Conor McGregor’s record is fascinating. On paper he’s beaten Eddie Alvarez, Donald Cerrone, Jose Aldo, Max Holloway and yes, Dustin Poirier. In practise, however it seems that McGregor has fallen into the unfortunate trap that so many fighters fall into; while he has good names on his record, he appears to have fought those names at times when they weren’t relevant. Aldo and Alvarez are undoubtedly legends in the sport of MMA, but they were both old men by the time McGregor fought them, and similarly, McGregor fought Poirier and Holloway, but as fighters they are unrecognisable to the fighters they are today.
Max Holloway was the scrappy brawler, but today stands as the best body puncher in the history of the sport. Dustin Poirier fought McGregor punching loopy with nothing but a static hands-up defence, but now he is living proof that Floyd Mayweather’s shoulder roll and elbow blocks work in MMA.
We have seen that the modern version of Poirier can, and indeed has, beaten McGregor, and now the pressure is really on Conor McGregor to show us if he can truly contend with a top lightweight and win, something he has yet to demonstrate.
The First Fight
The first bout was a typical McGregor affair. On his route to the UFC Featherweight title he did not have to face a single wrestler (remember that Chad Mendes filled in because Aldo pulled out). Dustin Poirier was a simple man; he had punching power and he wanted to land. This put him on the receiving end of a pretty quick loss to McGregor, who at the time was a very patient, deliberate counter puncher.
There isn’t a tremendous amount to say about the first bout, other than Conor achieved a victory in a way that is fundamentally impossible today. Poirier kept a static guard the whole fight to try to block punches coming straight on. At this point in Poirier’s development as a fighter, for whatever reason, he just did not reliably block hooks. This allowed Conor a very simple tactic, just throw the southpaw left hook, an incredibly powerful punch that you will almost never see land because of the distance it has to travel. In a southpaw vs southpaw match-up however? McGregor got to land one of the hardest punches he could possibly throw to a completely unguarded target.
In the Interim
In the years that followed we saw both fighters progress in quite different ways. Conor McGregor for the most part is the same fighter. A torn ACL against Max Holloway saw McGregor’s diverse array of kicks disappear almost overnight. While McGregor was the kind of fighter to throw up a hook kick seemingly for shits and giggles in his UFC Featherweight run, a second ACL tear in the lead up to his fight with Chad Mendes saw his kicks eventually disappear.
McGregor will still throw kicks, but they were once a key part of his game, along with very bouncy in and out footwork that he doesn’t display now. Instead, we see a McGregor who is more deliberate and slower with his movements as he tries to find his target. This is of course not an incorrect way to fight, but it appears to be a style that was forced onto McGregor due to misfortune, rather than a development he made consciously to improve.
Dustin Poirier on the other hand is a rather different beast. He is different to the point of being almost unrecognisable. Poirier was as we described earlier, more a banger than a boxer. One neat trick we would always see from him though was a shift into orthodox on a punch (I wrote an entire article on shifting here that you can read. Almost like I planned this!) As we’ve discussed before, shifting punches allows for big shots to come from blind angles in your opposite stance. These power shots are unexpected and will put a fighter on wobbly legs with ease.
Here we see Poirier land an overhand right, by stepping into orthodox as his left straight fires, and firing from the other side.
Shifts are a big part of what makes Poirier a big hitter, but what has made him so dominant in recent years is his adoption of old school boxing techniques.
Shoulder Rolls and Elbow Blocks
Often called ‘the philly shell’, shoulder rolling is a style of defence made most famous by Floyd Mayweather Jr. The basic concept is that you use your elbows and upper body movement to form an active defence, causing your opponent to overextend and counter.
It is closely related to the cross-arm guard, a style of boxing that seeks to do the exact same thing, albeit with slightly different guard positions. This has been a mainstay of boxing for years but is only now making it’s way into MMA curtesy of Poirier and the eternally under rated, Mads Burnell.
While we pay attention to the shoulder roll, a key aspect of making this defence work is actually using the elbow to deflect the shot.
Here Mayweather uses his shoulder and elbow to ‘drag’ the punch of Miguel Cotto, keeping Mayweather safe and Cotto off balance. Below you can see legendary boxer Archie Moore using the exact same principle to set up a powerful counter.
Somewhere in his training, Poirier started implementing these techniques and since then has been such a defensive nightmare that even Max Holloway, who throws more punches in a single fight than some fighters throw in their entire career, had trouble hitting him.
Poirier is by no means unhittable, but for a pot shotter like McGregor, actually landing on Poirier was difficult.
The Second Fight
The rematch was hotly anticipated; this was McGregor’s first big fight since facing Khabib Nurmagomedov. My prediction was a Poirier victory, for the very reasons I’ve explained in the previous section, but I’ve been wrong before. The two faced off and we saw a very different fight from the first.
McGregor was faced with something he’d never had to deal with before; a southpaw, one who was happy to kick his legs, and who could deflect most of his shots and actually punish his over reaching left hands.
McGregor has always stood in a very wide stance but has amusingly never really fought a leg kicker who took advantage of it. Eddie Alvarez bucked McGregor’s legs each time he kicked, but for some reason just chose to abandon them and box with him instead.
There was some discussion that McGregor won the first round before being knocked out in the second. This is a notion I find ridiculous, as the two shots McGregor threw in the highlight reels of the round were the only shots that he landed. The rest of the round was patient work from Poirier, feinting, defending, and countering.
It was Poirier’s work in the first round that allowed him a KO in the second.
If Conor is to achieve a win this week, he will need a fundamentally different fight. He simply does not have the right style to get him a win, if he continues to fight how he did in the first. However we do know from McGregor’s loss to Nate Diaz, that McGregor does actually improve in rematches and fight in different ways.
In his rematch with Diaz, McGregor changed his gameplan to be about low kicks and conserving his energy, succeeding in going the distance (though fading in the later round). This allowed him to take advantage of Diaz’ sheer unwillingness to learn how to defend kicks.
McGregor may be better served to fight from a different distance, using his front kicks to keep at a range he’s more comfortable in, but even then should the fight hit the ground, can he out grapple Poirier?
So far, this is to my eyes a fight that favours the American, and McGregor should be considered the under dog in this bout, but maybe this is a decent place for McGregor to be. He for once has a chance to come from behind and beat the odds, rather than simply being expected to win by the virtue of favourable matchmaking.