While Conor McGregor remains one of the few household names in the UFC — transforming MMA into equal parts sport and spectacle with his brash antics and elite striking — his meteoric rise as the promotion’s most recognizable star may be fast plummeting back to earth. McGregor just suffered another brutal loss, this time a second-round TKO in a rematch against Dustin Poirier, marking the first time in his MMA career that he’s ever been finished with strikes.
Worse, he’s now ranked outside the top five of the Lightweight division and far removed from title contention. Though still the UFC’s most bankable star, McGregor’s reign as a top Lightweight contender and as one of the most feared fighters in the promotion may be coming to an end.
Those crippling calf kicks
Much has already been made of Dustin Poirier’s calf kicks against McGregor in their recent rematch. After all, they were instrumental to his win. Poirier employed the strike to perfection, hobbling McGregor in the second round to set up a flurry of punches that lead to the stoppage.
McGregor’s coach, John Kavanagh, discussed how effective this strategy was for Poirier in an interview with Ariel Helwani of ESPN:
The fact that Dustin threw it is not that surprising. It was certainly part of our training, to deal with leg kicks. How devastating a technique it was somewhat caught us out. In the gym, when you’re throwing that technique, you’re not trying to kick your partner as hard as you possibly can, and you’re also wearing shin pads, kick pads. … You can build up a false confidence – ‘I feel it, but it’s not that bad.’ Then it’s only in fighting that you get tiny gloves and no shin pads…From October 2018, coming up two-and-a-half years almost, he had 40 seconds of feeling what kicks feel like with no pads on, and punches with four-ounce gloves. So, yeah, that is one thing you cannot replicate.
It’s easy to pick apart a fighter’s game after a devastating loss as many MMA pundits are now doing. Brett Okamoto of ESPN believes that McGregor definitely “shouldn’t be fighting for a UFC title in his next bout.” While that makes sense, Okamoto also points out that McGregor “hasn’t won a 155-pound fight since 2016.” As such, the noted MMA analyst and commentator now ranks McGregor outside the top 10 of the Lightweight division.
It’s no longer hyperbolic to suggest that McGregor’s star has fallen now that opponents are able to exploit some telling holes in his game. Those holes may not be easily remedied without a major shift moving forward.
McGregor’s fighting stance is now a Catch-22 for him
What made McGregor so susceptible to Poirier’s kicks was his wide fighting stance and the fact that he placed so much weight on his lead leg when throwing his deadly and beautiful left hand. Poirier was able to hack away at McGregor’s leg with relative ease with little to no checks or counters from his opponent.
Herein lies a legitimate Catch-22 for McGregor: if he narrows his stance he’s more susceptible to takedowns. If he keeps it the same, leg kicks remains a legitimate threat unless he’s willing to improve upon and change his already excellent skillset — not always an easy task for a storied fighter as we’ve seen with so many others, including BJ Penn and — most recently — Tony Ferguson.
Former UFC Welterweight and Middleweight champion, George St-Pierre, expounded upon this conundrum while speaking on the Michael Bisping Podcast.
“In MMA…because of the takedown and the size of the cage…stance[s] are wider…[I]f you’re legs are wide open and you’re going to try to shield it like Muay Thai style, you won’t have the time to do it because your legs are too wide. Unless you fight with a stance [with] your legs are closer, but if you do, your vulnerability will be compromised [to takedowns] standing up. So there’s no perfect way, there’s always a counter to the counter.”
Conceivably, McGregor could shorten his stance into more of a traditional Muay Thai position to counter leg kicks, as St-Pierre suggests. Former UFC Featherweight champion, Jose Aldo, has demonstrated the effectiveness of such a stance against leg kicks to perfection. However, Aldo is able to fight in such a narrow stance because his sprawl is second to none. The Brazilian fighter has some of the best takedown defense in the entire game, according to many including Chael Sonnen. McGregor simply does not have the same ability and is compelled to keep a wider stance as a result.
That’s not to suggest that McGregor is poor at grappling either. He’s decent against takedowns, can often get back to his feet with ease, and is quite competent on the ground. The problem is that much of the competition in the Lightweight division is now comprised of elite grapplers like Charles Oliveira, Tony Ferguson, and now Michael Chandler. They are all leagues above McGregor in the grappling department and are all still excellent strikers.
Lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, certainly exploited McGregor’s grappling deficiency to a fatiguing degree in their championship bout in 2018. To be fair though, no one has yet to stop the grappling onslaught of the Dagestani fighter, including other noted grapplers.
That he’s already reframing his defeat may be a good sign
Like most great athletes, Conor McGregor is a master of reframing his defeats, and his TKO loss to Poirier is no exception. In a recent Instagram post, McGregor gave Poirier some kudos for the victory but mainly focused on what he himself did well, casting Poirier’s win as, essentially, a fluke. McGregor even posted an edited clip of the fight alongside his statement that only showcased his success in the bout:
Some highlights from my last fight! What a trilogy I now have on my hands. Exciting! With a handle on the leg kicks I will get back to having fun in there. I was in second gear cruising this fight. Best condition I’ve ever been in. After the wrestling and clinch exchanges my shots still held their pop. First time for me with this so I am very encouraged to keep going. It was the first time I did not use/nor need the stool between rounds also…
McGregor expressed some frustration with Poirier’s debilitating leg kicks but insisted that his “shots [were] sharp” and that he was “in full control” of the fight otherwise.
While some might find this delusional, such confidence is integral to his future success, especially in a sport as volatile as MMA.
Will the “Notorious” McGregor Return?
Since his defeat to Khabib Nurmagomedov, a kinder Conor McGregor has emerged. The arrogant bravado and bluster that gave so much swagger to his swing have given way to a more affable, even gentler McGregor.
In the lead up to his second fight against Poirier, McGregor stated, “I love Dustin, I think he’s a good fighter. He’s even a great fighter, you know?” according to First Post.
However, now that he’s faced two consecutive losses in the Lightweight division that both ended in spectacular fashion, it may be time for McGregor to manifest his “Notorious” moniker again.
At the peak of McGregor’s success, his novel and vicious trash-talking toward his opponents leading up to the fights served as a very potent form of psychological warfare. He could get under an opponent’s skin like no other. He employed a combination of wit and a mean streak to unsettle his opponents, and it proved highly effective.
McGregor was able to completely unsettle the usually stoic Jose Aldo — who was undefeated in the UFC at the time — in their Featherweight championship bout in 2015.
He focused on Aldo’s impoverished background with brazen insults like, “[I]f this was a different time I would invade his favela on horseback and kill anyone that is not fit to walk,” according to Fox Sports.
McGregor would end up winning that fight in 13 seconds with a perfectly timed counter left hand as an enraged Aldo uncharacteristically bum-rushed him with a wild lead hook.
Of course, all that trash-talking backfired in 2018 in his Lightweight championship bout against Khabib Nurmagomedov. McGregor would even attempt to rationalize his insults in the middle of the fight claiming, “it’s only business,” to no avail. The Dagestani fighter manhandled him to a submission victory with a brutal neck crank in the fourth round.
Still, McGregor has had the most success when able to channel his “Notorious” side. The dilemma for him is that it can make him incredibly effective inside the cage, but hopelessly self-destructive outside of it. He almost blinded another UFC fighter when he launched a dolly at a bus in the lead up to the fight against Nurmagomedov and even punched an elderly man at a pub over a perceived slight in 2019.
His “Notorious” side is a Faustian pact, a deal with the Devil, and McGregor may finally be aware of it now. If he can channel his “Notorious” side in the Octagon only, it will benefit him, but such a feat for his tremendous ego may prove too tough a challenge.
Countless fighters rise and fall like Icarus with melted wings as opponents adapt and adjust and the sport itself matures. We just witnessed Dustin Poirier masterfully exploit a telling hole in McGregor’s game. It now remains to be seen if this most recent loss spells the end of McGregor as a top contender and potential champion in the Lightweight division. He still ranks among the sport’s elite strikers, but the mounting deficiencies in his game may signal that Conor McGregor could fast become yet another relic of the fight world in the ever-evolving sport of MMA.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.