The fight game suffers from a similar paradox as politics. Just as winning elections and actually governing are two separate, possibly completely unrelated skill sets, so it is that the things that sell tickets to a fight aren’t the same things that make that fight great.
And this Saturday’s UFC main event between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier was great. It was notable not only for being a great fight, but for its decided lack of all the things a Conor McGregor fight usually sells. There was no big grudge match build up, no lengthy sizzle reels of the two guys trashing each other (or blurry TMZ videos of them throwing dollies through bus windows or whatever), and a notable dearth of politics, religion, xenophobia, water bottle chucking, and whatever else normally accompanies the Conor McGregor circus. McGregor and Poirier even genteelly touched gloves before the fight, before the ref even old them to.
When it was over, they congenially reminisced about all the great times they’d had punching and kicking each other.
Class from Dustin Poirier as he thanks Conor McGregor after the fight:#UFC257
— The Fight Bubble (@thefightbubble) January 24, 2021
Corny? Maybe, but it’s exactly the kind of corny I fall for every time. You probably don’t get into MMA training or serious MMA fandom if you don’t at least some small part of you doesn’t buy into the Fight Club ideal of two guys finding mutual spiritual fulfillment from having just beaten the living piss out of each other.
I wish I could say that this fight was proof that a fight doesn’t need all the jawing and slurring and antics and post-fight brawls in order to be fun, but the truth is that I’m just as guilty of buying wolf tickets as anyone else. Hype is a necessary evil. If he wasn’t the best in the world at hyping up a fight, no one would’ve probably even seen Conor McGregor limping around afterwards acting strangely respectful. It wouldn’t have worked without star power. Whether a fight between two guys that hate each other makes a better fight than two guys who mostly sort of like each other is both a generalization and up for a debate. Mostly it just doesn’t matter once the opening bell rings. They’re two separate things.
These two had already fought once before, back in 2014, when McGregor knocked out Poirier in the first round. That was back when Conor was on the ascent, seemingly invincible and before the 13-second KO of Jose Aldo, who at that point had been undefeated for 10 years, forever cemented his legend.
Poirier earned his rematch in the time since by beating virtually ever other lightweight contender the UFC has — Max Holloway, Eddie Alvarez, Justin Gaethje, Dan Hooker, Anthony Pettis. In that sense, it’s funny to say that Poirier was the one who had to earn the rematch, since Conor had spent much of the same time dabbling in boxing and getting arrested, his lone MMA win in the past four years coming against Donald Cerrone, who is fun to watch but not really a contender these days, and at welterweight, a class in which McGregor doesn’t really fight. Yet it’s all-but undeniable that it was Poirier who had to earn the fight, because Conor is the best in the game at selling fights, and that’s what matters in the ticket-selling business.
Losses to Floyd Mayweather and Nate Diaz and Khabib Nurmogomedov notwithstanding (Nurmogomedov also holding Poirier’s only loss of the last four years, but now conveniently retired, supposedly), McGregor also came into the fight with that air of invincibility about him. There is the sense that McGregor doesn’t just beat people, he forever steals their confidence. Fighters like Chad Mendes, Jose Aldo, and Eddie Alvarez — to say nothing of earlier stepping stones like Diego Brandao — seem like they’ve never been quite the same since losing to Conor McGregor. He stole their sense of invincibility and used it to build his own. And yes, McGregor baiting his opponents into having to back up months worth of bitter trash talk probably has something to do with this phenomenon. Part of the reason Poirier’s journey has been so rousing, in fact, is that a lot of us sort of expected him to wilt like that, to maybe lose his chin, after losing to Conor McGregor. Instead, he’s seemed better than ever.
Yet in the first round of their fight, McGregor still felt like he had Dustin Poirier’s number. McGregor fought like every punch he landed could be the fight ender, while Poirier came out tight, seeming like he’d have to slip and dodge and land twice as often if he wanted to win. McGregor had that aura of casual dominance about him. It only started to crumble towards the end of the first round, when, at some point, Poirier’s calf kicks began to feel like an offensive strategy rather than panicked defense. It seemed to coincide with the the moment when he stopped caring about whether Conor McGregor would embarrass him in front of millions of people and started worrying about the fists and shins flying towards his body.
Those kinds of moments, when there’s some palpable shift in the arena, and we get to watch some previously-dominant fighter’s indefinable mental edge crumble before our eyes, is why, for all its obvious faults, I still love MMA. I remember watching it happen to Ronda Rousey (twice), I remember it happening when GSP kicked Matt Hughes in the forehead (I literally jumped on my couch), when Gonzaga deactivated Cro Cop with his own head kick, when Werdum submitted Fedor, and on and on. As much as I enjoy the technical discussions of why an elbow here and not there will make the difference between nuisance and bodily deactivation, or why Poirier’s calf kicks are the perfect counter to Conor’s wide base, it’s that mystical shit that gets me every time. When something ineffable yet totally palpable changes in two fighters’ essential dynamic. It allows me to believe for a second in a world beyond the physical.
We got to watch that Saturday night. It was as beautiful as ever. Now, I know I wouldn’t root for Dustin Poirier so hard if Conor McGregor hadn’t given him the early gift of allowing him to be the unassuming babyface to Conor’s arrogant heel. That we wouldn’t have cared so much about this fight in the first place if Conor hadn’t talked himself into relevance over and over again by being such a perfectly infuriating little prick.
Even still, that we could watch a fight that was just a great fight, and not a grudge match or a bully battle or a clash of cultures and ideologies was the icing on the cake. Few things feel quite so refreshing in 2021 as not having to exploit people’s essential differences in order to make us care.