A vision realized: Inside Dustin Poirier's long road to a UFC title shot

Dustin Poirier will look to win the UFC's interim lightweight title in a bout with Max Holloway at UFC 236 in Atlanta on Saturday. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/AP Photo

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. -- Dustin Poirier will be sitting up late some nights -- unable to sleep, staring out into nothingness. In those moments, his mind will wander. The walk from the locker room to the Octagon. The cheers of the crowd. The smell of leather and canvas. He'll envision walking into the cage and the door shutting.

He knows these feelings from experience, picked up over more than eight years of fighting in the UFC -- from his first fight in the promotion against Josh Grispi to his most recent bout in 2018 against Eddie Alvarez.

He has been the main event, and he has been on the undercard. But through the first 30 fights of Poirier's career, he has never been here -- about to compete for a UFC title. He was serious earlier this year, when he considered leaving the circuit. Then this fight against featherweight champ Max Holloway showed up with the UFC interim lightweight belt on the line, and the visions started.

"Obviously, every fight's different, but them coming to get me from the locker room. Me warming up. Me cutting weight," Poirier said. "It's just like I can feel it all. The smells. The only thing I can't do from experience is feel that belt being wrapped around my waist, but I'm imagining what it's going to feel like and I can't wait."

Poirier believes he should be in this position now, even if he had to wait a while to get here. He knows the time and sacrifices he and his wife, Jolie, have had to make for him to keep fighting.

If Poirier does win the UFC interim lightweight title Saturday -- the culmination of 10 years of highs and lows, of big wins and brutal losses -- he knows where he'll head: to the person who was there when he lost to Chan Sung Jung and Cub Swanson in less than a year early in his UFC career; when he lost his first main event to Michael Johnson in 2016; and for the victories in eight of his past 10 fights entering Saturday.

He'll head to Jolie. And he'll tell her she was right.

"I've been telling Dustin for years that he's going to be a world champion," Jolie said. "I've been telling him for years that he's the best in the world and it's just a matter of time, if he's given that opportunity, he's going to make it happen.

"So, even whenever he got the fight, I was like, 'I told you. It's going to happen. You're going to be the world champion. Here's your opportunity. Just go out there and make it happen.'"

She is passionate as she says this, while also saying she probably would throw an "I told you so" in there, as well. She has said it daily for years. In the mornings before he'd go to train, and at night after long days of training camps. In notes she would sometimes write him before he left on trips.

She looks at it as positive reinforcement, of unwavering support for a career they've both focused so much of their time and energy on. She admits it's hard to watch her husband fight because "I'm a nervous wreck." She won't enjoy it until later, at home, when she'll watch alone to see what happened. In the moment, she is too busy being concerned about her husband, yelling suggestions he is unlikely to hear. But for her, that's another way to be supportive.

"She's a person who has always supported me, even in times when I was low," Poirier said. "When I was lost and was like, 'I don't know,' she always believed in me. At times when I didn't believe in myself, she believed in me.

"And taught me a lot throughout my career. I try not to cry talking about it. But she's always been there for me."

He starts to choke up. The words don't come as easily. The two of them have been in this together for a long time. This has become their lives. They moved from Louisiana to Florida. They started a charity called The Good Fight Foundation, which links charitable projects to Poirier's fights.

Poirier auctions his fighting kits to raise money for various projects. This time, they are working to build a playground for children with disabilities at Prairie Elementary School in Lafayette, Louisiana.

They are doing it in honor of Aaron Hill, a 7-year-old Prairie student who died in October 2017 after suffering from a rare genetic brain disorder, X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy. Aaron wanted the playground, but it couldn't be completed before he died. Then the Poiriers learned of his story.

Jolie became especially attached, saying if they don't raise enough money through the auctioning of the fight gear, the Poiriers will pay for the rest out of their own pockets. They try to have a charity or cause linked to each of Poirier's fights, but this effort -- in their hometown of Lafayette, where they met in middle school at 14 -- was the one they wanted to link to the biggest fight of his career.

"He didn't get to see his dream become a reality," Poirier said of Aaron. "So, I'd like to make that a reality and build a playground in his honor."

It's possible two dreams could become reality as a result of Saturday night's fight. Poirier heard for years that he should get a title shot. Now it's here, and it might be the perfect time for it to happen.

"I just think that a few years ago, if I would have gotten this opportunity, I wouldn't have been ready," Poirier said. "I've overcome a few things and matured as a person and a father and a husband and just, you fight how you live, and I feel like I'm in a good spot right now in my life and with who I am, who I see in the mirror.

"I'm just in a really good place to go in there and put it all on the line."