The goal of every fighter across the world is to one day have an undisputed title belt wrapped around their waist. It's what pushes these gladiators to the brink every day that they walk into the gym for training. It's what gets them to make that walk from the locker room to the ring or cage.
But what if a fighter has accomplished everything imaginable in the sport short of undisputed status?
That's where Dustin Poirier sits as he enters his trilogy bout with Conor McGregor at UFC 264 in Las Vegas on Saturday night. Poirier (27-6, 13 KOs, 7 SUBs) has fought for UFC for over a decade. He's earned massive victories over a who's who in the sport, but just lacks the one blemish on his resume.
If Poirier was to secure a second win over McGregor after stopping him in January -- the first man to do so with strikes -- an argument could be made for him being among the biggest stars in the sport who needs to check off one more box to complete a storybook ending.
Poirier's shift toward greatness began after a shocking knockout loss at the hands of Michael Johnson in September 2016, a win that served as Johnson's only amid a 1-5 stretch. The fight was a wake up call for Poirier, who was always an aggressive and exciting fighter, but one who would sometimes allow his aggression to result in defensive lapses.
"I have no fear when I get in there. I need to have more respect for these guys," Poirier said in a 2017 interview ahead of his rebound fight with Jim Miller. "Everybody's dangerous with a pair of four-ounce gloves. I know I'm better than them. They're dangerous and they're fighting to feed their families. From here on out, the name of this camp is be more defensively responsible. When you see me in the cage you're going to see a smarter fighter. I'm not going to be a boring fighter. I'm still going to take risks, but I'm going to take calculated risks."
Despite a few scares, the patient approach led to a win against Miller, a win that signified a major turnaround in Poirier's career. Starting with the victory over Miller, Poirier has gone 7-1 and defeated five men who have held UFC championships, including capturing the interim lightweight title with a dominant decision over then-featherweight champ Max Holloway. Poirier wasn't able to turn the interim title into undisputed status, coming up short against then-champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in Poirier's sole loss during that run.
Ahead of the January knockout win of McGregor, Poirier admitted he'd been "a deer in the headlights" when he'd lost to the Irishman in 2014. But between growing mentally and evolving with his style, he proved to be up to the task in the rematch.
That growth is key to putting Poirier in the position to become a legitimate all-time great. A win over McGregor is the next step, but it's not the endgame. Being a world champion would cement Poirier's legacy, elevating him from a status reminiscent of Dan Marino or Patrick Ewing, sports stars whose careers are forever haunted by questions of "Where's the ring?"
Poirier knows this, and said as much when he appeared on the This Past Weekend podcast ahead of the January fight with McGregor.
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"I'm driven by the main goal: becoming the world champion, being the best," Poirier said. "I know that a win over a guy like this, at this point of our careers, it etches my name in the history books -- on its own page. I'm in the books. I'm in the honorable mentions right now. I'm trying get my own numbered page."
Poirier may have been able to already put himself in position to challenge for the lightweight title. He likely could have passed on the trilogy bout with McGregor, instead inserting himself into the title bout that ended up being Charles Oliveira vs. Michael Chandler. But Poirier instead chose the bigger profile bout and a chance to once again face the biggest star in the sport.
"That's smart. That's what he should do," UFC president Dana White said in March. "He should take the rematch, take that fight. It's a big fight for him. Kid's worked hard his whole life, his whole career to be in a position like this. That's the fight you take. We've been in positions like this before with others who have made the mistake of not taking that fight, and [it was the] biggest mistake of their lives."
A win over McGregor on Saturday absolutely gets him the title shot in his next fight. The question becomes about keeping his focus on the task at hand instead of looking ahead to what's next.
As the saying goes, diamonds are made under pressure. It's time to see what "The Diamond" is made of.
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