When the pair last fought one another, McGregor knocked out the American at 1:46 of the first round. That contest was scheduled as a three-round featherweight bout, while their encounter in Abu Dhabi will be a five-round lightweight clash.
Former UFC welterweight Dan Hardy, a commentator with the promotion and expert analyst, speaks to The Independent’s Alex Pattle about where the highly-anticipated fight will be won and lost.
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AP: How was Poirier changed since the first fight?
DH: You go back to his WEC days and he was still the same fighter that he is now, he was just a bit more reckless. Even if you watch the [Justin] Gaethje fight, he’s still throwing the same kinds of wild combinations, rushing forward with his feet square and leaning into his opponent.
AP: How will this different weight class affect the rematch?
DH: I think it’s the biggest difference from the last fight, and this ties into the fact that the last time Poirier fought at 145lbs was against McGregor, and I think that will play into his confidence coming into this one.
Knowing fighters, in his mind he’s thinking: “Ah well, different weight class, weight cut, I was a different fighter back then, different experience.” The truth is, he does seem to take a much better punch at 155lbs. That extra muscle mass has not found its way onto his frame as useless weight; it’s neck, shoulders, chest – all the areas you’d need to bulk up to take a better punch.
AP: How should Poirier view the KO from the first fight?
DH: I’m always of the opinion that you’ve got to be honest with yourself, but really there were very few technical things [from the first fight] that he could take back to the gym and work on. So from his perspective, I think it’s gonna be much more: “I just got caught.” I don’t think he could’ve done anything differently on that night. I don’t think he made any particular mistakes.
All the people that get knocked out by McGregor are always circling away from his left hand, but Dustin was actually circling towards his left hand. If you speak to a boxing coach, they’ll tell you that was the mistake he made, but – statistically – that’s not the case against McGregor.
The other thing is: Yes, he was caught with a clean punch across the side of the head, but he wasn’t unconscious when he hit the floor; as he’s going down, you see him put his hands down – that’s a conscious fighter. So, it was the hammer fists that did it, not the initial punch.
AP: You’ve said you think the first 90 seconds are crucial for Poirier.
DH: Poirier just seems very tense in those first 90 seconds. And it’s not the same with everybody, but [that can happen] particularly if a fighter feels that someone’s quicker than them and has power in their hands – like Michael Johnson, which is Poirier’s other loss in around 90 seconds. It’s almost like Dustin’s tense, waiting to get hit, and that almost makes him more susceptible.
The big thing for this fight is just getting through those first 90 seconds. I think everything he needs to beat McGregor, he has. I think he can take his punches, I think he’s got a better gas tank, I think he can compete with him in wrestling and grappling. It’s just getting past that pyschological hurdle of: “This guy’s gonna knock me out as soon as he touches me.”
AP: What does this fight look like if it goes the distance?
DH: If it goes five rounds, I think McGregor still wins the first two rounds – on presence, Octagon control and shots landed. But that doesn’t mean those first two rounds, even if they’re lost, aren’t valuable to Poirier in putting some water in the basement; land some low kicks because we know how much weight McGregor puts on his lead leg to throw punches and kicks, work some body shots, tie McGregor up against the fence and fill his arms with lactic acid so he can't punch as hard as usual.
But it’s almost like those first 10 minutes are burner rounds for Poirier – he’s got to not think about the scorecards and statistics. He’s got to keep himself safe and see what he can take out of McGregor to set him up for those last three rounds. I could certainly see Poirier pouring it on in the last three rounds, putting McGregor under pressure against the fence and forcing him to level change – like what happened in the first McGregor vs Nate Diaz fight.
And the D’Arce chokes for Poirier are so much more suitable for takedown defence than a rear naked choke. By the point Nate was on McGregor’s back, they’d already transitioned through four positions; if you’re shooting on Poirier, you’re choked out before you’ve gotten any further.
AP: Poirier has admitted he was too emotional in the first fight due to McGregor’s mind games, but the build-up has been very cordial this time. Is McGregor missing an opportunity to play with Poirier here?
DH: I think Conor will turn on the mind games. I think it would be foolish of him not to. With the Cerrone fight, he made a conscious decision not to trash talk, because that made ‘Cowboy’ uncomfortable. So, I think we will some psychological games here.
The rhetoric coming out of the Poirier camp is very sensible; he’s saying he’s not gonna get emotional, it’s not about revenge, and I actually think the loss to Khabib has helped him focus; he wants to be the champion. If he can put that as a priority over getting revenge against McGregor, he can keep his head together.
But that’s all well and good until you’ve got the guy in front of you, grinning.