Conor McGregor will enjoy a significant psychological edge against Dustin Poirier next month in Abu Dhabi because his rival knows “his lights can be shut out very, very rapidly”, according to McGregor's long-time head coach.
The former two-division champion makes his comeback to the octagon after a year out when he takes on Poirier in the headline bout at UFC 257 on January 23 – a rematch of their 2014 meeting, in which he cruised to a first-round TKO.
UFC 257 represents the final event on the third Fight Island series in the capital, following Fight Nights on January 16 and 20. As of yet, the venue has not been confirmed.
With doubt, McGregor's return will represent the main attraction on Yas Island, since the Irishman has not fought since his 40-second victory against Donald Cerrone in January.
And, although much has changed since their initial clash at UFC 178 six years ago – that bout took place at featherweight, instead of lightweight – coach John Kavanagh believes Poirier still carries the mental scars of that loss.
In an interview with TheMacLife released on Sunday, the Straight Blast Gym Ireland chief said: “You can spend a lifetime going to sports psychologists and talking to this person and that person; that’s not going to have been erased from his mind.
“He knows that he is facing somebody who can shut off his lights very, very rapidly and now is a lot more powerful and a lot more experienced than he was even then. So it’s a tough, uphill battle for Dustin. But Dustin’s a phenomenal fighter.”
Kavanagh guided McGregor through his preparations for the 2014 encounter and has recently returned from Portugal, where his star pupil underwent a rigorous training regimen.
However, Poirier has improved significantly in recent years, the former interim champion ranked currently as the No 2 challenger in the lightweight division following June’s gruesome victory against Dan Hooker. McGregor, meanwhile, sits as the No 4 contender.
“[Poirier] has definitely gotten better,” Kavanagh said. “There’s a few more takedown attempts now in his fights. I hadn’t seen it before – he has a good guillotine, we can see that. Then his volume and his conditioning is looking on point.
“And you can see in his fights he has an ability to take a lot of punishment and still come forward; pick any of last few fights to see that quality. However, he’s fighting a different animal than any of those guys; somebody with true, one-punch knockout power that he’s already felt.”
Kavanagh says McGregor is looking sharper than ever, and therefore he remains convinced next month's outcome will be similar to the first.
“There’s nothing to be said for when you’ve really, badly hurt someone like that," Kavanagh said. "It’s not like it was a decision win or maybe some sort of argument to be made, or a bit of back and forth.
"It was a bad night for Dustin. It was very one-sided, and when you look at some of the shots he’s absorbed – he’s a bigger man now, and you can say maybe there’s some argument he can absorb more shots, but he’s fighting a bigger man, as well."
Asked if McGregor would be world champion by the end of 2021 – Khabib Nurmagomedov remains the lightweight title-holder despite his retirement in October – Kavanagh said: "If he so chooses, yes. I don't know what the exact plan is, but I don't really get why this one isn't for the title, if I'm being one hundred per cent honest.
“Maybe it’s [UFC president Dana White]: this is a little carrot towards Khabib, ‘Do you really want this guy to’… I don’t know. I don’t know those types of games. I don’t involve myself in it.
“But this, to me, feels like it’s for the belt. But I guess at the very least, the winner of this will be offered a title fight. But who would that be against? It’s a bit of a strange scene we have in front of us, which makes it interesting.
“I think 2021, regardless of what’s next for Conor, it’s going to be an exciting year. He seems to be in a very different mind-set to I’ve seen him in a long time. Conor tends to be all-in no matter what he’s doing. And he’s all-in on following a routine and training and eating a certain way.
"And he’s got all sorts of ideas about different competitions and different things he can do for the next year.”