Benoit Saint Denis’ coach reflects on remarkable road to Dustin Poirier fight

Benoit Saint Denis had just left the army when he showed up for a MMA tryout at a local gym in France and veteran coach Daniel Woirin immediately noticed his potential.

Four years later, Saint Denis appears to be on the verge of stardom as he readies for the biggest fight of his career on March 9 against Dustin Poirier at UFC 299.

Saint Denis served as a paratrooper for the French special forces when he fell in love with MMA, which was still banned in his home country at the time. An initiative from apparel brand Venum to form an MMA team in France led by Woirin was the door Saint Denis needed to finally embark upon his journey.

“Benoit is incredible,” Woirin said on MMA Fighting’s Trocação Franca podcast. “He started from zero with me. I did the audition for the professional team and he only had experience in jiu-jitsu with Christophe Savoca and judo, and that’s it. I saw him train with professionals, guys with 15 or 20 pro fights, and saw him go 50-50 with them on the feet, ground, and wrestling. I was surprised.”

Venum’s plan was to select four fighters, Woirin said, however the veteran coach convinced Venum to open a fifth slot to sponsor Saint Denis because “he was worth it.” Morgan Charriere, who’s 1-0 in the UFC with a first-round KO over Manolo Zecchini and currently scheduled to face Seung Woo Choi on April 6, was also a member of that group. Unlike Saint Denis, however, Charriere had previous MMA experience.

Funnily enough, Woirin said he considered retiring as a MMA coach before the call came from Venum. Woirin had worked as a MMA coach for some of the world’s best, helping Anderson Silva during his UFC middleweight reign and Dan Henderson in his days as a Strikeforce light heavyweight titleholder, but said he wasn’t making enough money.

“I had a lot in terms of experience, it was fun and all, but I have to pay bills, so it was hard,” Woirin said. “I was kind of broke when I came back to France from the United States, and then I went to Ukraine to work with Roman Dolidze and Serghei Spivac. I got the call from Venum, and two and a half years later [Saint Denis] is in the UFC, and now he’s fighting Dustin Poirier. It’s incredible. It’s also very gratifying because I suffered [through the MMA] boycott in France, and now they all know me because of Benoit.”

The road wasn’t easy, Woirin said. He feels that the French martial arts community turned on him because he decided to leave the country to built a career in Brazil and United States, and watching Saint Denis suffer a brutal loss to Elizeu Zaleski in his UFC debut didn’t help.

Saint Denis was a natural lightweight with eight pro wins at the time, all by stoppage, when the call came to face Zaleski at welterweight. A one-sided 15-minute beatdown followed.

“I was heavily criticized after that fight because I didn’t throw the towel,” Woirin said. “In fact, I’ll never throw the towel. I thought the referee was going to stop the fight, but Benoit survived and came back in the third. It was incredible. I had many problems back in France for that. I was threatened, even, but it happens. I don’t care. I received death threats. People are crazy, right? Fans are kind of crazy. I received a lot of threats and criticism, but I couldn’t care less. It was a tough fight but he gained a lot of respect for that, everybody knows him now.”

Saint Denis subsequently returned to 155 pounds and secured his first UFC victory with a rear-naked choke submission of Niklas Stolze in June 2022. He then finished Gabriel Miranda, Ismael Bonfim, Thiago Moises, and Matt Frevola in a span of 14 months to set up the Poirier fight — a matchup neither Saint Denis nor Woirin were expecting.

“I’ll tell you the truth, we didn’t even know [about the fight],” Woirin said. “I woke up and saw that Benoit was going to fight Poirier, but [the UFC] didn’t talk to anyone. Benoit didn’t know either. The fight was announced before it was agreed. People said that has happened in the past with Dana White. Benoit was sleeping when news broke. His wife woke him up saying, ‘Hey, you’re fighting Poirier.’”

“We were surprised because Poirier is the No. 3 [ranked lightweight],” he continued. “I thought they were going to give us [Beneil] Dariush or Dan Hooker, but we were very happy when we saw it was Poirier because we love challenges. We respect him, but we’re going there to win. We respect the legend, but we’re preparing him to beat Poirier.”

The French lightweight owns five straight finishes and has earned three performance bonus in just under two years. Poirier, however, has shared the cage with some of the all-time best in the UFC. A former interim champion, Poirier enters UFC 299 off of a loss to Justin Gaethje, a man he has knocked out previously. Conor McGregor, Michael Chandler, Max Holloway, Eddie Alvarez, and Anthony Pettis have also lost to Poirier in the past.

“The secret for Benoit [against Poirier] is that he’s younger and hungrier,” Woirin said. “We know Poirier is in the game for a while, he’s 34, and that takes a toll on the body. Not only the fights but the camps, motivation, knowing you’re financially secured. Benoit is hungrier, but we’re careful because he’s a champion.”

As for the matchup, Woirin feels his protege carries more weapons than Poirier on the feet with his Muay Thai experience, even thought he gives Poirier the nod in the boxing realm.

“It’s going to be a hard 25-minute fight,” Woirin said. “Poirier takes a lot of damage but he doesn’t stop. I think it’s a good matchup for Benoit because the division is starting to get older, but we never underestimate anyone. … It’s going to be a violent fight. I can’t say who will win because we don’t know that, but I can say it’s going to be violent. Benoit is fighting a high-level guy.”

Woirin is proud to take a man from 0-0 to the top of the world. For him, winning a UFC title with Saint Denis would be the greatest achievement of Woirin’s career, bigger than coaching legends like Silva and Henderson in championship bouts.

“You take a guy from zero in the toughest division in the UFC and [he] wins the belt? I can stop coaching after that. The cycle is complete,” Woirin said. “I’ve been in the fight game for a long time, and to come back from nowhere with Benoit, just like that, would be incredible. And we believe it can happen because he’s young. I hope that happens.”