The elation that one might have expected to see from Dustin Poirier was absent. He’d hit the MMA lottery by knocking out Conor McGregor on Saturday at UFC 257 in Abu Dhabi, but he didn’t look or act like a guy who’d had that one-in-a-billion winning Powerball ticket.
You win the Powerball and you jump and you yell and you cheer and you can’t believe your good fortune.
Poirier did none of that. It was like he expected to do what he’d done on one of the most remarkable nights in UFC history.
It was McGregor who was all smiles afterward, the strut that so many love to imitate absent but the grin and the good humor still there. McGregor said he’d be back, sort of blamed the loss on his inactivity and said he’d fight again this year.
It was hard to tell if he was serious. The smile could just as easily have been one of relief.
Perhaps the calf kick and the left and right hand that followed it removed a massive weight from McGregor’s back.
He’s worth around a quarter of a billion dollars or more, entirely due to his ability to beat people up while regaling them with one-liners before he does it.
He has everything he could want in life except for one very important thing:
He’s hounded everywhere he goes. There are no quick trips to the grocery store or a leisurely browse around the latest drivers in the golf store. He requires an entourage the size of a presidential Secret Service detail to run his errands.
He’s as fierce a competitor in the sport, but there comes a time in every athlete’s life when he knows that, well, things are different.
Maybe that time has come for McGregor.
Poirier had quietly become one of the greatest fighters in the world after getting starched by McGregor at UFC 178 on Sept. 27, 2014, in Las Vegas. He lasted 106 seconds that night and was never really in the fight.
The win was a springboard to greatness for McGregor. He’d go on to win the interim featherweight title two fights later and soon would become the first dual-weight champion in UFC history.
Losses like that can devastate a young fighter, and Poirier was still just 25. Confidence is so crucial for a fighter, and when a fighter loses it, it’s ugly. Remember how bad Ronda Rousey was against Amanda Nunes at UFC 207? She’d lost her confidence in her prior fight against Holly Holm, and looked against Nunes as if she didn’t belong in the same cage.
Poirier, though, showed the resolve that few possess. He’s gone on one of the great stretches in the sport’s history since that loss, going 11-2 with the only losses to lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and, inexplicably, Michael Johnson.
But among those 11 wins were victories over Dan Hooker, Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez, Max Holloway, Anthony Pettis and, on Saturday, McGregor.
That’s an extraordinary run through the meat of the UFC’s best division by far.
Poirier learned how to deal with the pressures and the expectations and he turned himself into a tremendous fighter.
“I’m happy, man,” Poirier said. “I’m happy in the place I am and like I’ve said over and over, I’m happy with the man I see in the mirror.”
No one knows truly how McGregor feels. If he chooses to continue fighting, he could still be a factor at the highest level, even if he didn’t look as quick or as explosive as he has so often in the past.
It’s that quickness and explosion, along with a genius-level fight IQ, that has made him one of the best fighters of this generation.
The fastball was there on Saturday, and he clipped Poirier hard several times. Poirier, though, survived when he said McGregor flash-KO’d him with a left hand in the first round. It was a sign of Poirier’s maturity as a fighter even when he said that McGregor had hit him so hard he would’ve finished him had he pressed the action.
To use a baseball analogy, it seems McGregor may have lost a little movement and a couple of miles per hour off the fastball, and that pushes him from elite to just very good.
Does Conor McGregor want to be just very good? Will he be content knowing his championship days are numbered?
No one knows for sure, though it’s highly unlikely he’ll walk away just yet.
What wouldn’t be surprising is if he engages old friend Nate Diaz in a rubber match back at 170 in what he announces ahead of time would be a retirement fight.
It would be a big fight financially, and would have a great impact on the legacies of both men. It would, in many ways, settle the story.
For McGregor, it’s not necessarily the end of the line, but it may be.
He may well be tired of the burden that comes with his superstardom and of carrying the sport in his native Ireland, like he has for so long.
His competitive instincts may well bring him back for one more — who wants to go out being KO’d for the first time in his MMA career? — but clearly, his days are numbered.
The torch has been passed to a new generation of fighters.
There have been a few downs, but so many more exhilarating moments. If this is it, it’s been one hell of a ride.
More from Yahoo Sports: