In the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas, McGregor – then the ninth-ranked featherweight in the UFC – required just over 90 seconds to drop Poirier, the No. 5 featherweight in the world, and pummel his head against the canvas, forcing a stoppage.
For many followers of the sport, that bout at UFC 178 represented the Irishman’s first genuine match-up against a top-level opponent, the moment McGregor’s bravado could fall in on itself. Instead, ‘Notorious’ took a giant stride closer to Jose Aldo, the UFC featherweight title and MMA history, and he did so with an ease that startled swathes of fans of the sport.
Ahead of the pair’s rematch at lightweight in the main event of UFC 257, The Independent spoke to four key figures about McGregor’s knockout victory over Poirier in 2014, as well as what preceded and followed the night that ‘Mystic Mac’ was born.
In July 2014, McGregor knocks out Diego Brandao in the first round of the pair’s main-event clash in Dublin. Before the night is up, the seeds are already planted for McGregor’s next fight.
Ariel Helwani (MMA journalist – ESPN): “I remember at the press conference in Dublin, everybody was like ‘Poirier, Poirier, Poirier – it has to be Poirier next,’ because Poirier had been talking a little bit about Conor and they were kind of on a collision course. It seemed like: ‘Okay, the wheels are kind of in motion here.’”
The bout is set for September 2014, marking a quick turnaround for McGregor, who is intent on continuing his climb up the rankings at 145lbs. His eyes are already set on Aldo, the UFC’s first – and only ever, at this point – featherweight champion, who has not lost since 2005.
Megan Olivi (broadcaster – UFC): “I think that fight with Dustin was one of the first times when people were counting Conor out, like: ‘Oh, well now he’s facing Dustin Poirier and this probably won’t go well.’”
AH: “I thought the narrative that Conor was fighting lesser competition and wasn't really that good was hogwash. If you watched him in Cage Warriors or his early UFC fights, it was very clear this was a supremely talented fighter. But still, there were questions to be answered against Poirier, a big step up in competition on a very big stage.”
Poirier, typically a calm character, is visibly irked when in the presence of McGregor, who antagonises his opponent at every opportunity.
Bruce Buffer (ring announcer – UFC): “Some time before that fight, on the way back from another fight of Dustin’s, I was at the airport and sat down at Dustin’s table and broke bread with his family. I realised what a lovely family they are and what a fine human being Dustin is, and how he stands up for everything he believes in. He’s just a really good guy.”
MO: “I’d known Dustin for a very long time and remember seeing a marked difference in his demeanour. I remember being sad that Dustin’s wife [Jolie] was going to be so stressed out by the situation, even though Conor didn’t involve her in any way. Dustin was a bit more emotional than we’d seen him before.
“[At the pre-fight press conference] there was a lot of animosity on stage, but Conor seemed to thrive in that, whereas with Dustin you could tell... it was taking everything in him to restrain himself. Being up there, I was worried: ‘Are they gonna get out of their chairs and get physical?’ I was a bit nervous, because the hostility was so real, and thought: ‘Let’s just get out of here with no chairs or hands thrown.’”
AH: “Poirier wanted to be the guy to shut Conor up. He was very angry, like he had this chip on his shoulder. Conor, meanwhile... They did the media day in August with the infamous Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones scuffle at the MGM Grand, and in the midst of all that, Conor was taking selfies with fans. This guy was living in his own world, he didn’t care about a brawl between two of the best fighters in the world. All of these journalists were sitting around interviewing him and I thought: ‘He’s not going to be doing this for much longer – he’ll have his own press conferences.’
“I remember vividly the aura he had around him, like when he did the ‘bunny ears’ while I interviewed him. You definitely felt one fighter was happy and comfortable, and the other was very intense and mean-mugging. They had that run-in filmed on UFC: Embedded, and Conor was [later filmed] watching it and laughing at it.”
In the original clip, Poirier can be heard saying of McGregor: “I don’t think I’ve ever disliked somebody that much that I’ve fought.”
Peter Carroll (MMA journalist – The Bash, MMA On Point): “At the weigh-ins, Poirier starts screaming at the crowd. He couldn’t believe people were cheering on McGregor. I remember thinking: ‘This has really gotten to him.’ And I’d seen Conor doing that for years. After the face-off he had with [Dave] Hill in Cage Warriors, there was talk of Hill being consoled afterwards, like he was completely rattled. I don’t think Poirier was ready for the mental warfare, how Conor actually meant everything he said. Some people were still saying, ‘It’s all a gimmick,’ but I think Poirier was in two minds.”
MO: “That was not the main event, but it felt like it was. It was a really good card – Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone was fighting Eddie Alvarez, Demetrious Johnson headlined against Chris Cariaso – but I remember everyone going: ‘Poirier vs McGregor, what is gonna happen with this fight?’”
McGregor gets in Poirier’s face as the American skips around the cage before the introductions are made. He taunts Poirier as the pair face off, extending his hand into his opponent’s face. As referee Herb Dean asks the fighters if they wish to touch gloves, Poirier slaps McGregor’s hand away.
BB: “Conor’s confidence is as high as anybody could ever dream of walking around with. He’s intimidating, he tries to get into Poirier mentally, but then when the bell rings, the Octagon door closes and I’m done and walk out, shark eyes come over each.”
McGregor at once displays his confidence, opening with a hook kick and a spinning back kick. For the best part of 90 seconds, the Irishman pressures his fellow southpaw, finding a home for his left straight with greater success as the first round ticks on – talking to Poirier all the while.
Then, suddenly, McGregor glances a left hand off the back of Poirier’s head, dropping the American. Two hammer fists and two punches follow on the downed ‘Diamond’, and Dean waves the fight off.
AH: “The way in which he won... it wasn’t just a victory, it wasn’t just a decision win, he smoked Poirier in less than two minutes. He called Dustin ‘pea-head’, said he would bounce Dustin’s head off the canvas, then literally did that.”
PC: “The punch he hit Poirier with... I saw this tweet from a mainstream Irish journalist, saying it was a bull**** shot and made him think it was a choreographed fight. I remember thinking: ‘What does this kid [McGregor] have to do to get respect in Ireland?’”
MO: “When you’ve known somebody for such a long time, you’re even more heartbroken for them when they lose, which is certainly how I felt for Dustin. I knew how intense the lead-up was, so to have such a ‘final’ end to that fight... your heart just breaks. It wasn’t even like it was the end of the third round, it was so quick in there.”
BB: “Did I feel something in that moment, knowing what that fight meant to Dustin? Absolutely I did, when I realise that everything the man has fought for, trained for, everything he’s done for the last number of years in his life has come down to this one defining moment.”
MO: “I think it was kind of like a light switch turning on for a lot of people, like: ‘Okay, Conor’s legit, because that’s Dustin Poirier.’”
As Buffer announces the result – McGregor winning by TKO “at 1:46 of the very first round” – Poirier congratulates his rival, the Irishman in kind calling his vanquished foe “a great guy”. McGregor receives his jiu-jitsu brown belt from his coaching team and sports it during his in-ring interview.
“I don’t just knock them out, I pick the round,” McGregor tells commentator Joe Rogan. “You can call me ‘Mystic Mac’, because I predict these things.”
Rogan informs McGregor that 10 per cent of ticket sales for the event at the 15,000-seater came from the Irish.
“I wanted to come over here and show the American public the new era of the fighting Irish... If one of us goes to war, we all go to war.”
PC: “After McGregor beats Poirier, the place just clears out. Four fights into his UFC career, Conor’s already a bigger commodity than Johnson, the reigning flyweight champion of the world.”
AH: “The post-fight interview in the cage was legendary. Then there was the ivory suit he wore after, the sunglasses, the man-bun and shaved sides... There’s that scene of him in the hallway, doing the billionaire strut. It just felt like: ‘Okay, Conor McGregor's a superstar.’”
PC: “The Notorious RTE documentary series was out and it made his dad Tony, mum Mags and sister Erin almost celebrities. They were mobbed [in Vegas]. I remember stopping to talk to Tony and people were pouring past, shouting his name. He was being bombarded.”
MO: “About a month ago, Conor sent me a picture of our interview from after the fight. For Conor fights in general I was a bit nervous, because sometimes when somebody is in that very competitive mind-frame, they can’t change gears when they come to see me. But he was just himself, and I remember thinking: ‘Wow, he already knows how to turn it on and off and conserve the energies he has for when he needs them.’ He’s so tactful with how he handles the before, during and after.”
PC: “He nearly became a mythological creature. The Poirier fight, to me, symbolises McGregor going from being an Irish commodity to an international commodity. To be clear: He had belonged to this generation – not the Irish in general. At this stage he hadn’t put a foot wrong, he was becoming our national ambassador. When people found out you were Irish, it used to be: ‘Oh, Guinness! Roy Keane!’ It became: ‘Oh, Conor McGregor!’
“The thing about my generation is we were kids who came out of college into a recession. Conor was this kind of shining light for us, this story of triumph amid this societal chaos in Ireland. We had so much skin in the game. People used the [Chad] Mendes fight as their summer holiday. I was walking around, seeing guys I hadn’t seen since I left school. I must’ve met 200 people I knew from home, I’m not even being overdramatic.
“That’s what the Poirier fight did: It laid the foundation for what would become the Irish invasion of Vegas, it planted the seeds for Conor fights to be the big sporting events of our generation.”
AH: “If Conor had lost [against Poirier], it would have been a major setback. This was a really big fight for him on a pay-per-view with a lot of big names. It felt like the true unveiling of him as this great prize-fighter and one of the faces of the UFC. If he doesn’t win, the Aldo dream fight is done; he has to claw his way back up. You can’t say he loses one fight and he’ll never amount to anything, but that would have been a serious impediment in his meteoric rise.”