A few years ago, Dustin Poirier was a wild and careless fighter. He would routinely swing to throw heavy punches with his chin up and exposed. Those days are gone and his evolution as a martial artist has been phenomenal. Since his move to lightweight, Poirier has improved with each performance and his win over Justin Gaethje this past weekend was arguably the best of his career. He resisted the temptation (as much as any man could considering Gaethje’s style) to get in a slug fest, opting for a more sophisticated approach to combat. The wild, outlandish and uncalculated swings were replaced with crisp and precise strikes. Poirier has blossomed from a reckless but entertaining journeyman to a top ranked student of the game.
Yet, one cannot defeat Justin Gaethje without going through the fire.
Justin Gaethje came into the UFC with a reputation for putting on entertaining fights. His 3 fights with the promotion have only enhanced that image. Gaethje has all the gifts and abilities necessary to be a top contender or even a world champion, however his opponents seemed to have become privy to his methods. Both Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier built their plans for Gaethje around his affinity for counter rights and leg kicks.
Leg kicks are a criminally underused weapon in mixed martial arts. Very few fighters use them as the base off which their striking strategy is built and those that do often do so incorrectly.
The kickboxing career of former Glory world champion Joseph Valtellini is a perfect study for the correct implementation of leg kicks. A successful leg kick involves not only striking your opponent, but ensuring that you do not get hit yourself. This can be achieved in two ways. Either kick on the counter, or use the leg kick at the end of a combination. Gaethje has always relied solely on the first of these approaches. Not only does he rarely throw leg kicks at the end of combinations, far too often, he throws them in isolation. Gaethje looks to time the leg kicks for when his opponents aren’t braced in order to immobilize them. However constantly kicking meant that Gaethje was left on one leg a lot.
Poirier anticipated and accepted the kick and countered with a left at every opportunity. Similar to the strategy used by Eddie Alvarez, Gaethje found himself at the receiving end of multiple strike combinations after he had thrown a leg kick in isolation.
Poirier’s strategy was not without fault though. To counter the kick, he needed to eat the kick. This meant that Poirier took heavy damage and became a stationary target, which plays into the hands of a pressure fighter like Gaethje who was constantly forcing Poirier to move.
While Poirier countered frequently, Gaethje’s defensive approach restricted his options to do the same. With every Poirier punch or counter, Gaethje would shield (done by brining palms to your forehead and using your forearms to block straight strikes) and bend down to take shots on the top of his head. This left him open to uppercuts and body shots. Countering off the shield without opening yourself up is close to impossible. Gaethje’s reliance on the shield meant that Poirier was able to close the distance and land let off strike combinations and attack the body at will.
Another interesting aspect of Poirier’s strategy was his willingness to give up dominant foot position. In an open stance fight (orthodox vs. southpaw), the fighter who manages to get his leg foot to the outside of his opponent’s is said to have dominant foot position and has a clear path to landing the rear hand, while the opponent’s own body acts as a shield against any significant strike. Contrary to this commonly held belief, Poirier placed his foot inside Gaethje’s lead leg, giving up dominant foot position. Reminiscent of the boxer Pernell Williams, placing the lead foot inside of Gaethje’s shortened the distance Poirier’s lead hand needed to travel. However, it opened him up to Gaethje’s rear hand and rear leg kick. Yet the lack of combinations thrown by Gaethje meant that Poirier needed to only worry about one strike.
The finish came when Poirier timed a leg kick perfectly and countered with a left hand. Gaethje stumbled backwards and Poirier unloaded with a series of strikes forcing the referee to stop the fight.
Justin Gaethje does not know how to put on boring fights. His fights with Michael Johnson and Eddie Alvarez were among the top 5 fights of last year, while the Poirier fight is an early candidate for the 2018 fight of the year. While he will earn a good chunk of change for all the blood-laden entertainment he provides, the frustrating part about Gaethje’s performance was that he found success when he threw combinations of his own, cracking Poirier a few times. However, he opted to rely on his old tricks, focusing more on single strikes rather than multiple at a time. Despite the wide variety of weapons in his arsenal, Gaethje prefers to keep things relatively basic. While this has got him great success, it is also conceivably what holds him back. Gaethje is an exhilarating fighter who is always must-watch TV, but he lacks the nuance needed to reach the top. Only time will tell if he is able to evolve into the fighter he has the potential to be.
For Poirier, the win on Sunday puts him in the conversation for a title shot. However with the current log jam at the top of the division and with 3 men all having legitimate claims to the championship, it is extremely unlikely that his number will be up next. Perhaps a fight with Tony Ferguson or a rematch with Eddie Alvarez is next on the cards for him as the UFC will undoubtedly try to make Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor.