Interim Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight titleholder Dustin Poirier will return to the Octagon to battle reigning champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in a blockbuster unification bout atop UFC 242 this Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The two men are coming off career-defining performances, setting up their high-stakes showdown at 155 pounds.
Poirier provides the material for this installment of The Film Room.
Early in his career, Poirier was a wild and aggressive striker who got by on his sheer toughness heart, and rare knockout power for a lighter-weight fighter. He retains some of these traits, but he is seasoned enough to keep his aggression under control and sustain a constant pace throughout a fight. In his last two fights with Justin Gaethje and Max Holloway, Poirier finally looked like he had put it all together and put on two of the finest performances of his career. His ability to pressure opponents and outstrike them in the pocket while mixing in moments of playing on the outside and landing counters was superb. A truly great striker knows when to work on the lead and when to work on the counter, and mixing between the two during a fight makes it challenging for the opponent.
Many doubte Poirier before his fight with Holloway, but he quickly silenced those critics by dominating the featherweight champion for all five rounds. His striking looked better than ever, and he managed to pick apart the Hawaiian on the lead and sit back and counter when Holloway desperately came forward. Poirier worked behind his jab the entire fight and never got overzealous enough to allow Holloway to land any fight-changing shots. When Poirier decided to slow the pace, he easily timed Holloway’s strikes and enjoyed equal success on the counter.
Although his leading attacks garner all the attention, Poirier is a fantastic counterstriker. When he is playing on the outside, Poirier is always looking for his counter left hook, especially when the opponent throws kicks. Against Gaethje and Alvarez, both finishing sequences were started with a counter left hook while they were throwing a leg kick. Lately, Poirier has been countering with full-on combos instead of a single precision strike. Anytime Gaethje came forward, Poirier countered with a long exchange in the pocket, and he did the same against Holloway since both rely on being the leading man. This allows him to dissuade opponents from coming in and forces them to fight at his pace and range.
Poirier’s finishing sequences are beautiful to watch, as he comes forward with a perfect pace and mix of attacks. A lot of fighters throw wild punches when looking for the finish, but those are much easier to see coming and block or counter. Poirier knows that at the highest level it is best to keep a constant pace and varied attack to not leave himself open and to save his cardio if he does not get the finish. He also switches stances during his combos for a more unpredictable attack.
This fight is the perfect example of stats meaning nothing in MMA. Holloway landed 208 total strikes to Poirier’s 180, yet the judges only gave him one round in a 49-46 unanimous decision loss. There is a clear difference between strikes that glance and strikes that ring your bell, and their fight was a great case study for that. While re-watching their bout, Poirier’s defense stood out. Poirier has always thrived under pressure but usually only when he is the leading man. If he was trapped against the cage early in his career, he would plant his feet and swing wild for counters. It was nice to see that Poirier can keep calm in moments of madness, focus on his defense and look for an opportunity to circle out.
Obviously, the biggest intangible in this fight is Nurmagomedov’s grappling and the story will be told through whether or Poirier can defend the takedowns or not. Poirier is an above-average grappler for someone who spends so much time on the feet, but no one in the division can match Nurmagomedov in that department. He might manage to defend a few of them, but at some point, he figures to hit the ground. The question then becomes whether or not Poirier can get back to his feet and take advantage of every second he has before another takedown shoots his way. Nurmagomedov’s striking looked much improved in his clash with Conor McGregor, but this remains a classic striker-versus-grappler confrontation. If the fight hits the mat for any extended period of time, Poirier does not stand much of a chance. However, if he can keep the fight standing, he has the tools he needs to pick apart Nurmagomedov. The mere threat of his grappling means Poirier cannot rely on his usual skulls over fear of being taken down. Most of his success on the feet comes from pressuring forward and overwhelming opponents with a steady stream of strikes. If he chooses that path against Nurmagomedov, his hips will be wide open for a takedown, so it will be interesting to see what adjustments Poirier makes for this specific fight.