COCONUT CREEK, Fla. — Dustin Poirier was at a crossroads early in his career. It was May 2012, and he had just lost his first UFC main event to Chan Sung Jung. It was Poirier’s third UFC fight, and he was only 23 years old. But he felt like he needed a change.
Up until that point, Poirier had trained exclusively in his home state of Louisiana at Gladiators Academy in Lafayette. With the hope of taking his MMA game to the next level, he reached out to a few training camps. Poirier spent some time in New Jersey working on wrestling with Kurt Pellegrino, a former UFC and Bellator lightweight. He also sent an email to American Top Team in South Florida.
Poirier got a reply back from ATT right away, inviting him to come there for a week to train. The gym even offered to pay for his flight and hotel. Poirier arrived soon after and trained with then-UFC welterweight contender Thiago Alves, former WEC featherweight champion Mike Brown and Dyah Davis, son of former Olympic champion boxer Howard Davis Jr.
When Poirier got home to Lafayette, all he could think about was his time at ATT.
“I was like, ‘Am I blowing this out of my head or was that the best week of training I’ve ever had?'” Poirier said.
Within five days, Poirier was in a rental car driving the 16 hours back to Coconut Creek, about 17 miles north of Fort Lauderdale.
“And I never left,” Poirier said.
Nearly a decade later, Poirier is on the cusp of achieving his dream of becoming the UFC lightweight champion. On Saturday, he will challenge Charles Oliveira for the title in the main event of UFC 269 in Las Vegas.
If Poirier wins, he will have taken the second-longest road in UFC history from making an Octagon debut to becoming an undisputed champion. This weekend’s bout will be his 27th in the UFC. That would put him second only to Oliveira, who won the belt in May in his 28th UFC fight.
Poirier’s tale is not dissimilar to his team’s long journey. Both paths have taken some unexpected twists of late. For Poirier, it was a lucrative detour that delayed — and could have scuttled — the title challenge. For ATT, it was venturing beyond MMA. And despite not taking the most direct path to the top, both the fighter and his team are peaking at the same time.
American Top Team was officially formed in 2001, though the gym’s origins go back to 1995. Yet ATT did not win its first UFC title until Robbie Lawler became welterweight champ in 2014. That’s an exceptionally long path to glory for the gym, especially considering that ATT owner Dan Lambert is so ingrained in the sport that he nearly became owner of the UFC two decades ago.
This year, ATT has dominated headlines in MMA and beyond. Poirier is in the midst of the best year of his career with back-to-back knockouts of Conor McGregor. Four of his teammates were crowned PFL champions in October, including two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison. And another ATT star, Amanda Nunes, the greatest fighter in the history of women’s MMA, defends her bantamweight title Saturday against Julianna Peña, on a UFC 269 card that also features ATT fighters Pedro Munhoz and Santiago Ponzinibbio.
In the midst of all of ATT’s success in MMA and the UFC in particular — Poirier would be ATT’s fifth undisputed UFC champion, joining Lawler, Nunes, former welterweight titlist Tyron Woodley and ex-strawweight champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk — the team has begun branching out. As of the latter portion of 2021, ATT is now involved in the worlds of college football, college wrestling and professional wrestling.
“I think we’re now in kind of a dynasty type of era,” Brown said.
The ATT origin story
Lambert was a voracious pro wrestling fan growing up, and as a young adult he got involved with tape trading, which was a popular practice among enthusiasts of niche entertainment.
In a time before high-speed internet and even DVDs, Lambert would record shows from Georgia Championship Wrestling and Florida Championship Wrestling on his VCR and trade those VHS tapes via mail with people in Japan, who in return would send him tapes of Japanese pro wrestling.
Among the tapes Lambert received from Japan were recorded shows from promotions such as Pancrase, UWF International and RINGS. Some of it was clearly pro wrestling, but it was more hard-hitting than what Lambert was used to watching, and it included martial arts techniques. Some of what was on the tapes was straight-up real fighting. Lambert was intrigued.
The launch of the UFC in 1993 caught Lambert’s eye, and he saw similarities to what he had viewed from Japan — kind of like pro wrestling but an actual competition. He became a fan of the UFC as well as Battlefield: Extreme Fighting, an early UFC contemporary that started in 1995. On the first Extreme Fighting show, there was a heavyweight tournament won by Brazilian powerhouse Marcus “Conan” Silveira. The broadcast mentioned Silveira had a jiu-jitsu gym in Miami — and that’s when Lambert’s ears perked up.
Lambert was a lawyer and businessman in his late 20s living in Fort Lauderdale. He pulled out the Yellow Pages but found no listing for Silveira’s gym. So he jumped in his car and drove to South Beach, searching street by street. He came up empty until stumbling upon a martial arts and sporting goods store. He went inside and asked employees if they knew where the Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym was — and they did.
That day in 1995, Lambert started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under “Conan” Silveira and his brother Marcelo Silveira at Silveira Brothers BJJ, a gym affiliated with Carlson Gracie. In class, Lambert met Richie Guerriero, who became his closest friend and later a business partner with ATT.
“I just fell in love with the Brazilian jiu-jitsu side of it,” said Lambert, who went on to earn his black belt.
In 2000, Lambert learned from Extreme Fighting matchmaker John Perretti that the UFC was for sale by owners Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG). Lambert, who had made a small fortune in timeshares, cruise lines and direct-to-consumer vacation packages, agreed to buy a majority stake in the company, paying $200,000 up front with $300,000 to follow. He would add another $1 million in escrow, enough to run the UFC for long enough for it to hopefully turn profitable.
At that time, the UFC was experiencing a difficult period. Its fights had been taken off pay-per-view and were banned in most states. But Lambert was a fan, and the fighters at the gyms where he trained needed a promotion to fight for. So Lambert signed a contract and paid SEG owner Bob Meyrowitz the $200,000, which would go toward running UFC 28 in November 2000. But then, according to Lambert, Meyrowitz went radio silent. SEG had struck a deal with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, and their friend and business partner Dana White, to sell the UFC for $2 million.
“I just wanted it to stick around and stay in business, so I had a place for my guys to fight.”
ATT owner Dan Lambert, on why he tried to buy the UFC in 2000
Not only were the Fertittas casino owners from Las Vegas, Lorenzo was also a member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which would have been a key in getting the UFC legalized there and other states. Lambert sued Meyrowitz — he said he never recouped that $200,000 — but ultimately decided the Fertittas were a better fit for running the UFC than he would have been.
“They had f—ing pockets so far deeper than mine,” Lambert said. “These guys wanted to get it and run it like a real business and put some money into it and try to make it big. I just wanted it to stick around and stay in business, so I had a place for my guys to fight.”
When Lambert had started training, “Conan” Silveira was the only one from the team fighting in MMA. But the group continued to expand. Marcelo opened up a gym in Boca Raton, as more grapplers wanted to start competing in the cage. In 2001, Ricardo Liborio, one of the founders of the prestigious Brazilian Top Team in Rio de Janeiro and another Carlson Gracie black belt, left Brazil for Florida and joined Silveira, bringing some more fighters with him.
That year, the MMA team spun off of Silveira Brothers Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — with Lambert as owner, Silveira the head coach and Guerriero the general manager — and formed American Top Team. The three men still make up ATT’s executive decision-making team. Liborio, who was also once part of that committee, left ATT in 2015. After operating out of several locations, American Top Team settled into its 40,000-square-foot space in early 2016.
Moving beyond internal conflicts
Harrison won her second Olympic gold medal in judo in August 2016, making her the most accomplished American judoka ever. Two months later, she signed to compete in MMA with PFL.
Before making a debut in her new sport, Harrison needed to find a place to train. She tried out several spots, including Mark DellaGrotte’s Muay Thai school in Boston, Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas and former UFC champion Frankie Edgar’s team in New Jersey. Harrison then traveled to American Top Team, where she sparred with Nunes on her second day in the gym.
At that point, Harrison had been doing MMA for only three months. Nunes was already the UFC women’s bantamweight champion.
“She whooped my ass,” Harrison said. “I hadn’t been humbled like that in a long time. I was kind of the cream of the crop in judo. I had cemented myself as the greatest there. Even at the other gyms, I was bigger, stronger. I might get punched, but I could take you down.”
But she had nothing for Nunes, and in that moment Harrison embraced the opportunity to learn. She liked the vibe of the gym and the presence of other top women’s MMA fighters, including Jedrzejczyk. Harrison also had a prior relationship with ATT wrestling coach Steve Mocco, whose sister she had competed with in judo.
One month after her training session with Nunes, Harrison moved to Florida so she could train at ATT. Fast forward five years and Harrison is an undefeated two-time PFL women’s lightweight champion, and now she’s the most sought-after MMA free agent in quite some time.
Kayla Harrison speaks about her pending free agency after the 2021 PFL World Championships.
The next step that many fans would like Harrison to take would be signing with the UFC to set up an eventual fight with Nunes, who holds the women’s featherweight title as well. This is a possibility that has been discussed at American Top Team, but it’s not something that anyone there is overly concerned about. Harrison has not yet decided on where she’ll fight next year, and Nunes has to get through Peña on Saturday.
“At a certain point, if Kayla did sign with UFC, there would be a conversation,” Guerriero said. “There would be a collision course, obviously [with Nunes], I would think. But we’re not even there yet. I know people like to get stirred up about it, but we really don’t.”
One of the reasons why this potential issue has become a hot topic is because of what happened with former ATT fighter Colby Covington. In 2019, he started feuding publicly with Jorge Masvidal, his former best friend, when the two were both pursuing a UFC welterweight title shot. Covington, who promotes his fights as an over-the-top character, began insulting Masvidal and teammates Poirier and Jedrzejczyk in the media.
Covington was asked to leave the gym last year. His UFC interim welterweight title belt still sits in one of ATT’s trophy cases alongside championship belts won by other fighters representing the gym. But the adjacent placard is turned upside down, so Covington’s name is no longer visible.
“I don’t think we’ve come close to reaching the pinnacle of the legacy American Top Team is going to have and the dominance it’s going to have.”
“I think when you blur the lines of your team and your teammates and what’s reality, and you actually think you’re this person and you bring it into the gym and you think you’re protected, because it was OK, I think it just crosses the line,” Guerriero said. “We’ve learned from that. I think that was a problem.”
Harrison does not foresee anything like that happening with her and Nunes. The Covington situation, Harrison said, is something the team has learned from.
“I think it’s going to be a very different story if that day ever comes,” Harrison said, “because I have nothing but respect for Amanda. I love her to death, to be honest. She’s another great champion, another great role model and example.”
Nunes told ESPN that a potential clash between her and Harrison is not something she has thought much about, and that she and Harrison have barely spoken about it. That will be something they tackle if it gets close to happening.
“This is like business,” Nunes said. “This is not something like, oh, when we train or when we have a good time, ‘Oh, Kayla, come here and let’s talk about if we’re gonna fight.’ That’s not gonna happen. That’s not how I handle those things.”
Time for Diamond to shine
Poirier and Brown, his head coach, had a lot of conversations during the months when Covington was a lightning rod at the gym. The perspective on Covington from those who supported him was that he was engaging in trash talk just for business reasons, at first to stay on the UFC roster, then to earn a title shot in a sport that sometimes rewards the squeakiest wheel.
When Poirier and Brown spoke about it, the fighter known as “The Diamond” told his coach that he had no interest in following Covington’s blueprint.
“I don’t want to be something that I’m not and do all this talking and bulls— to try to get there a little quicker,” Poirier told Brown. “If I’ve gotta fight a couple more fights [to get a title shot], I’ll f—ing fight them.”
It took Poirier 23 UFC fights — the third most for a UFC title challenger — to get his first undisputed title shot, which came in September 2019 against Khabib Nurmagomedov. The undefeated all-time great Nurmagomedov beat Poirier by third-round submission at UFC 242, and it was unclear at the time if Poirier would ever make his way back to a title shot. But, as always, he was willing to put in the work.
“I didn’t think any of these things were happening by accident, so I believed in my skill, my work ethic, my commitment to fighting,” Poirier said. “I think I can beat anybody in the world on any given night. It wasn’t like I stumbled upon the position I was in. I busted my ass to get there, so I felt like I could continue to do that. It wasn’t by luck.”
Poirier could have fought for the UFC lightweight title earlier this year. He beat McGregor via second-round TKO at UFC 257 on Jan. 24, queueing him up for a title shot. But McGregor wanted to complete their trilogy — he had knocked out Poirier in 2014 — and Poirier obliged. McGregor is the biggest star in UFC history, and Poirier would get a share of the pay-per-view revenue.
The two met again at UFC 264 on July 10, and Poirier won again by TKO. If McGregor had won, it would have crushed Poirier’s opportunity to win the UFC title. Poirier was comfortable with that gamble.
“If I’m the best in the world, then I’m gonna find myself in the ring for the belt at some point,” Poirier said. “If I’m not, I won’t. … I don’t want to accidentally be in that position. I’d rather work for it.”
He’s not underestimating Oliveira, who beat Michael Chandler back in May for the title vacated by the retired Nurmagomedov. But Poirier is a slight favorite, and he’s confident.
Poirier expects to end UFC 269 as champion, and he’s preparing as such. For the first time, Poirier’s 5-year-old daughter, Parker, will attend one of his fights. And Poirier didn’t book a trip home for Sunday, as is his usual postfight routine. Poirier, his wife, Jolie, and Parker will stay in Las Vegas until Monday.
“No rush, man,” Poirier said. “Just relax. Have a good breakfast. Be the world champ.”
ATT outside the cage
Lambert was outside a ring with legendary pro wrestler Chris Jericho at Target Center in Minneapolis in November. The two men were discussing how they would put together a 10-man tag team match for the AEW Full Gear pay-per-view event involving Lambert and members of American Top Team.
While Lambert and Jericho chatted, they heard a boom inside the ring. It was former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. He was practicing for the match — and pulled off a backflip. Dos Santos is 6-foot-4 and weighs more than 230 pounds.
“Jericho looks up,” Lambert recalled, “and says, ‘Did you just do a backflip? A standing moonsault? Holy s—!'”
Indeed he had. And later that night, dos Santos pulled off the athletic move during the match in front of more than 10,000 fans. The bout, which pitted Jericho’s group against ATT, was a culmination of four months of a scripted story that revolved around Lambert and ATT invading the AEW pro wrestling promotion and “beating up” members of its roster. In September, Masvidal delivered a flying knee to Jericho, much like the one he beat Ben Askren with in 2019 to set the UFC record for fastest KO (five seconds).
Jorge Masvidal invades AEW with American Top Team and delivers a flying knee right to the face of Chris Jericho.
During a year in which American Top Team was all over MMA programming — from UFC to Bellator to PFL to One Championship and beyond — the team also became a fixture in pro wrestling. Dos Santos, Masvidal, Harrison, former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski and Paige VanZant were featured for months on TNT’s “AEW Dynamite,” which has drawn more than 1 million viewers in the United States. And Lambert was the ringleader, a lifelong pro wrestling fan in his glory playing the villain alongside AEW heels Scorpio Sky and Ethan Page, both of whom have martial arts backgrounds.
Being on AEW has brought attention to the ATT gym, and Lambert thinks some of his wrestlers — specifically VanZant, dos Santos and Harrison — could get into that business in the future. But he added that even if it had been a small, local wrestling promotion that had called him, he and his fighters would have made an appearance. They’re in pro wrestling, he said, mostly just for fun.
“Everybody’s got hobbies in life, everybody has got passions,” Lambert said. “I love MMA. I love college football. And I love pro wrestling. If I get an opportunity to get involved in those and make them a bigger part of my life and it’s what I enjoy doing, why wouldn’t you take advantage of that?”
Lambert has also recently seized an opportunity in college football. A longtime booster of the University of Miami Hurricanes, he announced in July that he would be beginning a name, image and likeness (NIL) program for the players. Beginning this year, for the first time, federal legislation allows college athletes to be paid for endorsement deals. This season, all 90 of Miami’s scholarship football players received $500 per month from Lambert to promote American Top Team, by wearing the camp’s gear and pumping up the gym on social media. Under a new company called Bring Back The U, Lambert spent a total of $540,000 in NIL costs. The idea is for other local businesses to come aboard to help fund endorsement deals for Miami football players as well. Lambert is hoping to even the playing field between his favorite team and college powerhouses like Alabama and LSU.
Lambert’s involvement with collegiate sports does not stop with football. In July, an American Top Team Happy Valley gym opened in Pennsylvania as a potential feeder system from Penn State University wrestling to ATT. The facility is co-owned by three-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler Bo Nickal, who won his first two amateur MMA fights this fall.
In just the past few months, ATT has got its hands in amateur wrestling, pro wrestling and college football — while not losing focus on its primary function of being an MMA camp.
Poirier winning the UFC lightweight title and Nunes retaining the women’s bantamweight gold would be the perfect cap to a historic stretch for ATT. “I don’t think we’ve come close to reaching the pinnacle of the legacy American Top Team is going to have and the dominance it’s going to have,” Harrison said. “I just think it’s going to only get better.”
Harrison envisions Poirier leading the way. His journey to the top has made him a role model at American Top Team, leading by example.
“He embodies everything that we all want to be,” Harrison said. “He is the champion’s champion. … The man he is now is just very inspiring. Number one, he’s a family man. He puts his family first. He’s absolutely obsessed with his daughter and his wife. You’re not gonna hear about him getting in trouble or doing anything crazy. He’s not gonna be in the news for stuff like that, which I think is something this sport could use more of.”
Poirier balks at any claim that he’s a leader. He doesn’t see it that way. There were people at ATT who came before him, such as Brown and Davis, his coaches, and teammates Alves and Masvidal. The idea that his journey and ATT’s have been similar? Poirier never even considered it.
“I don’t know if it’s American Top Team. It’s American dream,” he said. “It’s overcoming struggles and picking yourself up, dusting yourself off. Any tough business, you’re gonna have to do that. Never say die.”