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Editorial: Stuff I learned from Poirier vs Gaethje

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Justin Gaethje and bullfights, the self-built heart of Dustin Poirier, and other thoughts from the UFC on Fox card

Looking back at a Fox card topped by Dustin Poirier knocking out Justin Gaethje in an unforgettable thriller

Poirier vs Gaethje

I feel some kind of way about watching Justin Gaethje fight. I’m just not sure exactly what it is. Watching him plow forward through unworldly beatings to drag his opponents into his world is exhilarating, and awful. It doesn’t feel much like an athletic contest, more redolent of the primal horror of a bullfight.

The basic rule that he dictates these bloodbaths by is “hit me and get hit back”, and Alvarez and Poirier beat Gaethje by messing with the triggers for the rule. On defense Gaethje raises his patented double forearm guard, where he waits for a big enough punch to roll and return with the right cross, or chew out the muscles of the leg with a kick. He’s also basically blind once it’s up, so they spattered soft shots in to bring his forearms around his face. Then Poirier gradated the power up and down, baffling Gaethje as to when was just the right moment to return, and Alvarez went to the body and darted in and out on an angle to make the counter miss.

Both of them managed to batter and bloody him to the tercio de muerte. Alvarez finished it with a clinch knee, and Gaethje’s frame twisted sideways as though he was still trying to roll through and counter, an evocative kind of full-body howl. Poirier threw a thunderbolt left to hit Gaethje as he was in the middle of throwing a leg kick, and Gaethje stumbled away on wobbly legs, and then immediately grinned and beckoned Poirier in to finish him off. Who did.

It’s not the peak of insight to point out that you can (or must) kill his body while the mind carries on sending messages down deteriorating nerve endings to non-responsive limbs to fight! fight! but even the edges of his style illustrate this odd disconnect. The backflips and rolling thunders just don’t fit– he’s a plodder really, a copper miner’s son through and through, who probably would have been described with words like “hale” and “strapping” in the past. The athletics feel like something that he takes his body to for the hell of it,rather than anything that comes naturally. A teenager who inherits a truck instead of the dirt buggy he always wanted, and goes around taking it off all the jumps he can anyway, until it’s eventually battered into uselessness.

It would be easier to watch the slaughter he brings himself to if he was malignant, but he’s a likable guy, emotional and even soft-hearted about his teammate Rose Namajunas. It would be harder to watch if he was stupid. You’d be able to think: someone should really stop this guy before he hurts himself. Instead, he’s perfectly articulate and honest about the whole thing.

“I didn’t come into this sport to win or lose… If you don’t see me fight live, you will regret it when I’m done. And it’s not going to be very long, I’ve got five left.I want to golf when I’m 60. I have a human services degree, I want to do social work. Hopefully I can buy a lot of houses and make money that way.”

So… how do you feel about a bull fight where the bull volunteers? More than that, how much is this a truth about combat sports made more terrible through compression? We can stand watching men and women take punishment over their careers, but he’s candid about folding years of damage into five more fights. There’s a contract between viewer and 99% of fighters- I’m going to get destroyed and you’re going to watch it– but few have deliberately laid it out in such a stark way.

Heart can be trained. A knock against Dustin Poirier is that he’s been someone who was happy to get into grimy fights, but who always needed to be winning them. If you watch his losses against Cub Swanson, and the Korean Zombie, they were competitive but there was a distinct air of desperation about the way that Poirier fought when the fight started to go south. Similarly, when he lost to Conor McGregor you got the impression that he was forcing himself forward despite a feeling of panic.

I don’t think Poirier was ever someone like Gaethje who has an endless reserve of fearlessness to fall back on, and this makes it all the more impressive that he was able to stay the course. In the third round, Gaethje landed his hardest punch of the fight, a cross to the temple that staggered Poirier, and had him limping from leg kicks. The tide was turning, and that has historically been bad news for Poirier. He looked stressed, on edge. Then he gathered himself in the fourth, and just put Gaethje down.

Being able to turn “a fight is slipping away” back to a win is not something that everyone can do, and changing that narrative after this many years shows how much he has steadily layered maturity and self-belief as well as craft. He has just worked, and trained, and fought, and worked, and trained, and fought, and has built heart where others come to it naturally.

As an aside and in retrospect, it also makes me less likely to believe that Alvarez was on the cusp of turning their fight around before the illegal knee, and more likely to believe that Poirier would have recouped and gone back to beating up the older fighter.

Poirier is still getting better. He’s clearly been trying to turn himself into a more technical fighter, and it’s been bearing fruit. His jab and hook are catching up with his cross, and he was quite difficult to hit to the head, an underrated development for someone whose only concession to defense used to be a preservative double forearms guard.

I don’t think there’s any elite fighter I wouldn’t be interested in seeing this iteration of the Diamond against. His clinch work, reach and tremendous power make him an intriguing fight for Nurmagomedov. Some might be dismissive of Poirier’s chances in a rematch with McGregor, and it’s true that durability and accuracy would make the Irishman a righteous favourite. However, Poirier is still at heart a southpaw pressure fighter with a viciously deep offensive toolbox near the cage, and the former champion’s main flaw is still that he reacts incredibly poorly when confined in space.

Of course, neither of these are likely to happen. Poirier is going to be tossed at an Alvarez match, or maybe used to defuse Ferguson once he recovers from injury to preserve a Nurmagomedov-McGregor match, or against the Barboza-Lee winner. It’s a shame, as he deserves more by this point. He’s starting to feel less like someone who can be turned away with the right obstacle, though.

Other fights:

Being defensively sound is useful: Brad Tavares and Alejandro Perez have developed (not unwarranted) reputations for being boring, with medium-pace outside games built around being difficult to take down and hard to hit cleanly. The advantage of this kind of approach is that it tends to get better over time, and works against a lot of styles.

Krzysztof Jotko is a kind of three-dimensional counter fighter, who works best when he is fighting off takedowns and going back and forth between wrestling and striking. Tavares forced him into a kickboxing fencing match, and it was Jotko who got forced into hard shots (primarily intercepting knees and kicks) in phase shifts, rather than being able to land his favoured uppercut. Similarly, Perez was coming off a boring nothing-fight with Iuri Alcantara, but against Matthew Lopez his cardio and wearingly consistent defense caused the prospect to exhaust himself until Perez could shut him down. Having these kind of styles may not make a fan-favourite fighter like Gaethje, but it does allow them to steadily get better over time, and maybe even grant frameworks which allow them to become more effective finishers.

Jackson-Winkeljohn woes: Michelle Waterson won a great fight against Cortney Casey, and that is good, but she also sort of didn’t deserve to win on most people’s cards? And that is not. Carlos Condit competed with Alex Oliveira until he was brutally submitted. In both cases these were wrestling-heavy performances, which has often been the card in the back pocket for the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym. However, Condit and Waterson are nominally strikers, and it’s notable how outdated their approaches on the feet look nowadays. It’ll be interesting to see how the new Brandon Gibson-trained generation comes up (Borg, Vannata et al), but also a little worrying that there just isn’t the embarrassment of riches of upcoming talent at the gym that there used to be.

Adesanya-Vettori was an almost-perfectly booked match unless you wanted Adesanya to build a Michael Page-esque hype train. Vettori got shown the limits of his slightly clunky standup, but also was able to gain some invaluable time with a world-class striker. It can only be useful to have it drummed into his head that he probably really should try and wrestle more in fights. Adesanya got a more skilled version of his last fight, against a tough non-specialist, and learned that he’s not going to be able to finish everyone in the UFC. It gives them both a more realistic look at their strengths, as well as giving them stuff to work on.

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