When it comes to the fight game, few are more intense than Dustin Poirier. It’s a prime reason why his Saturday main event against fellow lightweight contender Justin Gaethje is one of the most eagerly anticipated bouts of 2018. But if you talk to him about where he’s at in his career at 29, he admits that’s he not the same fighter he used to be.
That has nothing to do with anything physical. It’s all in the way he approaches the sport and his life.
“I used to think that everything was life or death, every fight was life or death, every decision I made in camp was life or death and was going to affect the outcome of the fight,” Poirier explains. “But then as I got older, I realized that all that matters is what happens bell to bell, and to be locked in and ready to perform on fight night. Of course I’m gonna bust my ass and get myself prepared, but thinking about this or that or stressing myself out the whole camp thinking about what this guy can do and how we match up, I let that stuff go, and now I’m having fun. I still hold myself to a very high standard, but I think the birth of my daughter and being more mature and having patience, I just realized that fighting is just a part of life.”
A good comparison to see where he was and where he’s at now is to flash back to an afternoon in Las Vegas shortly after his 2012 classic with Chan Sung Jung. Poirier lost that Fight of the Night battle, but it was so good that it’s almost easy to forget the result. I saw him in a casino hallway and congratulated him on a great fight. He thanked me, but if looks could kill, I would have been found buried in a Nevada desert. Poirier went on to explain how disappointed he was with the defeat and how he had plenty to work on in the coming months.
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I reminded him of this moment and he laughs, but he knows how accurate my recounting of that moment was. Today, he’s not beating himself up when things don’t go exactly his way, and his performances have reflected that. Since he returned to the lightweight division in 2015, he has gone 6-1 with 1 NC and four knockouts. And the expectations are that he will add another memorable performance to his list of instant classics when he faces Gaethje in a bout that will likely require him to go to places most don’t want to see. And he embraces that.
“I honor this,” Poirier said. “I honor what I do. I know the risks I’m taking, I know the damage it can do to my body, but I love it and that’s just who I am. I look forward to that and that’s why I respect this stuff so much. It’s not a game or a job. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle that has gotten me and my wife and daughter everything that we have. But at the same time, maturing in the sport and growing up at the highest level and fighting the best guys in the world over and over again, I’m starting to realize that it’s a love-hate. I still, one hundred percent, love what I do, but at the same time, I care a little bit less and I’m being more successful by not trying to control everything. I’m still finding my balance.”
Finding that balance doesn’t mean taking his foot off the gas, though. In fact, when it comes to the Gaethje fight, he’s pushing harder than ever.
“That’s the kind of fight I want to be part of, matchups like this, fights that I know are gonna deliver,” he said. “No matter what happens, this is going to be an exciting fight. Not that I wouldn’t be busting my ass, but these are the fights that get me pumped up to wake up and sprint those extra miles or stay later and do more work and find new grooves to get in and find new ways to change my game. It’s fun and this is still a lot of fun to me.”
Going 25 minutes of less with Justin Gaethje in your face every step of the way isn’t most folks’ idea of fun, but luckily, Poirier surrounds himself with people who don’t ask too many questions about it. They get it.
“The people who are around me already know I have those dark places,” he laughs. “It’s an understanding we have.”
Another understanding is that as long as Poirier has that love in his heart and fire in his fists, he’s going to keep fighting; not for bonuses and praise from fans and the media, but for a championship.
“Before this year ends, I’m gonna be the world champion,” Poirier said. “Having all these great fights and people saying, ‘Man, this guy left these memories in my head of these bloodbaths and these back and forth wars,’ that’s not what I’m out to do. That’s cool, but that’s not what my goal is. My goal is to become a world champion and that’s a byproduct of giving it your all. Every time I go out there, I’m not thinking about the crowd or thinking about the bonuses. I’m thinking about the steps that this takes me to close the distance between me and my ultimate goal of being a world champion.”