This Saturday, the UFC returns to Salt Lake City for its second pay-per-view offering of July: UFC 291, headlined by a BMF title fight between Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. The two men previously fought in the 2018 Fight of the Year, where Poirier outlasted Gaethje in a battle of attrition, stopping “The Highlight” in the fourth round.
Can “The Diamond” do it again or will Gaethje get his revenge and a shiny silver belt for his mantle? Let’s look at how this fight could go down.
Paths to Victory for Dustin Poirier at UFC 291
In the first matchup, Poirier won primarily due to his superior defense and footwork. Though earlier in his career, Poirier was a power-punching brawler, as he grew up and settled into his style, Poirier started to lean heavily on a slick, shell defense that minimizes the damage he takes, cutting angles off it to return fire in devastating fashion. That all is still going to be critical in the rematch. Gaethje at heart remains a big-punching pressure fighter, and if Poirier consents to a brawl with him, things can get ugly in a hurry. The more Poirier can use his footwork to stymie Gaethje, protect himself with his layered boxing defense, and fire big left hands down the middle to back Gaethje off, the better off he will be.
On a similar note, Poirier’s jab was also a major player. Gaethje’s relentless forward pressure kept ramming him into Poirier’s lead hand, bloodying Gaethje early and setting up power shots as the fight developed. Poirier should look to do more of the same this time around.
One area where Poirier should look to mix things up from the first fight is with body shots. After losing to Poirier, Gaethje made a concerted effort to improve his defense and craft, but he still relies heavily on a high forearm guard, protecting his head at the expense of his body. Poirier is a great body puncher when he wants to be, and the few times he went to that in the first match, it landed to noticeable effect.
Lastly, Poirier should remember this is an MMA fight. For as thrilling and dangerous as he is on the feet, Gaethje is the exact opposite on the ground. An All-American collegiate wrestler, Gaethje isn’t easy to get to the mat, but when he is taken down, he offers very little resistance, and Poirier remains a very solid top position grappler. A few timely takedowns could pay huge dividends for Poirier to seal up rounds and stay ahead of Gaethje on the cards, or even open up submission opportunities.
Paths to victory for Justin Gaethje at UFC 291
For any Justin Gaethje fight, the conversation starts with leg kicks. Gaethje is one of the greatest leg kickers in the history of MMA, and in fact, his entire game heavily relies on them. Gaethje uses a barrage of leg kicks and power shots to break opponents. In the first fight, that combination very nearly got the better of Poirier, and though he ultimately lost, there’s no reason for Gaethje to deviate from those core principles. For all his defensive craft and ability, Poirier still rarely defends leg kicks that well, preferring to try and offset them with big counters, so they are going to be there for Gaethje on Saturday.
Where Gaethje needs to adapt is his defensive approach. While Gaethje had free reign with his leg kicks, Poirier’s jab almost immediately marked up Gaethje, opening up offense and allowing Poirier to work at an equally ungodly pace. On top of that, once Poirier got his jab going, Gaethje’s tendency to crowd in and cover up really hurt him. Poirier would jab, get Gaethje’s guard up, and then fire long combinations into and around the arms, doubling and tripling up on the jab, then thumping a huge hook into Gaethje’s head. All of that was terrible for Gaethje, and if he allows it to happen again, he’s in trouble. Gaethje has to find answers to the jab to get this done on Saturday, either relying on his own to keep Poirier from building a rhythm, or simply disengaging instead of covering up.
Fortunately for Gaethje, this isn’t a big step, as since his loss to Poirier, improving his defense has been a priority for Gaethje. He shells up less, moves his feet more, and tends to limit engagements. Those are all big steps forward for Gaethje, and will be critical to his success this weekend.
Another possible answer for Gaethje is something we saw in his most recent fight with Rafael Fiziev. Early in the fight, Fiziev’s speed was giving Gaethje problems, and so he responded by deciding to really sit down on his counter shots. Gaethje is a monstrous hitter when he’s really sitting down on his shots, but he rarely does it, preferring to let his natural power accumulate damage on his opponents. Against Fiziev, that was proving more difficult, so he leaned more heavily on his power, really leaning into his shots, both single and in combination. That ultimately was the difference in the fight, and given how much damage Poirier has absorbed in his career, the best path may simply be to force the issue a la Michael Chandler.
The last time the UFC came to Salt Lake City, basically every fight on the card was pretty severely affected by the elevation, with many fighters noting afterwards how quickly they got tired. For a five-round main event, where the first fight saw both men collectively throw almost 600 strikes in 15 minutes and 30 seconds, that could play a huge role.
For his entire career, Gaethje has prided himself on breaking men with his pressure and pace. In the first fight, Poirier was able to match Gaethje’s pace and even exceed it. Can he do the same at elevation? Will the fact that Gaethje trains in Colorado and has been in Utah for weeks make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. Dustin Poirier is a consummate professional so it’s entirely possible this won’t matter. But then again, so is Leon Edwards, and to hear him tell it, Utah nearly cost him his shot to win the welterweight belt.
One of the things that gets forgotten in the first fight between Poirier and Gaethje is just how well Justin Gaethje was doing. Heading into the fourth round, the fight was an all-out battle, but the kind that Gaethje thrives in and it looked for all the world like the barrage of leg kicks was starting to wear down Poirier. Then an eye poke right at the end of the third and a monstrous left hand from “The Diamond” put Gaethje away. All of that is to say this fight was a 50/50 proposition five years ago, and in the time since then, I believe that Gaethje has improved enough to give him a slight edge. Poirier is still the more technical fighter, but Gaethje has closed the gap enough and he has such a dangerous set of tools, I favor him to get the win.
Justin Gaethje def. Dustin Poirier by TKO (leg kicks and punches) at 1:58 of Round 5.