The term “Rocky story” has been used a lot in reference to Dustin Poirier ever since April 13, 2019, the night the Louisiana native won the interim UFC lightweight title by defeating Max Holloway.
That’s fitting for Poirier, who called it “the perfect night” in Atlanta.
“I’ve said it before, whenever the belt was gonna be on the line, when I was gonna be able to challenge for the title, that I was gonna win it against whoever was standing across from me,” said Poirier, who won a five-round unanimous decision that netted him the 155-pound belt and a Fight of the Night bonus. “I was gonna bring home the belt to my wife and daughter and that’s what I did that night. I went out there and I went to work. Years of sacrifice, years of learning, years of ups and downs came to a head that night and I showed my full arsenal and the grit it takes to be a world champion.”
In a Rocky movie, such a night would be followed by a majestic closing tune and a rolling of the credits. In real life, fighters like Poirier don’t get time to soak everything in and walk off into the sunset. It’s on to the next fight, and on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, less than five months after the most important victory of a pro career that began in 2009, he will face Khabib Nurmagomedov in a main event that will unify the lightweight crown. In other words, it’s back to work for the 30-year-old, who did find a moment to reflect on getting the belt he fought for a decade to secure.
“It felt deserved, earned,” said Poirier. “It felt better than I thought it was gonna feel. I felt like the king of the world, I felt like I made a dream come true. I felt like I proved my wife right and I felt a lot of emotions. But that was one step and it’s not over. That was part of it. September 7th, we get to finish the journey to the throne.”
The civilians among us may not understand what a fighter means when he says that the journey isn’t over. Most of us would like to take a year off and make a nice victory lap. Poirier has never been a civilian; he’s always been a fighter, whether he knew it or not while growing up in Lafayette. But as he grew into a man, he knew his path, and he knew what it would take to get where he wanted to go. That meant putting himself in the line of fire every time he strapped on his gloves. It’s not for the meek. So don’t call this the fight game around him.
“This is survival when you step out on that canvas,” he said. “This isn’t a game to me. There’s some huge consequences on the line out there and you don’t play.”
When you fight like that, each win is satisfying and each loss is crushing because you know the price you paid in the Octagon and in the gym getting to fight night. Poirier has talked of realizing in recent years that there’s more to life than what happens in his day job, but there has been no lack of intensity in his road to the title, one that saw him face a Murderers Row of champions and top contenders over a six-fight stretch that produced five wins, one no contest, and five post-fight bonuses.
“I go out there and I try to finish these guys,” Poirier said. “I try to damage these guys, I fight violently, I don’t try to squeak out decisions. I show up with a never say die attitude, I walk in on that canvas and I leave it all out there. I’m not scared of the outcome. I show up willing to leave on my shield. I always fought like that, even as an amateur. I’ll put these guys away or it’s a Fight of the Night type of fight. As long as my heart’s beating and I’m conscious, I’m in the fight at all times.”
Poirier has brought that attitude and his belt to Abu Dhabi, where he will meet up with a fellow champion in Nurmagomedov who will enter the Octagon this weekend with a 27-0 record. Any way you slice it, that’s a remarkable slate, and when you add in the punishing style of the Dagestan native, it’s no surprise that “The Eagle” is the favorite.
Oddsmakers never won a fight, though, and Poirier has no doubt that he will leave the UAE with the victory.
“I’m expecting a very tough fight,” he said. “I’m expecting him to try and smother me, to try to stop me from moving and dancing around the ring, and I think he’s gonna try to fight me at a close distance, try to mash me up against the cage. He’s gonna try to grind me out. That’s what he does to everybody. Nobody’s stopped him from doing that yet. But I know I have what it takes to put him in deep water, to stop his shots, to put him in danger off my back if I have to, to scramble up. I have the cardio, and I take chances. I will roll the dice. I’ll put myself in bad positions to get up, to advance, to make him work. That’s the type of fighter I am. This is gonna be a dogfight.”
One that the underdog expects to win.
“Nobody’s ever beat Khabib Nurmagomedov,” said Poirier. “He’s undefeated in the UFC, undefeated in his professional career, pound-for-pound one of the best fighters in the world. As soon as this fight got announced, people were writing me off. But that’s been my whole life story. The underdog. But every dog has his day.”
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