Tuesday, June 25, 2024

UFC 302: Dustin Poirier continues dogged pursuit of elusive undisputed title with retirement fast approaching

When Dustin Poirier looks back at the aftermath of his head-kick knockout loss to Justin Gaethje in their rematch last July for the ceremonial BMF title, he admits to entering the kind of depression that many don’t easily escape from. 

“I was in a dark place mentally because I was kind of at a crossroads,” Poirier told “UFC Countdown” cameras earlier this month. “I’m 35 years old and I got knocked out. How will I come back? Are people going to write me off? Where am I at in my career?”

Poirier (30-8, 1 NC), a former lightweight interim titleholder, called his attempt at mentally rebounding last summer following UFC 291 as some of the toughest moments in his life up to this point. 

But after taking a hard look at himself, the proud native of Louisiana decided to simply do what he has always done when reinvention was needed, similar to how he rebounded from a pair of undisputed title defeats at 155 pounds to Khabib Nurmagomedov and Charles Oliveira in recent years, both by devastating submission.

“When I set this big goal and don’t accomplish it,” Poirier said, “I usually just set another big goal and get back to work.”

What happened next was simply par for the course in the inspiring and exciting experience that is Poirier’s run as a UFC action hero. 

Poirier asked for a fight against rising lightweight stud Benoit Saint Denis, who entered their March bout fresh off of five straight wins via violent stoppage and had already signed a contract to fight defending champion Islam Makhachev with a win over the aging Poirier. But even BSD, who succumbed to an enthralling second-round knockout at UFC 299, was forced to find out the hard way just how much “The Diamond” shines when placed under extreme pressure.

“I wanted to toss myself in that fire,” Poirier said. “It just made sense to me, when I look at my career, that, ‘Let me fight this young man and see if I still got it.’ It was a tough first round for me. I put myself in some bad situations [like] jumping guillotines, being on bottom. But, boy, that second round got him.

“I’m Mr. Bounceback. It’s what I do. I am always one big win away from a title shot. I knew that if I got there before, I could get here again. And here I am.”

On Saturday, Poirier will make his third — and, what he calls, final — attempt at an undisputed UFC title when he challenges Makhachev in the main event of UFC 302, which emanates from inside Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. 

As expected, Poirier is the decided underdog (at nearly 5-to-1 odds) against Makhachev (25-1), who is regarded universally as the top pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. Makhachev will also have the services of Nurmagomedov in his corner as the Hall of Famer returns to coaching following an extended absence just in time to share the insights on how he needed just over two rounds to tap Poirier out in 2019. And the fact that Poirier has openly toyed with the idea of retirement, regardless of Saturday’s outcome, only adds to the mythical nature of what the fan-friendly fighter is trying to accomplish despite the overwhelming odds against him. 

From a style standpoint, Makhachev is all kinds of wrong for Poirier, whose only hole in his game remains his inability to grapple at an elite level, which cost him previously in both title fights. The well-rounded Makhachev, a 32-year-old native of Dagestan, Russia, is also on the kind of run during his current 13-fight win streak that few fighters ever achieve thanks to wins over Arman Tsarukyan, Dan Hooker, Oliveira and former pound-for-pound king Alexander Volkanovski (twice). 

But the same criticism that both Makhachev and Nurmagomedov have echoed in recent weeks about Poirier’s game — and the fact that it hasn’t evolved all that much — is the same basis for why the aging slugger is so confident that an upset is in order. Namely that Poirier is still here because he has continued to perfect his craft and rely on his strengths as a come-forward fighter who is willing to risk defeat by standing in striking range yet has the delivery system to break down his opponents before they can do the same to him. 

“I’m at my best physically and mentally [right now]; I just feel really good and confident. And I know I can finish anybody in the world at 155 pounds,” Poirier said. “I really believe in my skillset and the techniques that I have developed over 17 years of fighting. I just feel like I’m gifted and I find ways to win in the most chaotic moments. I know it seems crazy but that’s where I do my best work — when I’m an underdog and my back is against the wall. That’s where I find the will to win.”

“This guy is as hard as they come and as mean as they come when he’s in there,” American Top Team coach Mike Brown told CBS Sports. “He’s training hard and he’s gifted with elite conditioning and elite power. He can knock you out in minute one or minute 25. He’s never checked out … I wouldn’t ever count him out.”

The fact that Poirier keeps dangling the thought of retirement at the end of each interview would normally be seen as a red flag when speaking about a fighter who might already have one foot out the door. But Poirier is, and has always been, for lack of a better term, different. 

So the threat of retirement, in this case, only adds to what makes Poirier dangerous and so willing to dig deeper than his foes throughout a run of big-name actions fights since he moved up for good to 155 pounds in 2015 that rival anyone in modern history. And along the way, Poirier has built the rare resume — thanks to wins over elite studs like Anthony Pettis, Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez, Hooker, Max Holloway (twice), Conor McGregor (twice) and Michael Chandler — that likely doesn’t need the presence of an undisputed title to secure a first-ballot call for the UFC Hall of Fame.

“I feel like when he beat Max for the interim title, that felt like a world title to me,” Brown said. “That felt like a world title just as much as any. That was against a world champion, against one of the Hall of Famers and one of the best of all time. Max was the current featherweight champ. That felt like a world title.”

That doesn’t mean that Poirier’s legacy couldn’t use the full title, however. Especially considering how he currently finds himself in discussion for the type of moniker that UFC stars hope to exit the sport without, which is the title of “best UFC fighter never to win an undisputed title,” placing him alongside fellow incomplete legends like Dan Henderson, Urijah Faber and Wanderlei Silva.

All Poirier has to do is overcome the greatest MMA fighter on the planet. 

“I have 30 fights in the UFC, I have done it all. The only goal for me to achieve in the UFC is to get the undisputed belt around my waist,” Poirier said. “It’s safe to say this is my last shot at being champion of the world. It’s a personal thing. It’s not for the fans or for the Hall of Fame. It’s for me and for my wife to hug and say, ‘You really did it, you crazy motherf—er.’ 

“All the ups and downs, all the lessons I’ve learned. At UFC 302, I’m going to knock Islam Makhachev out and become the world champion.”

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