Dustin Poirier said he thought he could be the first fighter to defeat UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Instead, Poirier succumbed to the constant forward pressure and grinding top control like each of the 27 opponents who had tried before him.
Nurmagomedov retained the title by wearing down Poirier and submitting him in the third round of the main event of UFC 242 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
“I feel like I left myself down,” Poirier said through tears. “My career was set up for this moment. I was so prepared, I didn’t cut any corners. When I wake up, I need to take a look in the mirror. I need some time to learn from this. If this has taught me anything, it’s to be thankful and gracious. I’m sorry if I let anyone down.”
Poirier had his moments against the dominant champion. He landed a big shot early in the second round that stumbled Nurmagomedov back against the cage, then went for a guillotine early in the third round that appeared tight momentarily.
The attempt might have backfired, as an exhausted Poirier gave up his back moments after giving up the hold before Nurmagomedov locked in a rear-naked choke and forced the tap.
Several fighters complained of the extreme heat inside the temporary arena, another factor that might have contributed to Poirier appearing to fatigue.
In the end, it was just another case of Nurmagomedov dispatching a top contender. He secured top position in all three rounds and made Poirier pay for going to his back.
But Nurmagomedov, who had last fought in a win over Conor McGregor in October at T-Mobile Arena, acknowledged after defeating Poirier that the promotion leading up to the fight caused a lot of stress.
The UFC’s return to Abu Dhabi was largely built around Nurmagomedov, one of the most famed Muslim athletes in the world. It came after the emotional win over McGregor that featured a postfight brawl between the camps just months after McGregor was arrested for attacking a bus in New York that he thought Nurmagomedov was riding on.
“The last two years have very busy for me,” Nurmagomedov said. “I want a little bit of time to relax. I have too much pressure on my shoulders. Give me a little bit of time, maybe a couple of days (to decide what’s next).”
One option is top contender Tony Ferguson, who has been promised a title shot several times. Then there’s McGregor, who appeared to issue a challenge to Nurmagomedov after his victory.
“Book my rematch for Moscow,” McGregor tweeted.
Nurmagomedov is a native of Russia, a market in which the UFC wants to host a pay-per-view event after putting on smaller events in the nation.
The champion didn’t appear excited to cross paths with McGregor again, particularly after the civility he experienced with Poirier leading up to the fight. Nurmagomedov even wore a shirt he plans to auction off for charity, a tradition Poirier started several years ago.
“You know this (expletive) guy that I had a lot of crazy stuff, but I want to forget everything,” Nurmagomedov said of McGregor. “(Tonight we showed) what this is in MMA, that No. 1 is respect. That is what your coach teaches you first that you have to respect the gym, your teammates and to clean the gym. MMA is not about trash talking.”
Also on Saturday’s card, Paul Felder avenged a 2015 loss by winning a split decision over lightweight Edson Barboza.
Main card results:
— Khabib Nurmagomedov def. Dustin Poirier, submission, third round (2:06), to retain lightweight title.
— Paul Felder def. Edson Barboza, lightweights, split decision (27-30, 29-28, 30-27).
— Islam Makhachev def. Davi Ramos, lightweights, unanimous decision (29-27, 30-26, 30-26).
— Curtis Blaydes def. Shamil Abdurakhimov, heavyweights, knockout, second round (2:22).
— Carlos Diego Ferreira def. Mairbek Taisumov, lightweights, unanimous decision (29-28, 29-27, 29-27).