If anybody knows what it’s like to considered a nowhere man going against a titan of industry, it’s American Top Team’s Mike Brown. A little over ten years ago, Brown was a challenger for then thriving WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber, who — with a 13-fight winning streak that spanned three years — carried with him a sheen of invincibility. Not too many people liked Brown’s chances to snatch Faber’s belt. Yet on Nov. 8, 2008, out in Hollywood, Florida, that’s exactly what he did.
He knocked “The California Kid” out in the first round, won the title, and then duplicated the feat the following June in Faber’s hometown of Sacramento. Faber was a kind of smaller weight god until he ran into Brown, a savvy technical fighter who’s even better as a coach.
That’s one of the reasons why Brown believes that his charge Dustin Poirier can not only upset today’s industry titan, Khabib Nurmagomedov, but do it in astonishing ways.
“I didn’t really think too much about [the Faber parallel], but I guess there is a bit of a resemblance to that time period,” he told MMA Fighting. “Those kids of fights, I think are the easiest. They’re the ones that are easiest to train for. Dustin knows what he’s capable of, and all these guys are dangerous, they’re all very good fighters, so it’s better to put yourself in there against the guy everybody thinks is unbeatable. Only good things can happen. Dustin is 100 percent capable, and he’s going to win that fight.”
Brown, who flew to Japan to corner Kyogi Horiguchi after celebrating Poirier’s epic UFC 236 victory over Max Holloway to capture the interim lightweight title, has coached Poirier since 2012. He has been with Poirier through many triumphs and tribulations, yet through all of that he has watched him evolve as a fighter.
What does that evolution look like? It was reining in his urge to destroy and kill, and giving those instincts a kind of tactical delay.
“He’s always had that determination, but it was just believing in the skills and slight changes in strategy and evolving as a fighter,” Brown says. “He’s always been a great fighter who could win a title on a given night. In the past it was, he’s an offensive machine, and he also has great conditioning but we often didn’t get to see it because he would try to destroy the guy in a minute, a minute-and-a-half. Kill him before he kills me, that was his mindset.”
Between Sept. 2014 (when he lost to Conor McGregor) and Sept. 2016 (when he lost to Michael Johnson), five of Poirier’s six bouts never made it out of the first round. He won all four of the fights between McGregor and Johnson, with the only guy who lasted the distance being Joseph Duffy.
Since that loss to Johnson, all six of Poirier’s fights — four of them against former or current champions, five of them Fight of the Nights — have lasted at least until the second round. He has won five of them, with the first bout with Eddie Alvarez ending in a no contest due to an illegal knee that Poirier took in the second round.
That’s the evolution Brown is talking about; resisting the urge to take his targets head off in the opening moments, and ladling out that instinct through the course of a fight.
“That previous [mindset] works four out of five times,” Brown says. “It got him to where he was on a nice streak, then he fought Conor. He went in there right away, guns blazing, and a lot of guys go down, but you’re flipping the coin a little bit. If you get hit, you can go down. Same thing with the Johnson fight. I think he’s a much better fighter than Johnson, but when you go out there and try to kill a guy in the first minute, and that’s when a guy’s most dangerous, when power is at its max and everybody’s throwing with nervous energy, winging punches, anybody can be hurt.”
No fight was more revealing in that respect than his fight with Holloway, whom he hurt early yet sustained a relentless pace for 25 minutes.
“We knew that he would thrive as the fights go on,” Brown says. “Like in practice he thrives as the practice goes on. He like pulls away from the competition the longer the practice goes, because of his conditioning. After the Johnson fight is when we really started to take note of that and be a little more careful. It started with the Jim Miller fight, that’s the first one we’d seen it. The first four minutes he was very conservative. He didn’t lose his temper, he didn’t try to kill him…until four minutes in and he got taken down and he went crazy.
“Same thing with the Eddie Alvarez fight. Beautiful performance, was picking him apart for about seven or eight minutes — I mean Eddie could barely touch him — and then he hurt him, and he went crazy after hurting him trying to kill him, and got hit. He got hit going for the finish, he got wobbled, and then Eddie hit him with that illegal knee, but it shouldn’t have gotten there.”
Brown had a close-up and personal view of the exchanges with Holloway in Atlanta, and even he couldn’t help but drop his jaw at the kind of menace behind every strike. As a coach who preaches patience but also doesn’t want to ever let his fighter forget about his kill-switch, Brown felt a range of emotions in some of those wheelhouse exchanges that went from admiration to dread over the lack of caution.
“I think a fight has a different feel when you’re in the first few rows,” he says. “When you’re cageside or maybe in row one, two, or three, it’s a different feeling. You get a different sense of how hard these guys are hitting each other. It’s a different appreciation for what they’re doing. You can feel the vibrations of each strike, and it’s like, damn, this is tough stuff. From afar or from TV, you can’t really see how tough it is.
“But we thought the fight could go several different ways, but that was one way we thought it could go. I was super-impressed with Max’s chin, of course, because he got hit with some heavy shots. For better or for worse, sometimes when Dustin has somebody really hurt he really cuts the cord and lets those hands go. I get a little scared when he completely has no regard to defense, but he was close to putting him out a couple of times.”
It was a poetic moment for “The Diamond,” given how close he’s come to glory and how often he’s been batted back right when it was in his reach. The Holloway fight was a reminder of just how good Poirier is, as well as an eye-opening revelation that he has finally matched his intensity with a tailor-made strategy.
Now it’s onto fight one of the best pound-for-pound champions going, the undefeated Nurmagomedov (27-0), where Poirier will be a considerable underdog with a chance to shock the world. Even if that’s what everyone believes will happen, Brown is the one man who’s in a position to know better. He’s not altogether unfamiliar with the set-up, given that he himself was in a similar situation a decade ago against Faber.
“Dustin is such a talented guy, super-skilled mentally, physically and technically, and I believe he’s in his absolute prime,” he says. “He could have win the title a couple of years ago, now he’s a different animal. I’m guessing, because this happens a lot, winning this title against Max is going to propel him to another level. He thought he was the best in the world, or maybe he knew he was the best in the world, but now he has that title label on him and the confidence will be much higher in him. That’s important.”