With his MMA mindset, Dustin Poirier learns a little defense goes a long way

Dustin Poirier might be shaving in the morning, staring blankly into the mirror.

He’s thinking about MMA.

He may be on the way to the gym, music playing, but he can’t really sing along. His mind is on MMA.

Before lunch, after lunch, on the drive home, mowing the lawn, eating his dinner, preparing for bed, it’s always the same: He constantly is thinking about the sport that has made him rich and famous and left him on the brink of a world title.

“I think it’s a love-hate type of thing,” Poirier told Yahoo Sports of his relationship with MMA these days. “Some days I love it but other days, I hate it. I think that’s the way it is with a lot of things you invest a big piece of yourself. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t wake up thinking of combat sports and fighting.

“I go to sleep and my mind is racing because I’m thinking about fighting. I’m thinking about technique, what I should do, all that stuff. It never leaves my mind, ever. “

Poirier meets Justin Gaethje in a rematch of their classic 2018 bout that Poirier won by fourth-round knockout in the main event of UFC 291 on Saturday at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City for the BMF belt.

Like Gaethje, Poirier is eager to fight for a belt that was only up for grabs once, between Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz in 2019. It is, Poirier said just as Gaethje did, a legacy fight.

For more than a decade, Poirier has been a mainstay on the UFC roster, one of the promotion’s best and most exciting assets. He’s 29-7 with a no-contest in 37 pro fights, including 14 wins by knockout and eight by submission. In the UFC, Poirier is 21-6 and held the interim lightweight belt.

He’s scored two wins over Conor McGregor as well as over Gaethje, Max Holloway, Eddie Alvarez, Anthony Pettis, Michael Chandler and Dan Hooker, among others, enough success for two careers.

But he’s 34 now, owns multiple businesses, is heavily invested in his charitable foundation and the father of a young girl. The priorities are different now than they were when he came up a young, raw and eager fighter.

He’d love to win the outright championship, and at one point realized he needed to turn things down. It’s highly appropriate he’s fighting Gaethje for the BMF belt because he’s won Fight of the Night eight times, Performance of the Night four times and Submission of the Night once.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 12: Dustin Poirier reacts after his submission victory over Michael Chandler in a lightweight bout during the UFC 281 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Dustin Poirier hopes to win a world championship, but Saturday in the main event of UFC 291 in Salt Lake City, Utah, he’ll face Justin Gaethje for the BMF belt. (Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

It’s made him a constant at the top of the sport and in arguably the UFC’s deepest division, but he hasn’t gotten that belt he so craves. He was so aggressive, so offensive-minded in his early days that he lost fights he could have and should have won.

There’s a reason so many coaches across multiple sports say that offense wins games but defense wins championships. A knockout loss to Michael Johnson in 2016 in which he lasted just 95 seconds clarified for him that he needed to expand his game.

Poirier started to move his head more, work on improving his footwork and the things that don’t necessarily pull the fans out of their seats but produce wins on the regular.

“I’ve had to hone my skills and make an effort to be more defensive,” Poirier said. “From Day 1, my first fight, I was trying to finish guys and sometimes that puts you in harm’s way. You get Fight of the Night and it’s great, but it’s back and forth and crazy and you don’t know what can happen. That’s how I fought my whole life.

“So I’ve tried to make those subtle improvements and not change the essence of who I am or how I approach this, but at the same time knowing it’s a smart thing to do in terms of winning as well as helping to extend my career.”

Gaethje has gone through much the same process and points to fights where he believes he’s fought smarter and more under control as an example of the work he’s doing.

Poirier is not only one of the classiest men in the sport, but he’s also among the shrewdest fighters who ever stepped foot into the cage. And he sees what Gaethje has tried.

“I see these things he’s done, but there are still a lot of flashes of the old Justin,” Poirier said.

Fans will be lucky if it’s the old Dustin versus the old Justin, even if both of them are attempting to be a bit less outrageously offensive.