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

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UFC superstar Conor McGregor announced on 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 in AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

Will the UFC agree to the venue?

McGregor wanted to fight three times in 2020, but the pandemic wrecked 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 that he has wanted in a high-profile bout that will own the attention of the sports world on Jan. 23, 2021.

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 that 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.


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.

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 that 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 that a win will get him a title shot anyway.

With a win, this fight will get Dustin Poirier a title shot

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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.

This is the PPV main event on the horizon that I’m looking forward to most

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.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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