Mailbag: Where does Dustin Poirier rank among the greats to never win an undisputed belt?

UFC 302 is in the books and the lightweight champion has a name, and it’s still Islam Makhachev. The top pound-for-pound fighter in the world successfully defended his title against Dustin Poirier in a fight that was more competitive than many expected. Other than that, Sean Strickland won another split decision, this time over Paulo Costa in the most Sean Strickland fight of all-time, and honestly, that’s about it. On paper, 302 was a bit light in stakes, and the event itself has already been widely panned as one of the worst of the year.

So where do we go from here? To y’all’s questions, of course.

Dustin Poirier

“Where does Dustin rank amongst the greatest fighters never to win an undisputed belt in any organization? Personally, I have him top 5 with (not in any order) Sakuraba, Yoel, Cro Cop and Kid Yamamoto.”

First off, terrific top five. Love the old-school bend. But the absence of Tony Ferguson is notable. I’m not even a big Tony fan, but the man has earned his spot. Same for Joseph Benavidez. And if we’re talking everyone, Megumi Fujii has a strong case as No. 1 overall, so she’s a miss. But let’s say we’re talking only about men. Rankings like this are always wildly subjective and fraught with complications, but I have Poirier as No. 3 all-time.

It’s a bit chalk, but I’m defaulting to Mirko Cro Cop as No. 1. Like Poirier, Cro Cop had the unfortunate timing of existing during the Fedor Emelianenko timeline, and so he never got to hold an undisputed title, but for two or three years there, he was the second-best heavyweight in the world, and his résumé is littered with excellence (a lot of trash as well, but everyone has that).

My No. 2 is Kazushi Sakuraba. “The Gracie Hunter” is a tricky customer to rank in stuff because he lost almost as much as he won, but we’re talking about a natural welterweight who just messed around and fought open-weight bouts against the best heavyweights and light heavyweights in the world. There’s a reason Sakuraba was your favorite fighter’s favorite fighter for ages and ages, and I’m giving him that respect.

So Poirier is No. 3, which ain’t half bad. And if you have him at No. 1, no issues with that. Really, there’s no wrong way to eat this Reese’s.

Then I round out my top 10 with Tony, Benavidez, Yoel, Kid, Cowboy, Mark Hunt, and Alexander Gustafsson. I think that’s my list, though it’s obviously leaving plenty of excellent fighters out of it.

Islam Makhachev

“Even though Islam won, do you think he got exposed by Poirier?

Oh, MMA. What a wonderful sport, where you can put on a complete performance against one of the best fighters of all-time, culminating in a championship finish, and have people saying you’ve been exposed. Now, to be fair, I’m not saying that’s what this person is saying, but the sentiment certainly was out there Saturday night. And to all of you who think that, you’re being quite silly.

The idea that Islam was going to walk through Poirier was always overly simplistic. Yes, Khabib Nurmagomedov did, but Islam and Khabib are not the same fighter. Poirier was always likely to give Islam a more difficult fight, and that’s without accounting for how incredible he looked on Saturday. Make no mistake, that was technically the best Poirier we’ve ever seen (though athletically he’s falling off). His defensive wrestling has never been better and his clinch work was outstanding. But in the end it didn’t matter, because he was fighting the best dude in the world.

Here’s the thing about being a champion: It’s hard. It’s so hard. It’s, like, the hardest. Winning a UFC title, particularly at lightweight, is an outrageous accomplishment. Defending that title is impossible.

Champions can’t have days off. They can’t dog it through a title fight. They can’t show up to work hungover and hope to skate by their meetings without anyone noticing, because if they try, it’s curtains. Every time a champion fights, they are taking on one of the very best fighters in the world, at the absolute peak of that fighter’s game. Challenger’s have spent their entire lives trying to get to that point and they’re going to give everything in them to actualize their dreams.

As a champion, you have to stop that, repel the invaders, time and again for as long as you can. It’s exhausting mentally, and even Islam said as much after the fight when he asked for a welterweight title shot because defending the belt doesn’t hit the same. He’s not the first champion to say that. Basically all of them do so, because it’s true. Defending a belt is the hardest thing to do. And so when Islam doesn’t meet the (foolish) expectations that he will annihilate Poirier, but still wins the fight authoritatively, I say to you that, no, he was not exposed. He just has an extremely difficult job.

Islam Pt. 2

“Islam took a risk in this fight, out-grappled and outstruck one of the best lightweight of all time. What are your thoughts?”

Carrying over from the first one, I wanted to add a few additional notes about the fight.

It rocked.

Yes, Makhachev struggled with the wrestling, but that’s a testament to Poirier and American Top Team working hard to mitigate that. Poirier was MUCH better about denying chain-wrestling opportunities to Makhachev than he was against Khabib, and as a result, he stayed upright more. Even still, Islam scored a takedown in every round and racked up 10 minutes of control time, much of that in dominant position. Poirier effectively stopped Islam’s Plan A, the champ just had Plans B, C, and D to fall back on.

Also, Islam continues to be show improvement as a striker. Not many people out there would think that he’s one of the best in the division, but it’s true. He has a cohesive kickboxing game that attacks all levels, in combination, and prioritizes defense first. Yes, the threat of grappling helps him, but this ain’t GLORY. That’s part of the game and he leverages it beautifully.

The thing that surprised me most was the clinch. Makhachev has historically been a terror in the clinches, but Poirier more than held his own there. Whenever Islam got his collar ties, Poirier went right to work pounding the body and then breaking grip so Makhachev couldn’t get knees off. I was very impressed by Dustin there.

And lastly, the leg whip to set up the final grappling exchange was dope. Islam had a weak single, knew Poirier was going to throw at his head, baited it, then whipped the leg, leading to headlock position and eventual brabo choke. Man is a beautiful technician and we’re privileged to watch him work.

Moving up

“How frustrating is it to have UFC figure heads pander to keep the champchamp era? When do you think we will see this quest for undeserved simultaneous belts end?”

After the fight, Makhachev called for a shot at the welterweight title, and while there is a case for it (not a case I support, mind you, but a case) it seems unlikely that it will happen. UFC CEO Dana White, when he wasn’t demoting Islam as a fighter, basically acted like this was the first time he ever heard of Makhachev wanting to move up, which suggests he’s not into the idea. And while White is mostly wrong about everything, he’s correct with regard to this: Makhachev should not get a welterweight title shot.

I’m one of the most vocal opponents of the “champ-champ era” of MMA for a dozen reasons, but this is the most obvious one: The divisions have viable contenders that deserve their chance. Leon Edwards is about to defend against Belal Muhammad and then the winner of that MUST fight Shavkat Rakhmonov, or else what are we doing here? Along those lines, Arman Tsarukyan deserves his rematch with Makhachev. And then after that, both divisions have no shortage of contenders. Making others suffer and wait to fulfill the vain aspirations of your champions is silly and erodes the sporting aspect of MMA.

If Makhachev wants to get a welterweight title, I’m all for that. Pursue your ambitions. But vacate the lightweight strap to do so and get in line behind Shavkat.

Up next

“How do you think Islam vs. Arman goes?”

Ultimately, Islam is going to defend against Arman. He said he’s willing and the UFC isn’t going to give him a welterweight title shot. So sometime at the end of the year, or the next time the company goes to Abu Dhabi, that’ll be the fight.

And honestly, I think it’s a bad one for Arman. Previously I had doubts, but things crystalized for me ahead of 302 as I went back and watched tape. Arman is not Khabib Nurmagomedov, but there’s certainly some similarities to their games, and Islam’s game is basically the anti-Khabib. He functionally spent his entire life training against Khabib, and so he has tons of tools and tricks to work against that. It’s why Luke Rockhold was such an tricky counter-wrestler, because he couldn’t actively wrestle Daniel Cormier, so he developed stuff around that.

That’s not to say that I think Islam kills Tsarukyan. Just that he’ll probably win a competitive 25 minutes over him, where he edges out every round. Tsarukyan will rarely, if ever get takedowns, and while he’s a powerful striker, he lacks Islam’s craft and volume. And in the clinch I think Islam has a clear edge. So Tsarukyan will compete well, but he’s just a little behind in all phases, which is a tough spot.

Who can dethrone Islam?

“Outside of immediate contenders like Arman, which up and coming lightweights do you feel present the greatest challenge to Islam should he still be champion in 18 months time?”

Honestly, nobody. It’s lightweight, so like, anything can happen in any fight. It’s not like anyone thought Adriano Martins would flat-line Islam like he did, so that’s always in play, but the current lightweight crop seems especially ill-suited to defeat Makhachev. The only person I’d give at least a realistic possibility to is Rafael Fiziev, and even then I think that’s more a “lose competitively” proposition.

Plus, Usman Nurmagomedov is looming. Sure, he’s not in the UFC, but I’m not sure how much longer that will be true. Usman is kind of like Islam v2.0. So what I’m saying is that for the foreseeable future, the lightweight title runs through Dagestan. Sucks to be a 155-pound fighter from anywhere else right now.

Sean Strickland

“He’s a polarizing guy, but should Sean Strickland get more credit for being a champion/contender at 185 when he nearly lost his career to the patella dislocation/serious quad tear in his motorcycle accident 6 years ago?”

I mean, if you want to give him credit for that, go ahead. That’s not something I ever care much about though. Life happens to everyone, we just don’t hear about all of it.

But Strickland should get plenty of credit for being a champion and elite contender given where he started. If you asked people five years ago, very few would’ve predicted Strickland as champion. (Mike) Heck, if you asked people 18 months ago, they would’ve laughed at the possibility.

For Strickland to have this sort of career arc is a testament to him and his coaching, because it’s not like he is an undeniable talent. Strickland isn’t wildly athletic, he’s not a big finisher, and he’s not really a technical savant. But he’s defensively sound, has smart ideas, and he executes exactly what the game plan is every fight. Strickland didn’t get to where he is for any other reason than hard work and a good team, and we should always respect that.

Thanks for reading, and thank you for everyone who sent in tweets (Xs?)! Do you have any burning questions about things at least somewhat related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your tweets to me, @JedKMeshew, and I will answer my favorite ones! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane, just so long as they are good. Thanks again, and see y’all next week.

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