Down for the Count: The Notorious One at a Crossroads

An analysis of McGregor’s devastating upset in UFC 257 and a look into the future of his career.

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By Noah Taylor

Former two-division UFC champion Conor McGregor staggered against the cage. One final blow was all it took as he crashed onto the canvas, leaning back in shock. The Etihad Arena crowd at UFC 257 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates erupted in cheers. The victorious former UFC lightweight champion Dustin Poirier triumphantly strutted toward his wife as fans screamed in surprise. McGregor had only been knocked out once in his entire career, in a boxing match against legend Floyd Mayweather, and Poirier had achieved what seemed impossible; he had knocked out the Notorious One in an MMA fight.

The highly-anticipated Poirier-McGregor matchup of UFC 257 went down on January 23, 2021. The full card was the second highest-selling event in UFC history, with over 1.6 million pay-per-views (PPVs), sitting only behind the Khabib Nurmagomedov-McGregor matchup of UFC 229, which reached 2.4 million PPVs. McGregor consistently guarantees high-selling events for UFC with his unique trash-talk and brash promotion, taking part in all of the top five PPV figures in UFC history.

McGregor took a noticeably different approach leading up to this fight though, with much calmer body language at the pre-fight press conferences and weigh-in. It was strange to see a humble and collected McGregor compared to his typical trash-talking, boisterous self. He is often aggressive prior to fights, insulting his opponents about all matters from their families and personal lives to their fighting abilities. This time around, however, McGregor seemed focused and composed, a clear shift in his strategy.

Poirier matched McGregor’s calm demeanor as the two were friendly with each other at the weigh-in and pre-fight press conference. McGregor had promised a donation of $500 thousand to Poirier’s nonprofit, The Good Fight, founded in 2018 with his wife to help underserved communities, especially in his hometown Lafayette, Louisiana. Poirier expressed his respect and gratitude for McGregor’s gesture in the pre-fight press conference. At the weigh-in, Poirier also gifted McGregor a bottle of his signature Louisiana Style Hot Sauce, which McGregor accepted with enthusiasm.

UFC 257 was not the first time the Notorious One and Diamond faced each other in the octagon. They first met in UFC 178 in 2014, where McGregor’s pre-fight approach proved effective. McGregor had gotten into Poirier’s head before the match with his trash-talk and usual antics, and Poirier was thrown off going into the fight. McGregor taunted during the fight, knocking Poirier out in only one minute and 46 seconds.

After a seven-year gap, Poirier vastly improved his fighting ability and was ready to once again meet McGregor in UFC 257, this time on Fight Island, an area designated for UFC fights during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fight started off with jabs until Poirier grappled with McGregor, dropping him to the ground. Both sides landed powerful hits in the first round, but in the second round, Poirier continued to implement his deadly calf kicks, gradually weakening McGregor’s legs and base. Thirty-eight percent of Poirier’s significant strikes throughout the fight were targeted at McGregor’s legs, whereas McGregor primarily focused on Poirier’s head, landing 79 percent of his strikes there. Halfway through the second round, with McGregor visibly hurt, Poirier managed a flurry of punches on him, striking the Notorious One’s head as he fell back onto the floor, his head against the cage.

The upset withdrew a wide range of reactions from fans, fighters, and celebrities. Images of McGregor incapacitated on the canvas circulated immediately, spoiling many fans’ views of McGregor as the best fighter in the UFC. YouTube boxing star Jake Paul, after numerous taunting posts on social media offering McGregor $50 million for a fight, posted in laughter at his knockout, lowering his offer to $10 thousand. Undefeated legend Nurmagomedov also took a jab at McGregor and his team, criticizing his preparation for the fight. Stars such as Damian Lillard, Niall Horan, Manny Pacquiao, and Justin Bieber, among others, commented on social media about the fight, either congratulating Poirier’s huge victory or expressing their continuous support or surprise with McGregor’s subpar fighting performance.

The knockout defeat is a major setback in McGregor’s journey toward once again holding the lightweight title. Had McGregor defeated the Diamond, he would have a strong chance at a rematch with his rival, Nurmagomedov, redeeming himself after his loss in 2018. Poirier, on the other hand, aims to fight for the UFC world title, and his victory against McGregor has set a clear path toward the UFC belt.

McGregor has arrived at a crossroads. With an ongoing sexual assault lawsuit in Ireland and this recent loss, he seems close to the end of his fighting career. The Notorious One fought only two fights in the four years prior to UFC 257. He lost his ravenous hunger for victory and trash-talking stemming from his humble beginnings as he reached stardom. With his newfound relaxed manner, he seems to no longer be a match for other prime fighters like Nurmagomedov and Poirier.

McGregor should not get comfortable with his success at this point in his career. He currently still holds immense drawing power in the UFC, but another loss could jeopardize his career and pay. He has been medically suspended for six months to recover from his leg injury due to Poirier’s calf kicks, but if he wants to maintain his legacy in the UFC and remain the Notorious One, he must emerge victorious in the trilogy against Poirier and fight to regain the UFC lightweight title.