Wearing a label like "top prospect" is always a tricky proposition in the fighting world.
On one hand, it means people have recognized a fighter's talent or potential. But it also means an increase in expectations and makes any slip-up or loss all the more noticeable.
Two of the mixed martial artists on the preliminary card of Saturday's UFC 131 -- which airs fights at 2:50 p.m. on facebook, 5 p.m. on Spike and 6 p.m. via pay-per-view -- are poised to learn all about it.
Following blistering UFC debuts earlier this year, Dustin Poirier (9-1 MMA, 1-0 UFC) and Chris Weidman (5-0 MMA, 1-0 UFC) are attracting more buzz in their respective weight classes.
Poirier is 22-year-old featherweight from Louisiana who fights Jason Young (8-3 MMA, 0-0 UFC) this weekend. Weidman is a 26-year-old middleweight from New York who faces Jesse Bongfeldt (15-4-1 MMA, 0-0-1 UFC).
Weidman and Poirier don't share much in common -- including their stances on receiving hype early in their careers.
"When people say I'm a top prospect, if they weren't saying that, I'd be disappointed," Weidman said. "I think I deserve that. There's no pressure that anyone could put on me because when I got into this sport, I got into it to be the best."
Poirier takes the more traditional, and perhaps more cautious, approach.
"I can't pay attention to that," Poirier said. "I train hard and prepare myself for that, but I'm still new to the UFC. I can't think about someone saying I'm a prospect or close to the top 10."
Here's how Poirier and Weidman found themselves on the cusp of potential UFC stardom.
Some of Poirier's most memorable childhood moments come from fighting.
He now looks back and laughs at some of the times he found himself in trouble for mixing it up in schoolyard-type scraps. He always told his mother he wanted to learn to box, but those requests fell on deaf ears.
"She would never take me serious or take me to an academy where I could take myself serious," Poirier said. "So one day, when I was 17, I went to a place for boxing on my own."
Poirier quickly learned that a handful of local MMA guys trained there. Poirier took an immediate interest in training with them. He was familiar with the sport from the times he and his father sneaked in viewings of the original UFC tapes without his mother's knowledge.
Poirier now says it was love at first kick. The first day he ventured into an MMA gym he learned kickboxing and decided this was his sport.
He started training under fellow Louisianan and UFC veteran Tim Creuder and turned pro less than two years later.
"I told people I was a professional fighter, but it didn't feel right," Poirier said. "I was fighting as a professional, but was I a professional? I don't know. I was making a little money, but it wasn't what I was doing to pay the bills."
After he won his first seven fights all via stoppage in less than nine minutes, Poirier got an opportunity. Zuffa, the parent company of UFC and formerly WEC, wanted him to fight Danny Castillo at WEC 50 at the Palms last August.
He lost to the lightweight veteran via unanimous decision.
"I had heard about the jitters before and I don't know if I had them," Poirier said. "I might have had them, but I was real nervous. I was doing stuff I don't normally do. I was thinking instead of fighting and thinking about the big opportunity. There were all the lights and (UFC President) Dana White was sitting there by the cage. I felt like a fan. I didn't feel like a fighter."
Undeterred, Poirier rebounded to win his second WEC fight via TKO over Zach Micklewright. WEC then merged with UFC, which offered Poirier a short notice fight against Josh Grispi at the start of the year at UFC 125.
Many saw it as a mismatch. Grispi was the top contender and came in as high as a 4-to-1 favorite. Poirier was fodder standing in the way of Grispi's all-but-inevitable bout with champion Jose Aldo later in the year.
Poirier didn't feel nervous or like a fan before that one. He was determined and used it to notch a unanimous decision over Grispi. All three judges awarded him all three rounds.
"I had nothing to lose," Poirier said. "It was a chance for me to go out there and jump right into the main stage. People were watching because of his name. Chances like that don't come too often. I jumped at it."
The win elevated his profile much more than any other bout in his career. Now, Poirier will need a couple more similar performances to reach the upper echelon of the 145-pound class.
"One day, I want to be a champion," Poirier said. "But that's not any time soon."
Weidman already wanted to be a champion.
He had his sights set on a national championship as a college wrestler at Nassau Community College and Hofstra. Although he became a four-time All American, Weidman never captured a title.
"I didn't meet my goals in college," Weidman said. "It makes me hungry to accomplish my goals in mixed martial arts."
After college, Weidman helped a handful of MMA fighters with their wrestling to get ready for upcoming bouts. He didn't consider the sport for himself and wanted to spend his time trying to make the Olympic wrestling squad.
But that changed with a little peer pressure. The fighters he trained alongside introduced Weidman to jiu-jitsu and he promptly ran through and won a grappling tournament.
After fine-tuning his striking with renowned coach Ray Longo and former UFC champion Matt Serra, Weidman won his first four MMA bouts and caught the eyes of all the major national promotions.
Strikeforce and Bellator both offered Weidman contracts earlier this year, but he wanted to be in the UFC. Although desperate for money and living in his mother's basement with a wife and baby, Weidman decided to take a couple weeks before signing with Strikeforce or Bellator.
"Sometimes you get to the point where you want to be patient, but you don't want to pass up your opportunities either," Weidman said. "With Strikeforce and Bellator offers, you just want to jump on it and take the money. But it paid off being patient."
Two days before Weidman said he was about to break and take one of the offers, he got the call he wanted. Six-year UFC veteran Alessio Sakara had just lost an opponent for a bout scheduled for two weeks later.
UFC wanted Weidman to take the fight on short notice.
"At first, I was a little hesitant because I had a cracked rib," Weidman said. "But I called my coaches and they said I could do it. You don't get chances like that often, so I had to take it."
Unlike Poirier, oddsmakers were well aware of Weidman. Despite only being in the sport for two years compared to Sakara's nine, Weidman opened as a 2-to-1 favorite.
"I guess Las Vegas knows what they're doing," Weidman said. "I was shocked to hear the news that I was the favorite. I definitely knew I was coming and would win the fight. I just thought two weeks notice and some people knew I had the fractured rib, I thought I'd be a big underdog."
Weidman battered Sakara, a strong boxer, en route to a unanimous decision win (30-27, 30-27, 30-27).
He said his main focus was just to come out victorious against Sakara. Now that more fans have taken notice of Weidman, the stakes are raised for this weekend.
"This fight, I really want to make a statement," Weidman said. "I really want to finish my opponent and do it in a spectacular fashion."
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