His ability to make Khabib Nurmagomedov respect his potential to knock him out in their lightweight title unification bout in the main event of UFC 242 Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, will be the key to Poirier’s chances of pulling off the historic upset.
A Poirier win wouldn’t nearly be the biggest upset in UFC history by the odds. At the MGM Grand, Nurmagomedov is minus-500 and Poirier is plus-350. At Station Casinos, Nurmagomedov is minus-450 and Poirier is plus-325.
Ronda Rousey was as much as a minus-1650 favorite over Holly Holm at UFC 193 on Nov. 15, 2015, in Melbourne, Australia, and as low as minus-750 by close. Georges St-Pierre was a minus-1300 favorite to defeat Matt Serra at UFC 69 in 2007, while Serra was a plus-850 underdog.
By those standards, Poirier over Nurmagomedov wouldn’t be much of an upset at all.
But Nurmagomedov is 27-0 and arguably the greatest grappler in UFC history. He mauls his opponents and seemingly has no weakness once the fight gets to the ground.
Poirier is a very good all-around fighter, but he’s nowhere near Nurmagomedov’s match when it comes to grappling.
The key for Poirier will be to avoid a grappling contest, and the best way to do that is for him to control distance and disrupt Nurmagomedov’s timing. Poirier likes to pressure his opponents and get in their faces and strike at close range.
But that will make him more susceptible to a takedown and would put him into Nurmagomedov’s world.
Nurmagomedov held a bigger advantage on the ground over Conor McGregor, whom he defeated with a fourth-round submission by neck crank at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, than he will against Poirier.
But McGregor has a more versatile and better stand-up attack than Poirier does.
The problem Poirier faces was shown in the first round and early in the second against McGregor. In the first, Nurmagomedov took McGregor down seconds into the round and kept him there. He tied McGregor’s legs up and kept him on his back for most of the round. Though he didn’t do much damage, he did make an impression on McGregor, who knew he couldn’t let that happen again.
And that set up a picture-perfect right hand by Nurmagomedov that landed on McGregor’s chin. McGregor stumbled backward and stuck his hands out behind him, barely preventing an official knockdown. But the point was made: As soon as McGregor was preoccupied with Nurmagomedov’s grappling, Nurmagomedov’s striking became a factor.
Nurmagomedov is deadly with ground strikes and at one point in the second round, he’d had a 59-3 edge in significant strikes on McGregor.
Poirier can’t afford to put himself in that spot. He needs to disrupt Nurmagomedov’s rhythm and timing. He needs to throw, but he can’t throw long combinations because that makes him susceptible to the takedown.
But if he uses his calf kick, throws a shot or two and then moves in a different direction, he can frustrate Nurmagomedov. The goal for Poirier should be to force Nurmagomedov to try to make a mistake at range on his feet. If he gets him reaching and off-balance, Poirier could catch him with something that hurts him.
The problem for Poirier is that Nurmagomedov is so physically strong, even if he gets knocked down, if he’s not really badly hurt, he’ll grab an arm or a leg and won’t let go and he’ll eventually turn it back into a grappling contest.
Poirier looks to be in incredible shape, and has the confidence that comes from one of the best four-fight runs in recent years, with victories over Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez and Max Holloway.
He can win if he fights a mistake-free fight and capitalizes whenever Nurmagomedov makes a mistake.
It’s a tall order, and unlikely as I see it. Look for Nurmagomedov to win a decision going away and to prove, with all due respect to Tony Ferguson, that he’s the best lightweight in the world.
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