Conor McGregor has a crystal clear path back to lightweight championship gold.
A win for McGregor over Dustin Poirier in their UFC 264 rubber match, which headlines the ESPN+ pay-per-view event from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, and, to quote the Irishman, “the king is back.”
“If he wins, he can do whatever he wants, to be completely honest with you,” UFC color commentator and retired lightweight Paul Felder recently told The Post in a phone interview. “He can fight for the belt. … Why not? [UFC lightweight champion] Charles Oliveira would be silly to not want to take that paycheck.”
But a loss? That’s where it’s less cut and dried, in Felder’s estimation. If McGregor (22-5, 20 finishes) were to put on a close, five-round war with Poirier, who won such a bout last June in what was perhaps the 2020 fight of the year against Dan Hooker, that would leave plenty of possibilities open to the UFC’s top moneymaker.
Those possibilities would vanish, however, if Poirier (27-6, 20 finishes), who has as viable a claim to being the sport’s best 155-pounder as Oliveira himself, were to end the former two-division champion’s night early.
“If [McGregor] gets KO’d, it’s real bad,” Felder said. “I don’t know what he gets [next], maybe the [Nate] Diaz fight again or something like that. But it still doesn’t have that allure to it. … To see him go out and get KO’d twice in a row or, God forbid, submitted, I think it’s towards the end. I think that might be it for really seeing him in any competitive fights to get to the belt, which would be unfortunate for him and for the UFC.”
Since retiring in May at age 37, Felder has focused on training for triathlons and returned to his love of acting with a role in an episode of the HBO Max series “Hacks.” He was part of the three-man commentary team on Jan. 24 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, when Poirier put down McGregor with punches in the second round of their rematch. With his unique perspective as a former lightweight contender himself, Felder has firm ideas of what went wrong for McGregor the last time, more than six years after he scored a TKO of Poirier in under two minutes when both were rising featherweight contenders.
Felder suspects McGregor soaking in time on a yacht “drinking mimosas and champagne and living the multimillion dollar lifestyle” softened the former simultaneous featherweight and lightweight UFC champ. But he also pointed to Poirier’s evolution as a fighter over the years as a major reason “The Diamond” settled the score with the Irishman.
“Since Dustin has changed over to the lightweight division, he’s just been a completely different athlete,” Felder said. “He’s bigger, he’s stronger, he can take a better shot, he’s smarter, they’re game-planning things much better. His coaching staff behind him, they’re a well-oiled machine now, and that was not the case when he fought him the first time.”
In the January rematch, McGregor leaned heavily on his boxing while Poirier ground down his opponent’s lead leg with MMA’s “it” move — the calf kick. McGregor took the first round on the judges’ scorecards, but Poirier landed big power punches to his compromised opponent in the next frame until, as Felder put it, McGregor “was maybe even looking for a way out because that leg was just mangled.”
The end came midway through the second round, when Poirier punctuated a flurry with a menacing right hook to score a TKO on McGregor, who appeared unconscious. Having such a setback held over him by Poirier has to be running laps in McGregor’s head, said Felder, who knows from experience the feeling of losing and wondering what could have been done differently.
“Of course!” Felder exclaimed at the suggestion Poirier is in McGregor’s head. “[McGregor’s] gonna say no, but he is. I mean, you got put out. You got put out. Any time somebody beats you like that, you can say all the things you wanna say. And I’ve got nothing but respect for both these guys, but if you get knocked out, that person’s living in that headspace.”
Felder, who will not be on the call this time, said there’s little that could have changed evolutionarily for the two veteran headliners in the 5 ½ months since their last fight. Tactics will be adjusted. McGregor, he figures, will come with a much different approach, forcing Poirier to do the same.
Ultimately, however, Felder said he expects this one won’t go well for the sport’s biggest star.
“I think we will see a competitive first few rounds,” Felder says. “I think Conor’s gonna come at it with a different approach, but I just don’t see him putting Poirier away, and I see Poirier getting a late finish.”