Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje are of a rare breed. Dustin Poirier was awarded two Fight of the Night bonuses in his last three fights and might have got another if the Eddie Alvarez fight hadn’t ended so contentiously. Justin Gaethje has won two Fight of the Night bonuses in his two UFC fights, and his first was awarded Fight of the Year. Whether you give a damn about the rest of the card or not, you would be a fool to miss these two get into it.
Gaethje is returning from his first professional loss. Always a glutton for punishment, the hard headed wrestle-banger is a nightmare for anyone once he gets going. Eddie Alvarez, the architect of Gaethje’s undoing, fought a perfect fight against him and still ended up hobbling out of the cage, wearing a face which only slightly resembled the one he had come in with. A top notch wrestler who refuses to wrestle, Gaethje is not a methodical pressure fighter but the embodiment of "chaotic pressure."
Poirier is striving through one of MMA’s most compelling renaissance stories. It used to be that Poirier was just a fun guy who threw hands but nowadays Poirier is adaptive and rounded, with far more of a regard for his own safety. We have come quite a way from the man who was getting wobbled by counters from Akira Corissani of all people.
Justin Gaethje has only shown one type of fight up until now, so unless he has had an earth-shattering crisis of confidence since his first loss, you can expect him to apply his trademark pressure. Poirier has shown himself slightly more willing to adapt in the past but still very much likes a fire fight. The premise of Gaethje’s go-forth-and-trade style is actually a good deal smarter than it appears as Gaethje focuses his ire on his opponent’s legs.
In a simple trade of punches to the head between two fighters, the man with the better head movement, sharper sense of anticipation, and tighter punching form will usually win. Gaethje often eschews punching the head and simply absorbs blows on his high guard and the top of his skull, in order to come back with the low kick. Every fighter in the world—no matter how much they seem to show it—is aware that when they are punching, punches will be coming back at their head and most are well prepared for it. The difference is that it’s difficult to defend the lead leg when you have to plant it out there to punch. The entire science of boxing—from footwork to punching to head movement—is built around where the feet are placed. It is impossible to get in and punch someone without your lead leg going in and providing an alluring target as well.
UFC 223 provided us with two very obvious examples of this. Rose Namajunas’s jab-and-dip entries and control of distance clearly suffered once Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s shin bashed into her lead leg a few times. Renato Moicano vs. Calvin Kattar was even clearer. Kattar has a lovely jab and a long stance that facilitates his in-and-out boxing. Moicano timed him stepping in and jarred Kattar’s lead leg a couple of times, then Kattar couldn’t move nearly as well.
It is no secret why this is so effective—if your foot is planted you aren’t picking it up to check the kick. Better yet, if you are on the way in or on the way out, your weight is in motion and there’s a good chance your knee will be jarred by the kick.
Dustin Poirier should be looking to be all the way in or all the way out. Hanging out in exchanging range, throwing two and three punch combinations against Gaethje’s head and arms is a terrible place to be. It is hard to imagine Poirier circling the cage and playing the matador as Eddie Alvarez did, but there are some great ways he can increase his success when he does get into trades.
While Michael Johnson isn’t the best ring general in MMA, he did try to circle away from Gaethje but still got stuck on the fence repeatedly. But Gaethje’s pressure and ringcraft vanished shortly after Eddie Alvarez began digging shots to his body. This is the downside of Gaethje’s very high guard and attempts to catch and pitch—his midriff is almost always completely exposed. By flicking out the jab consistently and digging body shots, Alvarez made his job of avoiding the fence much easier because Gaethje very clearly lost track of the fence and simply began trying to get to Alvarez instead.
Johnson got his left straight to the body in well against Gaethje. Poirier, also a southpaw, would do well to get to this early and often. When Johnson went to this it tended to produce an overreaction in Gaethje, who bent well forward of his usual hunched over posture.
A constant feature of Gaethje’s style is to hunch forward and project the top of his head. He can head-block takedown attempts, hurt the opponent if they run onto it (the old Evander Holyfield favorite), or wear his opponent’s punches completely unaffected. In a sport where the uppercut is used so often and so ineffectively, Justin Gaethje is the perfect target. Eddie Alvarez caught Gaethje leaning forward numerous times, mostly with the uppercut. Poirier could do well by establishing the left straight to the body, changing level as if to throw it, and then coming up with the uppercut as Gaethje reacts.
On the subject of changing level, staying out of the pocket altogether might not be completely necessary. After hitting the body and tiring Gaethje a bit, Alvarez was more comfortable staying in for exchanges because Gaethje stopped kicking so often. One of Gaethje’s less useful habits is swinging the right hook in answer to combinations. If he gets the timing down he can take a fighter’s head off as poor Luis Palomino found out.
When he doesn’t catch his man flush, however, Gaethje opens himself up and throws himself off balance.
Eddie Alvarez, by firing in nice high-low-high combinations, was able to get under or away from these right hands and land punches of his own on Gaethje as he recovered. The jab or left straight followed by a level change body shot or two, followed by a right or left hook, is a way to keep Gaethje working, get to his body, and largely avoid his favorite counter punch. If there is one thing that has clearly improved in Dustin Poirier in recent years—particularly in his fights with Alvarez and Anthony Pettis—it is his anticipation of a return in the pocket. If Poirier gets into his old habit of jumping in with no regard for his opponent’s return, we could be looking at a repeat of Poirier vs. Johnson.
As always with a high guard, elbows are a good shout. Poirier should look to check both of Gaethje’s hands while they’re up in his guard, and then turn over elbows to sneak behind Gaethje’s forearms.
One interesting thought is that Gaethje tends to only wrestle on a whim. He promises an exciting fight on the feet and he seems determined to make that synonymous with his brand and it has earned him the relative big bucks so far. When Gaethje’s opponents do fall down or get knocked off balance, he’ll beckon them back to the feet. For this reason, Poirier should be looking to kick early and often. Even if Dustin isn’t a big kicker, his left foot has a clear path to Gaethje’s liver, especially when Gaethje goes to his high guard. Furthermore, against such an active counter kicker the push kick is always a useful weapon.
After watching Gaethje meander around the cage after Alvarez so ineffectively, it should be clear how much the fence helps him. He is undoubtedly one of the best dirty boxers in mixed martial arts now, but he needs to have his opponent directly in front of him. While Gaethje may loathe attempting takedowns, he has a great wrestling pedigree and seems well aware of how well the attempt can set up striking opportunities. Here’s his great single leg to uppercut against Luis Palomino.
If Gaethje is struggling to waltz the opponent to the fence with his feet alone, he should be more willing to duck in on a leg. Sometimes it opens up an immediate strike, sometimes it allows the fighter to push his man six or seven feet closer to the fence. Hell, Gaethje could take his man down, scoot them towards the fence and start doing his magic along the fence as they stand up. While Gaethje’s footwork is serviceable, he should be prepared to switch things up in order to get his way if Poirier proves slicker than expected.
Against the fence, with his hands on his opponent, Gaethje becomes a force of nature. He’ll hang on the collar tie and slam in uppercuts, or stiff arm the opponent away by the face and chuck overhands.
He’ll mince the body with knees, and he’ll chop low kicks from the collar tie as Anderson Silva used to and these routinely shock his opponents.
Against southpaws, Gaethje tends to like to square up and throw his left kick to the outside of their lead leg. But Michael Johnson—a man who has become a top ten lightweight with a 1-2 and a low kick—used inside low kicks to knock Poirier’s lead leg out any time he set it down to throw punches. But then Johnson was a southpaw whose game was outfighting and Gaethje is an orthodox fighter whose game is throwing himself against his opponent over and over until they fall down.
No one could benefit more from a good double jab and the jab-and-duck than Justin Gaethje. He works with Rose Namajunas every day so maybe it will start to sink in. At the moment, he relies on moving forward and enduring damage. If his boxing were a little more serviceable he could maneuver himself into the fence positions where he has the upper hand without taking half as much punishment. Meanwhile Poirier, while not known as much more than a banger, has shown in recent years a thoughtful side. Poirier’s willingness to abandon one idea and do whatever he must to win could be the difference in this bout.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.