Given the star power atop the marquee and the high expectations to become a blockbuster pay-per-view, there has been no shortage of headlines setting the stage for UFC 257 from Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi on Saturday night stateside.
There's Conor McGregor's return to the Octagon for just the third time since 2016 and the uncertainty of whether unbeaten lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, whom UFC president Dana White claims will be an interested spectator, will be swayed by watching to delay retirement. There's also the expectations for action as former three-time Bellator MMA champion Michael Chandler makes his UFC debut in an attractive co-main event against Dan Hooker.
But for all of the talk about UFC's return to Fight Island and whether McGregor can kickstart a second act as an elite threat, very little is actually being written or talked about regarding his opponent: former 155-pound interim champion Dustin Poirier.
Knowing Poirier's reserved personality and his reputation as being just as much of a dedicated father and philanthropist as pound-for-pound ranked fighter, the 32-year-old likely wouldn't want it any other way.
More than six years removed from a first-round stoppage loss to McGregor at featherweight on the undercard of UFC 178, Poirier has a chance to redeem one of his darkest moments as a professional in this five-round rematch. But even more important, should fate go his way in the aftermath of a potential win, he might also get a second chance to fulfill his destiny of becoming an undisputed UFC champion.
For those who weren't paying close attention, Poirier's loss to McGregor was a turning point for both fighters. It catapulted McGregor to stardom -- he would capture the UFC's interim 145-pound title just 10 months later -- while forcing Poirier to take a hard look at himself and figure out what was wrong.
While the method of victory for McGregor went down in the history books as a TKO following a series of vicious left hands, the brash Irishman might have sealed his victory in the weeks and months that preceded the fight by using mental warfare to purchase a large plot of land in Poirier's brain.
"Last time, I was like a deer in the headlights in front of him," Poirier told "Morning Kombat" in December. "This time out, I'm going to make him fight my fight."
The aftermath of the defeat saw Poirier move up to lightweight and author one of the most impressive five-year runs in 155-pound history. Little by little, his confidence and perseverance grew right along with his craft.
Poirier went 9-1 (1 NC) over his next 11 fights. He submitted former champion Anthony Pettis before walking through hell to finish Justin Gaethje and another former belt holder in Eddie Alvarez in back-to-back violent wars. Then, at UFC 236 in 2019, Poirier outlasted Max Holloway over five rounds of an instant classic to claim the interim title and secure a shot at Nurmagomedov.
The build to Poirier's first title shot brought with it the kind of narrative he had earned the old fashioned way with blood, sweat and tears. Fueled by his new mantra of "25 minutes to make life fair," Poirier was aiming to complete an incredible transformation of maturity as both man and combatant while possibly becoming the best lightweight in UFC history by becoming the first fighter to send Nurmagomedov to defeat.
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But the happy ending of an incredible story simply wasn't meant to be -- at least not then, and not the way it appeared like it was being set up to be written. UFC 242, which also took place in Abu Dhabi, turned out to be a house of horrors for Poirier as he was dominated in a third-round submission loss.
"Getting beat that way after preparing so long for that same thing and him still doing it -- it's impressive," Poirier said. "And then seeing him do the same thing to Justin Gaethje, the guy is impressive. He is really that good.
"But I would say I'm a better fighter now than I was two years ago. I am in a better position mentally. I have learned so much every camp and have evolved and learned so much about myself like balance and letting my body rest. I'm still learning and I would say in two years, I will be an even better fighter."
Given the historic depth of the lightweight division at the moment, it's almost crazy to consider that Poirier, still just 16 months removed from the Nurmagomedov defeat, could be one more win away from another world title shot.
The reason for that is largely two-fold. Poirier got right back on the saddle last June and out-brawled Dan Hooker over five hellacious rounds to re-establish his standing as a true elite. The other half of it was a little bit of luck as the majority of top fighters in the top 10 at lightweight suffered defeats in 2020 while McGregor, who returned with a 40-second dismantling of Donald Cerrone at welterweight in January, never fought again amid the pandemic.
While defeating McGregor doesn't necessarily guarantee a title shot next, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which it doesn't unless Nurmagomedov, who holds a high level of respect for Poirier, decided to fight once more and was allowed to choose his opponent by White.
Should Nurmagomedov walk away for good at 29-0, Poirier would likely be the highest ranked lightweight remaining should he win the McGregor rematch and would likely see either Charles Oliveira or the winner Saturday's Hooker-Chandler co-main event next for the vacant title.
How about 25 more minutes to make things right?
Either way, Poirier isn't going to stop doing what got him here.
"I'm still learning," Poirier said. "I'm learning today and I'm going to learn tomorrow. I take these lessons -- the good and the bad -- and move forward. That's all we can do. I know it's an ongoing process and it never stops. When it stops, I'm done."
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