poirier is gonna try to fight smart and win a mixed martial arts bout, not make it a standup battle or a grappling battle,” says UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber. “Conor has been looking super impressive as far as his athleticism goes. It looks like he’s taking it really seriously. I’m leaning on the side of Conor again.”
Faber is one of several fighters and coaches who have weighed in with analysis and predictions. See what they had to say here.
Taking a deeper dive into a breakdown of the fight is ESPN MMA analyst Gilbert Melendez, the two-time Strikeforce lightweight champion and a former WEC lightweight champ. His starting point: that this is a rematch.
“McGregor got the best of Poirier years ago,” Melendez writes, “and no matter what, that will weigh heavily on the mindset of both fighters.”
How to watch the fights
Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access.
Don’t have ESPN+ for the prelims and PPV? Get it here.
Purchased the fight on your phone and want to stream on your TV? Find out how here.
There’s also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every UFC card.
Saturday’s fight card
PPV (via ESPN+), 10 p.m. ET
Dustin Poirier vs. Conor McGregor | Lightweight
Dan Hooker vs. Michael Chandler | Lightweight
Jessica Eye vs. Joanne Calderwood | Women’s flyweight
Andrew Sanchez vs. Makhmud Muradov | Middleweight
Marina Rodriguez vs. Amanda Ribas | Strawweight
ESPN/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Matt Frevola vs. Arman Tsarukyan | Lightweight
Brad Tavares vs. Antonio Carlos Junior | Middleweight
Julianna Pena vs. Sara McMann | Women’s bantamweight
Khalil Rountree Jr. vs. Marcin Prachnio | Light heavyweight
ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET
Movsar Evloev vs. Nik Lentz | Catchweight (150 pounds)
Amir Albazi vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov | Men’s flyweight
Co-main event raises the curtain on a champion
Chandler will be the ninth former Bellator champ to move on to the UFC, with the previous eight going 5-3 in their debuts. Those who won: Alexander Volkov, Lyman Good, Ben Askren, Will Brooks and Zach Makovsky. Those who lost: Hector Lombard, Eddie Alvarez and Joe Soto.
Alvarez is the only former Bellator champion to go on to win a UFC title.
A couple of notable numbers — or, why the judges maybe need not even bother to take their seats at cageside: Chandler has had finishes in 76% of his career fights (nine knockouts and seven submissions in 21 wins), and Hooker’s finish rate is 85% (10 knockouts and seven submissions in 20 career wins).
Two more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
1. Joanne Calderwood, who faces 2019 title challenger Jessica Eye, has landed 444 significant strikes in her UFC career, the third most in women’s flyweight history. Calderwood is No. 5 in the ESPN rankings for the 125-pound division.
2. Opening the main card is a matchup between top Brazilian strawweights Marina Rodriguez, who is No. 8 in the ESPN rankings at 115 pounds, and Amanda Ribas, who is 4-0 in the Octagon. Rodriguez is coming off her first career defeat, a split-decision loss to former champ Carla Esparza in July. Ribas has finishes in seven of her 10 career wins (four submissions, three knockouts).
ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this fight preview.