UFC 264: Show me the money -- Inside Dustin Poirier's risk in taking the Conor McGregor payday

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- It's 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Dustin Poirier is methodically wrapping his hands at an empty boxing gym owned by his longtime coach, Dyah Davis. He is 17 days out from his lightweight trilogy fight against Conor McGregor in the main event of UFC 264, and though his mood seems fine, he's tired.

"I haven't had two consecutive days off in nine weeks," he tells Davis, who seems to sympathize but doesn't offer to shorten the session.

Soon enough, a bell on Davis' phone signals Poirier to get to work. "Fine," Poirier says. "I'll take a break when I knock this motherf---er out."

Poirier resides in Lafayette, Louisiana, but he moves his entire life to Florida for every fight camp. The July 10 card in Las Vegas will be his 26th UFC appearance. He's familiar with what it's like to feel run down -- and eager for the fight to arrive -- in the final weeks of preparation.

There is one thing about this camp, however, that is significantly different. Since his first amateur fight in 2007, Poirier has made every move in pursuit of one goal: to become a world champion. He won an interim UFC lightweight title by defeating Max Holloway in April 2019, but was unsuccessful in a bid to unify that title five months later against Khabib Nurmagomedov.

This upcoming fight is not about Poirier's title quest. If anything, it flies in the face of it. After Poirier knocked out McGregor in the second round of their January fight to even their series at 1-1, the UFC gave him a choice: a lucrative trilogy bout against McGregor or a fight against another top contender for the championship left vacant by Nurmagomedov's retirement. For the first time in his career, Poirier prioritized something over a title. He took the money fight.

"Before they raised my hand and announced me the winner [in January], I knew this was next," Poirier says. "It's like doubling down on yourself. I'm a gambling man, and I believe in my skills."

Had he passed on McGregor to fight a lesser-known name for a UFC title, Poirier's contract would have called for a lower base salary, and he would not have shared in the UFC's pay-per-view profits for the event, as he will at UFC 264.

Poirier's disclosed pay the first time he fought McGregor in 2014 was $34,000. For this third meeting, that number will consist of seven figures.

"If I'm going to make five, six, seven, 10 times the amount of money to fight Conor again -- I'm a father and a husband, and I have to make that the priority," Poirier says.

The decision to forgo a UFC title fight in favor of the bigger pay was, Poirier says, a very easy one. And neither he, nor anyone around him, has second-guessed it.

However, it is not without risk.

SOME HAVE MADE the case that Poirier, who is 11-2 as a UFC lightweight, should be the undisputed champion right now.

Nurmagomedov shocked the world by announcing his retirement on Oct. 24, but the UFC continued to recognize him as the lightweight champ because promotion president Dana White kept hoping he could change the fighter's mind. On Jan. 15, eight days before Poirier and McGregor were scheduled to headline UFC 257 on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, White sat with Nurmagomedov to discuss his future.

White later said Nurmagomedov's retirement was still not official, and that Nurmagomedov wanted to watch the McGregor-Poirier fight -- as well as a bout between Michael Chandler and Dan Hooker on the UFC 257 undercard -- before making his decision. The implication was one of the lightweight performances could be spectacular enough to lure Nurmagomedov back to the Octagon.

It also meant Poirier's fight against McGregor couldn't be for a title, because the belt officially belonged to Nurmagomedov.

A few days later, video surfaced of the interaction between Nurmagomedov and White, who talked about the financial windfall for Nurmagomedov if he were to fight McGregor a second time. Nurmagomedov submitted McGregor in a 2018 title fight, which was one of the highest-selling events in UFC history.

At that point, Poirier was too close to fight night to be bothered by anything White, Nurmagomedov or anyone else was doing. Poirier's wife, Jolie, however, who was also on Fight Island, was free to be bothered by the subtle message that video sent. And she was.

"I was very emotional for the last fight. I took things a bit too personal," Jolie says. "But I didn't like how everyone was looking past Dustin."

White had been hopeful he could entice Nurmagomedov to return. And even if he couldn't, he didn't love the idea of starting a new era in the lightweight division with a title fight between two men who'd already lost to Nurmagomedov, which would have been the case with Poirier and McGregor.

Still, at the time of their last fight, Poirier was the UFC's No. 2-ranked lightweight, and McGregor was No. 4. Poirier was a former interim champ, whose only loss in the past 4½ years had been to Nurmagomedov. If Nurmagomedov was retired, as he certainly appeared to be, many observers believed Poirier was the man who should have been fighting for the belt.

"It does upset me that he's not the champion," says Mike Brown, Poirier's head coach. "He and Conor should have been for the title the last time. I don't like to dwell on it, but that's a fact.

"I believe Dustin cemented himself as the No. 1 lightweight that night, when he knocked out Conor."

"If I'm going to make five, six, seven, 10 times the amount of money to fight Conor again -- I'm a father and a husband, and I have to make that the priority."
Dustin Poirier

The UFC finally recognized Nurmagomedov's retirement in March. Two months later, Charles Oliveira, who was ranked lower than Poirier coming into 2021, became the undisputed champion by defeating Chandler at UFC 262.

"I know that this is a business," Poirier says. "But at the same time, there is that human instinct of like, 'Ah, I stepped aside and let him have this.' I don't get too caught up in that stuff, but the thoughts do come."

ALTHOUGH POIRIER NEVER seriously considered taking a title shot over the money, he and Jolie did at least have a conversation about it.

It was a short talk, and it took place in his locker room, immediately after he knocked out McGregor.

"We spoke about how he's done it all in fighting, and whether he'd be content when it's all said and done," Jolie says. "But the ultimate goal is -- and always has been -- to be the undisputed world champion, and he still wants that.

"Winning the interim title in 2019 means so much to him and was one of his greatest accomplishments, but at the same time, it was just a taste of gold."

The risky nature of this decision means there's no guarantee Poirier will ever get more than that taste, or even another shot at the title.

"This fight puts whoever loses into a tough spot, because it sends them back down the line," Brown says. "Dustin has worked so hard to win a UFC championship, it would be a shame to see that happen to him."

To date, Poirier has won 19 fights in the UFC. He has spent a total of 4 hours and 18 minutes inside the Octagon. It might not seem fair that so much of his resume and legacy would be determined by the next two fights, but such is the case.

That is why on a Wednesday afternoon, a little more than two weeks away from UFC 264 -- even though he's tired and sick of the grind of fight camp -- Poirier admits he wants this third fight against McGregor to be hard. He wants to have to earn every single inch. Because earning it means you paid your dues, and Poirier's motto is: "Paid in full."

"I want my blood-and-guts war," Poirier says. "I want to question my will to fight. I want to be uncomfortable from the first second of the first round. I want to find out all this stuff. That's the thing about fighting, the only thing that's real is when that bell rings. It's the only real part about fighting that I love anymore. Everything else is who can get likes on Instagram. It's all fake.

"But the real part is when that bell rings, it's 100 percent now. I want to show him that and find that out about him. Talk it up, say this and that, but let's find out who really wants to fight. Because I know I can count on me."