The mental adjustment that’s rejuvenated Dustin Poirier’s career

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·Combat columnist
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Dustin Poirier
Dustin Poirier could find himself in the UFC lightweight title mix with a win on Saturday. (Getty)

There is so much to the mental side of professional sports.

Athletes at the highest level in just about any sport you can name are so evenly matched, that it’s the smallest things that wind up making the difference.

The UFC’s Dustin Poirier, who last month became a first-time father when wife Jolie gave birth to Parker Noelle Poirier on Aug. 20, is a perfect example.

In his search for perfection, Poirier has gotten better by obsessing less.

There are few hotter fighters in the UFC right now than Poirier, who has won four in a row since moving to lightweight and seven of eight overall. He’s ranked seventh in the talent-rich division.

He faces Michael Johnson on Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Hidalgo, Texas, in a bout that has major implications in the lightweight division.

Since a loss to Conor McGregor at featherweight at UFC 178 on Sept. 27, 2014, Poirier moved to lightweight and reeled off four consecutive wins, including three by first-round finish.

A similar type of win over Johnson, who is ranked 10th at lightweight, would put Poirier squarely in the title mix.

After the loss to McGregor, who would go on to become the featherweight champion, Poirier did a self-assessment. And what he realized is that he cared so much that he was obsessing over things.

“I used to overthink things a lot,” Poirier said. “Maybe it’s because I was immature as a fighter; I don’t know. But I do know I was overthinking things. I was overthinking every single training camp and every single opponent and every day, in and out.

“I almost felt like if I wasn’t doing that, then I wasn’t really committed, that I didn’t care as much as I should.”

But he knew he did care, and that led him to his self-evaluation. And as he thought about where he was in his career, he decided essentially that he had to believe in his talents.

He was good enough to win and good enough to become a champion. It was a matter of putting things together properly.

“I stepped back and thought about my situation and I said to myself, ‘You know what? You’ve got to step back and enjoy this ride,’ ” Poirier said. “I knew I was given the talent. I knew I was the best and I came to realize that I had to sit back and let this thing unfold. I couldn’t control everything.

“That’s what I’ve done. I’ve stopped trying to control every little thing and I’ve stopped beating myself up for every mistake. I’d dive in and burn myself out in every camp. It was too much. I’d overthink. I still take my job seriously, and I put in the work, but I believe in my talent and I believe what I’ve done and I don’t beat myself up over, ‘Oh, is this right?’ or ‘Or is that right?’ I trust myself more now.”

He promises an eye-opening performance against Johnson, who has elite ability but is inconsistent. When Johnson’s on his game, he looks like a world-beater, but he’s lost two in a row and desperately needs a win.

Poirier knows he’ll see the best Johnson there is, and he wants to make a statement against that man.

He’s managed to get ready in peace, despite an infant at home, in large part because of his wife’s willingness to take on much of the work with his daughter in the first six weeks of her life.

Becoming a first-time parent is one of the great things in any couple’s lives, but any first-time parent can attest to the many sleepless nights spent trying to soothe an upset baby.

With a major fight that could change the direction of his career – Poirier believes an impressive win over Johnson should get him a bout against champion Eddie Alvarez – rest was of the utmost importance to Poirier.

Jolie Poirier slept downstairs in the couple’s home with Parker Noelle, tending to her needs when she awakens at night.

Dustin was able to peacefully sleep through the night (with the benefits of ear plugs), so he’d be on point for his fight with Johnson.

“I’ve been in this sport a long time and she’s been there with me,” Poirier said of his wife. “She understands the game. She knows this is what pays the bills and she makes the sacrifices so I can do what I do.

“Fighting is a selfish sport, you know? This is a long journey I’ve been on and I have a chance to do some pretty amazing things. And I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do without [Jolie], so I’m grateful.”

He hopes for that shot at Alvarez, but Alvarez is in big demand. And given that the hugely popular McGregor is interested in adding the lightweight belt, Poirier may not get the shot no matter what he does Saturday against Johnson.
He got to Hidalgo slightly lighter than normal because he wanted to make his weight cut easier and give himself the best chance to perform at his peak.

“He’s beaten some good guys, but he isn’t great in any one area of MMA,” Poirier said of Johnson. “You look at what he does the best and that’s throw volume punches and move around a lot. I’ve worked boxing a lot this camp, but I’ll be honest with you: I’m not so focused on which Michael Johnson shows up.

“I’m more focused on which Dustin Poirier shows up. I know I’m prepared and confident and I believe I’ll show that fight night.”