THE ONLY TIME Dustin Poirier wanted to fight an opponent outside of the cage was the week of UFC 178.
Poirier remembers standing behind a curtain at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas in September 2014, waiting to get on the scale. He recalls seeing a few scuffles in the crowd, which was packed with Irish fans. He remembers being dehydrated and anxious to weigh in. And he remembers tension after weeks of being the target of Conor McGregor’s trash talk.
“I wanted to make the guy pay, you know? I was angry,” Poirier says. “I remember wanting to fight him at the weigh-in, which is crazy to look back at. I was just in such a weird place in my mind.”
Poirier was the UFC’s No. 5-ranked featherweight going into that fight, but some viewed him as a litmus test for McGregor, who had proved he could agitate, dominate headlines, attract one hell of a crowd and win fights in the UFC. McGregor had not proved, however, he could beat the best in the world — and that was where Poirier came in.
“You’ve got Conor going through everybody, calling his shots, this big-mouth Irishman,” says Thomas Webb, a friend and training partner of Poirier’s since 2009. “And then you’ve got Dustin, who was known. He had earned his keep. He’d been through wars and everybody knew he could bring it. And it was just … could he derail the hype?”
That scene at the weigh-in, one day before the fight, captured the situation perfectly. Poirier was outnumbered. He wasn’t just fighting Conor McGregor, he was fighting the swarm of fans who’d crossed the Atlantic to see him fall, the UFC executives who’d chummed it up with McGregor in his presidential suite that week, and the media who hung on McGregor’s every word.
“I felt like everybody wanted him to win,” Poirier says. “The UFC wanted him to win. The media wanted this new star. I felt like it was a setup, you know? I felt like the fans in the crowd were there to see me lose.”
And as it turned out, that weigh-in — two men briefly stepping on a scale and squaring off for cameras — lasted longer than the fight. McGregor made good on his prediction of a first-round knockout and put Poirier down with a left hand less than two minutes in. It was the first time Poirier had ever been knocked out.
“It was horrible,” says Poirier’s wife, Jolie, who was in attendance. “It was hard to be there. Just the crowd, the energy — it was scary. It was hard seeing him go through that.”
What made it worse is everything that had angered Poirier before the fight came to fruition after he lost. The sport did seem to celebrate McGregor’s win. And at least initially, it wasn’t too concerned where Poirier was left. He won his next four, but none was a main event. McGregor, meanwhile, would win an interim belt within a year and unify it in December 2015.
But as Poirier prepares for his rematch against McGregor on Saturday at UFC 257, the situation has drastically changed. He’s not a stepping-stone for McGregor. He’s a former interim champ, and one of the most highly respected men in the sport.
Those who are close to Poirier have seen a transformation, from a high school dropout who loved to fight to a professional fighter who found his passion and purpose. They’ve seen him overcome the doubts of those who didn’t think he would amount to much, and they watched him persevere after that loss to McGregor. Once again, most of the focus in the lead-up to Saturday’s fight has been on McGregor — that much is the same. But what’s different is the person McGregor will be looking at across the cage.
“After the outcome of that fight — honestly, all the way leading up until his next fight, Dustin kind of got forgotten,” Webb says. “He was just another victim of the Conor McGregor train.
“That’s what he was to everyone else, but underneath all that, we saw the rebuilding of ‘The Diamond.'”
POIRIER, 31, GREW up in Lafayette, Louisiana. His parents separated when he was 5, at which time he grew up mainly with his mother, Jere Chaisson, and two brothers.
“It’s a touchy subject to say I love fighting,” Poirier says. “It scares me, but I love the emotional ride and the feeling you can only get from that. And from an early age, I knew the guys I was watching on TV … I knew whatever they had, I had it.”
He was a fun child, according to Chaisson. “So much fun,” to be exact. The kind of kid who would hide plastic guns and swords under each couch cushion, so he was “ready for anything.” He once climbed a brick pillar attached to the house and made it all the way to the roof, to reach a bird he had seen from the backyard.
“He was everyone’s favorite, but no one would babysit him,” Chaisson says. “We had to Dustin-proof the backyard, so there was no way he could hurt himself. We put locks on everything, but he could probably pick a lock by the time he was 3. True story. He wasn’t mild like most kids. He was adventurous and inquisitive.”
When Poirier was 5, Chaisson remembers him riding his bike around the neighborhood with boxing gloves on the handlebars, so he and his friends could box.
Jolie, who first met Poirier when they were in eighth grade, admits the first time she ever saw him was when he was fighting another boy in the school hallway.
When he was in middle school, Poirier was arrested for knocking out an older kid’s teeth in a makeshift boxing ring in his father’s neighborhood. Other than that incident, though, Poirier and his family say there was nothing malicious about his attraction to fighting. He just liked to box, and was always a willing participant.
“If somebody went down, you don’t hit him again, you know?” Poirier says. “I’m not trying to paint the picture that I’m out here like Mad Max — two men enter, one man leaves. It’s not that. It was just fighting.”
No, if Poirier had a problem as a youth, it wasn’t fighting. It was school. He despised it and would constantly walk out of it — despite his mother’s best efforts.
“He was in first grade, maybe kindergarten, and he snuck out of school and walked four blocks to a grocery store and called 911, just to tell them he didn’t want to go,” Chaisson recalls. “When he was in eighth grade, I delivered pharmaceuticals, and I had two vans, in case one of them broke down. I got off work early one day and was driving home, and I see my van coming down the other side of the road. And it was Dustin! He would just leave school and drive around.”
Chaisson tried everything to keep her son in school. When he was in middle school, she even solicited the help of a mediator and enrolled Poirier in a program that would send him to a juvenile detention center if he continued to ditch class. He did, and ended up spending one month at a detention center and another three at a military-style boot camp. Even that experience failed to make an impact. And after attending high school long enough to play football his freshman year, Poirier dropped out entirely.
“He said it felt like prison,” Chaisson says. “He would say, ‘Why do you want to send your child to prison? You don’t know what it feels like.’ And I would say, ‘I went to school for 12 years.’
“But public education isn’t for everyone, and that’s a hard lesson I learned.”
After dropping out of school, Poirier spent the majority of his time really doing nothing at all. He smoked and drank with friends, and still got into the occasional fight. More than anything, he was just a 16-year-old high school dropout with no plans and no ambition. He picked up a job at McDonald’s.
“He was just kind of struggling to find himself, I guess you could say,” Jolie says.
But around Poirier’s 18th birthday, a switch flipped. He started going to a boxing gym. Daily. He’d always believed he could excel in boxing, but his mom discouraged him from pursuing it as a kid. Once Poirier committed to it at age 18, however, he never looked back. He lost weight, left his group of friends and booked his first MMA fight within six months.
“I wasn’t like, trying to fill a void in my life, but I had found something that really made me fill a void I didn’t know I had,” Poirier says. “I was head over heels with combat. I went to sleep thinking about it. I woke up thinking about it. I worked all day thinking about it. It was who I was. I would have cut anybody off to continue. I would have done whatever it took to continue.
“I loved it. And I felt it loved me back at that moment in my life.”
POIRIER WAS 25 — seven years into his love affair with combat — when he suffered the first knockout loss of his career to McGregor. Eventually, he would fight for — and win — an interim championship in the UFC, just as McGregor did shortly after they fought. However, it would take Poirier nearly five years and eight hard-earned victories to get there.
His moment finally came in April 2019, when he fought then-featherweight champion Max Holloway for the interim 155-pound championship. Despite a sterling résumé, with wins over Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez, Poirier went into the bout against Holloway as an underdog — not an unfamiliar position for him — but he would come out on top via unanimous decision.
In his postfight interview that night, Poirier said, “I’ve been told my whole life [I’m not good enough], and now I’m the world champ.”
The words had an immediate impact on Chaisson.
“He told me, ‘Nobody can ever tell me I’m a loser ever again,'” Chaisson says. “And that cuts me today just as much as it did that night. I didn’t know he felt that way.
“He put his arms around me and said, ‘I’m not a nobody, because I’m somebody tonight.’ Maybe it was because his father wasn’t in the picture. Maybe it had something to do with that. I don’t know.”
To hear Poirier tell it, his words that night had to do with a lot of things in his life — personal and professional.
“I’ve just heard it over and over again from a young age,” Poirier says. “Teachers, police officers, correctional officers. I was just one of those guys getting in trouble. I wouldn’t turn into anything. I wouldn’t end up being anything great. Even going back to the Conor fight, like I said, being championed against in that bout and everybody saying I was going to lose.
“I also said it that night because I know a lot of kids were watching. I want to give people a reason to cheer and be happy and root somebody on. I did it, so anybody can do it. I am those people watching, working a 9-to-5, barely making ends meet. I am that. I did it. Maybe I don’t have the best physical attributes. Maybe Conor can jump higher than me. Maybe he can run faster than me. Maybe he can punch harder. But I will find a way, man.”
Over the past six years, which included a loss to champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2019 in his effort to unify the title, Poirier has never really pursued a rematch with McGregor. His focus has been on becoming a champion, and it still is. He understands a win over McGregor would likely earn him another shot at the undisputed lightweight championship. And going into this fight, that’s the motivation. This isn’t a story about revenge, and unlike six years ago, Poirier isn’t being fueled by anger.
When asked what he believes is the story behind this rematch, Poirier pauses before answering. “Growth,” he says.
Six years ago, Poirier had proved himself just enough that the sport could use him to build another man’s name. That’s how he saw it at least — and actually, that’s how he still sees it. Maybe that first fight against McGregor was a setup. The difference today is, he doesn’t care.
“All those things I thought, they probably were true — but I’m not in a fight with these guys,” Poirier says. “Maturity has taught me these guys aren’t my friends. The UFC is not my people. They’re providing an arena for me to perform. It’s up to me. It’s in my hands. I’m writing the book page by page, and I understand that now.”
This time, win or lose, Poirier will still be a former UFC champion. He doesn’t mind if the majority of the headlines are dedicated to his opponent. He has a daughter, Parker Noelle, and he’s the founder of a charity that recent opponents — such as Nurmagomedov — have contributed to after fights. McGregor is also planning to make a donation.
“I am those people watching, working a 9-to-5, barely making ends meet. I am that. I did it. Maybe I don’t have the best physical attributes. Maybe Conor can jump higher than me. Maybe he can run faster than me. Maybe he can punch harder. But I will find a way, man.”
Poirier’s current goal for The Good Fight Foundation is to open a gym in the neighborhood he grew up in so kids can have the type of outlet that helped him turn his life around. There will be boxing and mixed martial arts, and the tuition will be tied to improved grades. “Just something to get the kids off the streets and somewhere to go after school,” Poirier says.
Poirier understands the life-changing impact his sport can make on kids trying to find their way. And now he also appreciates the importance of putting the sport in context.
“From early in my career, it was who I was,” Poirier says. “It was fighting, and that’s it. That’s all I cared about. Now, like, we’re talking and my daughter is in the other room. I’m a father, a husband, the charity is doing great. Fighting is just something I do. I put my all into it … but this is just something I do. One day, I won’t be able to do this. And then what? I’ll be used up and thrown away? No, man. I’m still a dad, husband, son, brother, businessman.
“This is just something that I’m on in my life, and I’m loving it. I’m riding the wave, having fun and making the most out of it.”
Poirier has come a long way from that day in Las Vegas, when he wanted to fight McGregor at the weigh-in. He’s no longer consumed by his sport, but he’s just as competitive. If he wins, he might get another shot at a world title. But either way, he won’t be defined by what happens in the Octagon.