When Dustin Poirier’s next fight was announced for April 14 at UFC on FOX 29 against Justin Gaethje, the flood of cheers erupting from the MMA community was hard to miss. That’s because there’s little pretense behind what Poirier and Gaethje bring to the cage — both men are true scrappers, raised in the ways of the firefight, hardened by the kind of grueling wars of attrition that earned the pair a combined four ‘Fight of the Night’ bonuses over their last five Octagon appearances.
In truth, Poirier vs. Gaethje is the type of contest that deserves five rounds, which fortunately it will get as UFC on FOX 29’s main event. It’s also the type of contest that forces the competitors to take a clear-eyed view of the skirmish to come, because there’s a good chance the going will get tough, things will get hellish, both men will grow weary and all corners of the cage will get painted seven shades of crimson. In those type of trials by fire, only the strongest of mind survive to see the other side.
So as UFC on FOX 29 approaches, “The Diamond” is keenly aware of what is to come.
“Justin is a fighter’s fighter,” Poirier recently told MMA Fighting. “People like to watch him fight. He’s a little bit of a brute. He out-toughs guys and you know that he’s a guy who doesn’t break mentally. You have to break his body. You have to short-circuit him. You have to make his body stop working. He has a never-die attitude and I respect that about him, and I know what he’s bringing to the table. I know how dangerous he is, the power he brings and the grit he brings to the fight.
“I’m not looking to go out there and get damaged and have a bloodbath, but I’m a fighter deep down inside. So no matter how much I try to tame that beast, when the going gets tough, it comes out. I’m glad I have that because it’s gotten me far.
“But this is going to be the bull versus the matador and I’m going to finesse him out there. I’m going to show my full skill set, my speed, my accuracy, everything I’ve been working on for 11 years. I’m going to show, once again, that I’m going to be the best in the world.”
It’s no secret that Poirier initially had his eyes on someone else.
Following his Nov. 2017 win over Anthony Pettis, the 29-year-old lightweight contender was vocal about his desire to rematch Eddie Alvarez next. Alvarez and Poirier tangled previously at UFC 211 in one of the best two-round fights of the year, but the bout was cut anticlimactically short when Alvarez nailed Poirier with two illegal knees to the head. Both men now sport a no-contest on their résumés as a reminder of their battle, but Alvarez has spurned Poirier’s requests for a more conclusive rematch, instead setting his sights on a potential fight against Nate Diaz.
Whether Alvarez will get the Diaz fight remains to be seen — Diaz has expressed zero interest in the idea — but either way, one thing is certain: After trying in vain to coax Alvarez into a rematch, to point where Poirier said Alvarez turned down multiple bout agreements, “The Diamond” is turning the page on the rivalry with his former foe.
“I’m not really chasing rematches. I’m chasing gold. And whatever fight can get me closer to being a world champion, those are the fights that I want,” Poirier said. “Of course I wanted the Eddie rematch, just because of the way it ended and he was still ranked No. 3 at the time, so I was like I need to get that fight back. He was the only guy without a fight as well in the top five when I was trying to push for the fight, and it just made sense. I knew if I beat him, I would be really close to a world title.
“The UFC offered Eddie the fight five times or something, I was told, and he turned it down every time. So I don’t know, man. I feel like a win over Justin Gaethje is going to do the same thing that would’ve done. I’m going to be right there knocking on the door.”
In Gaethje, Poirier instead meets the man who Alvarez just dispatched with a gutty third-round knockout at UFC 218.
The performance marked the only loss of Gaethje’s professional fighting career, and Poirier is curious to see how Gaethje responds to his first sign of adversity after having kicked off a fight career with 18 consecutive wins and a dominant run as World Series of Fighting’s lightweight champion.
“I do know that he’s a tough individual mentally. He’ll push himself, and no matter how much blood or pain he’s in, he’s going to walk forward and try to finish the fight,” Poirier said. “And I admire that about him, like I said. That’s a warrior’s spirit. But this is a thinking man’s game as well. You have to have a fine balance of both. We’ll see.
“Either he’s going to be the best Justin Gaethje he’s ever been, he might start showing some of those Division I All-American skills that he has, showing some other wrinkles in his game; he might be more motivated than he’s ever been to get that loss out of his mind and get back into the win column. Or, he’s going to be second-guessing himself and wondering what he did wrong, if he belongs in there.”
Gaethje’s style is one that has drawn equal parts plaudits and concern from the MMA masses for its recklessness and sheer ferocity.
While Poirier largely considers himself a tactician, Gaethje is more akin to a living, breathing test of human will — “The Highlight” marches forward with seemingly boundless aggression and a steady procession of chopping leg kicks, often eating several punches if it that’s what it takes to unload offense of his own. The biggest question when Gaethje signed with the UFC was how well such an audacious style would translate to the world-class levels of the Octagon, and for the most part it seems to have been successful.
Gaethje knocked out longtime contender Michael Johnson in his UFC debut — which, of course, captured 2017’s ‘Fight of the Year’ honors — and performed admirably against Alvarez before being downed by a knee late into the contest.
Still, Poirier is among those skeptical of how far Gaethje can truly go unless he changes his ways.
“It’s not (a sustainable style), and I said that when he was with World Series of Fighting,” Poirier said. “I’m good friends with (ATT coach) Mike Brown, who’s also an MMA mastermind. He understands fighting and understands styles and matchup, and I’ve told him that before, that this guy is going to have to switch his fighting style or he’s going to have a short career. He’s going to have a bunch of fun paydays and a bunch of memorable fights, but it’s not going to last. Once it starts going downhill, it’s going to go down fast for him, fighting like that. Of course he’s going to catch guys here and there, win some bonuses, and like I said, have some great fights that people are going to remember. And it seems like that’s what he’s fighting for. He loves that, and that’s awesome.
“But I want to be a world champion, man. And I want that to be a byproduct of me fighting at my best. I’m not going out there looking to see who’s willing to lose more blood, because I’ll die out there. I know I would, but I don’t want that. I want to go in there and have smooth fight and show my skill.”
Whether a smooth fight will actually come at UFC on FOX 29 is anyone’s best guess. No one, not even Alvarez, has walked away from a run-in with Gaethje without experiencing major bodily trauma. And that guarantee of violence is one of Gaethje’s best assets.
It’s no surprise, then, that Gaethje has questioned whether Poirier has the heart and the guts to survive the deep waters that he plans to drag Poirier into at UFC on FOX 29.
And to that, Poirier’s response is telling.
“I think it’s cute,” he said. “We’ll find out. Bring me there. Let’s go. I’m not Eddie Alvarez, I’m not these guys. I can crack and I have the best technique he’s ever fought in his fighting career. You’ll see, man.
“I’m a complete fighter and I’m not scared, I’m very willing to use every part of the game to get the win by any means necessary. And I’m going to outclass him everywhere. I’m going to make him look like an amateur out there.”