Let’s say he were to lose to Dustin Poirier — for the second time in six months — at UFC 264 on Saturday inside T-Mobile Arena. He would definitely be in “the sky is falling” territory. If he loses, he will have lost three of his past four MMA contests, and four of his past five combat sports appearances overall (counting his 2017 boxing match against Floyd Mayweather).
At that point, the chances of McGregor ever attaining a UFC championship again will seem relatively slim. But he will be only 32 years old, affording him plenty of time to string together two wins and insert himself right back in title contention. So, to suggest this is his final shot to prove he’s still one of the best lightweights in the world, that wouldn’t be accurate.
What a loss would do, however, is change a lot of our expectations about McGregor. Up to this point, you can forgive his losses. You can defend them, in a sense. He lost to Khabib Nurmagomedov, arguably the greatest fighter of all time, in 2018 after a 23-month layoff from MMA. Earlier this year, he lost to Poirier after another 12-month layoff.
The man got really rich and really famous in a very short amount of time. It’s really not surprising the past four years of McGregor’s career have gone the way they have.
But even though UFC 264 is not McGregor’s last chance to realize his full potential, it feels like it in many ways. Because if McGregor loses on Saturday, no one will expect him to ever be what he once was. We’ll expect the show, the glitz and glamour. The money. The entertainment. No one will expect him to be the best lightweight anymore.
Yet going into this weekend, there are still those who expect that greatness from him — including, we’re to believe, McGregor himself. Can he be what he once was? After all the money he has earned, and how far he has deviated from his original path of becoming one of the best fighters in MMA history, can he go back to the 2016 version of himself? The Champ Champ?
That’s the major storyline going into a UFC 264 main event that is chock full of them. There’s a lot to talk about around this fight. But the biggest question is this: How will we talk about Conor McGregor come Sunday morning?
The UFC 264 main card starts at 10 p.m. ET on pay-per-view, which fans can purchase here. The prelims are on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, with early prelims on ESPN and ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET.
By the numbers
18: Significant leg kicks landed by Poirier in January’s fight with McGregor, which accounted for 38% of Poirier’s offense and proved to be a path to victory.
91: Percentage of McGregor’s wins in which he has got a stoppage (20 finishes in 22 wins — 19 by knockout, one by submission).
1.81: Knockdowns per 15 minutes in the Octagon by McGregor, the second-highest rate among active UFC fighters, behind Johnny Walker‘s 1.99. One of McGregor’s knockdowns came in his 2014 meeting with Poirier, leading to a first-round TKO.
8: Fighters with 20 UFC victories. Poirier has 19, and a win on Saturday in his 26th UFC fight would make him the third quickest to reach the 20-win threshold, behind Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre (22 apiece).
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
Five vs. five
Dustin Poirier’s most recent results
Win: Conor McGregor (TKO2, Jan. 24, 2021; watch on ESPN+)
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)
Conor McGregor’s most recent results
Loss: Dustin Poirier (TKO2, Jan. 24, 2021; watch on ESPN+)
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+)
The first time they met …
Go here to watch McGregor vs. Poirier 1 at UFC 178 on Sept. 27, 2014.
And the winner is …
“It’s not gonna go good for Conor in many ways,” said Henry Cejudo, the retired former UFC bantamweight and flyweight champion. “I think it’s going to go the same way: Poirier is gonna stop him again. McGregor lost his groove. His icebox got wet — like the Chris Brown song. That was part of his swagger. When you lose that, you can come back to it, but then it’s not the same to the other person. It may be the same to you, but it’s not going to be the same to the opponent.”
Check out how Cejudo and other experts break down the main event and predict a winner.
How to watch the fights
Watch the PPV and all other fights on ESPN+. Get ESPN+ here.
Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access.
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
ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m. ET
Dustin Poirier vs. Conor McGregor | Lightweight
Gilbert Burns vs. Stephen Thompson | Welterweight
Tai Tuivasa vs. Greg Hardy | Heavyweight
Irene Aldana vs. Yana Kunitskaya | Women’s bantamweight
Sean O’Malley vs. Kris Moutinho | Men’s bantamweight
ESPN/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Carlos Condit vs. Max Griffin | Welterweight
Niko Price vs. Michel Pereira | Welterweight
Ryan Hall vs. Ilia Topuria | Men’s featherweight
Dricus Du Plessis vs. Trevin Giles | Middleweight
ESPN/ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET
Jessica Eye vs. Jennifer Maia | Women’s flyweight
Omari Akhmedov vs. Brad Tavares | Middleweight
Zhalgas Zhumagulov vs. Jerome Rivera | Men’s flyweight
Alen Amedovski vs. Hu Yaozong | Middleweight
Four more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
1. The co-main event features Gilbert Burns, coming off his unsuccessful welterweight title challenge, taking on two-time challenger Stephen Thompson. Burns, No. 4 in ESPN’s 170-pound rankings, has eight submissions and six knockouts. The fifth-ranked “Wonderboy” Thompson has seven knockouts to go with 10 knockdowns, tied for third most in UFC welterweight history.
2. The heavyweight bout between Tai Tuivasa and Greg Hardy might not last long. Tuivasa has a 92% finish rate (11 finishes in 12 wins), with all of his finishes coming by first-round knockout. Hardy has knockouts in six of his seven wins (86%), five of them in Round 1.
3. Irene Aldana and Yana Kunitskaya meet in a top-10 bout at women’s bantamweight that will feature elite striking. Aldana, No. 6 in the ESPN divisional rankings, lands 5.52 significant strikes per minute, the fourth most among active 135-pounders. And the seventh-ranked Kunitskaya connects with 57.7% of her significant strike attempts, the highest accuracy in women’s bantamweight history.
4. Sean O’Malley opens the main card as an 8-to-1 favorite against late replacement Kris Moutinho, who will be making his UFC debut. O’Malley lands 57.6% of his significant strike attempts, the second-highest rate in men’s bantamweight history.
ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this fight preview.
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