What A Time To Be Alive:
This article was originally going to be about all-things Fight Island 3- from Max Holloway’s stunning performance, to the drama of Khabib’s announcement, to everything that encompassed UFC 257. The UFC’s third excursion to Yas Island was sure to be story-worthy, and, it was. Truth be told, I got bored while working on what was bound to be 1,000+ word story. So, instead, I summarized my favorite three things to happen in this first month of the new year- aptly titled “What A Time To Be Alive”, I write about attending my first fight live in eleven months, my personal favorite fighter, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez’s busy 2021 schedule, and lastly, but most importantly- Dustin Poirier’s remarkable second round knockout of returning supernova, Conor McGregor. We’re finally out of the woods of 2020, things may not be back to normal as many of us had hoped when the clock struck midnight on January 1st, 2021, but fight sports has finally returned to somewhat a state of normalcy. To me, that’s all that really matters.
I started the year off on January 2nd by attending Ryan Garcia vs. Luke Campbell at the American Airlines Center, smack dab in the heart of Dallas, Texas- The new Mecca of Boxing, more on that later, that was quite the way to welcome the new year. The crowd was red-hot for Ryan Garcia, for boxing in general, or- just the reason for getting out of the house. Whatever the reason, I was grateful to be in the building for it, even though the capacity to which I was attending was that of a spectator, a patron, a fan- rather than that of a credentialed journalist/media member. I was still delighted to witness such a great fight live in person.
I often speculate about who the Muhammed Ali, or Rey Leonard, or Mike Tyson, or Julio Cesar Chavez, or, Oscar De La Hoya, or Manny Pacquiao/Floyd Mayweather of my generation will be. Who’s the guy that I’m going to tell my kids- “yeah, I got to see him fight LIVE in-person”.
If you ask boxing fans and journalist about who this next generation of megastar is going to be- it usually generates four names, Teofimo Lopez, Devin Hanye, Gervonta Davis, and the 21-Year-Old social media starlet- Ryan Garcia. Naturally, I was pretty stoked to have the opportunity to see another one of the Gen-Z’s version of The Four Kings, having already witnessed Teofimo Lopez knockout Diego Magdaleno in February of 2019 in person. Garcia is probably the odds-on favorite for becoming that transcendent star, being that he already has multiple of millions of followers on social media- but some, including myself, have questioned whether or not his skill really matches the hype he’s gotten due to his dashing “pretty boy” looks. January 2nd would be his acid test, his real first fight against a world class, championship caliber opponent. In England’s Luke Campbell, Garcia was going up against an Olympic gold medalist, and- a former two-time world championship challenger. Campbell had fought both Jorge Linares, and Vasiliy Lomanchenko in the middle of their respective primes for the unified lightweight world championship. Coming up on the wrong-side of two very close decisions in both fights. It was clear that Campbell could mix it up with the best and give them tough fights- he was a bonafide title contender, the question now was whether or not Garcia was yet- or at all. I was eager to find the answer to that out live and in-person.
I was delighted to see any fight in-person, it had been eleven months since my last. It was an itch that I didn’t know I needed scratched. In reality, I don’t think there’s any getting rid of being a fan of the sport for me, once you fall in love with a sport like boxing it’s not something you really just shake off. To steal a few lines from my favorite book on boxing, “The Gods Of War” by Springs Toledo, “A well fed and well-feted writer for The New Yorker once considered turning his back on a favorite topic of his youth. During a train ride to Indianapolis to cover a heavyweight title bout in 1959, A.J. Libeling’s affection’s rekindled. ‘I felt the elation of a man who said a lot of hard things about a woman and is now on his way to make up.'” I had a very similar feeling. Over the past eleven months, with too much time on my hands, the mind tends to wander on things such as my future. Questions of, “Can I really make a career out of writing about a niche sport” and, “Is there really any future in journalism” sprang up here and there. Being in the building for Garcia-Campbell reminded me why I wanted to do this in the first place, and rekindled the fire in my belly for it all over again.
At one of the defining moments of the fight, I realized that I truly wouldn’t have rather been anywhere in the building than with the crowd. Not on press row, not in the press box, in the mix of the socially distanced crowd, you could feel all of the hair stand at attention when Ryan Garcia was dropped in round three for the first-time in the 21-Year-Old superstars career. He just got a tad bit too eager and let the Olympic gold medal winning Brit, Luke Campbell, land a clean straight-left hand that separated Garica from his senses momentarily. It was like being at the base of a volcano- the building erupted in a collective stunned mixture of gasps and yells. The way Garcia fell backwards, it looked like he was out cold, his arms were frozen- his eyes were glazed, he was stiff. Everyone in the building bolted out of their seats. Canelo Alvarez, boxing’s biggest star, fresh off a super middleweight title fight in San Antonio, was in attendance- he sprung to his feet when his protege hit the canvas, promoters, commentators, security, fellow 21-Year-Old lightweight contender Devin Haney- the building was at attention. Garcia rose to his feet, but the feeling in the building was that we were going to witness a promising future hastily derailed. It was an almost indescribable moment to experience. Luckily, for all of the women who came out to see the dashing hearthrob in the flesh, and for his promoters (Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins) and, his team (Eddie &’ Chepo Reynosa, Canelo Alvarez) the inexperienced Garcia showed great maturity and the mark of a truly great professional boxer in his response to the surprise knockdown. Over the next few rounds, Garcia would make the necessary adjustments to not only survive, but hijack the momentum of the fight. Mid-fight adjustments have become a hallmark of the Reynosa camp, (they earned the Draw against Gennady Golovkin, and the decisive win in the rematch for Canelo Alvarez.) Ryan Garcia would storm his way back into the fight, pretending as if the knockdown hadn’t even happened- and materialized an organ shifting body shot that drew a close to the incredible contest. The crowd erupted for a second time, this time in a wave of relieved excitement. For both, what they just saw, and what lays in-store for the future superstar of the sport. Ryan Garcia had so much to prove going into this fight, and through his own mistake- he proved even more than what was expected. What a way to start the year.
By the way, I’m totally on the Ryan Garcia bandwagon now. I think he’s got a rocket strapped to his back- aimed straight at the top of the sport once the current incumbent Mexican superstar decides to move on from the squared-circle. Speaking of which…
“Canelo” Alvarez sets forth on road to undisputed in 2021:
Saul “Canelo” Alvarez closed 2020 in about as impressive fashion as one could have imagined he could have in the middle of a global pandemic. What was billed as being one of the “toughest opponents” of the fire headed Mexican’s career- Canelo defeated and dominated the highest regarded super middleweight on the planet at the time, the then 28-0, WBA Super Middleweight World Champion Callum Smith. It was a complete whitewashing of the accomplished Englishman in front of a masked San Antonio crowd. I didn’t identify a single round that could realistically be scored for the champion. In doing so, Alvarez also made clear his ambitions to become the super middleweight division’s undisputed champion- A feat that has yet to be accomplished in the 168-Pound divisions 54-Years of existence.
The first step in accomplishing such a historic feat was was going after the divisions’ stronghold, the most widely recognized belt-holder, Callum Smith. Defeating him with ease, Alvarez captured two of the major titles in the four title puzzle to becoming the undisputed champion, the WBC and WBA world championships. This, leaving only two titles in the wild on his quest of holding all of the belts. One of which, the IBF title, is held by Nashville Tennessee’s Caleb “Sweethands” Plant- who successfully defended his belt for a sixth time last Saturday en-route to becoming 21-0 (12 KO’s) The other, the WBO Title held by England’s Billy Joe Saunders (30-0, 14 KO’s), who- “Has all of the tools to beat Canelo” according to one, Tyson Fury. Canelo and Saunders have been linked to a fight once previously down at middleweight, but it appears that the fight is signed and sealed for May 8th of this year for three of the four major titles in-play at 168-Pounds. But, everything is contingent on one thing- Canelo’s #1 Contender to his WBC Championship, Avni Yildirim.
If you’re a more causal viewer of the sport, you probably recognize the two champions mentioned before, Saunders and Plant both have pretty reputable names- and have had their fair share of highlights in the ring. However, the name Yildirim probably has you scratching your head. So, who the hell is he? and why is Canelo fighting him? two perfectly reasonable questions with imperfect answers. Turkey’s Avni Yildirm (21-2, 12 KO’s) is not a household name in America, or anywhere for that matter outside of his home country of fervent supporters in Turkey. He has had two high-profile bouts in his 23-bout career, losing them both, one by way of brutal left-hook knockout in three rounds to Chris Eubank Jr. in October of 2017. The other, his most recent outing, a technical decision loss to legitimate divisional contender Anthony “The Dog” Dirrell.
That fight, almost two years ago now, is the entire reason that Yildrim is getting this incredible opportunity and paycheck against Canelo Alvarez. That probably seems odd- why would he get a title shot coming off of a loss- and one that is nearly two years old? Well, it’s good ol’ mismanagement by WBC President Mauricio Suleiman- what else? All the way back in 2018, the WBC super middleweight title was held by David “Red Flag” Benavidez (23-0 20 KO’s) who was the youngest champion in the sport at the time, but, he was stripped of his title due to testing positive in a random out-of-competition drug test for cocaine. Thus, leaving the title vacant for then #1 contender Avni Yildirm and #2 contender Anthony Dirrell to fight for. That aforementioned fight was also embroiled in controversy, as it was stopped in the tenth round by the ringside physician after Dirrell sustained a gash on his brow from an accidental head clash. It was reported that the cut was so deep that you could see the inner-layer of muscle on Dirrell’s forehead. Going to the scorecard’s two rounds prematurely potentially costed the Turkish fighter his first world title after a thrilling back-and-forth fight with Dirrell. One judge scored the fight 98-92 for Yildirim, but the other two judges had it 96-94 for Dirrell. And, it was a really good fight too- one in which I believe you could make a case for either fighter winning. You can watch it below.
Yildirim had protested for an immediate rematch, but the WBC opted to award the next title fight to David Benavidez fresh off of a drug suspension, and he went on to knock Dirrell out to regain his title in September of 2019, only to test positive for cocaine once again and subsequently be stripped. Leaving the title vacant, Yildirim bound to the sidelines- clinging to his #1 contender position and the title picture in limbo. Until, Alvarez picked up the title with his win over Callum Smith in December.
While, yes, Avni Yildrim definitely isn’t recognized as a truly legitimate threat to Canelo’s undisputed ambitions- I won’t fault Alvarez for being an active champion, whilst fighting mandatory challengers and other champions in the division. That’s where boxing fans get it a little misconstrued, often times, when a world champion fights someone of the level of Yildrim, it’s considered “Cherry Picking” easy opponents and sometimes that would be an accurate assessment- but, that isn’t really the case here. Even though, yes, at the end of the day- there’s hardly a chance in hell that Yildirm beats someone as elite as Canelo, it’s still a pretty exciting style matchup- and styles make fights. One that I envision could look a lot like how the fight against James Kirkland looked. It was well assumed that Kirkland had little chance, but given his reckless and bombastic style- the fight was destined to produce fireworks. Same goes for Yildirim. He won’t beat Canelo, he’ll probably catch a beating trying to do so- but it’ll be quite the show to watch- as perverse as that sounds. And, you can expect the announcement for the long-awaited matchup between Canelo Alvarez and Billy Joe Saunders to come moments after Alvarez is declared the victor on February 28th. Now, THAT is a mouthwatering matchup.
Pressure Makes Diamonds:
I don’t know how this narrative got started, but there was a shared opinion amongst members of the press that Dustin Poirier was just “showing up” to be a part of the Conor McGregor show, to collect that highly sought after McGregor paycheck
I don’t know where that narrative originated from, whether it was because of Poirer’s cool, stoic exterior. Or, if it was the expectation that Porirer would get lulled into the same “nice guy” McGregor web that “Cowboy” Cerrone fell into last year around this time. Whatever the genesis of the claim- it was foolish, and those who were suggesting it should feel ashamed.
Also ashamed, those who are clinging to the excuse that it was because of Conor’s “inactivity” that he lost- not the fact that Poirier was a better fighter with a better strategy and execution. Mind you, where McGregor had only one fight in 2020- So did Dustin. Don’t get it twisted, I know that in an overall sense, Poirier’s been much- much more active over the past six years (fighting 13 times consistently to McGregor’s 8 sporadically since their first fight in 2014)- point being, Dustin Poirier shouldn’t be discredited for actually showing up to work. Off my soapbox, I would also like to examine McGregor’s claims that it was “Just the leg kicks” that beat him. unequivocally- that’s not the case, because not only was it punches that reeled the Irishman unable to defend himself (not leg kicks), but it was the fighter standing in front of him that interrupted immediate plans for a major money rematch between Khabib-Conor.
All of this to deliver one simple sentiment- stop making excuses for Conor McGregor and give Dustin Poirier the respect he earned and deserves.
Even I had my reservations about how well Dustin Poirier would perform in the rematch. I was calling an early knockout for McGregor- simply off the basis of the first meeting between the two, and McGregor’s last fight against Donald Cerrone. McGregor, by all accounts, including Conor himself, was in the best shape he had ever been in his fighting career.
The fight started off going accordingly to that script, and ultra-aggressively from Conor McGregor, flying out of his corner before referee Herb Dean even signaled for the fight began. Conor came out in an unusually wide, heavy-set stance- indicating that the speculation was true, this was going to be a boxing-focused performance from the 0-1 professional boxer. There was a lot evidence circulating the internet to suggest this would be the case, as McGregor re-enlisted the help of his amateur boxing coach, Phil Sutcliffe, to sharpen his boxing toolset- not only in preparation for Dustin Poirier, but also in preparation for a probable bout with 8-division boxing great Manny Pacquiao seeing that McGregor got through this fight without a hitch. If you go back and listen to some of the interviews that Poirier and his head coach, Mike Brown gave in the lead-up to the fight- they expected as much. Seeing that the ink had just dried on a contract between Pacquiao and McGregor’s management company (Paradigm Sports), the writing was on the wall for what was next barring McGregor being knocked out. Also, an intelligent read, Poirier was a southpaw, and a REALLY good southpaw at that- So is Manny Pacquiao. It was quite clear that to MCGregor and his team- this was to be an “exhibition” of sorts to show the world “Hey, I can box, too.” In reality, it was the boxing approach that left McGregor in the dust, and on the canvas- in what would become one of MMA’s most notorious, and high-profile examples of the danger behind looking past an opponent.
Interestingly enough, the matchup between two great strikers, began with a grappling exchange- as Poirier shot for an early takedown and settled for a clinch. Against the cage, a wholesome exchange took place when Poirier took a page from the McGregor textbook by using the same shoulder strikes that Conor used in his last fight to shatter Donald Cerrone’s nose. “Good man, Proper strike- that” McGregor said to Poirier after eating one of his own techniques. Conor would turn the clinch around and land a shoulder strike of his own- I noted how peculiar it was to see someone so good at delivering a blow with their shoulder, and how much power Conor can generate with it. The real damage came off of an elbow on the clinch break that I thought momentarily dazed Poirier. Some hand fighting and posturing took place before Dustin noticeably bit on a McGregor feint- paving the way for a fast straight left down the pipe. The most significant punch of the fight, so far. McGregor pointed at Dustin as to say “I gotcha’ there”. That was the last time McGregor taunted Poirier in the fight.
McGregor was looking very loose, very comfortable in the octagon. Especially for someone who cited ring rust for the reason he lost the fight. He was angling, looking for a route around Dustin’s guard- then *whack*, straight down the middle again with a straight left, this time with a right uppercut following it- the same combination and set-up McGregor used to finish off Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 to become the first ever “Champ-Champ”. It might have been his downfall in the fight- but McGregor’s boxing did look as sharp as ever in this fight. Poirier whiffed two wild and sloppy hooks in response. He was lagging considerably behind McGregor considerably in his boxing it seemed. He looked stiff and rigid. Conor would shoot another jab and straight left up the middle, this one harder. It seemed like Poirier just couldn’t defend against McGregor’s speed and precision up the middle. Sensing that Poirier was vaunerable, McGregor pressed for a finish, launching his first three-punch combination, but he eats a solid counter right hook from Poirier off of an ill-advised rear-right uppercut (one of the most dangerous punches to throw) that left McGregor out of position. Poirier pointed at McGregor in response to his success, as to say, “I got YOU that time”.
Then Poirier hammers the lead calf with a kick for the first time in the fight, a strike that would become the most significant of the entire fight. Given that McGregor was fighting with a boxing-focused stance, he would be especially susceptible to this kick, given how wide apart his legs were, and that they were planted heavily into the canvas to generate power on his punches. Conor realized this vaunearability and fired off a quick reactionary combination to try and deter Poirier, or at least get him to think twice about throwing that calf kick. By this point, with a minute left in the first round, Poirier was noticeably settling into the fight, he was looser. Dustin was taunting McGregor after about every exchange, he ate another straight left- but after seeing him eat so many, I realized that he was eating one of McGregor’s best punches flush, and EARLY, and hardly blinking at it. That first round was thrilling to watch live.
McGregor started the second round as he did the first- very aggressively. Though, this time, he took an immediate HARD outside calf kick for his aggression. My assumption is that Poirier’s head coach- Mike Brown, got in his ear in-between rounds and told him to kick that calf like there’s no round three. This kick threw McGregor off balance for the first time in the fight. The tally was 11-1 on leg kicks in favor of Dustin at this point in the fight. Around a minute into the second round is where the bottom really falls out for McGregor. He eats two hard calf kicks one after the other that subtly bother McGregor, Poirier found the hole in McGregor’s strategy, his Achilles-heel, his weakness- and he was exploiting the hell out of it. Instead of switching to an orthodox stance to accommodate for his dead lead leg, or making an on the fly alteration to his approach in the fight, McGregor decided to try and finish the fight before he lost complete control- but he already had. Conor can not defend against the leg kicks, he can’t check them (raising the leg to take it on the bone rather than muscle), so he tires to catch them with his hands as a last-ditch effort to deter Poirier from throwing them. For a second time, Poirier catches Conor with the same right hook counter off of a rear-right uppercut (pictured above) and points at him again to let Conor know he lost the exchange.
The next time Poirier threw the now famed calf kick would be the last time in the fight, as he immobilized McGregor, completely killing all feeling he had from the knee down- before launching into the flurry of all flurries- absolutely berating McGregor with power punches against the fence. He was just all over McGregor. Then, he found the kill switch. A CLEAN short rear right-hook that whipped right off the hip of Dustin Poirier, it was a beauty of a punch, and it sent the former double champ, and future Hall-of-Famer crashing to the canvas. Herb Dean waives the fight off. Poirier walks around the octagon MEAN MUGGING. I won’t pretend to know how to read expressions, but to me, the look on his face said “How DARE you all pick him to knock me out. Have you not seen what I’ve been doing for the past six years?”
It’s been going on three weeks now, and I’m still at awe of what I saw. Every time I’ve gone back to watch the fight- goosebumps shoot up and down my arms. Perhaps, it’s because of the mountaintop that I place McGregor on in my mind. This is the guy who dominated the entire featherweight division before sleeping the greatest featherweight of all time in Jose Aldo in just 13-seconds, it was the guy who put on one of the most incredible boxing masterclasses that you will ever see in MMA against a prime Eddie Alvarez to become the first fighter in history to hold two UFC championships in two divisions simultaneously. This performance from Dustin Poirier was right up there with those two in terms of being the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen in my life. Witnessing it transpire live, watching Dustin land that final blow to seal the fight- it’s something I think I’ll carry with me for a long-time.