At this point it is impossible to deny that Dustin Poirier is a new man. He is unrecognizable to the featherweight who swung for the fences at every opportunity, offering his chin up on a plate each time. For three rounds and change, Poirier got the better of fellow top five flyweight, Justin Gaethje, outmaneuvering the ferocious low kicker and proving that he is not ranked on natural ability alone. As Eddie Alvarez will attest, one does not go into a fight with Justin Gaethje and expect not to get hurt, and Dustin Poirier wore some fearsome shots, but his fourth round stoppage put an exclamation mark on the end of what was perhaps his finest performance to date.
On the other end of the equation, Justin Gaethje has some thinking to do. His reputation for being the most exciting fighter in MMA is well earned—he has had three fights in the UFC and all three have been Fight of the Year candidates. Gaethje’s purse of $100,000 "show money" also demonstrates the value that the UFC put on him specifically because of his customary type of fight. That is a lot of money for a fighter in the lower weightclasses, Dustin Poirier’s last disclosed payout, against Jim Miller, saw him earn $55,000 show money and $55,000 win money. But just as Eddie Alvarez found out after suffering some bad luck early in his UFC run, being exciting and being the best are not always directly linked.
Gaethje is in a strange position. He has all the physical talent to win these fights, but shows none of the readiness to adapt the style which he built and solidified during his stint as World Series of Fighting lightweight champion. Gaethje is where Dustin Poirier was at the end of his featherweight tenure, he is at the level where his opponents are adapting their game to fight him, and he is not doing the same. A great wrestler with heavy hands, Gaethje found that by working on the counter with his right hand and particularly with low kicks he could catch even good opponents out of position. The problem is that he is now fighting opponents who have watched him do that in numerous fights and are offering him answers, and he is not changing anything in response.
Timing the low kicks is everything to Gaethje. Crack someone with a hard low kick when they aren’t completely braced for impact and you can have them fighting as a shade of their usual self for the rest of the bout.
The problem is that by kicking all the time, Gaethje gets caught on one leg a lot. Against Luis Palomino this seemed to happen by chance. Against Michael Johnson, both of the instances in which Gaethje was hurt came as he was kicking or recovering on one leg.
Against Dustin Poirier on Saturday night, it was abundantly clear that Poirier wanted the low kick so that he could throw his left hand down the center. From the start of the bout he was hanging around in range, waiting for Gaethje to kick, and then cracking him with the counter.
Of course, that’s not to say that things went perfectly for Poirier. Waiting on that low kick also meant getting low kicked a fair amount.
Gaethje’s simple cover-up again proved to be doing little but handcuffing him as Poirier flicked the jab and varied both the target and length of his combinations. Using the uppercut and left straight to the body well also meant Gaethje was getting hit clean a lot more than he would were his man just alternating swings at him.
Poirier also used a nice turn-over elbow as we mentioned in our pre-fight Tactical Guide. Any time a man shackles himself in a double forearms guard, a fighter has the option to take advantage of this by smothering his hands and turning over the elbow.
The problem with Gaethje is that he found a method that works very well, and then stopped using anything else. It was Poirier who mixed up his offense with takedown attempts, despite Gaethje’s great wrestling pedigree. Gaethje had success when he got away from simply waiting and absorbing strikes to counter with low kicks. Going after Poirier and feinting a pair of kicks only to step in on a combination with his hands was a very nice look, and something we should have seen much more from him.
In fact, when Gaethje threw combinations with his hands he generally had success. The great kickboxer Ernesto Hoost’s career demonstrated the two main ways to low kick and avoid the opponent blocking them: one is to kick on the counter, the other is to kick on the end of a powerful combination of punches. The first is much less commonly seen in MMA and is Gaethje’s bread and butter, but he would have had a great deal more success against Poirier if he had been able to go to the second method for some variety. Gaethje hits hard enough to put anyone on the defensive if he worked in combinations, his one successful counter punch in round three had Poirier on the defensive for most of the rest of the round.
Yet Gaethje still insists on working one shot at a time and trying to counter out of a double forearm guard. Obviously Gaethje is not scared to get hit, so his constant use of the double forearm guard and choosing to absorb shots on his forearms and skull amounts to laziness—attempting to use a one size fits all answer to strikes rather than learning to use footwork or head movement, to cut off exchanges or get in a more advantageous position to counter respectively. Though Gaethje’s duck down to inside position does still work well when his opponent closes in, as mentioned in the Tactical Guide, he managed to sneak some butts in against Poirier.
Just as concerning is Gaethje’s obvious appreciation of attrition tactics but complete disregard for bodywork in this bout. Poirier only hit the body occasionally himself, but amid over 200 strikes thrown, Gaethje swung for the body just a dozen times.
The stoppage came as Poirier timed the low kick perfectly and countered with a left hand. Gaethje stumbled backwards atop rubber legs but called Poirier on anyway.
For Dustin Poirier this was yet another tremendous performance in his quest for a lightweight title shot—though the log jam at the top of the lightweight division makes that extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future despite his number four ranking. Perhaps we will see him in against Tony Ferguson as the UFC attempts to make Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor happen. For Justin Gaethje it was yet another Fight of the Night bonus, and a contender for Fight of the Year but it also serves as a concrete confirmation that something needs to change or he will simply be another decent fighter who made a good bit of money in exchange for his ability to speak coherently.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.