There’s something about struggling that teaches you to appreciate things a little bit more. It’s not that you have to struggle in order to really value the things that come your way, but the fruits of your labors always seem to taste a little sweeter when the path to success has been lined with stumbles, setbacks and failures.
That’s why after more than a decade as a professional fighter and nearly nine years into his UFC career, Dustin Poirier feels poised to shock the world on Saturday, September 7 in Abu Dhabi when he takes on Khabib Nurmagomedov in a battle to crown the undisputed lightweight champion in the main event of UFC 242.
“The journey to get here was so rocky and it makes it so much sweeter,” Poirier said during a media call on Tuesday.
The 30-year-old Louisiana native earned the opportunity to face the undefeated Nurmagomedov by claiming the interim lightweight title in April with a unanimous decision win over featherweight kingpin Max Holloway. It was Poirier’s 22nd fight in the UFC, his 24th under the Zuffa umbrella, having split a pair of appearances in the WEC prior to matriculating to the Octagon, and his first opportunity to vie for championship gold, a fact that underscores the long, circuitous path he traveled since his breakout debut victory at UFC 125.
Beating Josh Grispi on short notice thrust Poirier into the spotlight and he’s remained there ever since, working his way from prospect to contender. But as the years went by, he would fall short of winning the big one.
He lost his first main event assignment, falling to Chan Sung Jung in a Fight of the Year caliber battle in May 2012 and a scrap with fellow rising star Cub Swanson two bouts later in London, England. Three straight wins yielded a showdown with Irish sensation Conor McGregor at UFC 178, which resulted in a first-round stoppage loss and his departure from the featherweight division.
Four straight wins upon his return to lightweight produced another headlining assignment, but it was halted just 95 seconds after it began, with Poirier laying dazed on the canvas and Michael Johnson walking to his corner triumphantly, rubbing imaginary dollars between his fingers.
“Losing sucks, but that’s part of my destiny,” said Poirier, who hasn’t lost since that September 2016 bout with Johnson and carries a four-fight winning streak into next weekend’s championship main event. “Everything happens for a reason and there were lessons I needed to learn and it helped me grow as a fighter. Every loss that I’ve taken has helped me grow as a fighter — even victories have helped me grow.
“Beating Max in Atlanta, it felt right — it didn’t feel like an opportunity that slipped into my hands or that I was given a chance,” he added. “I was being counted out in that fight as well and I take pride in that. I take pride in being the underdog in this one and showing everybody what dedication and self-belief can get you.”
Early in Tuesday’s call, Poirier was asked by Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Heidi Fang to identify what contributed the most to his reaching this point, highlighting his 2012 move to American Top Team and his 2015 shift back to the lightweight division as possible benchmarks along the way that had the greatest impact.
Without hesitation, the surging interim champion pointed to those two intangibles.
“I think the biggest thing is consistency and self-belief, honestly,” said Poirier. “Showing up every day whether the day before was good or bad; staying true to the path of being the best fighter that I can push myself (to be) and evolve into. I think self-belief and consistency are what’s got me here.”
Changing camps and surrounding himself with an elite group of coaches and training partners at the standout South Florida gym certainly had a major impact on his career, as did the decision to stop taxing his body to make the featherweight limit.
But the real beauty of Poirier’s developing into one of the top fighters in the world is that there aren’t one or two defining moments over a brief period of time that stand out as the obvious catalysts. Instead, it’s been a slow and steady progression from being a fiery newcomer making a major splash in his debut to a 30-year-old veteran who has matured into being the best possible version of himself at absolutely the right time.
“People don’t talk a whole lot about the mental side of fighting, but the mental part of fighting is a huge part that matters,” said Poirier. “My whole career — the ups, the downs, the victories, the defeats, the lessons I’ve learned and kept rolling — that’s what’s made me the fighter I am today.
“It’s a constant evolution. I’ve had to go through the fights that I’ve gone through to be the person that I am now,” he added. “I’m confident in my skills and abilities, the work that I’m putting in, my commitment to martial arts and just getting in there and letting it go.
“I’m confident in that and I can trust myself that when I get in there and they lock that door for 25 minutes, I’m the better fighter and I’m in there to win and I’m going to find an opening — or make an opening — and be the victor here.”
While every fighter speaks confidently about his or her skills and emerging victorious on fight night, there really is something different that comes across when Poirier discusses the outcome of his bout with Nurmagomedov next Saturday at UFC 242, though it’s not something new for this clash.
Over his last several fights, Poirier has spoken with the type of quiet assuredness that makes you feel like he knows something no one else does. He’s praised his opponents, but promised victory, and then stepped into the Octagon and delivered.
When he and Nurmagomedov gathered in London to promote this event earlier in the year, the proud father and husband explained that his opponent doesn’t need to be weak in order for him to be strong and come away with a win in Abu Dhabi, and when asked about his underdog status and Nurmagomedov’s grappling acumen on Tuesday, Poirier recognized the realities of the situation he’s facing next weekend.
“I’ve been counted out a lot of times and at this point of my career, this is just another fight where people are counting me out once again and for good reason, right — the guy is undefeated,” he said. “We’re traveling across the world into a place where we would say he’s more favored there, but I’m embracing this.
“I think his top game is very strong, obviously — 27 have tried and 27 have failed,” Poirier began when asked to assess Nurmagomedov’s wrestling. “He’s been able to dominate them on top with his wrestling, his weight distribution, his understanding of techniques, but I feel confident in my grappling as well. My goal is to make this a fight and not a grappling match.”
But just as with his last several outings, the interim lightweight champion believes that when the smoke clears and the dust settles at UFC 242, he’ll be standing in the center of the Octagon with his arms raised in victory and the UFC lightweight title around his waist, just as he always envisioned.
“Dreams come true if you work your ass off and chase your dreams. You can do whatever you set out to do and right now, I’ve set out to defeat Khabib Nurmagomedov on September 7.”