Dustin Poirier: Justin Gaethje loss led to ‘darkness,’ thoughts of retirement before UFC 299 comeback

If you weren’t in Dustin Poirier’s inner circle, you’d never know his triumphant knockout victory at UFC 299 was the culmination of something much bigger than just a fight camp.

On Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour, Poirier said his knockout loss eight months earlier to Justin Gaethje sent him to a place of “darkness” that had him worried for his own well-being.

“I started actually doing therapy after the [Gaethe] fight,” Poirier said.

Poirier said he related strongly to the struggles of former UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, who teared up describing the restlessness and mental strain that prompted him to take a short-notice rematch with lightweight champ Islam Makhachev. Volkanovski lost the fight by vicious head-kick knockout.

The same strike felled Poirier in his rematch with Gaethje and prompted a journey inward that led to a few significant lifestyle changes, not the least of which was seeing a mental health professional.

“A lot of people helped me,” Poirier said. “My friends, my business partners here in Louisiana, but my wife, really, dude, I’m just very thankful for her. It got to the point where, and if I was in her, if I was in her position, I don’t know if I could take the stuff she’s taken. I would like to think I can, but I’m just grateful to have somebody like that [to see the things I’ve gone through], and the things I’ve put her through going through it.”

Poirer and his wife, Jolie, were high school sweethearts who married and raised a family as he became a professional MMA fighter. The two now run Poirier’s nonprofit, The Good Fight Foundation, in addition to other projects.

Poirier said the loss to Gaethje caused an identity crisis where he questioned whether he would continue fighting. He said going to therapy helped him reframe the way he looked at himself as a fighter and a person outside of his job.

“Because fighting was everything to me,” he said. “It was my whole life. Like I judged who I was but by fighting. It was the person I am. If I’m not the fighter Dustin, the fighter who am I? And I just kind of like tried to take a step back from that after the Gaethje loss when I was going through all this s***. And like it’s just something I do. Fighting is part of my life. It’s been a vehicle to get me and my family where I need to be to set up the foundation and help people. It’s been a vehicle to get things in the right place. But this is just something I do. Life goes on.”

Training for the Saint Denis fight, Poirier cut down on the media he consumed in his off hours, went for morning walks to clear his head, and even stopped responding to certain family members as he got closer to UFC 299. All of it was to help stay in the present and practice a sense of gratitude for his life.

“Maybe I’m getting old, maybe I’m being an old man,” he said. “I’m just trying to, like, experience things in a different way, because I’m so blessed, just to be in this mindset.

“I’m just really grateful for the experience of life, providing for my family, every day, wake up, walk 30 minutes in my own thoughts, get away from electronics and just give gratitude, because what a journey, what a journey, man.”

Poirier feels like he emerged from that dark place and is now much more optimistic about the future, however long he has remaining in the sport. He called for a title shot against current champ Islam Makhachev in June, an opportunity he believes is justified given his recent win and his overall resume.

Down the road, Poirier plans to keep a therapist in his corner so everything stays in the right perspective.

“I think it’s important to like open up and talk about how you feel,” he said. “You know, we’re such in the spotlight of being tough guys all the time, but we’re people too. That’s the part of the mindset, like, Dustin the fighter. But what about, what about Dustin? What about me? … So it’s good to tap in with yourself, and check in on yourself, and be good to yourself.”

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