Dustin Poirier and Israel Adesanya walked out of the Octagon on Saturday night as champions, and it had only a little to do with the shiny new title belts they carried with them. Their performances in the main event and co-main of UFC 236 in Atlanta made them interim champs, which is to say that neither man sits alone at the top of the mountain in his weight class. But the fights they put on -- digging deep to find moments of dominance when they needed to set a tone or change momentum -- elevated them both to a status that few fighters reach.
This has been a long time coming for the 30-year-old Poirier, who has been competing as a professional mixed martial artist for a decade. Saturday's fight was his 22nd in the UFC -- the second-longest wait a fighter in the promotion has had to endure for a title shot, behind only Michael Bisping's 26 bouts -- and his résumé is dotted with near misses.
He has paid his dues, and when his opportunity finally came, he went for it with a vengeance. Poirier took it to featherweight champ Max Holloway from the start of Saturday's headline bout, wobbling him several times in the first two rounds of their interim lightweight title fight.
But it was in the third round -- a round Poirier lost -- that the son of Lafayette, Louisiana, truly showed championship mettle. Despite looking tired and slowed from the fast early pace he'd set, Poirier withstood the best that a rallying Holloway could dish out. That resilience allowed Poirier to make it to the championship rounds, which lived up to their name in a big way. Poirier somehow rediscovered his earlier high gear and turned the fight back in his favor, bloodying Holloway with a big knee in Round 4, which ended with the 145-pound champ wearing a grotesque mask of crimson. Poirier didn't let up in the final round, ensuring that he would be the one being handed the interim belt.
Turnaround was also at the heart of the Adesanya story, and in an unexpected way it grew the legend of the 29-year-old native of Nigeria, who has lived in New Zealand since his teens. Adesanya went into his interim middleweight matchup with Kelvin Gastelum as an enigma. He had had only five UFC bouts (over just 14 months), yet the flashy former kickboxer was considered the next big thing. Gastelum represented his biggest test yet.
Yes, it's true that "The Last Stylebender" shared a cage two months ago with Anderson Silva, one of the greatest of all time. But "The Spider" whom Adesanya faced at UFC 234 was a faded 43-year-old version. Adesanya's most dangerous opponent that night might have been himself, as he was stepping in with an idol and at times seemed awestruck, struggling to get out of his own way.
Saturday's fight was Adesanya's first against a ranked opponent. (Gastelum is No. 3 in ESPN's middleweight top 10, with Adesanya at No. 7.) Could he show the flair and flash that he'd put on display in his previous bouts? The simple answer was no, but the rest of the answer is that he showed something more important.
Adesanya was poised from the start, in no rush to show off. The story of the fight early was not the shots he was landing but rather the shots Gastelum was not landing. Adesanya's footwork and head movement were as masterful as ever, but in the first couple of rounds of this fight they were more tools of self-defense than offensive weaponry. What proved to be Adesanya's most potent weapon was the thing that's midway between his head and feet -- his heart.
After Gastelum, a veteran who'd been tested by the sport's best, gradually found ways to clip Adesanya, the fight started to swing his way. He put Adesanya in deep trouble in the fourth round, and when the horn sounded Adesanya went back to his corner looking like a beaten man. But Adesanya came out for the fifth round and seized control, knocking down Gastelum three times in those final five minutes and nearly finishing him. He earned 10-8 scores from all three judges, securing the decision in a fight that was up for grabs. This timely display of grit was more impressive than any of the front-running dominance Adesanya had shown before.
These championship performances by Adesanya and Poirier surely earned the attention of Robert Whittaker, who holds the middleweight belt, and Khabib Nurmagomedov, who reigns at lightweight. Those two will soon return to the Octagon, and waiting for them are challenges that at this moment seem far bigger and more exciting than they did 24 hours ago.
Adesanya was already a star on the rise, but now he has shown himself to be multidimensional and rugged. He'd been so dominant that in the past he'd never had to prove he could stare down adversity. Well, now he's showed he can, and that's huge, because fights at this high level are a breeding ground for adversity.
That fifth round against Gastelum -- how he transformed from depleted to dominant when toughing it out was his only option -- was the stuff of legends. Gastelum had been in with five UFC champions in the past, and no one did to him what Adesanya did. That has to give Whittaker pause.
As for Poirier, he showed off power and precision that have to concern Nurmagomedov. Yes, the Dagestani faced a powerfully elite striker in his most recent fight, but Conor McGregor was unable to keep that fight at ideal striking range, where the champ is at his most vulnerable.
Poirier was fully in control of where and how Saturday's bout was fought, keeping Holloway within range of his power. If he can keep the Nurmagomedov fight going long enough to clip him with what he dished out to Holloway, it will test the well-roundedness of the undefeated champ, who has smothered everyone he has faced. It'll be interesting to see.
That's the bottom line, right there. The two classic fights that closed out UFC 236 stirred up heart-pumping intrigue over what's to come. Who doesn't yearn to see Whittaker vs. Adesanya -- especially in Australasia, where they're both from -- and Nurmagomedov vs. Poirier? Heck, who doesn't want to see what's next for Holloway and Gastelum as well?
When fighters bring forth that something special that carries them through the most difficult times -- and when those times have the highest of stakes -- it is deeply satisfying to witness such spirit. We could never imagine being in that line of fire, yet we cannot look away. We want to see more. And Saturday night brought the promise that more will soon be delivered.