From the sweat-filled walls of former UFC fighter Tim Credeur’s Gladiator Academy to the UFC Octagon, where UFC President Dana White put a title belt around his waist, Dustin Poirier’s career is one that rings true of the age-old cliché that diamonds are formed under pressure.
In 2011, the UFC was still riding the tidal wave of The Ultimate Fighter boom. The UFC’s lightweight and featherweight divisions featured champions who were dominant in much different ways.
Whereas José Aldo put the fear of god into his opponents with his Muay Thai strikes, Frankie Edgar ruled over the lightweight division with a blend of crisp boxing and wrestling. Edgar was in two very entertaining title scraps with rival Gray Maynard, while Aldo controlled much of the action in his title bouts against Mark Hominick and Kenny Florian.
As the bright lights of the UFC showcased the very best of the best from the MMA world, fight fans were given a glimpse into the gritty world of regional MMA through the documentary Fightville. The documentary featured a young Poirier. Something set Poirier, one of the stars of the documentary, apart from his teammates. The Gladiator’s Academy product appeared destined for bigger and better things.
Poirier talks of the calm and peace he finds in competing, a statement that is shocking to those who’ve never competed. He mentions finding a path to redemption after a troubled upbringing. The Gladiator’s Academy wasn’t some high-tech, fancy MMA super-gym. No, it represented the rugged and tough local MMA training grounds that many weekend warriors fill in hopes of having their hand raised when competing in local MMA promotions.
Poirier enjoyed a great run — one of which many amateur MMA competitors can only dream about — while training with his Louisiana brethren. He went 12-1, including a 5-1 mark across the WEC and UFC, to put his name on the map as a prospect to watch.
Just as every prospect has to take the next step to become a major contender, Poirier found himself with that opportunity against fan-favorite “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung. In an action-packed bout that earned both men “Fight of the Night” honors, Poirier came up short in his quest to make the leap to contender status.
It would’ve been easy for Poirier to head back to Louisiana and chalk it up to Jung simply being the better fighter that night. However, in a move that showcased Poirier’s unquestionable resolve, he decided to move to Florida and begin training at the prestigious American Top Team facility. It’s telling that in a moment void of comfort, Poirier opted to put himself in yet another uncomfortable place by switching camps.
Now part of a stable of fighters that features some of the best in the world, Poirier became part of ATT’s crop of quality fighters rather than the cream of the crop, as he’d been in Louisiana. He received guidance from world-class coaches and a litany of premier training partners, which helped as he rebuilt his MMA game. He went on a 4-1 run following the loss to The Korean Zombie.
Once again, Poirier moved into prime position to take the next step in his career. His next fight was not a main event, but it might as well have been one. His opponent was the surging Conor McGregor. Both men spent plenty of time verbally sparring through the media, and this is one of the first examples of McGregor’s mental warfare taking a toll on his opponent. Poirier came out swinging for the fences in an effort to seize the moment in the biggest fight of his life. Alas, Poirier came up short again when McGregor clipped him in just under two minutes.
Poirier again looked to make a change. Rather than continue to deplete himself of stamina and strength, Poirier decided to move up to lightweight.
Now, instead of focusing on beating the scales on weigh-in day, “The Diamond” could shift that focus to improving his technique and overall MMA game. The results would prove fruitful. Poirier went on an impressive 4-0 run following the McGregor loss. This stretch included three first-round knockouts. Poirier also enjoyed two performance bonuses, helping his bank account just as much as it revitalized his career.
In 2016, Poirier landed in the main-event spotlight for a third time when he went up against Michael Johnson. Both fighters were jockeying for position in the always-competitive lightweight division, and they seemed to finally realize the potential bestowed upon them. It was a classic case of the UFC pairing up two rising contenders with the intention of the winner riding off to title contention, while the loser would see their place in the pecking order significantly diminished.
Poirier lost the fight to Johnson. The defeat seemed to set back Poirier more than most. His first headlining loss against Jung was an entertaining affair that could have gone either way. His second high-profile loss was to McGregor, the man who would go on to shatter financial records and become one of the biggest stars in MMA history. In what many believed to be his final shot at a title run, Poirier looked on as his opponent’s hand was raised once again. Worse yet, it was by a thunderous first-round knockout.
It wouldn’t have been shocking to see a fighter of Poirier’s stature start making exit plans from MMA at that point. His record of 20-5 was certainly no reason for shame, and he’d come up through the ranks when training methods usually involved who was the toughest just as much as who was the best. As the mileage began to pile up and Poirier failed to win “the big one,” it appeared as though the days of “The Diamond” in the 155-pound title hunt were over.
However, Poirier showed that he had plenty left in the tank by putting together four wins against some of the best competition he had faced to that point. Former champions Eddie Alvarez, Anthony Pettis and Justin Gaethje all fell to Poirier in their respective clashes. The Gaethje fight was particularly telling in that Poirier showed that he was not only far from fading to obscurity, but had evolved his MMA game to another level. His strikes still featured fight-ending power, but now he had the technique to match the strength.
With the MMA landscape changing around Poirier, the biggest fights seemingly went to the biggest talkers. Poirier has enough charisma to sell any fight, but he was passed over for lightweight title opportunities as the UFC became enthralled with fighters who possessed the gift of gab.
After a trio of wins, including back-to-back TKO finishes, Poirier finally scored the opportunity of a lifetime at UFC 236. With UFC lightweight kingpin Khabib Nurmagomedov on the sidelines due to the fallout from his fight with McGregor, Poirier squared off against current UFC featherweight champ Max Holloway for the interim UFC lightweight belt.
Both men had grown by leaps and bounds since their first encounter in 2012, but Poirier emerged victorious once more. The fight was an incredible war of attrition in which “The Diamond” landed thunderous punch after thunderous punch on the featherweight champ. Holloway has the heart of a lion and a granite chin, though, and he managed to put Poirier in dangerous positions throughout the contest.
Just as Poirier persevered through the ups and downs of his road to a UFC title, he survived the onslaught from Holloway. As Dana White secured the belt around Poirier’s waist and Bruce Buffer read Poirier’s name into the microphone as the new champion, the feeling of elation finally came over Poirier. You could tell the emotions were building as Buffer went through his post-fight procedure of announcing the winner. There was still a moment of doubt that perhaps the UFC judges believed Holloway had done enough to win.
Instead, the road to the UFC title was finally complete for “The Diamond.” There were plenty of moments when Poirier could have rested on his laurels after going from regional MMA star to UFC competitor. He could have felt complete after overcoming all the personal adversity to become a regular in the UFC’s crowded lightweight division. Instead, he proved that diamonds really are made under pressure.
It might only be an interim belt — and it won’t be a shock to see Poirier become a huge underdog to Nurmagomedov in their eventual showdown — but, for one night only, Poirier achieved a dream that seemed so far away while training in an MMA gym that looked smaller than the UFC’s Octagon. It showed that while those who have a silver tongue are still the object of affection for promotions, there’s still a place for fighters who do their talking once the cage door closes.