At the end of the second round last night (Sat., April 14, 2018) at UFC on FOX 29, after absorbing scores of punches from the heavy-handed Dustin Poirier, Justin Gaethje threw himself into his trademark rolling thunder kick. It was his way of saying, “I’m not tired at all”, and it seemed to work, at least in the moment. Dustin stayed hunched over after the bell sounded, his hands on his knees in apparent exhaustion. Gaethje had been tearing his lead leg to shreds with leg kicks, a currency Poirier had been willing to exchange for roughly three punches to the dome per leg kick. Like a particularly brutal game of Pit, each fighter was gambling the trade they were making would benefit them more in the long run. At the end of the second, it wasn’t at all clear who would get there first.
As it turned out, this time Poirier was right, though only by the slimmest of margins. After a Gaethje eyepoke slowed the pace at the end of the next round, he landed an especially brutal counter to one of those leg kicks that put Gaethje on skates. He rushed in as the Arizona native beckoned him on, and poured on the power. Poirier is the kind of fighter “heavy hands” was created for; everything he throws moves his opponent. Halfway through his barrage Gaethje slid away, trying to convince Poirier he was unfazed, but his legs betrayed him again, not finding the floor. Poirer leaped forward and caught him on the end of a couple particularly well-timed shots, Gaethje went down, and referee Herb Dean had no choice but to call it.
The bout had always been destined for greatness. Poirier and Gaethje are two of the most violent men on the planet, but they are just two stars in the constellation that is the 155-pound division. Lightweight, as it is so named, is easily the best division in the sport. Khabib Nurmagomedov is the official champion as of last weekend, but Tony Ferguson never lost his interim belt in the cage, and absentee star Conor McGregor, now facing felony charges likely to go away with the judicious application of part of his fortune, never lost his title in combat either. That’s to say nothing of the stacked contenders around Gaethje and Poirier; there is Eddie Alvarez, Edson Barboza, Kevin Lee, Michael Chiesa, Al Iaquinta, and the ephemeral Nate Diaz.
That said, none of those other men have done as much to earn a title shot as Poirier. Two wins over ranked contenders, following a no-contest with Eddie Alvarez after Eddie landed two illegal knees, should put “Diamond” in primary position for the next title shot. Alvarez is the only other fighter with a credible claim who isn’t injured, but side-by-side on paper, Poirier has a better claim. They both beat Gaethje after incredible wars, but Poirier also beat Anthony Pettis and Jim Miller in his current stretch.
The big shadow over the division is McGregor. Tony Ferguson will presumably have his day, too, but his gnarly knee surgery has him sidelined for now. It is the Irishman who could theoretically return at any time, chucking a dolly through the best-laid case for contender status.
However, barring an immediate comeback for McGregor, Poirier has earned his shot at Nurmagomedov’s lightweight title. It’s a brutal matchup for him; his chances are better against any other fighter in the division. Against Gaethje, he struggled to keep the fight in open space, finding himself backed against the cage at numerous intervals. While Gaethje was unable to turn that into fight-ending offense, the same probably will not be said for Khabib, who makes his hay using the cage to wrestle and control opponents. Poirier’s hope lies in his ability, also showcased against Gaethje, to hurl rocket-propelled punches late into the fight. Nurmagomedov, in 26 fights undefeated, hasn’t needed to show he can wrestle five hard rounds. Whether or not he chose to take a few rounds to just strike with “Ragin” Al Iaquinta- a battle he handily won– the opportunity is there, glimmering at the edge of possibility: survive the damage, come back with one’s own onslaught in the championship rounds. If anyone can do it, surely Poirier could.
It was a great fight, congratulations both.
— khabib nurmagomedov (@TeamKhabib) April 15, 2018
As for Gaethje, despite two losses in a row, the top 10 is still an open book. Kevin Lee, Iaquinta, Pettis, and Barboza are all coming off losses. Gaethje would slot in effortlessly across from any of those men. That’s just a symptom of the lightweight division, though; it’s one of the most reliably bright spots in the sport. There are almost no bad matchups with any fighter in the top 10 of the division.
In a sport that has it’s troubles, it’s men like Poirier and Gaethje, unquestioningly willing to leave a piece of themselves in the Octagon with each battle, that endure as emblems of the heights this sport is capable of reaching. They are the reason we watch MMA.