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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Another issue in Poirier’s game was his defense.
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.
It was a good showing for Poirier, but he clearly lacked the technique to set up his own offensive game.
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.
Poirier showed that if he can give his opponent too much space to work with, furthermore, he can be drawn into brawls and countered.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Poirier had started to work off his lead hand, jabbing into kicks, jabbing into tight combination punching worked a charm for Poirier.
What we saw from Poirier was a grown and composed fighter, who believed in his stance and could bring pressure just from that.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another wrinkle in Poirier’s game is that his aggressive stance shifting can definitely trouble Khabib’s poor striking defense. Per example.
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.