Conor McGregor was sitting and leaning against the cage, chest heaving. His face was bruised, blood streaming from his left ear. He was a beaten man.
“Doctor’s stoppage! Doctor’s stoppage!” he yelled toward the center of the cage, trying to make a face-saving insistence that the cageside doctor had ended the main event of UFC 264, not Dustin Poirier. And while it’s true that referee Herb Dean had waved off the bout at the end of Round 1 because McGregor had suffered an injury to his left leg in the final moments before the horn, this would be one time when the starry Irishman would not control the narrative. He had taken a beating.
McGregor had seen some success early on in his third fight against Poirier, in front of a delirious T-Mobile Arena crowd on Saturday night in Las Vegas. McGregor landed several lower-leg kicks — the very technique that Poirier had used to soften him up for a January knockout — and McGregor even connected with one hard left hand. But most of that came in the first minute. As the round wore on, the fight tilted toward Poirier in a big way. He cracked McGregor with a succession of punches at the center of the cage — turning McGregor’s trademark forward-moving aggression into cautious retreat — then took the fight to the canvas. After McGregor tried a guillotine choke that never quite got locked in, Poirier seized top position and pummeled his opponent with punches and elbows as the fans roared.
McGregor did get the fight back to standing, but not for long. As he and Poirier both unleashed big punches that just missed, McGregor stepped into his follow-through and his lower left leg buckled, suffering what the UFC later reported was a broken tibia. McGregor fell back against the fence, and Poirier pounced with more punishment. As more and more shots landed flush, Dean stood by, watching closely. The horn sounded before the ref could jump in.
But it was over anyway. Yes, to McGregor’s point, it was a doctor’s stoppage.
Moments later, with McGregor still seated on the canvas and medical personnel attending to him, Poirier had his hand raised as the TKO winner. He then turned toward his fallen foe and smiled. Poirier went into a mockingly exaggerated rendition of McGregor’s trademark millionaire strut.
“Karma’s not a b—-,” Poirier said. “It’s a mirror.”
Poirier finally was purging himself of his pent-up disgust for McGregor’s vile fight-week antics, which included several instances of him saying he was going to commit murder on Saturday night.
“There’s no holds barred with the trash talk, right?” Poirier said. “But murder is something you don’t clown around [with]. There’s no coming back from that. And this guy was saying he was going to murder me and all kinds of stuff. He was saying he was going to kill me, I was going to leave here in a coffin. You don’t talk to people like that, man.
“I hope this guy gets home safe to his beautiful family.”
Those would be the only kind words Poirier would have for McGregor on this night. It is out of character for the mild-mannered Poirier to gloat, but gloat he did. He had earned that right.
Under the brightest of spotlights in the gambling capital of the world, Poirier had placed a massive bet on himself and hit the jackpot. Despite being the consensus top lightweight in mixed martial arts in the wake of last fall’s retirement of the indomitable Khabib Nurmagomedov, Poirier had opted not to immediately go for the vacant UFC championship. First, he would go for the money by completing his trilogy with McGregor, whom he had knocked out in January.
The gamble paid off, because he vanquished his disrespectful rival and sewed up the championship opportunity he had risked squandering. The UFC did not immediately announce when it will book Poirier vs. Charles Oliveira, who captured the belt in May and was in attendance on Saturday, but the title fight is expected to happen by the end of the year. Poirier’s path forward is a golden road.
McGregor’s road is not so certain. After his second knockout loss to Poirier in less than six months, the Irish fighter is 1-3 since the glorious night in 2016 when he sat atop the Octagon at Madison Square Garden with two belts draped over his shoulders as the first UFC champion to reign in two weight classes simultaneously. Over the years between then and this weekend, McGregor’s bankroll had grown sizably but so had the uncertainty surrounding him. The questions only intensified on Saturday.
Will McGregor ever again be the elite fighter he showed himself to be during his magnificent climb to the top? He did have his moments in this year’s two fights against Poirier, but have these deflating losses reduced McGregor to just a nostalgic box-office and pay-per-view attraction, still sizzling but with the steak all chewed up?
McGregor knew he had to make adjustments after January’s loss to Poirier. And one big change became evident days before this fight even started: The cordial McGregor from his past two fights had been replaced by the brash, old McGregor — except, not really. In trying to reanimate the old Conor during fight week, the current Conor sounded inauthentic. He was an off-key McGregor tribute band swinging through town with the carnival.
Since when had the loquacious McGregor been spouting clichés — like, saying he had lost in January because he looked past Poirier? Claiming that he was 19-1 in MMA because he only counts the knockouts was a weak attempt to distract from his deficiencies in aspects of the game that make it mixed martial arts. He came off as delusional and desperate. The man who once was the bard of the fight game appeared to be out of ideas.
As the bout grew closer, McGregor tried dusting off his old bag of dirty tricks, trampling the boundaries of propriety by threatening Poirier’s life. And true to his troubling history of taking the lowest of low roads in fight promotion, McGregor couldn’t help but go misogynistic by dragging Poirier’s wife, Jolie, into his crass, cringey trash talk.
At Thursday night’s news conference, Poirier sat stoically and mostly serenely, although he was the one who got in the two best zingers. First, he interrupted a question about McGregor’s return to antagonism by attributing the change to the fact that “he got knocked the f— out.” Then Poirier delivered a meme-worthy renaming of McGregor’s training app, quipping, “Not McGregor Fast — McGregor sleep.” Both of Poirier’s one-liners reminded the fans — and especially McGregor — of how decisively and violently the last meeting had ended. More important than the wisecracks, though, was Poirier’s demeanor: He seemed unwavering in his confidence, unaffected by the head games.
McGregor, who had built his career on verbal warfare, learned this week what should have been obvious: It’s hard to psych out someone who just a few months ago knocked you out. So McGregor was left to rely on just his abilities as a mixed martial artist. Saturday’s fight was a test to determine whether that would be enough. We got our answer.
This was an unprecedented challenge for the audacious McGregor. On the most glorious nights of McGregor’s career, his mighty left fist had always played co-star to another game-changing weapon: his trash-talking mouth. He had defeated most of his opponents before the Octagon lights even went on. But throughout this past week, Poirier seemed impervious to McGregor’s words. The No. 1 lightweight in ESPN’s rankings wasn’t going to beat himself.
That showed in the fight and even the moments right before. Poirier was poised as McGregor attempted to get at him as soon as the 32-year-old pride of Lafayette, Louisiana, entered the cage. And when the fight started with McGregor the aggressor, as he usually is, Poirier remained calm and waited for his opportunity to take over, which he did barely a minute and a half in. Most of the second half of the round — of the fight — consisted of Poirier dropping bombs down on McGregor from top position on the canvas.
It was a beatdown, and it was only going to get worse for McGregor if not for the injury.
Of course, McGregor didn’t see it that way.
“I was boxing the bleeding head off of him,” McGregor proclaimed, as if an arena full of onlookers and millions watching at home had not seen what really had just unfolded.
McGregor typically is gracious in defeat. Not this time.
“This is not over!” he said, still seated against the cage, a brace immobilizing his left leg. “If I have to take this outside with him, it’s on outside.”
Poirier actually has other plans, though, with a title fight up next.
As for McGregor’s future, despite a second straight devastating defeat, this is not necessarily a goodbye to him as a top player in the UFC. When a man headlines four of the six highest-grossing live gates in the company’s history, the opportunities for big fights will keep on coming. He got beat up on Saturday, but the defeat came against the consensus top lightweight on the planet. Once McGregor’s leg heals, one victory could put him right back in the title picture, and UFC president Dana White was quick to allude to a potential fourth fight between McGregor and Poirier immediately after Saturday’s bout.
Heck, if the Oliveira-Poirier purse negotiations go south — not unprecedented for UFC title fights, especially recently — the UFC might even try to book Poirier-McGregor 4 next, instead, depending on the recovery window. Should Poirier balk at that, it wouldn’t be a shocker for the carnival barker in White to try to justify booking Oliveira vs. McGregor.
But let’s hope not. Instead of that, and instead of McGregor dwelling on his sour grapes revisionist history of this trilogy-deciding loss to Poirier, it sure seems like high time for McGregor to complete another trilogy by settling the score with Nate Diaz.
Whatever is next for McGregor, we can be sure that he will come out with antagonistic words and lots of posturing, all aimed at getting an opponent off his game and fueling a McGregor rise back to where “The Notorious” believes he belongs. Brace yourself, UFC money-weight division. Brace yourself, fans of civil behavior and decorum. This is not a man who’ll trudge off quietly into the night.