The main event of UFC 264 on Saturday night will see the rivalry between lightweights Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor write its third and final chapter.
While there isn't a championship on the line, the fight's stakes are equally as high. For McGregor, it could be his final chance at remaining an elite, serious title threat and answer the reoccurring questions of his ability to withstand and respond to an opponent who drags him into the deeper waters of a fight. For Poirier, it's an opportunity to get the biggest payday of his career while simultaneously turning the Irish superstar into a permanent ghost of his past and move on to compete for UFC gold once more. While many rivalries tend to mainly settle competitive bragging rights, this matchup has much more magnitude to it because of the ripple effect it will have on both men's respective legacies.
Much of the narratives surrounding the fight have been centered around McGregor and what another defeat would do to his status as one of the elite fighters in the world. Rightfully so too, the former two-weight division champion is the proverbial sun to the MMA world, when he fights the sports attention shifts solely onto him. The man responsible for bringing in over 11 million pay-per-view buys in his last eight Octagon appearances has cemented his status time and time again as an anomaly in self-promotion. There's a hoopla that surrounds a McGregor fight week that is easy to get bewildered by, something that happened to Poirier back at UFC 178 in September 2014.
McGregor-Mania was in its infancy and at a fever pitch at this point, everyone was enamored with this brash new Irishman. Poirier got caught up in feeling like the odd man out in the pair's first meeting and he kind of was made out to be the afterthought. He felt that the promotion, fans, media, etc...were actively rooting for him to fail, which again wasn't necessarily a misread on his part to feel that way. The mental theatrics McGregor utilized only heightened Poirier's emotions and continued his plunge into what would become insurmountable chaotic energy for the Lafayette, Louisiana native to deal with at the time. As much as Poirier was fighting McGregor that week, he was fighting against himself and his perception of the outside noise that came with the first fight.
He was swallowed and engulfed by the overwhelming presence of McGregor, falling into the trap of believing he was being used as some sort of stepping stone. Unfortunately for Dustin, his worst fear became a reality after Conor landed a left hand that sent him crashing to the canvas and finished the bout in just under two minutes. McGregor's victory over Poirier would be that launching pad he needed into superstardom, what followed after would be one of the most unprecedented rises in combat sports history. However, Poirier didn't realize that the defeat to McGregor would act as his own launching pad of sorts into becoming the fighter and man he is today.
Poirier returned to 155-pounds and had gone 10-2-1 since losing to McGregor, compiling impressive wins against Anthony Pettis, Dan Hooker, Eddie Alvarez, Jim Miller, Justin Gaethje, and Max Holloway during his second run in the lightweight division. More importantly though, outside of the cage, he was finding himself and realizing fighting wasn't the end all be all. Poirier and his wife Joile had welcomed their first child a daughter Parker in August 2016, they had started doing philanthropic work in April 2018 through their charity the Good Fight Foundation, and Dustin even started his own business a hot sauce brand in December 2020. Dustin was no longer concerned with defining his entire identity just with fighting and he freed himself of caring about all the stuff outside of his control.
Enter January 23, 2021, and Poirier being given the chance to avenge the loss to McGregor from the years previous. This time he would face McGregor in a new weight class and as a more assured, refined version of himself not only as a fighter but as a human being. The atmosphere for the rematch between the lightweight stars was drastically different from their first outing. Both were much more jovial and complimentary during the build-up, while still keeping an intense, but still, friendly vibe going into the showdown.
McGregor found success in the first round, but this time while his shots were stinging, they didn't crush Poirier's soul like before. While they still had an effect on him, Poirier had become much more adept at thriving and adjusting to adversity in fights, rather than shying away from it. A true fight purist, Poirier has long talked about how he loves the uncomfortable moments in fights the most. They're the ones that reveal the truth about both competitors and there is no hiding from it, a feeling Poirier relishes in. He even reiterated this speaking with ESPN's Brett Okamoto before this Saturday's trilogy bout how he "wants to question his will to fight" during the matchup.
This mindset shined through in the second round of the rematch with McGregor and one thunderous right hook later, Dustin Poirier had knocked out the company's golden boy at UFC 257 to slay the demons of several years past. Much was made about McGregor's stance, Poirier's use of calf kicks, and his overall technical improvements since the first fight. All deserved attention and praise, but the maturation and growth that Poirier made outside of the cage was equally and maybe more crucial to his success in the rematch. This was no longer the 25-year old kid who was unsure of himself and overthought everything, this was now a 32-year old man and father whose assertiveness and confidence had been forged through the fire of multiple grueling victories in arguably MMA's most relentless division.
This was a man who no longer needed the validation of the MMA pantheon or the outside world, that need had long been defeated before he entered the cage for his rematch with McGregor. As Poirier stated in a post-fight interview following UFC 236 after defeating Max Holloway to become the new interim UFC lightweight champion, nobody could ever take away what he had accomplished in the sport or determine his worth because he had answered any doubts he had to his biggest critic, which was himself.
"It's cool to prove it to all these people, but I'm proving it to myself," Poirier said. "I'm the one who has to wake up and look in the mirror every morning. And when I look in the mirror, I'm happy with what I see. I know that I'm myself, I know that nothing was given to me. I know that I earned everything and I've been knocked down and earned it again. This means everything to me."
Poirier never needed to get the win back from McGregor to fulfill some payback to make him feel whole as a person and fighter, which was long conquered before then. Poirier beat his biggest opponents in his own self-doubt and need for validation, opening the door for the new outlook on fighting that in my opinion led to the win in the rematch against Conor.
He talked about losing his enjoyment of fighting over the outside pageantry that comes with it and how it has become just something he does, not what his entire life is revolved around anymore. On the surface that might seem to an outside perspective like maybe a concerning mindset to have, but I actually think it's one that's allowed Poirier to refocus, evolve as a mixed martial artist, and in the process find himself. Even though fighting might not hold so much weight on how Poirier defines who he is, it doesn't mean he's still not committed to the craft still and putting in the consistent work to get better. He elaborated on this mindset while talking to Morning Kombat's Luke Thomas following UFC 257.
"I just always find, no matter what I do in my career, people wanna just throw salt somehow," he said. "It's the whole reason, like parts of this stuff, that I hate this whole thing. I only like fighting Luke. Fighting's the only part that I like about this whole process and this whole mixed martial arts thing now because everybody's an expert. Everybody's a body language expert, everybody's a coach, everybody's a technician on everything. Everybody has something to say and I'm the man in the arena, spilling blood. I'm just tired of everybody having a reason why I won or reason why I lost or this and that. I know the reason, it's because I fucking work hard and I'm a hell of a fighter."
The switch in thinking might've been a catalyst to Poirier's current legendary run at 155 pounds and for the constant rejuvenation, he displays with each passing fight. The friendliness between the two for the trilogy bout looks to have shifted back to mirror the energy of the duo's first meeting. McGregor seems to be resorting to old habits, looking to unleash the Tasmanian devil of trash talk within and create as much hecticness as he possibly can. He's already taken to Twitter to send Poirier a verbal warning and has included his wife in the pre-fight banter. Poirier's susceptibility to getting caught up in the whirlwind of McGregor's circus show doesn't seem very high though. The actual mystique of those mind games from the Irish star seems long lost on one of Lafayette, Louisiana's favorite sons.
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. We've seen how the first two fights of Poirier vs. McGregor went, now all that's left is for the two authors of the story to finish writing their chapter in the MMA history books. The fight will be an incredible elevation and moment for the victor's legacy, while potentially being equally as devastating to the fighter that ends up losing the bout. But for Dustin Poirier, the work is done and he has put in the energy to all the things he can control.
He will make his 26th walk to the Octagon on Saturday night and settle the score with McGregor once and for all. Poirier will get the chance to make life fair over the course of 25 minutes one more time and add another legendary win to his fighting resume. However, Poirier has already won in the fight of life and he doesn't need a victory at UFC 264 to prove anything to anyone.
He's gone from juvenile detention centers to fighting for world titles and receiving the key to his city, the result of one fight is not large enough to define who he is as a person or what he's accomplished. Win, lose or draw, Poirier will return to his charity work and his most important roles of all as a father and husband after the trilogy is completed with McGregor. The outside noise has been quelled in his mind, Dustin Poirier doesn't need your respect anymore, he's too busy enjoying the life he's earned and built with the people who matter the most.