UFC on Fox 29 predictions -- Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje picks, fight card for Arizona
The lightweight showdown on Saturday should be one of the most exciting fights of the year
Despite fighting in arguably the deepest and toughest division in MMA, Justin Gaethje has already made his presence felt in just two fights with UFC -- and he's 1-1.
Gaethje (18-1), a former World Series of Fighting champion, turned in a pair of Fight of The Year candidates in 2017 as part of his quest to prove he's the self-proclaimed "most violent fighter" in MMA. A come-from-behind stoppage of Michael Johnson last July solidified comparisons that Gaethje might be the sport's closest thing to the late boxing Hall of Famer Arturo Gatti. But his equally exciting knockout loss to Eddie Alvarez in December left critics wondering whether "The Highlight" cares more about entertaining than winning.
As Gaethje, 29, sets for Saturday's return in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Glendale, Arizona, in a pivotal 155-pound duel against Dustin "The Diamond" Poirier (22-5, 1 NC), it's a question that even his opponent is pondering.
The 29-year-old Poirier, who enters as ahe believes could propel him to a title shot, hasn't pulled any punches in saying that Gaethje won't be long for this sport because of his reckless style.
"It's not [a sustainable style] and I said that when he was with World Series of Fighting," Poirier told MMAFighting.com. "I'm good friends with [American Top Team coach] Mike Brown, who's also an MMA mastermind. He understands fighting and understands styles and matchup, and I've told him that before, that this guy is going to have to switch his fighting style or he's going to have a short career.
"[Gaethje] is going to have a bunch of fun paydays and a bunch of memorable fights but it's not going to last. Once it starts going downhill, it's going to go down fast for him fighting like that. Of course he's going to catch guys here and there, win some bonuses, and like I said, have some great fights that people are going to remember. And it seems like that's what he's fighting for."
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If Gaethje's recent comments are any indication, it would appear Poirier is right.
Knowing full well of the criticism that he doesn't rely on his decorated wrestling background enough due to his love for brawling, Gaethje seems content fueling his addiction. Some of it, however, feels calculated. While Gaethje spouts his mission statement of "I'm willing to prove I'm the best or fail trying," he also appears from from naive to the business side of the equation.
"The game plan [for Poirier] is the same -- as fast as possible, as brutally as possible, as violently as possible," Gaethje said on UFC's "Road to the Octagon" special. "I want to get paid and that's how you get paid in this sport.
"When it comes to promoting yourself in this sport, you either pick a gimmick and hope it works or be yourself and hope it works. But the best and most sure way to give a good impression to the UFC and MMA fans is to fight with maximum effort. Every time I fight, I give maximum effort and at the end of the day, I will be known for how I fought."
When Gaethje was brutally finished with just over one minute remaining in the final round against Alvarez, the idea of going the distance -- win or lose -- was something he claims is never a consideration in any fight. It's a point best illustrated by the fact that only two opponents (Marcus Edwards and Melvin Guillard) have ever made it to the scorecards against him.
"I never would have been happy with myself," Gaethje said. "The last thing you can do in the sport of MMA is lie to yourself. You have got to hold yourself accountable in this sport. You're going to lose and when you lose, you want to know you gave everything and tried your hardest unless it's going to be hard to forgive yourself and get back on the horse and ride again."
For Poirier, getting away from his own reputation as a brawler appears to be paramount. Outside of a controversial no decision against Alvarez last May, Poirier is 6-1 since a 2014 loss to Conor McGregor and believes that staying patient and relying on his skills has made the difference.
Of course, Poirier also knows the temptation that will come against Gaethje to fight without a conscious considering his opponent never takes a step back against anyone regardless of the damage accrued.
"I'm not looking to go out there and get damaged and have a bloodbath, but I'm a fighter deep down inside," Poirier said. "So no matter how much I try to tame that beast, when the going gets tough, it comes out. I'm glad I have that because it has gotten me far.
"This is going to be the bull versus the matador and I'm going to finesse him out there. I'm going to show my full skill set -- my speed, my accuracy, everything I've been working on for 11 years. I'm going to show, once again, that I'm going to be the best in the world."
UFC on Fox 29 fight card, odds
Dustin Poirier -145
|Justin Gaethje +115|
Israel Adesanya -230
|Marvin Vettori +180|
Alex Oliveira -200
|Carlos Condit +160|
|Cortney Casey -130||Michelle Waterson +100||Women's strawweight|
Antonio Carlos Junior -260
|Tim Boestch +200|
Wilson Reis -145
|John Moraga +115|
Brad Tavares -140
|Krzysztof Jotko +110|
Shana Dobson -120
|Lauren Mueller -110|
Yushin Okami -120
|Dhiego Lima -110|
Arjan Singh Bhulalar -350
|Adam Wieczorek +265|
Muslim Sailkhov -170
|Ricky Rainey +140|
Luke Sanders -400
|Patrick Williams +300|
UFC on Fox 29 prediction
If this were just a few years ago, the fight would be a lot easier to predict. Not only is Gaethje's greatest skill an ability to break another man's will, Poirier showed too much of a tendency to be broken by fighting reckless in knockout losses to McGregor and Johnson.
But Poirier seems to have entered not just his physical prime but also his mental one, and seems reborn and comfortable in his return to 155 pounds. Poirier will enter with advantages in speed, length and a better variety in terms of striking. Maintaining distance to avoid Gaethje's clinch will be key, as will chipping away at him intelligently to slow his forward progress.
"Justin is a fighter's fighter," Poirier said. "People like to watch him fight. He's a little bit of a brute. You have to break his body. You have to short-circuit him. You have to make his body stop working."
From a skill standpoint, this is Poirier's fight to win, especially if he can keep things standing. But if watching Alvarez attempt to tame Gaethje is any indication, Poirier will need an almost championship level of patience and poise to get the job done.
Alvarez was willing to be as barbaric as the fight called for in order to rely on his technique to finally remove Gaethje from his senses. Finding the perfect balance between intelligence and stepping on the gas will be important for Poirier should he hurt Gaethje. But as Johnson found out, Gaethje is simply not an easy man to stop and there's temptation to gas yourself out in trying to do so.
There's also the fear that Poirier's chin just isn't as strong as Gaethje's violent desire, especially over a five-round fight. The same fear can be applied to Gaethje's odometer after one brutal fight after another.
"Luckily, I can take a punch and I hit hard and I've got some dense bones," Gaethje said. "Hindsight is 20/20 but I was born and bred to do this. Coming from where I come and the upbringing that I went through, there was nothing else I could be doing really."
If Poirier truly believes he's on a path toward a title shot and has learned from his four UFC defeats, this represents a turning point in deciding if he'll get there. Considering the danger in play, he'll likely need the best performance of his career to get it done.
Pick: Poirier via fourth-round TKO.
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