Now that we have incontrovertible proof that Justin Gaethje is not indestructible, his next bout will no doubt be looked at with even greater scrutiny. For years, Gaethje ruled the World Series of Fighting, only to face doubts over how he would do at the next level of competition. His win over Michael Johnson in his UFC debut quieted some of his critics, but losing to Eddie Alvarez last December brought some of the same questions. While his propensity to engage in chaotic exchanges has given him more popularity than ever, the question remains: what is Gaethje’s ceiling?
His UFC on FOX 29 main event with Dustin Poirier will serve as an excellent bellwether. Poirier is hardly a gatekeeper, having lost only once in eight matches since returning to lightweight, and has surged to the No. 5 ranking in the division. Yet given his experience and history of success, Poirier serves as a valuable measuring stick for anyone interested in examining Gaethje’s future UFC prospects.
The fight is seen as a can’t-miss battle between two of the sport’s warriors. Last year, Gaethje was involved in two of the top three fights of the year. Poirier, meanwhile, is a past Fight of the Year award winner, and has won Fight of the Night in two of his last three matches.
To be clear, both of them can be can brilliantly technical, yet are prone to fits of stubborn recklessness, born of an inability to back down from a firefight. These are action fighters through and through, and there is little chance this match does not produce a series of exciting sequences.
Gaethje fights like John Wick has come to life, as if he’s been wronged and he’s coming for revenge. He likes to move forward, attacking, attacking, attacking some more, daring his opponent to keep up with his pace and power. Though his base is wrestling—he was a Division I All-America at the University of Northern Colorado—Gaethje puts little emphasis on it. His wrestling is mostly instinctual as a reaction if opponents overextend lunging punches at him, and even then, it’s mostly cursory.
In his two UFC bouts, he’s only tried a single takedown, coming in the second round of his bout with Eddie Alvarez, and it came with only seconds remaining when Alvarez popped out a long jab. It’s less a feature of his game than it should be, but it remains a weapon should he choose to use it.
As exciting as the sixth-ranked Gaethje’s fights are, he’s not a flashy offensive fighter. Rather, he generates exchanges due to his willingness to plant himself in the pocket, shell, clinch and fire. He does not like to give ground, and never wants to be the first to step back.
His offense mostly keys off his leg kicks. Throughout his career, he has battered opponents legs, chopping them down a little at a time, chipping away at their foundation and sapping them of their power. Against Michael Johnson, 28 of his 87 strikes were leg kicks, per FightMetric; against Alvarez, that ratio went down significantly, just 40 of 237.
While he loves the leg kick lead, Gaethje is just as likely to walk his opponent down, covering up his head in a shell and coming in with an overhand right. He likes to plant himself in the pocket, and will lean into oncoming fire to get into his favored position. That backfired against Alvarez, who used the opportunity to throw a hard knee up the middle that put Gaethje out for the first time in his career, so it will be interesting to see if he shows any tentativeness upon his return.
Gaethje (18-1) has no fear of a fast pace, and over his first two UFC bouts, has averaged a scalding 9.50 strikes landed per minute. While that relentless pressure served him well in WSOF against opponents who were not quite at the elite level, his UFC foes have not yet been overwhelmed by the output. In fact, Alvarez out-landed him by 33 strikes while throwing 126 more strikes overall in their 13 minutes, 59 seconds together.
Gaethje’s aggressiveness and wildness offers plentiful opportunities to opponents, as there are going to be natural moments to counter in a swarm. Seasoned, poised fighters will be able to capitalize in those instants. That said, it is fair to wonder if losing for the first time will change him. Will he show any reluctance or even measure out his attacks a bit more carefully? He’s capable of doing so, but given his career-long attitude, the guess here is no.
Poirier, meanwhile, has looked rejuvenated within the last three years, shooting up to No. 5 in the current UFC rankings since returning to lightweight. One of the keys for him has been improvements to his defense. Like Gaethje, he has always been drawn into action fights, but in recent bouts, he’s made a concerted effort at head movement and staying off the center line to make himself unavailable.
Still, a lot of what he does (aside from the wrestling chops) is comparable to Gaethje. A southpaw, he mostly fights behind his right jab, has a comfort level in working with his opponent against the fence, and likes phone-booth fighting in tight spaces. He’s a good scrambler, has legitimate power, and favors a high-output style, with 5.08 strikes landed per minute in his UFC career.
Unlike Gaethje, Poirier is voluntarily willing to regularly mix up his attack. He is a competent wrestler, and used takedowns and attempts to keep Anthony Pettis guessing in their November 2017 bout.
Poirier (22-5, 1 no contest) is a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, but hasn’t had a submission victory in almost six years. Still, you can see his pedigree with the way he can capably control and damage opponents from the top, and his ability to scramble out of disadvantageous positions. Remember, it was during a Pettis triangle attempt that Poirier dropped the elbow that made the bout a blood bath. He’s dangerous on the ground.
All put together, the biggest guarantee on Saturday is this will be a riveting and exciting bout. As to who is going to win? The odds are near even money, and for good reason. Poirier, at his best, is a sharper striker, but Gaethje wields more danger. This is a showdown, pure and simple, and Gaethje has hurt almost everyone he’s ever stepped into a cage with. Here’s betting he takes a step forward with a third-round TKO in a thriller.