John Kavanagh wasn’t shocked to see Dustin Poirier utilize calf kicks in his bout against Conor McGregor at UFC 257, but the SBG Ireland head coach did admit that the devastating effect of those kicks certainly caught them by surprise as Poirier handed McGregor the first TKO loss of his career in Abu Dhabi.
Speaking to ESPN in the aftermath of the fight, Kavanagh revealed just how debilitating Poirier’s kicks were as what looked like a positive start to the fight for McGregor ended abruptly in the second round.
Immediately after the fight, McGregor pointed to inactivity as one of the key factors in his defeat before revealing just how damaging Poirier’s kicks were. Kavanagh agreed but said that even additional training wouldn’t have fully prepared his man for the kicks he took.
“He does so much sparring that you hope that there’s not going to be ring rust, because he’s getting the rounds in,” Kavanagh said. “But again, somewhat ironically, this particular technique is one that is almost impossible to replicate.
“The fact that Dustin threw it is not that surprising. It was certainly part of our training, to deal with leg kicks. How devastating a technique it was somewhat caught us out. In the gym, when you’re throwing that technique, you’re not trying to kick your partner as hard as you possibly can, and you’re also wearing shin pads, kick pads. … You can build up a false confidence – ‘I feel it, but it’s not that bad.’ Then it’s only in fighting that you get tiny gloves and no shin pads.
“From October 2018, coming up two-and-a-half years almost, he had 40 seconds of feeling what kicks feel like with no pads on, and punches with four-ounce gloves. So, yeah, that is one thing you cannot replicate.”
Kavanagh said he was generally happy with how things were going when McGregor returned to the corner at the end of Round 1. He’d been taken down, but Kavanagh was encouraged by the way McGregor reacted to it and fought his way back to his feet without taking damage, and also took heart from McGregor’s lack of fatigue after an action-packed opening five minutes.
“I took a lot of positivity from it,” Kavanagh said. “He’s clearly not feeling even the beginning of tiredness. I felt at the end of Round 1, this is probably going to be a long fight, because he landed a couple of shots. I thought there was once or twice where Dustin wobbled a little bit, so the finish would come, but let’s not chase it. Let’s not get too over-excited, and if we’re going to be doing three, four, five rounds, it’s nice to see at the end of Round 1 that he doesn’t even have to sit down.
“I thought by the end of Round 1, that’s kind of it now for takedowns. Now it’s a kickboxing battle, and (from) the shots I saw from Round 1, Conor got the better of him. So, going into the second I thought, energy’s great, probably takedown attempts are if not over, Conor’s very switched on (to them). … So we’re going to start going into a nice kickboxing battle, and Conor’s one of the best in the world at that. But then those damn, pesky, peroneal nerve kicks.”
The technique of hammering the lower leg has become a go-to weapon for fighters in recent years, with the damage caused by the kicks producing some positive results. Notably, Brent Primus used the technique to great effect to defeat Michael Chandler at Bellator NYC in June 2017, with his kicks causing Chandler to lose the ability to control his foot as he repeatedly rolled his ankle. That “drop-foot” phenomenon didn’t happen to McGregor on fight night, but the effective use of his leg certainly deteriorated after Poirier’s repeated kicks.
(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
As Kavanagh explained, it doesn’t take many powerful kicks to the right spot to have a huge effect on the recipient’s mobility and stability.
“It’s one of those techniques that really two or three, maybe maximum four proper, clean connections, and that’s it,” Kavanagh said. “If anybody’s experienced cracking your elbow and you hit that funny nerve – that electric shock you get is similar. It’s nerve damage rather than like a sore muscle or a body shot, or something you can get through, you know? You just can’t.
“It’s on or it’s off. The bottom half of the leg is off, and when (McGregor) kind of slipped the shot and Dustin caught him with a nice uppercut, he went to transfer his body weight onto the right leg, and it just gave (way), and he just went down, and that was the end of that. So we definitely have to fix that.”
Kavanagh’s famous mantra, which became the title of his book, is “win or learn,” and he’s already using the loss, and close-up experience of seeing the effectiveness of Poirier’s low leg kicks, to ensure his man is better prepared and more dangerous the next time he sets foot inside the octagon.
“We’re, as usual, an obsessive personality,” Kavanagh said. “Because it was over before lunchtime, we had the day together to talk about it. We had discussed (low kicks) in the training camp. Like I said, (we were) not surprised by the kicks being thrown, but very surprised by the effectiveness of the technique. So we will add it to our arsenal.
“I thought we did well in pretty much every other part of the fight. I would have loved to have seen a couple more rounds, some grappling exchanges and some more punches back and forward, because he needs more time in the cage. What did we get? Seven-and-a-half minutes in that fight? So we’re racking up the minutes. I hope there’s a lot more minutes this year.”