ATLANTA — In the sport’s deepest division, with a title bottlenecked by the uncertain futures of its most dangerous and well-known fighters, it would’ve been hard to predict its most unassuming and blue-collar participant would be one win away from being the last man standing.
“I did it,” Dustin Poirier said following Saturday’s fight-of-the-year contender against Max Holloway, “but it’s not done.”
Poirier outlasted a relentless Holloway over five brutal rounds to claim the interim lightweight title in the main event of UFC 236 in Atlanta. With the win, Poirier secured a shot at full champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, a fight UFC president Dana White said late Saturday he is targeting for September.
The unlikely journey Poirier (25-5, 1 NC) embarked upon to even secure the title shot over the past year mirrors the larger path the Louisiana native has traversed to overcome adversity and finally cash in on his full potential.
“In the words of Teddy Atlas, I knew I had 25 minutes to make life fair tonight,” Poirier said. “Nothing mattered. When I had been overlooked in the past and had to climb back up, nothing mattered but tonight and me showing up for 25 minutes and staying focused. My wife knew I was willing to go in there and leave a piece of myself in that cage and maybe I have. Nobody can take this away from me. I paid for it in full with blood, sweat and tears.”
It took Poirier, who turned pro at the age of 20 in 2009, a full 22 trips to the Octagon before fighting for his first UFC title in a streak that was only bested by Michael Bisping’s 26 before winning the middleweight title in 2016. At no point along the way was Poirier ever a favored son in terms of promotion or necessarily one who appeared destined for greatness despite his obvious physical talent.
A string of hardships followed at inopportune times. Poirier, 30, was knocked out by Conor McGregor in 2014 just when it looked as if his rise to contention at featherweight was nearing completion. Then, two years later following a reinvention at lightweight that produced a four-fight win streak, Poirier was stopped once more when Michael Johnson knocked him out in just over a minute.
Yet Poirier persevered through hard work and a refusal to give up despite questions along the way as to whether his chin and mental toughness were of the elite level. Eventually he also learned to let go in terms of the mental pressure he put on himself and his willingness to listen to critics.
“Some guys have the Conor McGregor path [to a title shot] and some guys have the Dustin Poirier path,” White said. “For some people it works out for and some people have longer roads. Poirier stayed the path and kept training and did what he had to do to get here.
“Unless something happens to Dustin Poirier and he gets injured or whatever, he gets the [next lightweight title] fight.”
Poirier’s path was paved with one battle after another. The immediate aftermath of his loss to Johnson saw him hang on for a majority decision win over Jim Miller and survive a no contest against Eddie Alvarez when he was hit with a string of illegal knees to the head. A brutal three-fight win streak ensued as Poirier evolved physically and mentally along the way stopping Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje and Alvarez in violent succession.
If there was a turning point in the process, it was a promise he made to his wife, Jolie, that no matter what he would become a world champion.
“She believed in me at times when I was ready to stop fighting and I wouldn’t be here with this belt if it wasn’t for her,” Poirier said. “It’s just this whole journey and I’m just appreciative to be able to share it with her.
“Tonight was my 40th fight. I learned a lot of lessons and I learned to trust myself tonight.”
Can’t get enough UFC? Subscribe to my podcast State of Combat with Brian Campbell where we break down everything you need to know in the Octagon.
Still, even with Poirier’s impressive win streak, there was a growing feeling that he would be left on the outside looking in at the title picture given how crowded the group atop the division truly was. Poirier lost a big-money opportunity against Nick Diaz last November when he pulled out with a hip injury and the fight wasn’t rescheduled. He was also left out of the original plans for Saturday when Holloway was offered the interim title fight against Tony Ferguson, who ultimately declined amid personal troubles outside the cage.
“I knew I had the ability to become a world champion, I knew I did. I knew I just needed the opportunity,” Poirier said. “That’s why I texted Dana for a week before that fight was announced. I called him and talked to him for 30 minutes on the phone. I wanted that fight so bad. I blew up Dana’s phone a lot leading up to this fight.
“I thought about it every night since the fight was announced. It feels even better than I thought it would feel because I earned it each step of the way. I just know what I had to go through, the ups and downs. I can’t put it into words. It feels amazing.”
Now, Poirier has time to recover from such an arduous war against Holloway given that Nurmagomedov must finish serving a suspension through July dating back to his role in a post-fight brawl at UFC 229 last October.
Poirier wasn’t willing to comment on rumors that the title fight could be targeted for Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. He was willing, however, to offer the reason why he thinks his impossible dream will end with him handing Nurmagomedov (27-0) the first defeat of his career.
“Grit, determination, the right amount of crazy, self belief — everything it takes to be a champion,” Poirier said. “I have that.”