He might not be ready to admit it just yet, but somewhere down the line, Dustin Poirier will likely say that losing to Chan Sung Jung last spring was the best thing that could have happened to him.
The 24-year-old Louisiana native emerged from relative obscurity 16 months earlier with his upset win over Josh Grispi at UFC 125. Grispi was expected to face Jose Aldo for the featherweight title on the first UFC pay-per-view of 2011, but when the champion fell out with an injury, Poirier stepped up, scored a unanimous decision victory in his UFC debut, and the two fighters switched trajectories.
Poirier would go on to add wins over Jason Young, Pablo Garza, and Max Holloway to his resume over the next year and change, setting up his main-event showdown with “The Korean Zombie” this past May in Fairfax, Va. The wildly entertaining contest earned Fight of the Year honours from numerous outlets, and both fighters showed the grit and mettle, but in the end, Jung came away with the victory after securing a D’Arce choke early in the fourth round of the five-round main event affair.
The loss pressed pause on Poirier’s climb up the rankings, and made him take a good, hard look at his situation.
As detailed in the tremendous documentary Fightville, Poirier is a homegrown talent; a fighter who got his start and made his ascension to the biggest stage in the sport training under Ultimate Fighter alum Tim Credeur at his Gladiator’s Academy in his hometown of Lafayette, La. He was a big fish in a little pond, and after the loss to Jung, Poirier knew that he needed to find new waters in order to take the next step forward in his career.
That’s why coming off his first UFC loss, the talented, young featherweight known as “The Diamond” made the tough decision to pack his things and leave the only place he’d ever called home, trading in the comfort of life in Louisiana surrounded by family, friends, and familiarity, for life as a full-time member of American Top Team (ATT) in Coconut Creek, Fla.
“Everything I love and everything I have was in Louisiana, where I’m from and grew up,” Poirier told me when we spoke for a feature on ufc.com in advance of his fight with Jonathan Brookins in December. “My family is there — just the security of being comfortable, knowing everybody, and stuff like that — but these chances don’t come over and over again. I’m in the UFC, and I want to be a world champion, so I decided to do what I had to do, and make sacrifices. I’m selling my house in Louisiana, and just completely moved out here.”
Though other gyms have worked their way into the spotlight, ATT remains one of the top outfits in the sport, and drew glowing praise from UFC president Dana White during his post-fight media scrum at UFC 156, where team members Tyron Woodley and Antonio (Bigfoot) Silva both scored impressive knockout victories.
Poirier earned his impressive victory six weeks earlier, dropping Brookins with a series of heavy strikes as the two went toe-to-toe before he sunk in a D’Arce choke of his own to secure the submission win.
Two months later, Poirier will return to the cage to take on surging featherweight contender Cub Swanson in the co-main event of this weekend’s UFC on Sportsnet: Barao vs. McDonald from Wembley Arena in London, England. It’s a quick turnaround for Poirier, who accepted the opportunity to fill in for the injured Dennis Siver one month after dispatching Brookins. Like his decision to uproot and relocate to Florida, it was an opportunity the championship hopeful couldn’t pass up.
Swanson has put together an impressive three-fight winning streak over the last year, earning a trio of finishes and back-to-back Knockout of the Night bonuses during that span. The longtime Team Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter has steadily climbed up the rankings, and sits one spot ahead of Poirier in the latest iteration of the UFC/FightMetric rankings published Monday.
Stepping in for Siver on short notice against a fighter on a tear like Swanson speaks volumes about where Poirier’s confidence is at right now. Jumping right back into the fray with just four weeks to prepare is challenging, regardless of the opponent, and the degree of difficulty increases steadily when it’s someone as well-rounded and on-point as Swanson standing 30 feet away on the other side of the cage.
His willingness to take such a challenging fight on short notice indicates that Poirier’s confidence is at an all-time high. Just one win removed from having his forward progress halted by his loss to “The Korean Zombie,” the newest addition to the all-star line-up at American Top Team could have opted to stay on the sidelines a little longer and wait for another offer, taking a more protective and cautious approach to his record and standing.
Instead, Poirier took one of the toughest fights available in the featherweight division, and did so on short notice, fully intent on ending Swanson’s winning streak and extending his own in impressive fashion.
It’s the kind of gutsy move you don’t see too often at the highest level of the sport, but one that isn’t as surprising coming from Poirier.
He’s intensely driven and fiercely motivated to make it to the top of the featherweight division, and was willing to trade the ease and comfort of life in Louisiana in order to take the next step on the road to reaching that goal.
The initial returns were mostly positive, and Poirier is primed to show Swanson and the rest of the division how much better he’s gotten now that he’s been the new fish swimming with sharks on a daily basis in the talented waters at ATT.