UFC 302 paths to victory: How can Dustin Poirier upset Islam Makhachev and finish his story?

UFC 302 takes place this Saturday in Newark, NJ, headlined by a lightweight title fight between champion Islam Makhachev and living legend Dustin Poirier. Makhachev is one win away from tying the lightweight record for title defenses, while Poirier has one final chance to claim the only thing that’s eluded him during his MMA career: an undisputed UFC title. Who will win and how will each fighter go about their business on Saturday? Let’s dive in.

UFC 294: Makhachev v Volkanovski 2

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Paths to Victory for Islam Makhachev at UFC 302

At this point, there’s not much to say about Makhachev that hasn’t already been said. Still only 32 years old, Makhachev is the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport and already a top-five all-time lightweight. When it’s all said and done, there’s a good chance he goes down as the divisional GOAT, and a win over Poirier moves him closer to that endgame. But how will he do it? It seems like we already know.

Speaking about Poirier ahead of the fight, Makhachev was honest about the fact that his friend and teammate Khabib Nurmagomedov beat Poirier already, and that they have a similar gameplan for this fight. And “beat” is putting it lightly. Though Poirier had some moments against Nurmagomedov, the truth is that Khabib demolished him with his vastly superior grappling skills. Makhachev appears poised to do the same thing.

Poirier’s weakness has always been his grappling. While he is a BJJ black belt and a good grappler by most standards, he’s not a strong positional grappler and he’s far too willing to sacrifice defensive standing un pursuit of low-percentage submission (the man simply would not stop jumping guillotines against Benoit Saint Denis despite his coaches telling him not to). That’s a big problem against a control grappler as good as Makhachev. Islam repeatedly got Alexander Volkanovski into bad positions where the featherweight champion could do nothing, and he can do the same to Poirier. Moreover, Poirier also has a tendency to give up his back during transitions, and that’s something Makhachev can make him pay for.

The trick for Makhachev will be how he goes about getting the takedowns, and fortunately, there’s a playbook for that as well. Makhachev is an exceptional wrestler and while he’s not as good of a shot-wrestler as Khabib was, he’s even better in the clinch, both with knees and trips. Poirier had some success fighting the hands and denying Khabib’s initial takedown attempts when they fought, but had no answer for the trips and chain wrestling that followed. Islam can do exactly the same to get this fight to the ground where he is massively favored, if Poirier doesn’t just jump a guillotine on him and give up the position on his own.

When it comes to the standup, Makhachev is fairly low volume with his striking, but he’s an exceptional defensive fighter, with good kicks and great timing on his rear hand. As long as he stays mindful of Poirier’s lead right hook (arguably his best punch and coincidentally the same punch that Adriano Martins knocked Makhachev out with in his lone loss) then he should be fine.

UFC 299: Poirier v Saint Denis

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Paths to victory for Dustin Poirier at UFC 302

Poirier’s career turnaround has been one of the most fulfilling journeys to watch in MMA. Going from a hard-punching, reckless featherweight to one of the most technically and defensively impressive lightweights in the world is no small feat. It’s how Poirier won an interim title and cemented himself as a future Hall of Famer. And he’ll need every bit of that on Saturday, plus heaps of good fortune.

While Makhachev is often compared to Nurmagomedov along the lines of “Khabib but with better striking” that comparison misses the mark. Makhachev is a “better” striker in a vacuum but really his game is a mirror of Khabib’s: he’s defensively tight but with low volume, he’s a menace in the clinch, and most importantly, he allows fights come to him (he’s also not nearly as mean as Khabib nor quite as athletic but that’s not really the point). Nurmagomedov’s game was built entirely in service to his grappling. Makhachev’s is not. Makhachev’s game is defined by being a great grappler, but he’s content to move to that phase within the rhythm of the fight. It’s simple one option for Makhachev, not the only option. And that might be Poirier’s window for success.

Poirier’s only realistic path to victory is knocking Makhachev out. We know that he can be knocked out and we know that Poirier certainly is more crafty and hits harder than Adriano Martins. We also know that Makhachev and his camp are enamored with his striking ability. If Makhachev wants to start brawling, that’s good for Poirier. So draw him into a brawl.

The one time Makhachev has ever looked vulnerable (other than the Martins knockout) was his first fight with Alexander Volkanovski, where Volk simply competed as hard as he could in all phases. Because Makhachev isn’t Khabib, when he gets a fighter down, it’s not immediately curtains via hellish elbows and ground-and-pound. Makhachev is happier to control, meaning you can make him work there. The more you make him work, the more tired he gets, meaning takedowns don’t come as easy, meaning he’ll start striking more because he’s not someone to force the issue. If Poirier can take Makhachev out of his comfort zone early, as the fight drags on it will move into territory that Poirier can excel in.

In service of that end, Poirier has to stay in the center of the cage and constantly put hands on Makhachev. Jabs and uppercuts for days, elbows when Makhachev steps inside, and constant circling. Put volume on Makhachev and see what finds the chin. Maybe nothing, and maybe you lose, but it’s better to go down swinging than jumping a guillotine with no chance of success.


This is almost certainly Poirier’s final chance at undisputed UFC gold. He’s 35 years old and, frankly, doesn’t really deserve this title shot. In the famous words of Jimmy McGinty, “there is no tomorrow for you, and that makes you all very dangerous people!” Poirier is going to let it all hang out on Saturday. Will it be enough? We’ll see.


I am an unapologetic Islam Makhachev fan but every fiber of my being wants to pick Dustin Poirier to pull off the upset. He’s one of the very few people that are universally beloved in MMA and him winning a title at this stage of his career, when he was truly written off, would instantly rank as one of the greatest moments in MMA history.

But this ain’t a Disney movie. There are no happy endings in sight. Just the harsh realities of the MMA world and its gods.

Makhachev is too defensively sound on the feet, too good on the ground, and too smart to give Poirier any chance in this fight. He’s the heir apparent to the best fighter I’ve ever seen, and while I don’t think Makhachev is quite what Khabib was, he’s 95 percent of the way there, which still makes him the best fighter in the world today. Poirier is great, but Islam is the best.

Islam Makhachev def. Dustin Poirier via submission (rear-naked choke) — Round 3, 1:36

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