For a round or so, Conor McGregor looked something like the fighter he used to be when he was on his way up.

The footwork was there in his UFC 257 lightweight main event against Dustin Poirier. The movement was good. The left hand was crisp. And his right hand kept finding a home, too.

McGregor was the winner of the opening round on all three judges’ scorecards at Etihad Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

But this isn’t 2014, when Poirier couldn’t handle the heat and was finished by “The Notorious” inside of two minutes at UFC 178. The Poirier of 2021 has been sharpening iron against the finest fighters of the sport’s deepest division while McGregor’s been off mostly selling whiskey or getting into trouble.

Poirier made the necessary adjustments, and just after the midpoint of Round 2, McGregor found himself glassy-eyed and on the receiving end of a lesson: that all the money in the world can’t stop this sport’s relentless forward march.

It was a swift and sudden finish to a week that heralded monumental change to the lightweight division. Khabib Nurmagomedov, while still not officially stripped of his UFC championship, plainly isn’t coming back any time soon. Poirier continues to kick ass and take names. Michael Chandler, long the guy over in Bellator confident he could beat anyone in the UFC, steamrolled Dan Hooker in the co-feature bout. Charles Oliveira lingers in the background, winner of eight fights in a row with seven finishes. There’s the always dangerous Justin Gaethje, too.

Mixed martial arts moves so fast, it doesn’t even wait for its biggest star. And Saturday night’s result presents McGregor, the former UFC lightweight and featherweight champion, with a clear snapshot of where things stand as he decides which way he wants to go from here.

His promoter, Dana White, has the handle on this one: It depends on how much someone as comfortable as McGregor will want it.

“There’s two ways this goes: hungrier or ‘I’m done,’” White said at the UFC 257 post-fight news conference. “He’s got the money. I mean, when you think about it, I’m a huge ‘Rocky’ fan, this is like ‘Rocky 3.’ When you get off a 310-foot yacht, living that good life, it’s tough to be a savage when you’re living like he lives and has the money that he has. … He’s got everything he ever wanted. So I don’t know. It goes this way or that way.”

Conor McGregor had his moments against Dustin Poirier at UFC 257. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

At least McGregor hasn’t gone into Ronda Rousey deep denial mode when confronted with a changing tide. He manned up after his loss. He was a gentleman toward the winner at the post-fight news conference, praising Poirier’s poise and in-fight adjustments and noting in particular Poirier’s killer leg kicks.

“My leg is completely dead,” McGregor said.

McGregor mentioned inactivity in recent years as a detriment, and he does deserve a bit of a mulligan this time around.

When he defeated Donald Cerrone in under a minute last year at UFC 246, it was supposed to be the tune-up that got him back into his rhythm, the first step in a plan to fight four times in 2020. That didn’t happen due to the pandemic.

While that’s not his fault, it still doesn’t change the fact McGregor has fought MMA just three times since November 2016, when he defeated Eddie Alvarez to do what was considered the unthinkable at the time: Become a simultaneous two division UFC champion.

Poirier has fought nine times in that span and defeated five former champions. Chandler also has fought nine times. So has Justin Gaethje. Oliveira has done them all one better at 10. Even Khabib, who also takes long hiatuses, fought five times.

If he’s serious about wanting another big run before he’s done, McGregor’s next spot needs to be carefully picked. His fights are still big deals, but if he’s going to keep the public interested to the degree he continues making the money he’s accustomed to, then he needs to start winning big fights again. Another loss, and the whispers that McGregor’s on the back side of his career will become a louder chatter, and maybe people start passing on spending $70 for one of his fights.

Perhaps it’s time to finally go to that Nate Diaz trilogy. The fight doesn’t need to be tied to the lightweight divisional scheme to sell. They had two of the most heated matchups in the history of the sport and split them. Settling this one could be the spark that helps launch McGregor back on the right path.

Either way, McGregor has to decide whether he wants to be all in or all out. If he decides it’s time to check out, he’s already left his mark on this sport like no one before him. If he decides he’s fully back in, maybe he regains that second gear that wasn’t there after his great start at UFC 257.

But it can’t keep being a thing where he flirts with boxing and parachutes in every once in a while, because from here on out, there’s going to be a Dustin Poirier type who is living and breathing this 24/7 waiting for him every time.