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UFC 236 main event breakdown: Max Holloway vs. Dustin Poirier

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It is difficult to imagine that over the course of 2019, the UFC will find a main event that creates the anticipation of a jaw-dropping, breath-stopping, highlight-making action fight in the way that Saturday night’s main event does. The UFC 236 headliner, pitting longtime featherweight champion Max Holloway against No. 3 lightweight Dustin Poirier for the lightweight interim championship, does not make a lot of sense as a pairing, yet most fight fans are thrilled at the prospect of two of the most offensively gifted fighters in the sport pairing off in their respective primes.

This will not be their first meeting; the two locked horns at UFC 143 back in 2012. At the time, Holloway was just 20 years old — the youngest fighter on the roster — and just four fights into his professional career. He still had much to learn but he was absorbing his lessons, including one at the hands of Poirier, who stopped him via first-round submission. It remains the only time anyone has ever finished Holloway.

Even at that early point, Holloway showed foundational elements of the game that would make him a king — he had a learned jab, he was aggressive, he showed the ability to switch stances, he put together advanced combinations. Yet he was far from the complete product he is today. He was just a prototype, as opposed to today’s version 3.0.

Poirier, too, has made incredible strides since then. While he can’t boast a championship reign, he has been a longtime contender in two separate divisions and has done sensational work in the last two years, stopping Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez in consecutive bouts. Finally, after more than 20 UFC fights, he gets the opportunity to own some share of gold.

Holloway and Poirier share one key similarity: aggression. According to UFC Stats, Holloway (20-3) is third all-time in strikes landed per minute at 6.90. Poirier is not far behind at 5.59 for his career, but has turned it up recently, averaging a staggering 12.1 strikes landed per minute over his last three wins.

However, they are aggressive in different ways. Poirier (24-5, 1 no contest) likes to emerge out of the opening gate with guns blazing; against Pettis, he threw 70 strikes in the first round, against Gaethje 132, against Alvarez 63. He does not believe in feeling-out periods; he gets to work and forces his opponent to adjust to him. Then, as the fight wears on, he chooses his strikes more selectively, focusing more on power shots. For Holloway, it’s the inverse. He starts with a steady thrum of activity, but builds as he goes along. It’s almost as if he slows himself down in order to invite his opponent to stay with him, just long enough for the opponent to realize he is expending more energy than he’d like, and by then, it’s too late.

Holloway creates his volume through space management. He has slick footwork, and with his ability to switch stances, he excels at driving his opponent toward whatever direction he desires, allowing him to launch his offense. He boasts a versatile jab, featuring both a flicking version and a snapping one that he uses for different purposes. He builds combinations well, with flourishes of creativity that disguise his barrages and pronounce their effects. He also has a strong kicking game, holding a particular fondness for the back kick to the body.

Like Holloway, Poirier boasts the versatility inherent in stance-switching. For him though, it’s not about anything other than launching offense. Most of the time he switches stances, it’s during an advance in a bid to fire off a power shot. While he has some tricky elements to his game, subtlety is mostly an afterthought. In most instances, it’s onward with aggression. One of the ways he hides things is by fighting in unusual rhythms, launching attacks during moments that are normally reserved for a breather. That allows him to overtax his opponent’s mind and body.

Poirier is excellent in the clinch, with a fondness for elbows and uppercuts when he gets in tight; he can generate enough power from those spots to hurt opponents. He is also adept at catching kicks as well as throwing power strikes over the top of kicks and body shots coming his way. That could play into this fight, given Holloway’s propensity to attack the body in a way that few fighters do.

While both fighters are best known for their standup games, they are both well-rounded. Poirier, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, has seven career submissions, and has a fondness for the D’arce, a move that works given his long, 72-inch reach. He’s a solid wrestler, although he does not feature it as a staple of his game. Still, he has used it to strong effect in several fights, such as his win over Pettis, in which he earned five takedowns, as well as a victory over Jim Miller, in which he had three.

Holloway has the superior wrestling stats — he boasts an 83 percent takedown rate, and 83 percent defensive success — but he almost exclusively uses the skill to stuff opponents and keep the fight in his preferred space.

These are two technicians with similar fight philosophies. It’s easy to forecast a fantastic fight between two high-octane opponents. More difficult is predicting a winner. Holloway is favored to win and avenge his previous loss to Poirier, and if there is a key difference between them, it might well be Holloway’s defensive abilities. His stellar footwork routinely has him circling away from counters, as opponents connect at only a 36 percent clip against him. Poirier might improve on that number, but over five rounds, I expect Holloway to create a bit of separation through his volume. I think the fight will be sensational and go the distance, and Holloway emerges with a close decision.

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