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  • Ahead of his fight against Max Holloway at UFC 236, veteran Dustin Poirier reflects on his career, where he came from and his passion for the sport.
By Jon Wertheim
April 11, 2019

In the documentary Fightville, one of the central subjects explains his attachment to combat sports. “Fighting,” says Dustin Poirier in a thick Cajun accent, “opens a path of redemption to me.” Poirier was 19 at the time—a scrappy kid, short on skill and long on heart—fighting mixed martial events in Louisiana.

Today, Poirier is 30, a father, husband, and UFC veteran of nearly two-dozen fights. On Saturday night in Atlanta, the lightweight division’s No. 3 contender Poirier (24–5, 1 NC) takes on Max Holloway (20–3) at UFC 236, a rematch of a fight Poirier won in 2012 available exclusively on ESPN+. And through it all, he still finds redemption in fighting.

Two days before weigh-ins, he spoke with Sports Illustrated. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)


What: UFC 236

When: Saturday. Early prelims begin at 6:15 p.m.; main card scheduled to start at 10 p.m. (All times ET.)

Where: State Farm Arena, Atlanta

TV:  Pay-per-view broadcast available exclusively on ESPN+. Early preliminary bouts on ESPN+, UFC Fight Pass (6:15-8 p.m.). Prelims on ESPN (8 p.m.).

Jon Wertheim: How are you feeling a few weeks out?

DP: Never been better.

JW: What’s fight week like for you?

DP:  I’ve been doing these so long. It’s about keeping the energy up. Good vibes. But the feelings of nervousness, of uncomfortable, they don’t go away. You just get more acquainted with them over time. So it’s my twentysomething fight with this organization. So you say, “Another fight week. Here we go.” It doesn’t shake me. And same thing in the fight.

JW: You’ve had these conversations before.

DP: Exactly. Here we are again. You’re fighting—you’re supposed to have butterflies in your stomach.

JW: You came from south Florida, where you’ve been training. He comes from halfway across the world. Does the adjustment give you an advantage?

DP: I don’t play into that so much.

JW: He’s coming off a war. You’re not. How much does your last fight factor in your next fight?

DP: If he’s coming off a war, his hands might be coming off a war. He fought a few months ago. He put on a great performance and didn’t take any real damage. I needed the break [Poirier hasn’t fought since July] because I had pumped out a few fights. I fought some wars—you want to talk about wars—back to back. I needed to get a few things taken care of. It’s perfect timing. I had the pedal to the metal fighting the best guys and putting on some good shows. So this is perfect timing.

JW: Give us a sense of what that means in terms of recovery. When you have those wars, what are the days after like? What’s the damage and what’s the recovery?

DP: Every fight is different. It just depends how it went and where the kicks land, where the punches land, how he blocked. Every fight is like a different landscape of what you go through. But sometimes it’s small injuries. Sometimes it’s lessons you walk away with. Every fight is different but they all hurt, for sure.

JW: How much should we be reading into your first fight [against Max Holloway]?

DP: That was seven years ago. Seven years at the top of the best organization in the world, fighting the best guys. He has done that and so have I. He’s the undisputed world champion at 145 pounds. He’s made the adjustments and he’s hitting his stride.

JW: Sounds like you respect him.

DP: I do.

JW: Any personal feelings?

DP: Just respect. I’m excited for this fight. I appreciate it when I go into fights that the other guy has a skill set. I’m prepared.

JW: You don’t need to have friction with someone as a motivation.

DP: Of course. I’ve been doing this too long to need to be mad at somebody.

JW: He says that he comes from a fighting culture in Hawaii. Do you come from a fighting culture?

DP: For sure, 100%. I come from south Louisiana where everyone has a blue-collar work ethic. People I grew up with, my family, work in the oil fields. Everyone works a labor job—construction, concrete. All we know is work. It’s a physical culture.

JW: What are you doing if you’re not fighting?

DP: I don’t know. I don’t want to know! I don’t want to think about that. I’ve been fighting since I’m 18. I probably would have gotten into some trouble. I’m sure.

JW: You strike me as the kind of person, the kind of fighter who doesn’t mind a bit of discomfort.

DP: No.

JW: You don’t mind exploring boundaries—

DP: To me, that’s what fighting is. It’s fighting, you know, it’s pressure. It’s uncomfortable. It hurts. It’s how much you can deal with and whether you can make adjustments on the fly. That high-level game, that’s what fighting is to me. So I expect those uncomfortable feelings the whole time. 

JW: Where does that [mentality] come from?

DP: Fighting the best guys for so long. But also from fighting for everything I have in life. That’s the way I know.

JW: Mental toughness is something—

DP: Something you have or you don’t. But honestly, at this level everybody has it. You have to. Or you wouldn’t be at this level.

JW: How much attention do you pay to the drama in your weight class?

DP: None. Because I have a fight Saturday. That’s all I care about.

JW: So when you’re told, ‘If you win this fight, here’s who you have coming next’—

DP: It has no impact because it’s not a reality until sometimes happens.

JW: How’d you feel about Fightville?

DP: I feel great about it because I was a young kid who got to show the world who he was. We started filming that when I was an amateur. The guy filming that lived in New York but came down to Louisiana for a few months, so it took like four years to get the while thing filmed. But it’s great to have that moment captured so my kids can see that. It’ll be there forever and I’m appreciative of that.

JW: Your recognize the guy in the film?

DP: For sure! That’s who made this guy. That’s who evolved into this guy. They did a great job capturing who I was. But it’s crazy to go back and look at how we were training. It was caveman days of mixed martial arts.

JW: You mention your family. What’s the intersection for you between work and family?

DP: Fighting has been part of my life so long, it’s impossible to keep them separate. My family comes to Florida for my training camp for 8-10 weeks. My daughter knows what I do. My family goes through this with me.

JW: Is there a metric for success in this sport other than winning or losing?

DP: Winning is everything.

JW: There’s no way to have a good day at the office unless you win the fight?

DP: No. It’s a bad day.

JW: What about the opposite? Can you ever win but not be pleased?

DP: Win or lose or draw, you always go back and critique your performance and say you could have done things better. Even if I put the guy away in one round, I can go back and say I made a lot of mistakes and need to tighten up. But that’s the type of person I am. Improve. Improve. Improve. When I lose I come back stronger than ever.

I’m a perfectionist and there’s no such thing as being perfect at a sport like this.

JW: No such thing as perfection—

DP: No. Too many variables. But it’s an ongoing challenge, an ongoing chase. It’s a pursuit to be the best you best I can be at this space where I am in life. 

JW: That sounds like anything you could ever want in a job.

DP: I love it, man. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

Watch Holloway-Poirier + Israel Adesanya-Kelvin Gastelum in the first UFC pay-pay-view event exclusively on ESPN+.

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