On April 6, 2013, MMA coach Mark Henry was at Ericsson Global Arena in Stockholm to corner one of his fighters. It was the same card that featured the UFC debut of Conor McGregor.
McGregor earned a KO-of-the-night bonus with a first-round stoppage of Marcus Brimage. Henry, watching from the locker room, was floored by the performance.
Henry was so impressed that he later called a manager whose fighter was angling to be McGregor’s next opponent, and he told the manager to avoid McGregor at all costs.
“This might be some of the best striking I’ve ever seen in MMA,” Henry recalled thinking that night. “I was like, ‘That might be the best fighter with movement and angles and speed and just knowing what punches are coming up short and thinking ahead — everything from A to Z.’
“I felt like he had it all. I thought he was one of the best fighters I had ever seen to that point.”
McGregor’s rise was unlike anything witnessed before in MMA. In his first 10 UFC fights, McGregor went 9-1 with seven knockouts and a UFC-record — since tied by Justin Gaethje — nine bonuses. He became the first UFC fighter to hold belts in two weight classes at the same time. Along the way, he became the greatest pay-per-view attraction and ticket-selling draw in UFC history.
On Saturday, McGregor faces a defining point in his career when he and Dustin Poirier complete their trilogy in the main event of UFC 264 in Las Vegas. Since that record-setting start, McGregor is just 1-2 with only a single victory — against a past-his-prime Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone — in nearly five years.
McGregor has not beaten a fighter at the top of his weight class since he toppled Eddie Alvarez to win the lightweight title at UFC 205 on Nov. 12, 2016. In his most recent fight, at UFC 257 on Jan. 24, McGregor suffered the first KO/TKO loss of his 13-year MMA career when Poirier stopped him in the second round.
What happened to the fighter once considered destined to be ranked among the greatest ever? Is his decline temporary, or have we seen McGregor’s career arc hit its peak?
According to some of the sport’s top coaches and analysts, McGregor’s problems range from inactivity to the inability to stay motivated while ranking as one of the richest athletes in the world, and there are technical issues.
But experts say there is still time for the 32-year-old McGregor to turn things around. In fact, UFC president Dana White said McGregor is one win away from a lightweight title fight and the opportunity to become the first UFC fighter in history to win the prestigious lightweight championship on two occasions.
“There’s so much at stake in this fight, and I love that,” White said. “Because the big question about Conor right now is the guy has so much money, ‘Is he the same Conor? Is he focused?’
“He doesn’t need to fight right now. He’s fighting because he loves it and has an opportunity. If he can beat Dustin Poirier, the No. 1 guy in the world, he can get a title shot.”
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‘Lost his bounce’
McGregor knocking out Jose Aldo with a brilliant counter left to win the featherweight title in 2015 is an iconic image in mixed martial arts. The wide-open, karate-esque stance McGregor used that night was a staple of his early UFC fights. Now, experts say, McGregor’s style resembles that of a traditional boxer.
“The second Poirier fight we saw a very square Conor, very square hips,” Jackson Wink MMA striking coach Brandon Gibson said. “And heavy on that lead leg. People talked about that a lot immediately after that fight, that Conor lost his bounce.”
McGregor once had a movement coach in Ido Portal. This in itself was an outside-the-box approach. He used his superior — sometimes unorthodox — footwork to create angles and counters, which experts say he’s not doing nearly as much in recent bouts. McGregor is more of a headhunter now, forcing the issue and looking for the knockout right away, rather than waiting and letting fights come to him.
“He doesn’t have the patience,” Fight Ready striking coach Eddie Cha said. “If you see in 2016 and before that, it was the feints, the fakes, the [front kicks]. He was being patient. He was forcing you to throw first and he would counter with that slip left hand.”
What Cha saw in January was a McGregor looking for the quick knockout, “like he was in panic mode, like ‘I have to go and finish this kid.'”
Footwork, patience and counter attacks were staples of McGregor’s game as he rose to the top of the UFC. McGregor pressures now like he did then, experts say. But he throws first at times, rather than waiting for the right counter. In the past, McGregor showed he was one of the best ever at reading what his opponents were about to do, and then firing back in devastating fashion.
“He’s got to get back to moving like a karate guy,” UFC welterweight contender Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson told Submission Radio in June. “He’s got to get back to getting on his bike and using that movement, that in-and-out movement, switching sides, playing that game if he’s going to go out there and beat [Poirier] again. He can draw out Dustin Poirier’s strikes with his movement. And him being such a good counterpuncher, he can counter off that.”
‘It kind of boggled my mind’
Poirier landed 18 kicks to McGregor’s legs in just over 1½ rounds in January — the vast majority of those to McGregor’s right calf, his lead leg. Xtreme Couture coach Eric Nicksick says it takes about three calf kicks landing cleanly to pay dividends in a fight. The technique targets the peroneal nerve at the base of the knee and can have an anesthetizing effect.
“It just deadens your entire leg,” UFC strawweight fighter and ESPN analyst Angela Hill said. “You can’t feel it — it’s just numb. You think you’re stepping, but you’re actually missing. It’s like you miss that last step when you’re walking up stairs. It’s just a weird dead-leg feeling.”
The low calf kick is a technique that has become very popular over the last four years, a period of time that coincided with McGregor’s inactivity in the Octagon. McGregor admitted in his postfight interview at UFC 257 that low calf kicks were not something he previously had to defend against very often.
“It kind of boggled my mind when in the interview he said he’d never been kicked in the calf with that kind of pain,” Cha said. “I’m like, what sparring partners are not testing you with those calf kicks? Especially with his stance and his stepping in.”
McGregor’s coach, John Kavanagh, told ESPN there was extensive work on leg kicks during that camp, but that work doesn’t translate to the cage.
“In the gym, when you’re throwing that technique, you’re not going to try to kick your partner as hard as you possibly can,” Kavanagh said two days after the fight. “And you’re also both wearing shin pads.
“From October 2018, he had 40 seconds [the time it took to stop Cerrone] of feeling what kicks feel like with no pads on. I’ve got endless hours of sparring on my phone where we throw that kick. But you don’t respect it as much when you don’t feel it without the shin pads on.”
McGregor’s offensive kicking game — or the reduction of it — has also become a factor. In earlier UFC fights against the likes of Brimage, Chad Mendes, Dennis Siver and Max Holloway, McGregor used his kicks — to the body and to the head, with some spinning techniques mixed in — with great success. In his rematch against Nate Diaz in August 2016, McGregor added leg kicks to his arsenal, and it was an essential part of his victorious game plan. The current McGregor does not kick nearly as much.
Against Mendes, McGregor landed 15 times to the body, mostly kicks. Against Diaz the second time, he landed 40 leg kicks. Versus Poirier? Just two leg kicks and four blows to the body. Hill suggested that it could be more of a concern about cardio, which has cost McGregor in some of his losses.
“When you kick, you’re using your entire body,” she said. “Your entire body has to chamber and throw. It’s just so tiring. … It’s really hard to throw a bunch, and he would throw them in multitudes. Once you get to a certain level where you feel like you can hang with your hands, you’re not going to throw the kicks unless you need to.”
McGregor is not a wrestler, so the lack of kicks in his game right now allows opponents to hone in on just one aspect of his offense: boxing.
“If you’re just boxing, I just have to look at your shoulders or your hands,” Cha said. “You’re a kickboxer, now I have to look all the way from your shoulders down to your legs, your hips. If you’re level changing and wrestling, now I have to look at a whole other dimension. If you just become one-dimensional, I can just put [blinders] on, and I don’t have to worry about anything else.”
‘It’s really a timing issue’
Poirier shot for a sudden, somewhat sloppy takedown on McGregor about 40 seconds into their fight in January. It got the job done, though, and led to a sustained period of grappling and clinching for McGregor, which is not his biggest strength.
“Nobody was more surprised that the takedown worked than Poirier,” retired UFC star and current ESPN analyst Chael Sonnen said. “It was a half effort. His hands were in the wrong spot, his head was in the wrong spot. Conor McGregor stuffed a lot of Chad Mendes’ takedowns, one of the more powerful wrestlers he’s ever faced. He gave Khabib [Nurmagomedov] a hard time, at times, with the takedowns. That was the one that really jumped out at me.”
It’s not that McGregor’s wrestling has declined, Sonnen said. Actually, several experts said that part of his game has gotten better. For Sonnen, the early Poirier takedown was a sign of McGregor’s lack of fight rhythm, having fought just once in the previous 27 months. Sonnen said UFC 257 was “the worst I’ve seen [McGregor] look,” and he believes it was because of his inactivity.
McGregor has fought just three times since November 2016, not including his 2017 boxing match with Floyd Mayweather. The win over Cerrone was supposed to be the start of a 2020 “season” in which McGregor would compete two to three more times that year. However, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the UFC opted not to bring McGregor back until the promotion was able to have at least a partial crowd in January for the Poirier fight in Abu Dhabi.
“You hear the term ‘ring rust,'” Sonnen said. “It’s really a timing issue. You’ll never get the same speed under the same pressure in a practice room. You just cannot manufacture that. So yeah, he looked bad. Sure he did. But he should have looked bad.”
Sonnen was echoing what McGregor said in the Octagon shortly after the loss.
“It’s hard to overcome inactivity over long periods of time,” McGregor said. “I just wasn’t as comfortable as I needed to be.
“You don’t get away with being inactive in this business, and that’s just the way it is.”
‘The hunger is different’
McGregor is the highest-paid UFC fighter of all time. He just sold the majority share of his Proper Twelve Irish whiskey brand in April in a deal valued at around $600 million. He’s already made UFC history, and his boxing match with Mayweather was one of the most purchased pay-per-view events of all time.
“I personally thought after the Floyd fight there was nothing left for him to do,” Fortis MMA head coach Sayif Saud said. “I thought he looked good in the Floyd fight. I thought he boxed well.
“He had dominated the UFC, he had righted the wrong of the Nate Diaz fight and won the rematch. He had two belts. It doesn’t get better — there’s really nowhere else to go from there.”
Some experts question whether McGregor, a former plumber who was on social welfare in Ireland at the time of his UFC debut in 2013, still has the drive that he did when he was scratching and clawing his way to the top. McGregor arrived at UFC 257 on a luxury yacht. He was recently ranked by Forbes as the richest athlete of the last year.
“I just think it’s a lot easier to train when you’re walking from a second-floor apartment building to jog outside than when you’re walking past your Lamborghini, coming from your 10,000-square-foot house,” Henry said. “The hunger is different. I think that’s what makes fighters so great — I think the hunger is the most important thing for a fighter. Once you’ve had a taste, and you’re making the type of money that he is, I would think it’s so hard.
“I commend him for still wanting to do it.”
McGregor told ESPN in January that he’ll “probably never retire from the game.” He asked for the Poirier trilogy fight right away, a chance to right a perceived wrong like he did against Diaz. McGregor still sounds and acts motivated, but is it enough as he approaches his 33rd birthday?
“The guy has accomplished it all,” Saud said. “He’s sleeping in silk sheets, as they say. … I’m saying this as someone who has fought. At 28, you want to punch a hole through anybody’s face. At 37 and 38, you just want to sit down and drink some tea and read a book.”
‘Driven by legacy’
McGregor’s record since 2016 doesn’t look pretty, and it’s unclear if he’ll ever again reach the incredible heights of his peak. But if McGregor beats Poirier at UFC 264, he’s very likely to fight champion Charles Oliveira next for the lightweight title.
Those are winnable fights for McGregor, experts say. Poirier is a -135 favorite as of Friday morning, according to Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill, but some experts say anyone writing McGregor off is missing some key factors.
“I don’t see his skill set diminishing,” Nicksick said. “I don’t think there’s a huge regression by any means.”
Nicksick saw things in January that were positive. McGregor won the first round on all three scorecards and still has the uncanny ability to funnel opponents into his strikes — specifically his dangerous left hand — by cutting off the cage and setting traps, the coach said. That part of McGregor’s game is still there and can give anyone trouble. Poirier’s calf kicks, Nicksick said, disrupted what McGregor wanted to do, but other than that, McGregor had success.
McGregor attributed his loss to looking past Poirier toward a potential boxing match against Manny Pacquiao. He’s confident that focusing 100 percent on Poirier will prove decisive Saturday.
“It’s just about going into my toolbox,” McGregor said. “It’s vast: my stances, my approaches, my attacks, my shots.”
As far as what’s worked against him in the past, McGregor said: “Try it now.”
Nicksick is bullish on McGregor in the trilogy fight. McGregor lost to Diaz in March 2016 and was able to turn around, make the right adjustments and win the rematch five months later. This time frame against Poirier is remarkably similar.
“I think this dude is kind of that mad scientist, if you will,” Nicksick said. “He’s the ultimate competitor.”
So, McGregor might not be the same guy who completely took apart Brimage in his UFC debut eight years ago. But that doesn’t mean this older version of McGregor is done, or that success has softened his edge.
“At the end of the day, a guy like Conor McGregor or Jon Jones or [Georges St-Pierre] isn’t driven solely by money,” Gibson said. “They’re driven by legacy.”
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