Post-Fight Thoughts: Dustin Poirier -vs- Justin Gaethje
A week after the most categorically jinxed UFC event on record, the promotion served up the 29th installment in the UFC on FOX series, delivering a an exciting fight card that also managed to retain all of its scheduled bouts. The main event, a clash between Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje, promised to be a firefight and ended up being even more intense and violent than anyone could have imagined. Match-ups are often touted as "impossible to put on a boring fight," but Justin Gaethje really is one of those guys who only knows how to have memorable, brutal cage fights, and Dustin Poirier is cut from the same cloth — minus the absurd degree of recklessness.
As was expected, there was no feeling-out process; the fight began immediately after the bell sounded to begin the first round and saw only a few breaks in the action. Justin Gaethje pressed forward for most of the fight, throwing heavy leg-kicks at Poirier and hard punches. The pressure that Gaethje was applying was impressive, but Poirier remained composed, landed quality counters and made sure to avoid being backed against the fence or being caught flat-footed. We got to see another classic performance from Gaethje, with his defence mostly consisting of blocking punches with his face — as his head movement was effectively nonexistent — while he darted in and out of range.
While the fight was almost entirely without controversy, Gaethje was docked a point in the third round for an obvious eye-poke, after having already been warned by referee Herb Dean — for the same infraction — in the previous round. Were it any other fighter, I might have wondered if the point deduction had instilled a sense of urgency that overwhelmed his better judgment — and made him too aggressive in response — but this is Justin Gaethje we're talking about. It may have been an annoyance, but Gaethje's forward pressure and aggression didn't seem affected by the referee's call.
Prior to the fourth round, it seemed like the fight was fairly even, though Gaethje seemed to pulling ahead. Poirier was still in the fight, and far from fading, but the damage from the high volume or leg kicks and body shots seemed to be adding up, and Gaethje appeared to have ample stamina to continue his assault. Then, in the the blink of an eye, Poirier landed a fight-changing left-hand that wobbled Gaethje; the former WSOF champion waved Poirier on, but it was obvious that he was severely hurt. Gaethje tried to cover-up and weather the storm, but Poirier sensed the end was near and unloaded a fury of shots that did everything but knock Gaethje out cold, forcing Herb Dean to call a halt to the fight.
The fight was everything fans could have expected; both Gaethje and Poirier gave it their all in what very well could be the Fight Of The Year — and it's only the middle of April. Both fighter acquitted themselves well, though there is some cause for concern when it comes to the amount of damage Justin Gaethje has sustained. This was only his third UFC fight, and he has already sustained an exceptionally high amount of damage. Across those fights, Gaethje has absorbed 420 strikes (source: FightMetric), and approximately 300 of them have been head shots; this is not even remotely sustainable, and if nothing else should prompt him to take a long vacation.
I thought that there was a good chance the Eddie Alvarez fight had compromised Gaethje's durability, but that did not seem to be the case here — Poirier setup the finish with a perfect left-hand counter shot. Since moving up to lightweight, Dustin Poirier has seen a career resurrgence like few others; following this decisive win, there is a strong case to be made for him getting the next title shot, unless Conor McGregor shows an interest in fighting again. As for Gaethje, he seems very aware of the short career window that his style allows for, and has already said that he feels he only has about 5 fights left in him. That can change, obviously, but for someone who fights so aggressively it is reassuring to hear there is at least some heed being paid to his long-term health.
Every Justin Gaethje fight ends up prompting me to consider what I am watching. I've been watching MMA for a very long time, and yet I still find that Gaethje's fights give me pause. The amount of pure, unbridled violence his fights are host to is incredible. After the Michael Johnson fight, I was genuinely unnerved by the number of head shots that produced loud cracking noises — like a baseball bat smashing a ball into the outfield — as both men traded blows. Likewise, the Alvarez fight was another display of epic violence, ending with Alvarez — who put on his best performance to date — finally handing Gaethje his first loss, and via KO at that. And now this fight, another brutal war of attrition, and another punishing loss racked up, this time a TKO.
Justin Gaethje is something of a crucible: forcing MMA fans to accept that what we watch — what we crave — is ruthless aggression and violence. We selfishly want these men and women to beat each other senseless for our entertainment, but we also want them to be healthy. We end up confronting out selfishness as fans, and the mortality of the fighters we watch; both men gave a little something of themselves tonight, something they will never get back. MMA has always been a guilty pleasure, but fights like this make the introspection impossible to avoid. As disconcerting as it is, some times, to reflect on the toll combat sports take on their participants, if I ever stop feeling conflicted then I will know it's time to truly worry. I appreciate this fight, and those like it, for their entertainment value and the food for thought.
Published: April 15th, 2018.