Dustin Poirier was on the verge of big things in 2014. He was 25 years old and just rounding into his athletic prime, yet he was a veteran of 19 fights, including 10 in the UFC, when he prepared for a bout on the main card at UFC 178.
Poirier had been fighting much of his life, and he did it like he was born to do it. He was calm and confident, aggressive and dangerous. He was a quick study who learned from his mistakes and didn’t let them get him down.
He was 16-3 overall, and 8-2 in the UFC, as he took a fight at UFC 178 in Las Vegas on Sept. 27, 2014, against an up-and-comer named Conor McGregor. McGregor had made quite a name for himself in his first 17 months in the UFC. The Irishman had won all three of his fights, including two by first-round knockout, and the hype around him was deafening.
McGregor was quick-witted and eager to say what was on his mind. He was coming off a triumphant homecoming victory in Dublin, Ireland, over Diego Brandao and had quickly captured the attention of UFC president Dana White.
Poirier thought he was ready for it, believed he was a win or two away from the shot at the championship he’d long felt had been his destiny.
But Poirier wasn’t as ready as he thought he was. Oh, he was ready to fight, but McGregor’s trash talk got to him. Nearly five years later, Poirier is in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and is days away from a title unification bout at UFC 242 with the unbeaten and seemingly invincible lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Poirier once again says all the right things but this time, he says, there is a difference. When he met McGregor, he admits he let the talk get to him. Having been there and done that, he’s learned from it and insists he won’t be overcome by the moment when they ring the bell to start his title fight with Nurmagomedov at The Arena on Yas Island.
Prior to fighting McGregor, he’d get irked by things that were written about him in the media, or on social media by a fan. And when he fought McGregor, it was an experience unlike any other. McGregor can overwhelm an opponent with his talk, and he gets his country behind him and that can make anyone feel under siege. McGregor stopped Poirier in just over 90 seconds.
“The Conor fight was one of the biggest turning points in my career,” Poirier said. “I stopped listening [to the pre-fight talk] after that. What happens when you listen to that stuff is, it makes you overthink and you create problems that aren’t there. It does you no good.”
Poirier has gone 9-1 with a no-contest since the loss to McGregor and has matured from a fuzzy-faced young man into a physically imposing adult.
He’s beaten a who’s who of some of the greatest fighters in the world since losing to McGregor. He’s coming off a win for the interim title over featherweight champion Max Holloway, but also has wins over ex-lightweight champions Eddie Alvarez and Anthony Pettis, as well as Justin Gaethje and Jim Miller.
Nurmagomedov is at a different level than any of those guys, though, and has run the table so far in his pro career. He’s 27-0 with 17 finishes and it’s his world-class grappling that has made him a -430 favorite at Sportsbook USA.
Nurmagomedov also figures to be a huge crowd favorite, and Poirier this time is embracing the part. He won’t doubt himself when the crowd boos him, or roars for Nurmagomedov, because he’s done this so long he has trust in his team.
He’s fighting for the outright title in his 22nd UFC bout. Only Michael Bisping, who fought Luke Rockhold for the middleweight title in his 26th UFC bout, had more fights in the promotion before getting the title shot.
Poirier has been with the American Top Team since 2012 and has slowly developed into one of the best fighters in the world. He’s eighth on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list and has fought just about every tough guy there is to fight.
“When you’ve been through what I’ve been through, you learn to trust in the work you’ve done and trust in the people around you and what they bring to the table,” Poirier said. “I know who I am. I know how hard it has been to get to where I am, and I understand what it has taken for me to make it. I have a great team and this camp has been incredible. I had a really long camp when I fought [Holloway for the interim title in April] and we got right back into it not too long after that one to start getting ready for this.
“Everything has come together for me. I’m at the right spot in my career for a challenge like this. Khabib is a great fighter, man, and you can’t deny that. He’s incredible. But he’s not the only great fighter walking into that cage.”
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