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For Dustin Poirier, beating Khabib Nurmagomedov will have to come, like everything else: The hard way

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Dustin Poirier after the first round, blood dripping from his broken nose.
Dustin Poirier
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Ten years ago, a camera crew followed Dustin Poirier as he started out on a path toward the major MMA scene. At the time, Poirier was a novice, just months into his professional fight career. Yet when the resulting film, Fightville, was released, the first words out of his mouth on camera were audaciously grand.

“My dream is to be the best fighter at 155 pounds in the world,” he says in the clip. “Fighting is what I do. My father was a fighter. My grandfather was a fighter. It’s just in my blood.”

For the last decade, he has proven his declaration the hard way. His goal, though? He’s not quite there, though it’s finally within reach. Still, the fact that it has taken Poirier 10 years just to get a crack at the undisputed UFC lightweight championship is a testament to his mettle. He was never the blue-chip, undefeated prodigy like his opponent, Khabib Nurmagomedov. He is not a headline-generating quote machine like the last divisional champion Conor McGregor. He does not blow anyone away with any of his individual abilities. It’s the aggregation of indomitable spirit and proficient all-around skill that makes Poirier special.

He can be beaten, but he cannot be broken.

Against Nurmagomedov, such resolve is an absolute necessity. Part Dagestani, part wood-chipper, the unbeaten champ is one of the most dominant forces the UFC has ever seen. Until losing round three in the McGregor fight, Nurmagomedov had won 31 straight rounds in UFC competition, an Octagon streak that ranks second all-time behind Georges St-Pierre’s 33 consecutive rounds. As if angered by this rare lapse, Nurmagomedov turned up the heat in the next round and submitted McGregor less than two minutes later.

Being on the other end of Nurmagomedov’s attack must feel something like drowning. You fight and you flail against this force, one that is not overwhelming but is relentless in its exertion. Its constant presence is its greatest threat. And so eventually, if your body doesn’t give out, your mind does. Either way, you eventually surrender. This is what he does to opponents. He had six takedowns against Rafael dos Anjos. Six against Al Iaquinta. Twenty-one(!) against Abel Trujillo. Most of the time, he only needs one to win a round. Everything else is just to prove a point.

But still, you wonder if he can do the same to Poirier, to drive him to resignation. At this point, Poirier is as confident as he’s ever been. He’s beaten Max Holloway, Eddie Alvarez, Justin Gaethje and Anthony Pettis, all in a row. He’s toiled for a decade to get here. He’s earned this through sweat and blood. His bill, as he is fond of saying, is “paid in full.”

“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,” he said during the UFC 242 conference call. “It’s a constant evolution. I’ve had to go through the fights that I’ve been through to be the person I am now, and I’m just confident in my skills, my ability, the work that I’m putting in, my commitment to martial arts, my commitment to just getting in there and letting it all go. I’m confident in that. I can trust myself that when I get in there and they lock that door for 25 minutes, that I’m the better fighter, and I’m in there to win, and that I’m going to find an opening, or make an opening, and be the victor here.”

To beat Nurmagomedov, Poirier will need to chart a new path. There is no blueprint to beat the champion. Twenty-seven fighters have tried and failed to do it. But the one absolute must for Poirier is clear: he must find space to implement what he’s good at. He needs distance. Nurmagomedov excels in tight spaces. Tie-ups and clinches are his trade. Close quarters, after all, are necessary for suffocation.

Nurmagomedov does whatever is necessary to get there. He often shoots forward with little in the way of setup, confident that all he has to do is grab a hold to change the complexion of the fight. He’s not wrong although there is one misconception about his game, and that is this: his takedowns are not unstoppable. Statistically, he is only successful on 44 percent of his attempts. That’s not a particularly overwhelming number. In fact, if you looked at it in a vacuum, you might be tempted to overlook it.

But the thing about Nurmagomedov is that he is hardly dissuaded by a failed shot. As long as the attempt has resulted in a tie-up, he treats it as a victory. He relishes the grind, and he has a million tricks to employ when he has his opponent stacked up against the fence: body locks, leg trips, double legs, foot sweeps, all of which can be chained together until he finds the right recipe. At some point in the series, his opponent goes down.

It has to be exhausting to consider all of those possibilities, let alone to stop them. This is what Poirier will be faced with for 25 straight minutes, or however long it lasts. Nurmagomedov has broken everyone he’s faced. Still, Poirier is something different. His road to a title shot didn’t take forever, but 23 fights into his UFC career, it’s fair to say he’s breezed far past “seasoned” and into “grizzled” territory. If he hasn’t seen it all, he’s come damn close.

His life began in the grit of Southern Louisiana. Growing up in poverty, Poirier started scrapping at an early age, a habit that eventually got him in trouble. It might have eventually led to jail if he didn’t find MMA. His fight career started in the dirt of rodeo arenas, the setting seen in the days of Fightville, where he first made his intentions of greatness known.

All this time later, Poirier finally gets his opportunity to make those words sound prophetic. His journey to get here has been a long and arduous one, filled with many pitfalls. Completing it will be far more grueling, his entire career encapsulated into five rounds of unrelenting torture. The outcome may be unsure but one thing is clear: if Poirier wins, it will be a most well-earned championship.