LAS VEGAS — Conor McGregor landed a two-punch combination in the first round of his rematch with Dustin Poirier in January and the crowd at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi roared as Poirier backed to the cage.
What the fans in attendance, those watching on the pay-per-view broadcast around the world and most significantly McGregor did not know was how badly buzzed Poirier had been by that combination.
McGregor is one of the sport’s premier finishers and has the kind of ability sharks have to smell blood in the water. When an opponent is hurt and in danger, McGregor usually knows it, and fast.
This time, though, he did not, and the fact that Poirier was able to play possum significantly altered the course of UFC history.
Poirier went on to win that bout by second-round stoppage, and the lightweight stars will complete the trilogy on Saturday at sold-out T-Mobile Arena in the five-round main event of UFC 264.
This fight, which UFC president Dana White said has the most pre-buys this far out in the company’s history, would not be happening if McGregor recognized he had Poirier hurt. Michael Chandler wouldn’t have gotten the unexpected call to face Charles Oliveira for the lightweight championship.
It probably would have been McGregor against Oliveira for the title, and Poirier would have been trying one more time to rebuild from a crushing defeat.
But he’ll go into Saturday’s bout as a -125 favorite at BetMGM to defeat McGregor and win the rubber match. And there is an argument to be made that with former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement, nobody has been more dominant over the last five years than Poirier.
“I’m a veteran and I’ve had a lot of fights,” Poirier said, explaining how he was able to survive. "I’ve been hurt in fights. I’ve had fights where everything went smoothly. But when something like that happens — he hit me with two good shots in that last fight that hurt me — you have to stay composed. It’s important to be calculated. You have to weather the storms here and there.
“Fighting isn’t a fight until there is something to overcome, so I expect adversity every time my feet hit that canvas. I don’t think it’s going to be a smooth night any night. It’s a fight.”
Poirier said that as a younger fighter, when he was hit and buzzed, he felt a need to hit back, become even more aggressive and land something big. The wisdom he’s gained from all those fights was the realization that it’s not always the best move to fire back.
Sometimes, it requires patience and time to let one’s head clear.
“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” Poirier said. “It’s a coin toss. But self-preservation is something I’ve learned over the years, to step on the gas when I need to and to pull back when I need to. When someone hurts me, I want to hurt them back, so it’s a constant mental war in there dealing with those things.”
What Poirier has done better than just about anyone active in the UFC over the last four-plus years is to win fights. And he’s winning them against the best of the best, which makes the streak he is on even more impressive.
In his last nine fights, he’s 7-1 with a no-contest. The loss was a submission in a title fight with Nurmagomedov, who retired last year with a 29-0 record.
Of those seven wins five were over current or former champions — Anthony Pettis, Max Holloway, Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez and McGregor — as well as Jim Miller, one of the UFC’s all-time winningest fighters, and Dan Hooker, who was top five at the time.
But it’s his humility that allows him to continue to be successful. He’s facing the best of the best and knows the fine line at the top level between winning and losing. He knows the danger in front of him and never enters the cage feeling invincible or untouchable.
“Not at all [do I feel invincible]; I wish I did,” he said, cracking a grin. “I have a healthy understanding of the dangers that these guys, especially the guys I’m fighting in the last 10 fights, that one mistake could be detrimental. I just know that I’m a human being and I could make a mistake and get hit with a good shot or put in a bad position submission-wise. And if that happens I could be finished. I know that. I have a healthy fear for those things.”
That fear has led to growth and development and has pushed Poirier to the brink of greatness, if he’s not already there. If he beats McGregor, he’ll earn a shot at Oliveira’s title.
And it’s all come because he appreciates all the dangers he faces every time he walks into the cage.
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