MMA

UFC 302: Dustin Poirier faces a daunting task in his last best shot at a title belt

UFC 302: Dustin Poirier faces a daunting task in his last best shot at a title belt

When Dustin Poirier looks at film of UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev, the task of defeating him at UFC 302 on June 1 does not exactly seem to get easier.

“I don’t see a whole lot of holes, honestly,” Poirier told Yahoo Sports. “If I'm sitting here watching footage with my coaches, we're watching and looking at things. He has good standup, obviously his wrestling is good, really good body locks … sweeps, trips, things like that. He seems really strong for the weight class, very dominant on top, seems very heavy. It's exactly what it is. I'm fighting the No. 1 pound-per-pound guy.”

You might think that would be daunting. Makhachev hasn’t lost a fight in nearly nine years. That defeat by knockout in his second UFC fight remains the only blemish on his professional record. He’s won 13 in a row since then, capturing the UFC lightweight title in the process. With what would you hope to threaten such a person, especially when you can’t spot any weaknesses even after extensive film study?

And yet Poirier doesn’t hesitate when it comes to a prediction for the fight. After Makhachev laid out a vision for the future that ended with him taking Poirier’s back off a failed guillotine choke attempt and finishing the fight quickly, Poirier countered with an even more concise prediction.

“I’m going to knock him unconscious,” Poirier said, “and the ref’s going to be pulling me off him.”

But there’s more at stake here for Poirier. At 35, and with losses in two previous attempts to claim the undisputed UFC lightweight championship, this could very well be his last best shot to add UFC champion to his résumé. While he won an interim version of the 155-pound belt back in 2019, that version of the title always comes with an asterisk of some sort. It’s just not the same as the real thing, and it’s the real thing that adds an ineffable luster to any great UFC career.

As a 15-year veteran of this sport, Poirier knows that as well as anyone. It’s not just winning a UFC title that’s so difficult — it putting yourself in a position to get the shot. To get this one, Poirier first had to defeat Benoît Saint Denis, a 28-year-old French special forces solider who came in as the odds-on favorite to win.

Poirier knew what UFC matchmakers were thinking with the fight, and it wasn’t that they were necessarily trying to put him in a position to climb the ranks.

“Of course, it's a hundred percent what went through my head,” Poirier said. “And I understand, it's business. He has more ahead of him than he has behind him. I have more behind me than I have ahead of me. You’ve got to keep these exciting fighters and the guys that you want to push in the forefront, so you give this guy a chance to really boost his name.”

What happened instead was that Poirier knocked him out midway through the second round, then walked over to where UFC president Dana White was sitting to ask, as politely as he could, whether the UFC really wanted to continue trying to use him as a stepping stone.

Dustin Poirier proved he was no one’s stepping stone in his last outing at UFC 299. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

 

That win put Poirier right where he needed to be at this stage of his career. The only problem was that the next title shot had been promised to the winner of the Arman Tsarukyan vs. Charles Oliveira fight at UFC 300.

Poirier, as you might expect, watched that fight with great interest. He’d made it clear that he wanted the shot at Makhachev, but he also knew his chances of actually getting it were “slim.”

“Whoever won that fight was guaranteed a title shot,” Poirier said. “They would have to take too much damage or not be ready to jump back in another training camp, which, I thought that they would say yes [to the title shot].”

What worked in his favor was timing, and perhaps the UFC’s own impatience. The date for the next UFC lightweight title fight was already set. Tsarukyan had just returned to his locker room after defeating Oliveira via split decision when UFC officials showed up asking if he was ready to commit to fighting on June 1 in Newark, New Jersey

If he turned it down, UFC officials had told Poirier, “You’re the guy.” When the phone buzzed a few minutes later, he had his answer. Tsarukyan was out; Poirier was in.

“It was a surprise to me,” Poirier said. “But sometimes things fall in place the way they’re supposed to.”

Now comes the hard part: finding a way to beat Makhachev. Again, Poirier enters with the odds against him. This time he’s a +375 underdog at BetMGM. The champion seems convinced of at least two things. One is that Poirier will attempt the guillotine choke that he’s become known for, despite never successfully finishing it in a pro fight. The other is that the belt will stay right where it is in the end.

As for the guillotine, Poirier’s coaches have been warning him, like “a record on repeat,” not to jump for that choke this time.

“We'll see,” Poirier said. “I just have to play it and feel how I feel in there and see how I feel in there in those positions. But I'll probably jump it.”

If this were a movie, maybe that would be the time the guillotine finally works for him. It would make him a UFC champion with the move he’s become known for, and the whole hero’s arc would be complete. Freeze frame and roll the credits.

In real life, it’s likely to be a lot harder. And this combination of timing and opportunity may never come again.

“I feel like I can climb my way back up the way I have over and over again,” Poirier said. “It's just, do I have it in me? Do I want to do that? I've been doing it for so many years, grinding tooth and nail, fighting my way up this ladder to try to be No. 1. The goal is to be the undisputed world champion. That's the only thing I have left to do in this sport. I want to finish the story and be the champion forever. That's my goal.”

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