No title at stake, but Conor McGregor

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Earlier this week, as the proposed Conor McGregor-Dustin Poirier trilogy fight continued to trend in the right direction, I wrote a caption on social media that said: “For all the marbles.”

Well, the caption rubbed some people the wrong way. How could I say this one is for all the marbles when there’s not a UFC belt attached? Some went so far as to say there are no stakes attached, because this fight to complete the trilogy has more to do with money than figuring out who is the best lightweight in the world. Poirier might have had a chance to fight for the belt, but he opted for the more lucrative payday against the biggest star in MMA history.

The UFC returns to ABC once again as Kevin Holland hopes to rebound from a loss just three weeks ago when he faces rising contender Marvin Vettori. Holland won five times in 2020 and he hopes to avoid going 0-2 to start 2021.

UFC Fight Night: Holland vs. Vettori
• Saturday, April 10, UFC Apex, Las Vegas
Main card: 3 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN+
Prelims:12 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN+

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The reaction was fair, but let me tell you why there is so much riding on this trilogy fight. The series is 1-1, and I don’t foresee a scenario in which McGregor and Poirier ever fight again past UFC 264 on July 10. So as far as their rivalry is concerned, this is for all the marbles.

But secondly, it’s not outlandish to say that the entire narrative of McGregor’s athletic career could be on the line in this fight.

As of this moment, what would we say about McGregor the fighter? Not the superstar. Not the entertainer. If he were to retire right now, how would we define his athletic achievement?

Conor McGregor, left, and Dustin Poirier will meet for the third time at UFC 264 on July 10. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

His UFC record is 10-3.

He is 7-0 as a featherweight, 1-2 as a lightweight and 2-1 as a welterweight.

His record in UFC championship fights is 3-1.

To be clear, this is a phenomenal UFC career. It’s a career that a lot of martial artists can only dream of from a competitive standpoint, not to mention the millions upon millions of dollars McGregor has pocketed.

Here’s the question, though. Is this a career McGregor would have been happy with back in 2013, when he first joined the UFC? If you showed that McGregor this résumé, would he have been satisfied? A sub-.500 record at lightweight. A slightly better record at welterweight, although all three of those fights — two against Nate Diaz and one against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone — came against fighters who spent most of their careers at lightweight.

Would he have been satisfied with two UFC championships but not a single title defense? Would he have been satisfied to know that one of his lightweight losses came against archrival Khabib Nurmagomedov, who would assert himself as the best lightweight in the world, while McGregor was technically in that division?

I can tell you right now, the 2013 version of McGregor would not have been satisfied. I’d even go so far as to guess he’d look at this résumé as something of a failure, compared to his expectations.

And that probably sounds remarkably harsh, right? But that has been, and continues to be, McGregor’s frame of mind — that he is the best fighter on the planet. Even in defeat, whether it was to Diaz in 2016, Nurmagomedov in 2018, Poirier in 2021 and even boxing Floyd Mayweather in 2017, McGregor has always handled setbacks well. Usually within hours of the defeat, he identified reasons for the loss and pursued rematches. Because the idea of someone being better than him never sat well.

Even with an MMA record of 1-2 in the past 3½ years, McGregor has continued to carry himself as the best fighter in the world, and there have been reasons — whether one subscribes to them or not — to give him the benefit of the doubt.

He took a year away from the sport to make nine figures in a boxing match against Mayweather, which anybody would have done. He took on the monumental task of fighting Nurmagomedov in his very first fight after that layoff, losing by a fourth-round submission. And he wanted to be active in 2020, but was unable to because of the travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. After beating Cerrone in 40 seconds on Jan. 18, 2020, McGregor didn’t fight again until he lost via second-round KO to Poirier this past Jan. 23, after which McGregor said you can’t compete as a “part-time fighter.”

These might sound like excuses for McGregor’s losses, but they are legitimate factors when you consider he’s fighting the best in the world.

But if McGregor loses to Poirier for a second straight time on July 10, there will be no silver lining. History will remember Poirier was better. History will remember McGregor asserted himself as the best featherweight in the world in late 2015, but he didn’t even have a winning record in the five years that followed.

He’ll have plenty of money, and he’ll be remembered as a superstar who changed the game, albeit one who experienced some legal issues outside of the cage. But he won’t be remembered as one of the greatest fighters. And I still truly believe McGregor wants that for himself. So, from that sense, July 10 is for all the marbles.



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