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UFC 264 in-depth: Determining the future of the sport’s biggest star, Conor McGregor

Looking passed the usual ranking implications, predictions and week-to-week momentum shifts.

UFC 257: Dustin Poirier v Conor McGregor before UFC 264 Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

For Conor McGregor, UFC 264 is a major crossroads in a career full of them.

The first big one? Probably when the Irishman opted to chase “double champ” status rather than stick around at Featherweight, a choice that saw McGregor make history and elevate his profile to new heights. The most important? Likely when “Notorious” crossed over into the boxing ring vs. Floyd Mayweather and saw his fortune skyrocket to unprecedented levels for a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter.

Of course, the latter likely doesn’t happen without the former — that’s how crossroads work!

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MASSIVE MIDDLEWEIGHT MATCH! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) makes its highly anticipated return to Sydney, Australia, for the first time in five years on Sat., Sept. 9, 2023, with a 185-pound world title fight inside Qudos Bank Arena. In the ESPN+-streamed pay-per-view (PPV) main event, Middleweight roost-ruler, Israel Adesanya, plans to silence No. 5-seeded contender, Sean Strickland. In UFC 293’s hard-hitting Heavyweight co-main event, No-6-ranked fan favorite, Tai Tuivasa, locks horns with towering Russian, Alexander Volkov (No. 8).

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Deciding to jump back into the deep end of the Lightweight division — “Cowboy” showcase aside — was another career-defining choice. After all, there were SERIOUS money fights available for McGregor that did not involve fighting Dustin Poirier, Lightweight’s grittiest savvy boxer. The obvious example is Nate Diaz, an objectively easier fight with less of a weight cut and more of a paycheck.

In truth, it’s a somewhat peculiar choice when looking at the reasoning in past McGregor crossroads.

From the outside looking in, McGregor has consistently chosen the path to fame and fortune over the traditional way to build a legacy. That’s not an attempt to knock his considerable accomplishments, but McGregor has never seemed to lose any sleep over the old (but credible) “He never defended his title(s)!” complaints.

Fighting Poirier was a move in the opposite direction, a step toward genuine legitimacy rather than further mega stardom. After all, Poirier is undeniable, a consummate contender who’s fought most of the toughest men at 155 pounds. The last few years of iffy results don’t matter at all if McGregor had knocked out Poirier back in January.

Beating “The Diamond” would have re-instituted McGregor as one of the best in the world and earned him a title shot even in the eyes of staunch critics. Even given the January result, defeating Poirier to win the trilogy on Saturday night could leave McGregor as a credible contender to Lightweight gold.

But, what if he loses?

Doing things the hard way (fighting Poirier to earn a title shot) comes at a cost. If McGregor is beaten into an unconscious pile a second time, will he be able to leapfrog his way into a title shot afterward? Anything is possible in the current UFC ecosystem, but it would be a farcical look for everyone involved.

McGregor isn’t going to fight down the Lightweight ranks. Does finally fighting Rafael dos Anjos appeal to anyone? How about reigniting the Khabib rivalry by fighting (read: getting smashed by) Islam Makhachev? A match like that will still sell pay-per-views more than most other events, sure, but it wouldn’t maximize McGregor’s drawing power.

No, a second loss to Poirier likely eliminates McGregor’s path to a legitimate second run at Lightweight. Though he tried to walk that road, it would be closed, forcing McGregor to take the other fork if he’s to keep competing: money fights. Maybe with a win over Diaz or Jorge Masvidal at 170 pounds, McGregor could angle for a Welterweight title shot and keep Leon Edwards waiting for a little while longer.

It’s better than a Mayweather rematch or Logan Paul brawl. But, arguably for the first time, it would not be the future McGregor chose for himself.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 264 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 264: “McGregor vs. Poirier 3” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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