UFC 257 Preview: Is Poirier's perseverance enough to top McGregor?

Dustin Poirier celebrates after his an interim lightweight title mixed martial arts bout against Max Holloway at UFC 236 in 2019. (Michael Zarrilli/AP)

UFC 257 marks the return of MMA’s preeminent superstar, Conor McGregor, as he aims to re-establish himself as an elite lightweight atop the organization’s first pay-per-view card of 2021.

Saturday’s main event also serves as an opportunity for Dustin Poirier to avenge a career-altering loss – one that has weighed on his mind for more than 2,300 days.

The two fighters first met as ascending featherweight contenders at UFC 178 in September of 2014. The anticipated grudge match was listed third on the marquee yet served as the unofficial people’s main event thanks to McGregor’s burgeoning star power that had grown with each performance both in the Octagon and on the mic.

The loquacious striker from Crumlin had burst onto the scene as a two-weight champion from Cage Warriors yet despite his 3-0 UFC record, McGregor was still viewed as an outsider by many of his featherweight peers who had cut their teeth in the UFC and/or the defunct WEC for years just like Poirier had.

Poirier didn’t think McGregor belonged. He wanted to teach the new guy a lesson. Six-plus years ago, the MMA world had merely gotten a glimpse of McGregor’s ability to get under his opponents’ skin prior to a contest. McGregor was in Poirier’s head with verbal barbs and heated staredowns, regular occurrences in the promotional lead-up to this battle of knockout artists.

Poirier fought angry and it cost him.

McGregor landed his left hand behind Poirier’s right ear early in the first round and seconds later referee Herb Dean was waving his arms above Poirier’s discombobulated body as McGregor cemented his status as a threat to the 145-pound title.

It was the first knockout loss of Poirier’s career and it haunted him.

“Fighting. Fighting, fighting, fighting, fighting. That’s all I thought about,” Poirier told Sportsnet over the phone from Abu Dhabi while reflecting on the person he was when back in 2014.

The Lafayette, La., native, who was 25 when he first faced his Irish rival, had been depleting himself to make weight, measuring every meal meticulously and depriving his body of fluids to painstakingly step on the scale at 145 pounds. He was already married to his wife, Jolie, then but their daughter wasn’t yet born and they hadn’t founded The Good Fight – Poirier’s charity that does incredible, truly meaningful community work in his native Louisiana.

Poirier, who celebrated his 32nd birthday on Tuesday, began a new chapter of his career after UFC 178 and he feels his journey has prepared him for a shot at redemption at UFC 257.

“I don’t feel like I’m as emotional a fighter as I was then,” Poirier explained. “My outlook now is trying to stay in a place of gratitude and be grateful for the position I’m in and be grateful for the fights that I have, the family I have. I’m just thankful.”

Poirier’s personal development and growth coincided with an evolution of skills and although his loss to McGregor chased him from the division, “The Diamond” 2.0 emerged a stronger, more powerful, more durable fighter at 155 pounds guided by coaches Mike Brown and Dyah Davis.

Poirier quickly began racking up wins and performance bonuses in his new weight class. He eventually topped former or eventual UFC titleholders Max Holloway, Eddie Alvarez, Justin Gaethje and Anthony Pettis en route to earning an interim lightweight title and status as one of the most exciting, popular and admirable athletes on the UFC roster.

McGregor also moved up from featherweight to lightweight and became the UFC’s first simultaneous two-weight champ in 2016. However, McGregor is only 3-2 overall since leaving the featherweight division and 1-1 at lightweight while Poirier has gone 10-2 and views the rematch as a new fight entirely.

UFC 178 was when McGregor first dubbed himself “Mystic Mac” after correctly predicting he’d stop Poirier within one round. He specifically said he’d “bounce” Poirier’s head off the canvas. Poirier’s head literally bounced off the canvas during the finishing sequence.

McGregor is once again trying to call his shot for UFC 257, vowing to shave some time off his previous win and finish the rematch in less than one minute.

“That’s going to be tough to do,” Poirier said in response. “But that should be the goal for him because every minute that ticks off of that clock is just a tougher fight for him. The deeper this thing goes, the more tired we get, the more we suffer, that’s in my favour.”

McGregor last fought 12 months ago when he made quick work of Donald Cerrone at UFC 246. It is the only 40 seconds McGregor has spent in the Octagon since losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 more than 27 months ago.

“I’m highly confident the shots I will need to land will be hit home inside that first 60 seconds. If Dustin can withstand them, more power to him,” McGregor told ESPN earlier this week. “I’ve heard he’s hoping it’s a war and a dragged-out war back and forth. I am actually excited about that also. I wouldn’t be against that. I’d actually love that. I would actually relish a war with Dustin. So, if he can withstand the shots and get it poppin’ then let’s get it going. Let’s stand in there and let’s fight. I just see my shots landing early and that’s it.”

The lightweight division will eventually need to crown a new champ with Nurmagomedov announcing his retirement last year after improving to 29-0.

UFC president Dana White teased during last weekend’s UFC on ABC card that Nurmagomedov would consider a comeback at some point if McGregor or another top fighter can “do something spectacular.”

McGregor is making no secret about his desire to face Nurmagomedov a second time.

“I think he’s afraid to fight me, that’s for damn sure,” McGregor said to ESPN when asked about a possible Nurmagomedov rematch. “And I don’t blame him. I fought the best of him on that night, he fought the worst of me on that night. He knows it, I know it, and his team knows it.”

Before that potential rematch, though, McGregor has a different sequel to worry about.

Poirier, meanwhile, is focused solely on the task at hand.

“The magnitude of this fight excites me,” Poirier said. “I would love for the title to be on the line, but it’s 25 minutes and that’s really what I’m focusing on. This is a huge fight. Conor McGregor is one of the biggest names in combat sports and that’s it. I’m focussed on the 25 minutes.

“Show up, work, get my hand raised.”

Here is a look at the complete UFC 257 fight lineup...

-- Dustin Poirier vs. Conor McGregor
-- Dan Hooker vs. Michael Chandler
-- Jessica Eye vs. Joanne Calderwood
-- Matt Frevola vs. Ottman Azaitar
-- Marina Rodriguez vs. Amanda Ribas

-- Nasrat Haqparast vs. Arman Tsarukyan
-- Brad Tavares vs. Antonio Carlos Junior
-- Julianna Pena vs. Sara McMann
-- Khalil Rountree Jr. vs. Marcin Prachnio
-- Andrew Sanchez vs. Makhmud Muradov
-- Movsar Evloev vs. Nik Lentz
-- Amir Albazi vs. Zhalgas Zhumagulov

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