The favored son of Lafayette, Louisiana, was getting ready to fly halfway around the world. But Dustin Poirier wasn't really in the mood to talk tourism.
"I think I'm gonna check out some mosques," he said. "I don't know. That's only based on like five minutes of Wikipedia, though."
The mosques of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates are indeed a top destination for visitors. But everyone knows that's not why Poirier (25-5-1) was getting on that plane. The UFC interim champ travels there to face lineal champ Khabib Nurmagomedov (27-0) Saturday at UFC 242.
And, for all the winning Poirier's been doing lately, the odds are very much not in his favor. What's more, hardcore fight fans know that without needing to be told.
That's because of Nurmagomedov, who's now a regular in the highest reaches of the MMA hierarchy. He'd have to be to be a -430 favorite on Caesars as of Monday night to vanquish the same Poirier who just defeated the great Max Holloway (21-4) for the interim strap and before that knocked out Anthony Pettis (22-9), Justin Gaethje (20-2) and Eddie Alvarez (30-7-1) in succession.
Poirier is dangerous in any phase of a fight and has proven a fearless, high-octane competitor over a 10-year career. He and his coaches from the gold-standard American Top Team camp will have a diamond-honed game plan ready to deploy. But as he gets on the plane, the underdog may have another, unlikely ally: one Mr. Conor McGregor.
We'd probably have heard about it if the two had trained together, or spoken on the phone, or anything else you could think of. These days the cameras document each of McGregor's trips to the water closet, which maybe isn't so weird given his new penchant for fighting random civilians. No, it's something more subtle.
McGregor lost by fourth-round submission to Nurmagomedov back in October at UFC 229. Now, Poirier's fighting Nurmagomedov. Disregarding the free tutorial would border on nonsensical. Still, when asked, plenty of fighters deny it anyway, at least in part because it's vaguely uncool to admit to such a thing.
But Poirier's not like that. He's not what you'd call outspoken, but fans and reporters alike know him as a relatively forthcoming fighter, keeping that Louisiana plainspokenness with himself, his sport and his preparation.
So, then, Dustin, what were the lessons? What did McGregor do wrong during the fight with Nurmagomedov?
"He slowed down," Poirier told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "He made some mistakes in the grappling department. Like with getting up, getting back to his feet. He was giving up his back. He slowed down. He let [Nurmagomedov] settle in and get comfortable."
That's a pretty good CliffsNotes Nurmagomedov. The key is not so much to prevent the Dagestani from getting his game off as it is how to stop him from truly hitting his groove, characterized by a slow boil of takedowns, control time, punching, limb-twisting and matter-of-fact exhortations to give up.
Poirier's takedown defense is good but not great—much like McGregor's. In fact, official UFC stats give McGregor a 70 percent defense rate, with Poirier one point below at 69 percent. MMA is a notoriously challenging sport to describe using statistics, but when you note that Nurmagomedov hit three of seven attempts against McGregor—with extended damage and control time racking up each time for the Dagestani—over four-plus rounds, it's logical to suspect a similar fate might await Poirier.
It's after those takedowns that Nurmagomedov starts to break opponents like so much kindling. It was odd to watch someone as talented and cocksure as McGregor look at times almost helpless, eating shot after shot while pinioned in one way or another to the canvas. McGregor was sometimes able to explode back to his feet, but not without absorbing the damage that defined the fight.
To hear Poirier tell it, McGregor was too passive in his grappling, defaulting to defense and looking to explode back to the feet rather than looking for more engagement on the ground. Poirier has a deeper grappling background than McGregor, thanks to a jiu-jitsu black belt and years of training under coach Mike Brown and the vaunted American Top Team staff.
"I don't let him get comfortable," Poirier said. "I just need to scramble; keep scrambling. You have to keep moving so he doesn't settle in."
Poirier's advantage on the feet is clear, but it's not definitive. Yes, Poirier has 12 career knockouts, but he lacks the one-shot power that McGregor wields in that sun-kissed left hand of his. Nurmagomedov is no babe in the woods here. Recall him faking the takedown toward McGregor and then putting him on his backside with a right hand. Also recall him eating some stiff McGregor shots, even though he never absorbed the full force of the left.
Regardless, striking is the clear path to victory when faced with the waking nightmare of Nurmagomedov's ground game. Just as Poirier says he'll be more active on the ground, he also suggests big output on the feet. McGregor never landed that big-time shot on Nurmagomedov's jaw. The Louisanan, with his signature high-output style, just might stand a better chance. It's an open question how long his cardio would allow him to sustain that pace at a consistent level, but based on what happened to McGregor, it might be Poirier's best play.
"I stop his [takedown] shots and I don't stop moving," Poirier said. "Keep working. Keep moving. And then I stop him."
Scott Harris writes about MMA and other topics for Bleacher Report.