From A-Z: The Fighting Language of Dustin Poirier

At UFC 242, one of the most anticipated fights of 2019 will happen between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier. The two fighters have had very different rises through their division, but they have yet to meet a fighter that is similar to their next opponent.

In this article, I’m going to break down why Poirier, an American Top Team fighter, is a unique challenge for Khabib and how he has grown since his UFC debut. Without a doubt, this is one of the most anticipated fights and many have strong arguments to make for either fighter. But I truly think that this fight can end on a flip of a coin.

The Louisiana Slugger

Making his UFC debut in 2011, Dustin Poirier has been regarded with some of the heaviest hands in the lightweight and featherweight divisions. Coming in with a bit of a skinhead look, Poirier was a raw but dangerous banger.

Early Poirier had a tendency to march into punching range and swing massive overhands. Super predictable, but against weaker opponents, it worked fine.
A consistent habit of Poirier’s is punching into an orthodox stance or into a southpaw stance using his wide hooks. While incredibly awkward, it always gave Poirier a stance to throw with power.

What made Poirier interesting as a fighter was that he was willing to swing hard and heavy punches from every position. If his opponent shot for the takedown, they were greeted with a lovely submission game or Poirier could go for a takedown and submit them from there.

A fair bunch of Poirier’s ground game comes from the front headlock, as he looks for the Brabo or the D’arce.
Against a young Holloway, Poirier showed that his submission game could run through the young Hawaiian.

For a young fighter, Poirier had a well-rounded game, however, it was still incredibly raw. He could do everything at a good level, but he had nothing at made him “great”.

Zombie Time

In his first true prospect test, Poirier took on Chang Sung Jung. In this fight, Poirier’s inexperience showed, in that Poirier had no real way set up his combination punching. Furthermore, his tendency to throw naked kicks got him taken down and dominated for the majority of the fight.

For new fighters, naked kicking is the easiest way to get punished and taken down which gave Jung entries into his ground game.

Poirier’s habit of swinging big hooks without setup also gave him problems, as he didn’t have a jab or even feints to keep Jung in place. This left Poirier open to counters from Jung and was stung coming into range.

Notice how Jung, who actually jabs before his combination hits Poirier coming in. This, in turn, stops Poirier’s combination from starting a second late, giving Jung the opportunity to throw his check hook before Poirier throws a horrendous uppercut; hurting Poirier.

Another issue in Poirier’s game was his defense.

Early Poirier had a habit of backing straight up, this gave Jung the opportunity to run at him with strikes. In turn, this caused Poirier to panic into bad positions.
A lesson that will be punished even harder, is Poirier’s defensive guard. Which consisted of purely the double-forearm guard and throwing strikes back. For MMA this is bad as the small gloves prevent proper defense and the static guard gives Jung the opportunity to strike freely.

With Poirier unable to set the pace of the fight in his favor, he was left exhausted by the third round and in the fourth, he was hurt and submitted by the zombie.

Notice how Poirier’s lack of consistent head movement or discernible guard fails him as he gets hit by a crisp combination and gets submitted.

It was a good showing for Poirier, but he clearly lacked the technique to set up his own offensive game.

Featherweight Run

Poirier’s fights after Jung were consistent steps up in competition, in which he blasted through Diego Brandao, Akira Corassani, and Johnathan Brookins. However, Poirier’s bad habits which involved his poor guard and habit of backing up when faced with offense caused him to lose to Conor McGregor and Cub Swanson.

His habit of shelling up gave Swanson plenty of opportunities to tee off on his guard and work in variety, which gave Poirier fits.
Swanson draws Poirier into swinging with him, however, when Poirier returns with his wide hook, he gets clocked with a sharp uppercut.

Poirier showed that if he can give his opponent too much space to work with, furthermore, he can be drawn into brawls and countered.

In the McGregor fight, Poirier actually showed more reserve in his winging hooks, but he gave up too much distance to McGregor. This, in turn, gave the Irishman the range necessary to make the adjustment and hook around Poirier’s guard.

After this loss to McGregor and the weight cut became too much, Poirier decided to move up to lightweight a decision that would reward him now with an interim title and a unification fight.

A Heavier Slugger

When moving up a weight class, Poirier no longer fought fighters that were smaller and had the speed advantage. This was great for Poirier as his blood and guts style of winging hooks could actually hit his opponent without having to chase them down.

But Poirier’s next big test was against Joseph Duffy, a fighter that could box reliably behind a jab and was a well-sized lightweight. Against Duffy, Poirier came out hard and strong after being stung up by a couple of Duffy right hands and jabs.

Duffy had the reach advantage, however, Poirier had the power. Duffy would spear up Poirier as he entered into range, but Poirier would bully his way into a brawl.

But what surprised me most, was that Poirier started employing a different guard. Which was a strange shoulder-shoulder guard, which resembled a Philly-shell.

Notice how Poirier raises his lead arm parallel to the floor. This is the weird guard I’m talking about. I will go further into discussion of his guard but Poirier’s habit of dropping his hands and raising his head up in exchanges got him hurt against Duffy.

Poirier though, showed that he had yet to learn the lesson of coming in behind something tangible, instead of walking into range. This got him caught and hurt repeatedly by Duffy.

Stance shifting to cover range is a brilliant tool, however, Poirier didn’t set up his movement and it gave Duffy space to work in combination.

Poirier would be forced to work his takedowns against Duffy because his winging hooks would simply be rolled off and countered by the better boxer.

Poirier backs Duffy up to the cage but Duffy rolls off the hooks and counters back. Poirier understandably hurt multiple times, takes him down.

Still, Poirier showed a change in mindset and technique, as his weird shoulder roll would cover him in open exchanges and he would give up less space when he backed up.

Notice how Poirier no longer hangs out with his double-forearm guard at his opponent’s preferred range. But he now backs up enough to reset and come back in.

Poirier would go onto win the fight via decision, after taking Duffy down multiple times and it was a good showing for Poirier’s underrated wrestling/top-control game. But it showed that Poirier’s bad habit of winging huge hooks can and did get him in trouble against slicker boxers.

The Hardest Loss of All

Poirier’s latest loss was to Michael Johnson, a smaller lightweight with a poor record. But what Johnson does well is mid-range kickboxing with incredible speed and power. From the get-go, Poirier struggled to catch up to the nimble Johnson and was tagged whenever he threw a sloppy wide hook.

Johnson constantly circled and when Poirier came in from afar, Johnson would slide into a crisp combo.

This would go on for a couple of exchanges which quickly angered Poirier and in a heap of frustration, Poirier would swing for a one-two into a hook. But his bad habit of winging big hooks from up-close would get him knocked out silly by a faster and tighter Johnson.

Johnson does a great job by allowing Poirier to step into his range and moving out with a tight left hook when Poirier felt he could wing his own hook.

It was a devastating loss for Poirier and it showed his one big flaw; he tended to get over-eager and big hooks won’t cut it against tighter strikers. Poirier would need to go back to the drawing board and learn from his mistakes or else he would suffer the same fate.

Salon-Quality Slugger

In his next fight against Jim Miller, Poirier would come out with a fresh new haircut, looking 10/10 salon-quality, Poirier would be just as slick as his new fade. Against Miller, Poirier showed a heavier front-footed southpaw stance, most likely because he wanted to jab more.

Notice something different? Poirier would employ more feints than any other fight before. Furthermore, he didn’t need to stance shift his way in or run his way in, to land the low kick.

Perhaps it was a mentality change, but Poirier seemed to come in with the understanding that feints and jabs can set up strikes far better than naked stance-switching. What we got to see was a lovely haircut and a measured Poirier.

Notice how Poirier jabs his way in with his left hand stuck to his head to protect himself and set up his left hand. He also doesn’t stance shift at all, proving to himself and us that he could box from just one stance.
Poirier uses a lovely feint to get Miller to throw a wide hook, giving Poirier the chance to duck under and his careful steps prevent him from stepping into the takedown.

Poirier had started to work off his lead hand, jabbing into kicks, jabbing into tight combination punching worked a charm for Poirier.

By setting up his low kick, Miller took a fraction of a second longer to read the low kick, which reduced the effectiveness of this counter.

What we saw from Poirier was a grown and composed fighter, who believed in his stance and could bring pressure just from that.

Notice how Poirier doesn’t over-eagerly wing a hook when he has Miller cornered but lands a straight left instead.

Poirier’s new composure gave him the confidence to sharp-shoot from the outside and when he has his man against the fence, he could come in with banging hooks to hurt Miller deeply.

The first exchange Poirier feints his way into range but backs out sensing danger. Then counters a panicking Miller, which in turn forces Miller to back up into a squared stance, this gives Poirier the opportunity to bang with his hooks.
Poirier showing variety by jabbing and feinting into a low kick and when Miller returns to a low kick, Poirier spears him with the counter.

It was the perfect marriage of sweet science and devastating aggression of the old Poirier. Now he could snipe you from afar but bludgeon you on the inside.

The Poirier Language

In his recent run, Poirier has finished Eddie Alvarez, Justin Gaethje, Anthony Pettis, and battered Max Holloway. All of these opponents are incredibly dangerous and skilled, but Poirier took them apart from the same way.

Against Alvarez, Poirier would sharp shoot and punish Eddie off his shoulder-roll whenever he overextended.

Notice how Poirier stays in Alvarez’s face but never rushes in, rather he gets Alvarez to swing big and shoulder-roll off.

Poirier’s strange guard which we can now discuss does something unique for him. The extended lead arm is designed to block hooks that would come around a traditional double-forearm guard, and the raised rear-arm would cover any overhands. This would serve well, as Poirier could measure with the jab and raise the lead arm to block winging hooks, but also lean back to land his counter left straight.

Feinting plenty messed with Eddie’s ability to throw anything meaningful and his power shots would be stifled by Poirier’s guard, which he circles out with to keep himself safe.
Poirier would spear Eddie with jabs and straights when Eddie came back with an overextended hook, Poirier would slide back and lance him with a counter.

Poirier now goes to his big winging hooks when he knows his man is hurt and against the fence, reducing the likelihood of him catching a big counter out open.

Poirier will still get reckless with his punches, but he is composed enough now to pick his shots better than before.

Poirier’s most measured fight would be against Gaethje in which he won the fight based on measured aggression. To start, Gaethje provides lots of pressure similar to Khabib, but instead of takedowns, it is low kicks and hard punching.

Not the same purpose. But Gaethje like Khabib will look to get in your face as fast as they can. The premise of their logic always starts the same: get close and do your thing from there.

In this fight, Poirier showed off a lovely sense of distance and variety. No matter who the fighter, to stop a rushing fighter applying a jab will force them to slow down to move their head or at least take the punch. From their, Poirier was able to circle out with his guard up or attack when Gaethje threw a bad low kick.

Poirier never stopped moving during the Gaethje fight as it forced Gaethje into making bad rushes and naked strikes.
Poirier used Gaethje’s attack as an opening to punish him.

For every single kick or punch Gaethje threw, Poirier would return in spades. This was a far departure from the old Poirier who would throw everything with power, now Poirier is more than willing to throw light shots to keep his man pinned down.

Gaethje relies on his initial punch or kicks to find his range to push his man back, by constantly keeping Gaethje guarding, it reduced the number of exchanges that could possibly happen.
Retreating into the orthodox stance gave Poirier some room to breathe, but also force Gaethje to think for a second.

Poirier would go on to finish Gaethje after almost four rounds of war. It was a brutal, blood and guts fight that challenged Poirier to swing for the finish, but patience and persistence by sticking to his gameplan, he got the finish.

While Gaethje is still hurt, Poirier still isn’t going to his big wide swings, it has been replaced with tighter hooks that actively work to keep Gaethje covered up.

Hunting a Russian

I think Poirier has some tricks that could trouble Khabib deeply. To start, Poirier has tremendous patience in the pocket, similar to the Gaethje fight, expect Poirier to handle the pressure well. Working off the jab into plenty of body shots should keep Khabib at bay.

Something to note as Khabib has a horrible tendency to hop back, leaving his body exposed.
Similar to Gaethje, if Khabib sees an offensive attack that he cannot immediately defuse, he turns to his poorly built defensive guard

Another wrinkle in Poirier’s game is that his aggressive stance shifting can definitely trouble Khabib’s poor striking defense. Per example.

Max has backed up to what he presumes is a safe range, Poirier however, uses this chance to close the distance with a stance shift into an overhand right.
McGregor isn’t much of a combination puncher and he certainly isn’t a fighter to come onto the lead, yet he found feinting Khabib into his defensive guard allowed him to land some punches.
I found Khabib’s defense to be similar to Bobby Green, as Khabib will rely on the fear of the takedown to reduce combination striking beyond the first punch. Poirier is a fighter who will chase these opportunities.
McGregor’s punches were extremely loopy but yet they drew the same defensive reactions from Khabib.
Poirier styling on Gaethje’s guard.
Johnson also showing Khabib the same kind of licks. Notice how Khabib can’t pressure forward when he’s too concerned with the power of Johnson’s left hand.


This fight is incredibly intriguing for both fighters. Poirier has yet to fight such a persistent wrestler like Khabib and Khabib has yet to fight a pocket boxer the size of Poirier. Still, after this fight, I believe we will learn so much from both fighters and we can make better predictions for their next fight.

I believe that Poirier has some of the correct tools to take advantage of Khabib’s bad habits, but at the same time I have yet to see Poirier fight someone like Khabib since featherweight. Regardless, I will be sitting at the edge of my seat come Saturday night, for a chance to see the Louisiana slugger fight again and study his style from A to Z.

Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway at UFC 239

Julian Lung

Writing out of Toronto, Ontario. MMA connoisseur.

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