UFC 257 preview: Khabib's retirement looms large over Conor McGregor-Dustin Poirier 2

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·6 min read

With most bouts, UFC president Dana White stands at the dais or in front of a bank of cameras and microphones and sells the fight that is coming up, the one on Saturday that you can’t afford to miss. He loves the fight, White will tell you, and the guys hate each other.

How can it possibly miss?

Ever been in a car dealership when the salesperson has passed you off to one of the managers, who is furiously scribbling numbers on a paper and talking faster than Usain Bolt runs? Well, most of the time that’s what White is like when he’s pitching his show. He’s trying to seal the deal.

[UFC 257 on ESPN+ PPV: Buy Conor McGregor fight here]

But that’s not the case whenever Conor McGregor fights, as he will on Saturday at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi when he takes on Dustin Poirier in the main event of UFC 257. McGregor is the only person who sells the upcoming fight better than White, so White is already on to the next one.

He’s spending his time now working on what is next for the winner, and why it makes sense that champion Khabib Nurmagomedov should end his retirement to fight the winner.

If McGregor wins, and he’s better than a 3-1 favorite at BetMGM to do so, a rematch with Nurmagomedov would loom large over the landscape.

That’s the one White is selling now, as much to Nurmagomedov as to the bout’s potential customers. Nurmagomedov announced his retirement in the cage on Oct. 24 after defeating Justin Gaethje, at UFC 254, and repeated it unequivocally again Wednesday in an interview in Russian with the YouTube channel Sport24ru.

When Henry Cejudo surprisingly retired in the cage following his victory over Dominick Cruz at UFC 249 in May, he was removed from the UFC’s website and the title was listed as vacant by the following Monday. But three months since Nurmagomedov’s announcement, he’s still listed as UFC’s lightweight champion and sits atop its pound-for-pound rankings.

As McGregor vows to finish Poirier in 60 seconds and to produce “a masterpiece” in their rematch, White’s working on the next mega-event.

But it is no fait accompli that McGregor dusts Poirier like he did with a couple of shoulders to Donald Cerrone’s chin in 40 seconds a year ago and begins the drumbeat for a Nurmagomedov rematch.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 22:  In this handout image provided by the UFC, (L-R) Opponents Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor of Ireland face off during the UFC 257 weigh-in at Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on January 22, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor headline Saturday's UFC 257 with a possible title shot at stake. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

If it isn’t overshadowed by the co-main event between Dan Hooker and Michael Chandler, which is one of those rare bouts tagged as a potential Fight of the Year contest before it occurs, McGregor-Poirier figures to have several of what White loves to call “holy crap moments” during the bout.

McGregor knocked Poirier out in 2014 in a featherweight bout, and it didn’t seem like it took too much effort to get it done. Poirier himself said he bought into McGregor’s mind games and wasn’t himself when the bell rung.

But if McGregor blows through Poirier this time, it’s not going to be because Poirier melted and couldn’t meet the moment. Former UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, who will be working the broadcast on Saturday, noted that McGregor seems focused and it will be incumbent upon Poirier to be able to raise his game.

And Cormier said that in a strange way, Poirier getting knocked out in less than two minutes may wind up working to his advantage.

“Dustin Poirier, you wonder if the experiences he’s had since that first fight have prepared him for taking that challenge on again,” Cormier said. “It’s a very difficult fight to call because there are so many unknowns because for as good as we know Dustin Poirier has gotten, has he closed the gap? Now, there are some mental things that Dustin can rely on to allow him to feel more propped up.

“He got knocked out. He didn’t get beat over an extended period of time. … You can call back on that, like, ‘Hey, I got caught with a shot. I don’t now what would have happened over the course of 15 minutes.’”

UFC lightweight Paul Felder, also a part of Saturday’s broadcast crew, believes the fight will come down to mental state.

McGregor was relaxed and jovial at Thursday’s news conference and seems more motivated than he’s been since going into his title fight with Eddie Alvarez in 2016.

Poirier has had to answer all of the questions about his defeat in 2014, and has repeatedly dismissed them without much of a concern. He is, he’s said over and over, a different fighter.

Felder said the mental state of the two fighters will have a significant impact upon the result.

“At that level, main-event status, guys have held the belt, fought for the belt, [so it proves] you’re good,” Felder said. “Your skills are there. What sets you apart at that point, at the tippy top of these divisions, is your mental fortitude, your toughness, your durability.

“And we’ve seen Poirier show his heart recently, really put it on display in his fights. Conor, we see the way he’s talking, the way he’s training. He looks to be in the best shape of his life. For him with making that money and his success, he wants to come back and still fight. That shows where he’s at mentally.”

It’s almost as if Poirier has heard all the questions and gotten sick of them. He is a man with a point to make.

He said he is no longer concerned with the thoughts or expectations of those outside of his inner circle.

“Every fight, I have a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I am trying to prove something. All of this work I’ve put in, I”m trying to make it pay off. I’m trying to put my family in a better position.”

The fight will really be on when — or if — the bell rings to sound the start of the second round. And that’s the point that grabs White, and brings him back from dreams of another Nurmagomedov fight into anticipating what may happen on Saturday.

“This fight,” White said, “is going to cra-zy! It is going to be sick. I can’t wait.”

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