Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje’s initial outing was in Glendale, Arizona in 2018. It was the main event of UFC on Fox 29 and featured several other prominent MMA figures like Israel Adesanya, Carlos Condit, Marvin Vettori, and Gilbert Burns.
The two Top-10 Lightweights in the marquee matchup walked away with the Fight of the Night honors and Phoenix fans witnessed “The Diamond” become the second man to finish the hometown hero Justin Gaethje. After 5 years, the collision course has reunited these familiar foes and a car crash of biblical proportions is in order in the main event of UFC 291, this time for the vacant BMF belt.
I wanted to dive into a round-by-round analysis of that 2018 matchup and see what went wrong for Justin Gaethje, what went right for Dustin Poirier, and how both men can come into the Pay-Per-View top billing at their very best.
*#6-ranked Justin Gaethje came into this a +105 Underdog and #5-ranked Dustin Poirier closed as a -135 Favorite
Both men meet in the middle with Gaethje applying pressure right off the jump and throwing a leg kick 9 seconds in. He touches Dustin with another short, light combo and is keeping Poirier firmly on the double black lines. Dustin times a leg kick and counters beautifully with the left hand, grazing the temple of Gaethje and forcing the AZ native backwards. Poirier tries to connect with a few more shots but Gaethje evades and now Poirier has the center of the octagon, but only for a moment as Justin pushes Poirier back once again. Justin tries the leg kick again, but Dustin repeats the same left-hand counter connecting to the chin.
After a brief pause and several unsuccessful left hooks, Dustin goes back to the inside leg-kicking and lands clean on Dustin destabilizing the Louisianan. Dustin attempts the counter, and has the timing, but his base was too broken to land the first shot. He follows up with several more and connects with a beautiful right hook that forces Gaethje back. Justin finally attempts an outside leg kick and lands, but whiffs on a second attempt moments later.
Daniel Cormier says Justin Gaethje is, “one of the best leg kickers MMA has ever seen”.
This is all 60 seconds into the first round.
Gaethje is able to pressure and lands a great inside leg kick that momentarily brings Poirier down. As Dustin gets back to his feet, you can see him bouncing on it trying to shake off the effect. Poirier is waiting for the counter opportunity, and Gaethje tries to touch him with a combination but the striking defense of Dustin Poirier is shown and he easily evades. Poirier pushes forward, throwing a shot to the midsection before alternating hooks upstairs and ending with a body kick – Gaethje smiles and once again applies pressure. He tries to push Dustin along the cage to maybe set up the left hook, but Dustin’s right arm is guarding the chin and he counters a Gaethje uppercut with his own left hook.
Justin Gaethje’s head is kept low in these striking exchanges early and due to that, ends up missing on a majority of his shots or bouncing off the guard of Poirer. Very little bodywork from Justin as well. Poirier shuts down the lead hand of Gaethje very effectively with small jabs over the shoulder and hand-fighting, as well as circling out. The advantage of the Southpaw stance for Dustin is when he moves to his natural direction he’s inherently circling away from the power side of Gaethje. Sort of a dumb point as Justin has power literally everywhere, but you catch the drift…
We are halfway through Round One.
Poirier really starting to control the striking now, doubling and tripling up on the jab, flowing with his combos. Gaethje looking lost and sloppy inside the exchanges, either covering up and trying to blindly weave or wing big counter shots that are far from landing. Justin is also biting on the feints at this point and really staying behind a HIGH guard. Justin wings another telegraphed shot and Dustin easily evades.
We have 90 seconds left in Round One.
Porier has landed 38 head strikes and Justin has landed 11.
Dustin tries a few leg kicks of his own in the final minute, and then lands a heavy body kick that brings Justin’s guard back up to his head. Dustin sneaks a brutal straight left, right hook, uppercut (that partially lands) and right hook combination that certainly hurts Gaethje. One adjustment that’s neat to see over the course of the first 5 minutes is how Poirier starts gradually introducing uppercuts into his combos as he reads how Justin keeps dipping his head down.
Round One comes to a close with Gaethje busted open and breathing heavy. Outside of leg kicks, he struggled to land clean and didn’t try to set up many combinations. He would occasionally flick the jab out but never seemed committed to anything other than leg kicks and trying to tire Dustin out by enduring the Louisianan’s offense. Poirier on the other hand dealt with the pressure beautifully, and while he did eat a number of leg kicks, found counters numerous times and punished Gaethje at every range.
Gaethje once again drives the pressure bus right into Poirier station forcing him backwards, but whiffs on the inside leg kick. Poirier seemingly still unaffected by the downstairs shots. Poirier blasts a body kick and Justin returns with a nice jab. Poirier ducks under the power of Gaethje and momentarily has a body lock but releases it; virtually no grappling through 7 minutes which is interesting. Would feel a takedown attempt or two could benefit both guys and further give their opponent a weapon to look out for.
Eye poke from Gaethje briefly pauses the action, but after blinking it out and taking a few moments the fighters resume and Gaethje starts to have a little success upstairs but Poirier is still landing at a higher rate. The right hand of Gaethje is swung like a baseball bat but, like many MLB stars, doesn’t land every time and he’s putting himself out of position every time he throws it. The leg kicks are starting to slow Poirier down and now he’s hanging in the pocket a little bit more.
Poirier attempts a takedown unsuccessfully. Gaethje continues to whiff. Poirier mixes in the grappling much more in the final minute of the round, but Gaethje closes it out with some elbows and a rolling thunder. Still feel Poirier was controlling the striking, Justin had better moments and the effect of the leg kicks is starting to be seen. However, in my opinion, it’s still a round in the books for Dustin. He’s absorbed 29 leg kicks from Justin Gaethje at this point.
Gaethje opens with a few kicks, Poirier trying not to accept the pressure and lands some leg kicks of his own. Dustin lands a brief takedown but Gaethje gets back to his feet and connects with an outside leg kick. Biggest shot of the fight is when Gaethje slips to the outside and counters a left straight from Dustin with a barbaric short right hand. Dustin retreats to the cage and Justin tries to capitalize but Dustin circles out. Justin tries to unload with elbows and uppercuts but both men clinch and Dustin is able to neutralize the offense.
Dustin breaks the grip and circles out. Justin tries to pressure but misses on most strikes. Dustin tries his best to return fire with the leg kicks but it’s just not there, Justin is really good at checking the kicks. Poirier tries to sit down on a few hooks before pushing Gaethje up against the cage. Justin is able to reverse and starts kneeing the legs of Dustin. Poirier is a little more sophisticated in the clinch and breaks away but misses on a few shots off the break.
Another eye poke briefly halts the round, and Dustin is looking a little compromised. Herb Dean takes a point away from Justin Gaethje, but Justin urges on the crowd. Both fighters briefly talk in the center as the doctor enters and tries to further clear Dustin’s eye. Final 15 seconds get underway and Gaethje whiffs on a leg kick but right as the round ends Dustin pokes him in the eye.
Best round of the fight for Gaethje. He’s trying to return with the hands more instead of just powering through Dustin’s offense to land leg kicks. Would’ve liked more instances of him slipping and returning with short shots. Feels like the leg kicks are also beginning to slowly chip away at Poirer’s ability to counter as well as he had in the first 2 rounds. Tight clinching sequences initially favored Gaethje, but Poirier was able to create space and find openings for hooks and uppercuts before breaking the clinch and firing on the exit. However, due to the point being taken for the eye poke it renders this a 9-9 round in my opinion.
Gaethje, But 9-9 (Point Taken For Eye Poke)
Gaethje once again puts the foot on the pedal and opens with pressure, but eats a gigantic left straight counter to one of his first few leg kicks and is immediately on wobbly legs. He beckons Poirier forward but is met with a swarm of uppercuts and hooks as Poirer smells blood in the water. The accuracy of Dustin in this finishing sequence is unreal as he unloads an ungodly amount of strikes into the skull of Justin.
Dustin shucks the Arizonan off and lands with one last cross into a left hook and Gaethje goes down. Herb Dean steps in and waves it off, Gaethje is actively wrapping around the right leg of Dustin but the fight is over.
It’s a counter that Poirer landed many times in that fight; he had the timing of that inside leg kick down in Round One but it slowly got away from him in Rounds Two and Three. But immediately in Round Four, he slams Gaethje with the counter and it’s goodnight. I had the fight scored 29-27 Poirier before the stoppage, as did Dave Hagen, one of the judges that evening. Derek Cleary had it 28-28 and Sal D’amato incorrectly added and wound up with 29-28 after disregarding the point deduction.
Dustin Poirier Wins By TKO
What Justin Gaethje Can Do Differently:
The Jab: Establishing the jab early in the fight I think is a better alternative than the leg kicks. It’ll disrupt Poirier’s timing/confidence and is a better vehicle for the rest of Justin’s offense than sitting on an inside/outside leg kick. It was a weapon that was decently effective when he used it in their first fight, but it was never a tool he prioritized. However, watching the Fiziev fight shows he really has improved at working behind the lead hand so it is very possible.
Cage Clinching: Another area where I feel Justin can find more success is clinching Dustin against the cage. He opens each round with an enormous amount of pressure and I feel if he can take that just another step further and work those knees on the inside and separating as Poirier tries to work the collar ties in, it’ll both wear on Dustin and win minutes of the rounds. Especially at elevation, if he can wear on Poirier and make Dustin have to work to find separation or carry Justin’s weight, it’ll lead to an early stamina advantage that could pay dividends.
Please for the Love of God throw to the Body: Along the lines of clinching and wearing on Dustin’s stamina, I feel body work is something Justin could try to invest in. I can probably count on one hand the amount of strikes he threw to Dustin’s midsection and I can’t help but feel adding that to the arsenal would, similar to the jab, assist in setting up more offense and not falling into a rhythm of throwing the same handful of moves that Dustin will read and counter.
What Dustin Poirier Can Do Differently:
Addressing the Leg Kicks: The biggest change I can think to add is either checking or avoiding more of the leg kicks, which is easier said than done, but it was a weapon that visibly slowed his success down in Round 3 and from the photos in the weeks following the fight, it’s clear how much damage Dustin Poirier took. He attempted to return the leg kicks, and while he wasn’t super successful in 2018, I believe he leveled up his own calf kicks (as seen against McGregor) and will be able to integrate that weapon into his own offense more in the rematch. While checking the leg kicks is one way to address it, returning with your own consistently is also not a horrible plan.
Grappling?: Dustin was able to secure a takedown and clinch/body lock on a few occasions and while I noted Justin should work Dustin into the cage, it was in the moments of separation and clinching in the open where Dustin had success. I feel if he were to level change a little more frequently, it would allow his combinations to further get through Gaethje’s historically high guard. Additionally, increasing control time would win minutes without having to throw 200+ strikes. It would hopefully preserve the stamina… Salt Lake City is over 3,000 feet higher than Glendale, and while both Lightweights don’t show many holes in the stamina, I can see that reducing the volume significantly.
Knees: Talking about the high guard of Justin Gaethje, I noted he dipped his head a number of times in their first fight and while Poirier made the reads and began launching uppercuts I feel a further evolution of this would be blasting knees up the middle. A more impactful way to capitalize on Justin’s tendency, with how often Gaethje would either dip to throw or evade it, just feels like a more punishing blow than an uppercut that could bounce off his guard or partially connect. If every time Gaethje dipped Poirier snatched a collar tie and jammed a knee up into the guard or to the midsection, I feel it’d A) do more damage than an uppercut and B) reduce the energy expenditure on Poirier’s part. The only concern I can think of is the winging overhangs coming over the top while Poirier is unloading a knee. But if Dustin is controlling his head/posture I have a hard time imagining Justin blindly landing a really effective strike.
These are all just suggestions and opinions from a guy who trains infrequently and watched their first fight on 0.5x speed. Would love to hear your thoughts on what each fighter could do better ahead of their likely FOTN rematch at UFC 291…