When interim titleholder Dustin Poirier faces off with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in the main event of Saturday’s UFC 242 card from Abu Dhabi, he’ll be doing so as a sizable underdog against the unbeaten king of 155 pounds. Nurmagomedov (27-0) certainly demands the respect of his opponents due to his mauling style built upon the foundation of his elite wrestling base, but Poirier (25-5, 1 NC) enters the bout as quite possibly the hottest fighter in the game. “The Diamond” deserves to be seen as, at worst, a live underdog this weekend.
Let’s now take a closer look at five reasons why it wouldn’t be a shocker to see Poirier pull the upset at UFC 242.
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1. Poirier is as versatile and complete a striker as there is in the game. There may not be a fighter alive who can make 155 pounds and out-wrestle Nurmagomedov on the same night. Grappling at close range from the clinch would likely be just as futile of an idea for Poirier to find any kind of success. Poirier will need to control distance and command respect in order to land strikes on his terms.
The good news, though, is that Poirier has evolved into an incredibly precise striker who can switch stances, rely on his footwork to cut off the cage, punch with both hands and break his opponent’s lead leg down with hard kicks. Avoiding any form of recklessness against Nurmagomedov will be key, as will being selective on the volume of his strikes to limit openings for being shot on. But unlike Conor McGregor, a one-dimensional headhunter who proved out of luck when his left cross couldn’t find Nurmagomedov’s chin with any kind of power, Poirier is versatile enough to force his opponents to be more cautious in attempts to impose their will.
2. He’s in the midst of a historically impressive streak. To say that Poirier is peaking as a fighter entering Saturday would be a massive understatement. Ever since his 2014 TKO loss to McGregor in his final fight at 145 pounds, Poirier has gone 9-1 (1 NC) as a lightweight and has seemingly grown and evolved as a fighter each step of the way to where he stands now at age 30. Just how good has Poirier been over the last two years in particular? Asked about what’s at stake in Saturday’s 155-pound unification fight, he recently told reporters a victory over Nurmagomedov would make him the greatest lightweight in UFC history. While a statement that bold can certainly be met with knee-jerk ambivalence and a reminder of just how great a fighter like BJ Penn was in his prime, the potential of adding Nurmagomedov to Poirier’s current four-fight win streak would be an eye-opening development.
Since 2017, Poirier has defeated Jim Miller, became just the second fighter to stop all-action Justin Gaethje and holds knockout wins over former champions Anthony Pettis and Eddie Alvarez. If that wasn’t enough, Poirier outboxed Max Holloway over five hellacious rounds in April when the current featherweight king moved up to challenge for the interim lightweight title. Should Poirier defeat Nurmagomedov, he would not only capture the full title, but he just might secure immortality at 155 pounds.
3. Poirier is a natural-born finisher. Over his last 14 appearances in the Octagon, Poirier has gone to the scorecards just two times. Although a pair of those fights were knockout defeats and the third a no contest after Alvarez landed illegal knees, it speaks to Poirier’s aggressive style and ability to finish opponents once he has them hurt. The longer this fight goes in distance, the more it would favor Nurmagomedov given that his wrestling so often drains opponents of their gas tanks.
Poirier will likely need to finish Nurmagomedov in order to win, and even though it feels like a broken record by this point to reference the success Michael Johnson had on his feet in staggering Nurmagomedov early en route to a submission defeat, Poirier has the firepower and finishing instincts to complete the job. With the dynamic ability to strike hard using each of his four limbs, he might be the prototype for perfect fighter to counteract what Nurmagomedov does so well.
4. His most impressive evolution has come mentally. Anyone who watched Poirier so easily be distracted by McGregor’s trash talk five years ago before being lured into the kind of reckless fight that led to his TKO exit can speak to how impressive Poirier has grown in terms of maturity. Not only has he cultivated the kind of championship poise that reduces mistakes, Poirier performed emphatically well within the chaos of all-action brawls against Alvarez, Gaethje and Holloway. As McGregor found out the hard way, trying to psyche out the stoic Nurmagomedov is a losing effort as the native of Dagestan is as mentally tough an athlete as UFC has ever seen.
Poirier’s evolution in this category can’t be overlooked and should help him from the standpoint of blocking out distractions and carrying out a game plan despite an unfamiliar setting on foreign land in which Nurmagomedov will likely be greeted as a conquering hero. Should Nurmagomedov succeed in taking Poirier down early and often, there’s no telling what that might do negatively to his gas tank. But critics and fans alike of the interim champ no longer have to worry that he might crumble under the pressure that comes with adversity. Poirier’s cerebral growth simply can’t be overlooked.
5. Poirier’s entire life and career has prepared him for this moment. It may sound cheesy to frame it that way and try and paint something as trite as single-minded ambition as a reason why Poirier could have an advantage in this fight. But anyone who has followed his journey knows how hard he has worked and overcome to chip away — month after month, year after year and fight after fight — to get to the opportunity he has in front of him. Poirier’s now unforgettable comments after his victory over Holloway in which he said he “knew I had 25 minutes to make life fair tonight” sum up what’s at stake for him and how much blood, sweat and tears he has put into finding out how great he can be.
For Poirier, UFC 242 represents the culmination of lifelong dreams. Meanwhile, for Nurmagomedov, in some ways, it’s just another title defense. Now, that doesn’t mean the champion will be coming in negligent of the challenge in front of him, but the combination of Nurmagomedov’s 11-month layoff following his UFC 229 suspension and the almost magical journey of reinvention that Poirier is currently undertaking lets one know there will be no shortage of motivation for “The Diamond” to show his full polish.