No denying Dustin Poirier as lightweight elite

Nov 11, 2017; Virginia, VA, USA; Dustin Poirier (red gloves) celebrates beating Anthony Pettis (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

For the better part of the last decade. the UFC has boasted no division consistently deeper than the 155-pound class. Saturday night’s main event in Norfolk, Va., provided us with our latest reminder.

Dustin Poirier, ranked eighth in the division prior to his headliner at UFC Fight Night 120, took on a former UFC lightweight champion for the second straight time. His first attempt ended in controversy, unable to continue fighting after the most recent of the former champions landed a trio of illegal knees to Poirier’s head. Opportunity No. 2 would come against Anthony Pettis, a flashy striker already 2.5 years removed from flaunting 155-pound supremacy around his waist.

While it wasn’t the fight Poirier deserved (an immediate rematch against Alvarez would have been more fitting given the nature of their first encounter), “The Diamond” made the most of his time in the spotlight. Poirier took it to Pettis, who claimed he was as prepared — both in the way of body and mind — as he’d been in a long time. Though Pettis managed to hold his own through the better part of nearly three rounds, it was Poirier’s power and takedown offense that robbed “Showtime” of what confidence he often requires to let his hands and feet go in consequential fashion.

By fight’s end, Poirier was simply too much for a hopeful Pettis.

That’s essentially the same fate all but one of Poirier’s opponents (Michael Johnson — not Alvarez) have been dealt since the former 145-pound contender made the decision to compete with 10 extra pounds on his frame. The sport has seen a handful of talented fighters make the unorthodox decision of moving up in weight, but few have truly found the sort of tremendous success as Poirier has. He is, without a doubt, one of the very best fighters at 155 pounds, joining an already loaded class of elite contenders all vying for an opportunity at the gold sitting around Conor McGregor’s waist.

“Everybody points the finger, says I slip up in big fights — that’s two champions in a row. What’s up?” Poirier said following his win over Pettis Saturday night.

The victory places Poirier in a somewhat enviable position. He likely won’t be meeting McGregor for a second time next time out, but should be in prime position to make a strong case for said rematch if he wins in his next contest. With McGregor expected to face interim champion Tony Ferguson upon his return to mixed martial arts sometime in 2018, the division is left with a number of viable title shot candidates: Khabib Nurmagomedov, Edson Barboza, Alvarez, Justin Gaethje, Nate Diaz (sort of, anyway), and Poirier.

The UFC has already taken the liberty of attempting to clear some of those names out, with Nurmagomedov facing Barboza at UFC 219 on Dec. 30, and Alvarez facing Gaethje at UFC 218 on Dec. 2. Poirier’s resume gives him a prime opportunity to face the winner of either of those two fights, but prefers to face the man left standing in the latter: Alvarez vs. Gaethje.

“I’m not going to ask for a fight, I’m going to tell you right now who I’m going to fight,” Poirier said. “I’m going to fight the winner of Justin Gaethje-Eddie Alvarez and then I’m going to fight for the belt. There, I laid it out for you guys. The work’s over.”

“One-hundred percent, I deserve it,” Poirier later added during the post-fight press conference. “I earned it. I’m not begging for it, I won.”

The 155-pound class is a division full of killers, with virtually anybody in the top eight capable of winning, or defending, the title on any given night. There’s a clear line between the contenders and pretenders in this division. We don’t have the luxury of clarity when dissecting those in the former group, though.

There’s no telling who’ll be at the very top of the division this time next year (you know, assuming McGregor actually comes back to defend the title), but you can be fairly certain Poirier — as well as Ferguson, Nurmagomedov, Barboza, Alvarez or Gaethje — will be no more than two wins away from contending for Octagon gold. Fun times await.

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