UFC real or not: Dustin Poirier is the right opponent for Conor McGregor's return

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McGregor agrees to January 2021 fight ... with a stipulation (2:57)

Ariel Helwani reports on Conor McGregor accepting a fight vs. Dustin Poirier on Jan. 23, but McGregor has a stipulation that he wants the fight to take place at AT&T Stadium. (2:57)

UFC superstar Conor McGregor announced Wednesday that he will return to the Octagon and face Dustin Poirier as the main event of UFC 257 on Jan. 23, and he's hoping the fight will be held at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

Will the UFC, which hasn't hosted an event in front of live fans since March 7, agree to the location? Texas allows up to 50% of capacity at venues.

McGregor wanted to fight three times in 2020, but the pandemic changed those plans. McGregor hasn't fought since his 40-second victory over Donald Cerrone in January. Since that time, he has retired on Twitter, said he was facing Manny Pacquiao in a boxing match and called out numerous other UFC fighters, including Nate Diaz and Khabib Nurmagomedov. All of the public negotiations resulted in McGregor seemingly getting all he has wanted in a high-profile bout that will own the attention of the sports world on Jan. 23.

If the fight comes together, Poirier will try to get some redemption for his first-round knockout loss to McGregor in 2014 (Watch on ESPN+). In that featherweight bout, McGregor worked quickly, knocking down Poirier with a left and finishing him off with hammerfists with just under two minutes left in the first round. There's no doubt both fighters have evolved, and while the highlight of McGregor's win over Poirier will continue to be played in the lead-up, Poirier represents an intense challenge as McGregor tries to earn his way back to a title shot.

But is this the right bout for the sport's biggest star? Is he taking too big of a risk by not waiting for a possible title shot against the winner of the Oct. 24 bout between Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje?

Ariel Helwani, Marc Raimondi, Phil Murphy and Jeff Wagenheim evaluate the bout, looking at what's real or not as we begin to prepare for a potential major lightweight battle.


Real or not: This is the right fight for Conor McGregor

Raimondi: I wasn't sold initially, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. First, any fight for McGregor is a good thing for the UFC and McGregor himself. He was clear that he wanted a "season" of at least three fights -- maybe four -- in 2020. And thus far, he has fought just once, a quick knockout of Cerrone in January. The inactivity has been a sticking point for the UFC, which seemed to be wary of bringing McGregor back without crowds. There has been a similar issue with big-time boxing pay-per-views. The rate on investment has to make sense, and without the millions of dollars that come from ticket sales, is it worth it to have someone who gets paid as much as McGregor compete without that revenue?

McGregor knocked out Poirier quickly when they first met in 2014 at UFC 178, but that might as well have been a lifetime ago. It was at featherweight, and both men have now fought at lightweight (welterweight, too, in McGregor's case) for years. Poirier has been one of the top lightweights in the world since 2017. Fans can't argue that McGregor is hand-picking easy competition here -- Poirier is as legit as it gets. One could say that McGregor against someone like Diaz would pull in more money for the UFC. Probably so, but that trilogy fight will be there in the future. McGregor vs. Poirier is extremely competitive and likely to be an action fight. MMA enthusiasts and casual fans alike should be excited for it.

Real or not: Conor McGregor is unnecessarily risking a title shot by taking this fight

Helwani: No. McGregor just wants to fight. I think he has made that clear at this point. He's frustrated that he has fought only a total of 40 seconds in 2020 and is itching to get back in there. He also recognizes he is a bigger draw than the belt. I think the competitor in him most certainly wants to fight Nurmagomedov again, but the businessman in him also knows he doesn't need to wait around for a title shot or be worried about "risking" a title shot. I also think he would be confident going into this one, especially considering he already has a win over Poirier, and knows a win will get him a title shot anyway.

Real or not: With a win, this fight will get Dustin Poirier a title shot

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1:19

Poirier says loss to McGregor changed his perspective, made him stronger

Dustin Poirier explains how after his loss to Conor McGregor in 2014, he began to change his perspective on fighting which made him happier overall in life.

Murphy: In terms of his next fight being for a title, Poirier absolutely earns the shot by beating McGregor. Its immediacy, though, depends on the winner when Nurmagomedov and Gaethje unify the lightweight belt -- and how sincerely Nurmagomedov plans to retire after 30 fights.

Six of Poirier's past seven bouts -- in which he's 5-1 (1 NC) -- have come against former or current champions or interim champions. Beating McGregor would make seven of eight, and it would take Poirier's star power to an entirely new level. In the UFC's deepest division, there's no questioning that résumé. At a steady two or three fights per year since his pro debut in 2009, there's no questioning Poirier's level of activity either.

The only outlier is who holds the belt when Poirier hypothetically topples the Notorious One. If Nurmagomedov holds the gold, is a final-chapter GSP fight on the table? Might Nurmagomedov want to challenge Kamaru Usman in a superfight instead? Nurmagomedov holds all the cards, and there wasn't much from Poirier's loss at UFC 242 that demands a rematch.

If Gaethje wins, however, the door grows much wider. Poirier knocked out Gaethje two years ago, which raises intrigue for a sequel. But would Gaethje grant Nurmagomedov an immediate rematch? Shared management makes it something less than an absolute meritocracy.

With a win over McGregor, Poirier will fight next for the title. But outstanding contingencies might force him to wait until late next year to do so.

Real or not: A McGregor fight at AT&T Stadium would be the perfect way to welcome back fans to a live UFC event in the U.S.

Wagenheim: No one in MMA creates capital-M Moments like McGregor, and the fans have always played a huge role in raising the goosebumps. There's nothing like an arena packed with singing and chanting and Irish flag-waving zealots who've flown into town to support their man. Other fighters have hordes of followers, too, but the scene at a McGregor fight is simply a higher level of spectacle.

McGregor feeds off the energy inside the venue, so he understands better than anyone the impact of staging his performances in front of fans. Why else would he insist on having his return play out at a stadium that in non-pandemic times seats over 100,000? Now, who knows what this event would look like -- how many fans would be allowed in, and how travel restrictions and these economically hard times might keep away many who would love to be there.

There are a lot of variables that would need to be settled -- the most important among them, of course, being whether the UFC will agree to McGregor's stipulation of locale. But if the fight does happen in Dallas, how appropriate would that be. Folks in the Lone Star State love doing things big, and a McGregor return after a year out of the Octagon, in a fight against a legitimate lightweight contender, with some amount of fans in attendance at a UFC event for the first time since March 7 -- that sure would be a Texas-sized extravaganza.

Real or not: This is the PPV main event on the horizon that I'm most looking forward to

Raimondi: That's a tough one without knowing for sure what else the UFC could have on the docket for November and December. Could a deal be made to have former friends Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington settle their blood feud? If so, that would certainly be highly anticipated. Or how about something involving Israel Adesanya? He has said he wants to fight again before 2020 is up.

McGregor vs. Poirier would surely be high on the list no matter what the UFC has up its sleeve. But I'd probably still say the UFC lightweight title unification matchup between Nurmagomedov and Gaethje is No. 1 for me. That has a chance to be a truly incredible fight with high stakes, including Nurmagomedov's unbeaten record. Many pundits believe Gaethje matches up better with Nurmagomedov than anyone else does -- and I believe there is some validity to that.

You also have to factor in that Nurmagomedov is still grieving the death of his father, legendary Dagestani coach Abdulmanap. And we don't know how much longer Nurmagomedov, who has talked retirement, will be around. Every chance we get to see "The Eagle" is special. He is one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport, a master of his craft. Everyone knows he's going to wrestle, yet no one can stop it. Gaethje, meanwhile, is the sport's foremost purveyor of violence and has honed his technique in the past year. I absolutely cannot wait for UFC 254 on Oct. 24.