Dustin Poirier’s MMA career was pretty much summarized during a brief verbal exchange with his corner between the fourth and fifth rounds of his UFC on ESPN 12 headliner with Dan Hooker on Saturday in Las Vegas. Poirier and Hooker were in the midst of a brutal war, with the fighters ultimately combining to land nearly 400 strikes in 25 minutes. Both men showed the marks of combat on their faces, with blood coming from Poirier’s eye. The fight would be decided by the final round, and Hooker had already shown his ability to get to Poirier, appearing to have the Louisiana native in deep trouble at the end of Round 2.
“Having fun?” Poirier’s corner asked him.
“Having a blast, yeah,” he responded. This was no put on or a fighter trying to build up his own confidence. It was paradigmatic Poirier, a fighter’s fighter and someone who genuinely enjoys the thrill of the fight. It’s what makes Poirier one of the greatest action fighters in the history of the sport. After his performance against Hooker, 2020 will mark the fourth year that Poirier was involved in a top “Fight of the Year” contender (vs. Chan Sung Jung in 2012, vs. Justin Gaethje in 2018, vs. Max Holloway in 2019 and vs. Hooker in 2020). These are the types of fights that often take a toll on the participants, but Poirier just keeps coming back for more. He’s as tough and durable now as he was when he entered big-time MMA under the World Extreme Cagefighting banner 10 years ago.
Those four “Fight of the Year” contenders are the only times Poirier has made it past the third round, and that’s not an accident. Poirier’s fights tend to be thrilling for as long as they last, and the primary factor working against them becoming classics is that they usually end earlier and in violent fashion. Poirier’s 73 percent finish rate—12 knockouts and seven submissions in 26 wins—is impressive in a bubble and nearly 50 percent higher than the division average. It’s even more impressive when you consider the competition level and his knocking out some of the best fighters in the world. On the ground, he attacks aggressively, as well, as reflected in the way he became the first man to submit Anthony Pettis in MMA competition and the only man to submit Holloway.
That speaks to Poirier’s most notable attribute: the way that he fights. Some of the most exciting fighters of all-time have often been content to sit back and counterstrike, waiting for their opponent to engage. Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell and Robbie Lawler were all in legendary battles, but they also found themselves in cautious stalemates from time to time. The same fighter will often look markedly different depending on how his opponent chooses to engage, even in the case of the sport’s most notable action stars.
The Silva who fought against Forrest Griffin was in stark contrast to the one who fought Demian Maia eight months later. “The Iceman” and Murilo Bustamante were in a dull standup affair nine months before Liddell’s scintillating war with Vitor Belfort. Lawler was in one of the most violent and explosive one-round fights ever against Melvin Manhoef, and five months later, he lost in what felt like a sparring session against Renato Sobral.
By contrast, Poirier is more of a marauder, like Gaethje or Wanderlei Silva. He isn’t stupid, as evidenced by his impressive winning percentage, but he doesn’t lay back. He pushes forward and looks to finish his opponent, fight after fight, year in and year out. The fact that he isn’t a big talker and the way he carries himself professionally belies a career defined by relentless, crowd-pleasing action.
It’s difficult for fighters to maintain that level of commitment to aggression over the course of a long career. As paychecks get bigger and young, dangerous opponents keep popping up, it’s hard to keep bringing the same approach. In that respect, Poirier is likely helped by his quest for the world title. If Poirier had risen to the top earlier in his career, it’s possible he might have gotten complacent. Instead, he has been chasing that top status for a decade, and he fights with a hunger that reflects his pursuit. He won an interim title, but No. 1 status still eludes him.
It seems probable that in the coming years Poirier’s reputation will continue to grow. Fighters more often than not reach their peak in popularity and drawing power late in their careers, as fans grow to appreciate just how impressive their legacies are when examined more closely. However, regardless of Poirier’s level of notoriety in the coming years, he has already established a fighting legacy of the highest order. When you think of the most exciting fighters to ever put on a pair of gloves, don’t forget about “The Diamond.”