Dustin Poirier is on the precipice of finishing his story

IN ‘FIGHTVILLE,’ THE documentary about the Louisiana MMA scene filmed in 2009, a then-20-year-old Dustin Poirier stares into the camera and states in no uncertain terms that he will be the best 155-pound fighter in the world.

For a high school dropout from Lafayette, Louisiana, who had fought mostly only fellow Cajuns in dingy rodeo arenas to that point, the idea of not only making it to the biggest MMA promotion but also being recognized as one of the best in the world sounded completely irrational.

“Very few men will actually walk the aisles and get into that combat arena,” Gil Guillory, founder of the Louisiana-based fighting promotion USA-MMA that Poirier competed for early in his career, said in the film. “And very few men will do it 20-30 times. Most of these guys that fight, they will never fight again.”

Sure enough, just about every fighter featured in the documentary has since washed out of the sport. Poirier (30-8) is not only still around, but the 35-year-old is preparing for one more chance at being the best lightweight in the world when he faces UFC champion Islam Makhachev (25-1) at UFC 302 on Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET).

“I think I’m knocking on the door,” Poirier told ESPN about his ongoing aspiration to be the lightweight champion. “If I win this undisputed belt on June 1, you can stack my résumé against any other 155-pound fighter in the world. I think I’m close to being the greatest.”

That résumé includes almost everything Poirier set out to accomplish nearly 20 years ago. Poirier is the only person to beat Conor McGregor twice and has had a career littered with fights against former world champions and fighters who have routinely hovered near the top of the subjective pound-for-pound list: Khabib Nurmagomedov, Charles Oliveira, Eddie Alvarez, Michael Chandler, Justin Gaethje, Max Holloway, Anthony Pettis and others. Some are still fighting while others are long gone. But Poirier is still standing, still fighting and still one of the most beloved figures in all of MMA.

“I have checked every single box except the one that says, ‘undisputed champion,'” Poirier said. “That’s a box I want checked. All the other boxes got checked on the way to this goal. It’s a byproduct of me trying to be the best in the world. I’m still chasing that.”

Capturing the title that has eluded him on his third try — inside an arena that resides on Lafayette Street with his wife and 7-year-old daughter nearby — would be a storybook ending for arguably the greatest mixed martial artist to never win a UFC championship.

“If I ever did write a book, I’d like to open up on a lot of the journeys I’ve had both physically and mentally because, man, it’s been a fight,” Poirier said of the nearly two-decade journey to get to this point. “I’ve been at war with these fighters, and I’ve been at war with myself for the past 17 years.

“The name of my book would be ‘Paid in Full: The Story of El Diamante.'”

He acknowledged that right now, his book is incomplete and in need of a final chapter.

“This is the last box I’m checking on my to-do list in mixed martial arts,” Poirier said.

Poirier is looking to finish his story.

SOME PEOPLE FIGHT their way out of circumstances. Poirier just wanted to fight, regardless of the circumstances. After his parents separated when he was 5 years old, Poirier always seemed to find himself in a fight. His mother, Jere Chaisson, knew her son had an insatiable appetite for fighting and it would somehow open him up to the world. His wife, Jolie, first saw her future husband in the eighth grade, fighting some kid in the hallways of Acadian Middle School. By the time he turned 18, all he had was fighting. He had dropped out of high school but used the boxing gym as his means for education in the art of fighting. Six months after he started training, he won his first MMA fight.

He tore through the regional scene and became one of the main subjects in the “Fightville” documentary alongside Gladiators Academy teammate Albert Stainback. While the film’s drama focused on Stainback, it was obvious that Poirier was the fighter who possessed all the potential. The challenge was breaking out of the region and proving that his greatness extended beyond Louisiana.

“Coming out of Lafayette isn’t easy because people are not necessarily rooting for you to make it,” Daniel Cormier, former two-division UFC champion and fellow Lafayette MMA legend, told ESPN. “Lafayette is full of talented individuals, but there are a lot of distractions that won’t allow everyone to make it. To see the guy that was in their situation become something bigger, and because they see so much of him in them, some people really can’t comprehend how he was able to make it and they didn’t.”

His raw talent was undeniable, and it was obvious to anyone watching the documentary that Poirier couldn’t be confined.

“Will he make it to the UFC? Will he become a world champion? Potentially,” Guillory said of Poirier in “Fightville.”

After starting his MMA career 8-1, Poirier made his UFC debut in 2011 and rattled off four consecutive wins — including one over a debuting Holloway — before suffering a submission loss to Chan Sung Jung. That loss made him realize he had outgrown his Lafayette gym and needed a new team. In October 2012, he joined the lauded American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida.

“We knew he had a special talent with a very high ceiling,” former WEC featherweight champion and Poirier’s coach Mike Brown told ESPN. He has been in Poirier’s corner since Poirier’s 2012 fight with Jonathan Brookins, his 15th MMA fight. “He’s a natural-born fighter. There’s no fear, no quit, and he’s coming for you. But there was room to grow. There was a little coal left before he became ‘The Diamond’ that he is today.”

Poirier earned a reputation at American Top Team for his legendary sparring sessions. His teammates gush over his qualities — both human and as a fighter — and try to find analogies to explain what makes Poirier unlike any other individual who has competed in MMA. One of his coaches found that a cartoon cat best encompasses Poirier’s finest qualities.

“Dustin Poirier is the living version of Heathcliff,” former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion and current American Top Team coach Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal told ESPN.

The orange alley cat created by George Gately in the 1970s was the protagonist of a 1984 animated series centered around Heathcliff being the most respected animal in the neighborhood … including the dogs. He was never counted out.

The parallels between Poirier and Heathcliff are uncanny, right down to the description of the animated feline.

“Heathcliff was born on the wrong side of the tracks in the bad part of town,” the official Heathcliff website says about the animated feline’s origins. “He grew up quick and he grew up mean, until one day he was rescued by a loving family. …Though Heathcliff loved his new family, he would never lose his street-wise, tough guy beginnings.”

American Top Team was the MMA family that adopted Poirier, and he believes the mentorship and coaching he received helped turn him into the star he is today.

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Dustin Poirier excited to fight with his daughter in the crowd

Dustin Poirier shares his excitement having his family at UFC 302.

FROM HIS UFC debut in 2011 to 2016, Poirier fought 16 times, going 12-4 with a majority of his fights ending inside the distance. He won plenty of fights but had a few blemishes on his record that were hard to shake, including knockout losses to McGregor and Michael Johnson. The latter was the epiphany that Poirier needed to change his approach to fighting.

“In that time, he wasn’t using his greatest weapon, which is his conditioning,” Brown recalled, stating that the headhunting and emotionally charged version of Poirier on fight night gave opponents the window of opportunity needed to steal a victory. “He was just throwing down, and it works three out of four times because he is usually knocking the other guy out. But it’s not always going to be in your favor when you are doing that. As he matured, he realized that he didn’t have to finish guys in the first two minutes. He could take them into deep water.”

The then-on-the-rise McGregor got into Poirier’s head in the buildup to the fight and caused him to fight recklessly when they met in 2014. A left hand put Poirier down and out less than two minutes into the fight. McGregor used that win to catapult himself into becoming the biggest star in UFC history while Poirier was left picking up the pieces of his fractured career. He questioned himself and the idea that he’d eventually be the greatest. It was McGregor’s world, not Poirier’s. A cruel lesson learned. Two years later, Poirier’s headhunting caught up with him again as he recklessly ran into a right hand from Johnson that finished him in just over 90 seconds.

He had to fight smarter, not harder, if he was going to last in the unforgiving world of MMA that has seen plenty of high-potential fighters crash and burn into irrelevancy.

“Ignorance is bliss,” Poirier said. “When I was young, I didn’t think anybody could beat me on their best day when I was having my worst. I’m a realist now. I think I can beat anybody in the world on any given night, but I know now that the margin of error is so small that one mistake will have you waking up looking at the lights.”

Poirier’s unrelenting pursuit of greatness found him evolving and smoothing out the rough edges as a fighter. He proceeded to go on a tear for the next 2½ years. He knocked off former champions Pettis, Gaethje, Alvarez and Holloway in succession, with his one-sided decision over Holloway securing him the interim lightweight title. He won bonuses (four Fight of the Night, one Performance of the Night) for each of his five wins and began to cement himself as a fan favorite for his willingness to fight anybody, anywhere, anytime.

“This word gets thrown around too much,” Jorge Masvidal told ESPN. The inaugural BMF champion has trained alongside Poirier for over a decade at American Top Team. “He’s a warrior. No, he’s a pit bull terrier. It doesn’t matter if they are hurt or hungry or tired, if you put them in front of another dog, they aren’t going to bark — they are going to bite.”

Masvidal had the best seat in the house to watch Poirier’s rise from McGregor’s steppingstone to full-blown star. By the time Poirier stepped back into the Octagon with McGregor for their rematch seven years in the making, he had reached his final form. And a pair of stoppage wins over McGregor proved that the grind was worth it.

“He does have losses,” Masvidal continued. “But you have to take him out [in order to win].”

The wins over McGregor presented him with new opportunities where fighting wouldn’t be the only way to make money. With a wife and young daughter, Poirier knew that he had to secure his financial future, and relying solely on his fists and feet for the rest of his life would be irrational.

“My life has been molded in some way or another by fighting,” Poirier said. “Everything I have is from fighting. Fighting got me into the room for business meetings with people I would have never had an opportunity to sit across from. I figured out my identity through fighting. To be honest, I could be dead or in jail if I had never found fighting.”

He has come a long way from just wanting to fight. Today he has a charitable organization (Good Fight Foundation), businesses (Poirier’s Louisiana Style Hot Sauce and Rare Stash bourbon) and more than enough money to walk away from the sport that he loves. At 35, Father Time is knocking at his door. He doesn’t need to fight anymore, but one thing is gnawing at him.

“The title cements my life’s work, and it locks in my Hall of Fame induction,” Poirier said. “A lot of things depend on winning the title.”

When told that his career accomplishments already overshadow some who have been inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, he pauses to question what separates them from him.

“Other [Hall of Famers] were probably world champions, right?”

Not necessarily.

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Poirier: Winning title at UFC 302 cements legacy

Dustin Poirier breaks down his legacy as he’s set to fight for a title at UFC 302.

AS IT STANDS heading into UFC 302, Poirier is part of a unique group of undeniably talented individuals who fell short when it came to winning the big one. Dan Henderson, Jon Fitch, Alistair Overeem, Joseph Benavidez, Tony Ferguson, Carlos Condit and Mirko Cro Cop have all been recognized for their fighting prowess but have been unable to capture UFC gold.

“It’s timing,” Cormier said about the world title that has proved to be elusive to Poirier thus far in his career. “Let’s just say he doesn’t get the job done. Two of his title fight losses would be to Islam Makhachev and Khabib Nurmagomedov, both pound-for-pound the best in the world at the time they held gold. Not to discredit any other champion, but imagine if his title fights came against someone else. It might be a different story.”

Cormier, a heavyweight champion in two promotions (Strikeforce and UFC), knows a thing or two about being unable to slay a particular dragon in his MMA career.

“As a fighter, you want to become the champ, but as much as it meant to beat Anthony Johnson to become the [light heavyweight] champion, had I beaten Jon Jones it just would have been better,” Cormier said. “No disrespect to ‘Rumble’ or any other champion, but to beat the guy that nobody believes can lose is the real end game.”

If there’s one fighter who is universally loved by the MMA community despite never winning UFC gold, it’s “The California Kid” Urijah Faber. The beloved leader of Team Alpha Male is widely regarded for putting smaller weight classes on the map. Faber’s unique blend of charisma and fighting ability made him one of the biggest stars in MMA throughout his 16-year career.

“I see a lot of similarities in our respective careers, and the biggest one is our staying power,” Faber told ESPN. “We stayed active, fought everybody and never turned down a fight. Some guys become champions, lose and then disappear. He’s a guy who stays at the top of the division and is always involved in the biggest fights. And people love him for that.”

Faber arrived in the UFC with the introduction of the featherweight and bantamweight weight classes in 2011 and went 11-7 before hanging up the gloves for good in 2019. Like Poirier, Faber repeatedly fell short in his attempt to win UFC gold. But unlike Poirier, he found solace in his World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight championship run because the UFC had yet to adopt the weight class. “I was already a world champion before the UFC brought over my weight class, so it doesn’t bother me as much,” Faber said.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t want to be recognized as the best fighter in the world by the biggest fighting promotion on the planet.

“I chased that [bantamweight] title for eight years,” Faber said. “Eight years after I lost the title in the WEC, I was a contender in the UFC with four shots at the belt, beating top contenders. I wanted it. I wouldn’t have been where I am now without that pursuit for the UFC world title.”

Despite never claiming UFC gold, the pursuit of greatness cemented him as one of the biggest and most respected stars in the promotion.

“A lot of people give up, but so many big things happened in the eight years of me chasing the title,” Faber said. “I made the most money in my career and established my name. I was in a position where everyone wanted to fight me to take my clout, and I think Dustin is in that exact position. He has put world-class performances together for multiple decades, and that’s rare.”

Faber was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2017 and few, if any, questioned his credentials. Poirier is virtually a lock for the Hall of Fame.

Still, he has to finish the story.

“I’ve been in the top 10 for years and years fighting the best in the sport,” Poirier said. “I’ve held my spot, and when new up-and-comers come and try to take my position I took them out and turned them back.”

Like with Faber, the UFC has tried to use Poirier to put over rising talent. They tried with Benoît Saint Denis in March, and Poirier violently sent him packing. And because of the timing of Makhachev wanting to defend his title and top contender Arman Tsarukyan turning down the fight due to a short turnaround after fighting at UFC 300 in April, Poirier will get one last crack at championship gold.

“I’ve more than earned this last opportunity.”

AT 35, POIRIER is not delusional. He knows that June 1 will more than likely be his final shot at being recognized as the best lightweight in the world.

“I’m in a spot where I’m old enough to think about my whole career and understand that I have more behind me than I do in front of me,” Poirier said. “I have to be content with whatever’s going to happen. And if I say today that I put down the gloves and never pick it back up right now, I’m proud of everything I’ve accomplished. I did more than I thought I would when I step back and look at my record and the things that I’ve done throughout my career.”

But what a story it would be if Poirier pulled off the upset. He would have effectively finished with nothing else to prove. The possibility of retirement looms large considering he’s done it all.

Can he walk away at the top of his game?

“That could happen,” Poirier responded when asked whether he could retire as champion if he defeats Makhachev.

“I can see him retiring [if he beats Makhachev],”Masvidal said. “And I can see him coming right back within six months to a year because he’s a true fighter. He doesn’t care about anything else. All he wants to do is fight. He’d retire but it wouldn’t last long.”

Faber agreed that the idea of retirement would sound good in theory, but Poirier’s fighting spirit wouldn’t keep him away long.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he says that he’s done and then sits around for a year and a half and says f— this, I’m going back,” Faber said.

Cormier crystallized the possibility of Poirier walking away using his personal experience of being a world champion.

“I don’t think he will retire,” Cormier said. “When you have fought for this thing for so long when you get it, you don’t want to walk away from it, man. It really is the greatest thing in the world. You want to be the champion, but you want to rule over everyone. You want it to be known that you are the best and continue to do your thing against the best fighters in the world.”

Cormier became a two-division champion by knocking out Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight championship at 39 years old while still holding the light heavyweight title. He could have walked away on top, but his competitive nature refused to allow him to leave the sport behind. He ended up losing the final two fights of his career against Miocic.

“The moment you become the champion it rejuvenates you and you believe that you can be even better now,” he continued. “There is nothing that you’ll ever do that feels like being the best. It sucks, but it’s too difficult to walk away.”

In a January 2021 interview with Theo Von, Poirier revealed he signed an eight-fight deal with the UFC. His fight with Makhachev would serve as the seventh fight of his current deal.

Poirier is noncommittal about his future after June 1 but recognizes that he’s no longer fighting for respect. He’s earned that. He’s not fighting for money. He has plenty. He’s not fighting for fame. He never did this to become popular.

“It has to be something more than a fight because I have done this 50 times,” Poirier said. “There has to be a unique opportunity there. It has to be more than just a fistfight.”

Lawal is unsure about Poirier’s plans for his fighting future but believes that regardless of what happens at UFC 302, Poirier’s legacy is secured, with or without championship gold.

“He’s the people’s champ,” Lawal said. “If you don’t like Dustin Poirier, something is wrong with you.”

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