UFC 302 takeaways: Dustin Poirier was so close … and yet so far

It’s a strange feeling when the guy who just lost his third and probably last shot at a UFC title ends up walking away at the end of the night looking like a hero. Strange, but not unpleasant.

The permanent record will show that on June 1, 2024, Dustin Poirier lost via fifth-round submission to 155-pound champion Islam Makhachev. It will also show that this was Poirier’s third loss in the last five fights, which doesn’t seem great. But there’s so much you miss when you just go by the facts and the numbers. In the case of the UFC 302 main event — and maybe even the case of Poirier’s entire career — you miss the stuff that makes people watch professional fighting in the first place.

In a world based on pure skill alone, Poirier probably never should have heard the words “Round 5” against Makhachev. The champ was faster, stronger, and worlds better on the mat. If you’d walked in midway through the first round and seen him glued to Poirier’s back two minutes in, having easily completed his first takedown, you likely would have assumed that it was going to be a quick night. That’s a classic miscalculation, failing to factor in that dog, as in the one that Poirier’s got in him.

The way Poirier made it from that grim first round to a competitive and bloody final round wasn’t sheer toughness, though it wasn’t not toughness either. A lot of it was the stuff you can only gain the hard way, through a life spent on the business side of all that chain-link.

As this fight progressed, you could see Poirier figuring out how he had to fight Makhachev. He stayed off the fence (for the most part). He stopped the takedowns (again, for the most part). When he did get taken down he found his way back to his feet. He dragged Makhachev through the full crucible that comes with mixing the martial arts, then found openings for attacks through the fog of fatigue.

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - JUNE 01: Dustin Poirier battles Islam Makhachev of Russia in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 302 event at Prudential Center on June 01, 2024 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - JUNE 01: Dustin Poirier battles Islam Makhachev of Russia in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 302 event at Prudential Center on June 01, 2024 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Dustin Poirier gave it his all versus Islam Makhachev on Saturday. He came up short, but still walked away looking like a hero. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

It wasn’t enough. Makhachev has a lot of that same toughness in store, too. He also has a wrestling and submissions game that can snap on like autopilot when he needs it most. His final takedown was a thing of beauty, and just to add a cruel irony to it he immediately transitioned to the guillotine choke — that siren’s song Poirier had managed to resist this time — and used it to transition to the fight-ending D’arce choke.

Of course it had to end like that. So close but so far. The story of Poirier’s career, in a way. But his story is also just as much about finding the triumph even in the failures. Poirier didn’t become so beloved in this sport by winning all the time. He did it by giving every last ounce of himself, in a way that felt raw and real and totally sincere. He was never afraid to try and fail and then try and fail again.

That’s the stuff that sticks with people — and for a lot longer than the numbers in the official record.

  • Sean Strickland had another Sean Strickland fight. That is to say he promised us a “bloodbath” and then carefully pointed his way to a split-decision victory over Paulo Costa in the co-main event. You can’t blame him too much. By now we ought to know what to expect. He has a certain style, and it mostly works. It’s just not all that much fun, which is probably why he has to keep promising bloodbaths in order to hold our attention.

  • It’s hard to complain about an early stoppage when you’ve been reduced to one functioning arm. Such was the predicament that Michal Oleksiejczuk found himself in after getting armbarred by Kevin Holland until his elbow bent in directions it’s not supposed to go. Oleksiejczuk didn’t like Herb Dean’s decision to call it off, but he also didn’t seem capable of using the arm at all during any of his post-fight complaints. When you’re gesturing indignantly with one arm while the other flops at your side like an empty sleeve, that’s a pretty good sign that the ref was right.

  • Why not make Jailton Almeida’s wish come true and send him to Paris to fight Ciryl Gane? It’s the best idea I’ve heard for both of them, and it came from Almeida’s lips right after he’d easily blazed through an overmatched Alexander Romanov. I can’t think of a better way to find out if Gane has tightened up his ground game any, while also giving Almeida some work worthy of his abilities.

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