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ustin Gaethje prepares to fight Charles Oliveira of Brazil in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 274 event at Footprint Center on May 07, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Fight Coverage

Coach Conversation - Dustin Poirier vs Justin Gaethje 2

Elite MMA Coaches Break Down Salt Lake City's Main Event At UFC 291 This Saturday

Ahead of every championship fight, UFC staff writer E. Spencer Kyte will sit down with some of the sharpest coaching minds in the sport to break down the action and provide UFC fans with insights into each championship pairing from the men that spend their days getting these elite athletes prepared to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.

For UFC 291, Kyte called upon Eric Nicksick, head coach at Xtreme Couture, and and Eliot Marshall, co-owner and head instructor at Easton Training Center in Denver, Colorado, to provide their thoughts on four points heading into the BMF title fight between lightweight rivals Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje on Saturday night at Delta Center in Salt Lake City.

Order UFC 291: Poirier vs Gaethje 2 

Best Trait of Each Fighter

Kyte: At a time in the sport where everyone is pretty solid everywhere, generally speaking, what is the one thing that each of these competitors do better than anyone else? What is the one element to their game that stands out the most?

Nicksick: I think you can hang your hat on their durability, for both of them; I think that’s an easy answer for both men, but what really jumps off the page is Poirier’s boxing and Gaethje’s inside clinch work. But the common denominator between both guys is their durability.

Marshall: The best trait of both is their durability and experience, and I don’t mean just the ability to take a punch, which is why I’m throwing experience in there, too, because their experience has taught them to not take so many punches, how to stay a little safer; things like that.

That’s their best traits.

Kyte: They share that one and I think everybody agrees. On top of that, what does each do exceptionally well?

Marshall: Poirier’s boxing is very clean, and this is going to lead to one of your next questions. I think it’s going to be very interesting — we saw a very controlled Justin Gaethje in the Rafael Fiziev fight, so that will be an interesting thing to see if Gaethje can do it again.

Obviously Gaethje has more power than Poirier — not that Poirier doesn’t have power, but Gaethje’s got more power — and he’s got great defensive wrestling, so the strategy that Poirier used against Conor when he got stung a little bit isn’t really going to be there against Gaethje; he’s not going to get Gaethje down.

Main Event Preview | UFC 291: Poirier vs Gaethje 2
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Main Event Preview | UFC 291: Poirier vs Gaethje 2

Path to Victory for Each Fighter

Kyte: Everyone would love a 10-second knockout or a quick submission, but that’s not often how these things go, especially not at the championship level. Instead, it’s usually the competitor that has crafted the better game plan and did the better job of executing things inside the Octagon that comes away with their hand raised and the gold around their waist.

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So, how does either man get it done on Saturday night?

Marshall: I don’t think it’s different for each of them: they both have to stay disciplined in their striking.

Poirier has to get Gaethje going backwards — everyone that has ever got Gaethje going backwards has beaten him. And then the path to victory for Gaethje is the opposite — he’s gotta be forward. Those are the paths, other than brawl. Gaethje lost to Eddie Alvarez in a brawl, he lost to Poirier in a brawl, but I don’t think he’s gonna do that again, one, and we haven’t seen him in a brawl since he lost those fights.

And then who has beaten him since? Khabib beat him and Charles Oliveira beat him, and they both beat him by making him go backwards. Even though Oliveira ended with a sub, he got there with very crisp striking, and I do believe that Poirier has crisp striking, so we’ll see.

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Nicksick: If I’m Poirier, I think what he did in the first fight — they got in a kick battle, if I remember correctly — and I felt like Poirier took away the base of Gaethje early on, got him throwing punches that weren’t weight-bearing punches, so I would think he’d like to do some things similarly, possibly even try to break down the body of Gaethje, as well as the legs.

The interesting thing to me is that when Gaethje would come to our gym, the first thing he would say is, “$500 to anybody that drops me with a body shot.” I liked the fact that he was willing to get his body worked, get his body attacked. Saying those things, to me, means you can punch him in the body and while it may not end the fight, it will have a long-lasting effect in a 25-minute fight.

As far as Gaethje, I think he’s sneaky technical. Aesthetically you see him, and people always give him crap and say, “He’s not technical,” and they’re wrong; it’s just he’s a “goofy technical,” if you will, and he needs to stay on that.

RELATED: Poirier vs Gaethje 2 Breakdown

I don’t think he needs to get into a wrestling match by any means, but I also think it’s important to get onto some of those single legs, get Poirier off balance, because where he is very good is those breaks between the grappling and the clinch, where he’s able to add those sneaky strikes in. If he gets on a single leg and disconnects, there is a right hook coming behind it. If a guy is on one foot, bouncing off balance, BANG! He hits them with something.

This is one of those fights where both guys are going TSA Pre-Check in a wheelchair, priority boarding, because their legs are just going to be destroyed after this fight, too.

Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje face off during the UFC Fight Night weigh-in at the Gila Rivera Arena on April 13, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje face off during the UFC Fight Night weigh-in at the Gila Rivera Arena on April 13, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

X Factor

Kyte: If there were one thing that was going to significantly impact how this fight plays out — that swings it in one direction or the other — what would it be?

Nicksick: Coaching; that’s my biggest thing. Coaching and the altitude are the two things I’m looking at here.

Coaching in that I think very highly of both Mike Brown and Trevor Wittman, so I’m interested to kind of see what chess match those two deploy in their fighters. But the one thing that does jump off the page to me — and this is no knock on Poirier, because he’s never had a cardio issue — is how will the cardio translate when a guy that trains in Denver, at altitude, goes to fight in Salt Lake City versus a guy that trains at ATT at sea level.

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There isn’t a whole lot there, but I’m curious about both things. In a 25-minute fight, I want to see if the altitude plays into it at all.

Kyte: You mentioned coaching — do you think either has an edge or do you just want to see the chess match between these two masters?

Nicksick: More of the chess match. There is a lot of mutual respect between all of us coaches, and I respect both guys immensely. I’ll probably watch Gaethje more closely because (his relationship with Wittman) reminds me of (my relationship with) Dan Ige — a guy that I’ve had for a long time, that you try to refine, that you’ve had on the stool numerous times.

There are a lot of commonalities there, so I’m always interested to see what these guys say in the corners, what adjustments they make. Those things, for me, are always interesting.

Marshall: Fiziev, in that fight with Gaethje, got very tired. He pretty handily won the first round against Gaethje, and then Gaethje did a great job coming back, getting Fiziev tired, and then he very handily won the third round.

That will be a difference.

Poirier is not going to get fazed by the fatigue, and this is a five-round fight. Poirier won’t get fazed by the fatigue — we know this — whereas Fiziev got very fazed. They were 1-1 going into the third round, and if he could have done what he did in the first round or even a little more than he did in the second round — you could see the fatigue set in midway through that second round.

That’s not going to be Poirier. He might get fatigued, but he ain’t gonna fall off.

Kyte: When he’s hurt, he gets more dialed in. When he’s tired, he gets more dialed in. He knows how to look at himself and say, “I’m getting hit, I’m getting hurt, I’m getting tired — let’s tighten things up, let’s rein it in a little and be more precise.”

Marshall: He’s better when he’s tired, unlike the other 99 percent of the world; he’s better.

Order UFC 291: Poirier vs Gaethje

One Coaching Curiosity

Kyte: Coaches see the sport differently and look at the sport differently than anyone else, picking up on different things and paying attention to movements, habits, or intangible pieces that others might not notice, but that could have a significant impact on the action inside the Octagon.

Every matchup offers its own unique collection of elements that might pique a coach’s interest and get them paying a little closer attention to once the fight gets underway.

So what is that one thing in this matchup?

Nicksick: I love that this is a rematch, even though it was 2018 the last time they fought. I like that it’s a rematch because these guys have been so good individually — they’ve only lost to the same guys, (Charles) Oliveira and Khabib (Nurmagomedov) — and there is a lot of very good improvement from each man in that span.

I wonder what will they try to take from their first outing? What will they try to re-apply into this fight? What worked very well for one guy that they’ll try to over-compensate for as far as your opponent goes?

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The thing that is always intriguing to me is does the guy that won come back with that same mentality or game plan? I say that because I felt like Stipe (Miocic) thought that he was just going to go out and do the same thing to Francis (Ngannou), where we had to come up with a whole different strategy. So I wonder if Poirier is going to come back with the same strategy that worked the first time and will Gaethje have a counter-attack to what they implemented in the first fight or will he start over again?

From a coaching element, I’m interested to see what similarities and differences you’ll see from that first fight from the guy that lost.

Marshall: I wanna see if Poirier can draw Gaethje into brawling, because if he can, I think he knocks him out again.

If I were Poirier, my game plan would be to get Gaethje on his heels — we saw in the Khabib fight and against Oliveira, when you put him on his heels, he starts doing that “put his head down and chuck” thing. It works for him really well until he runs into Poirier, Oliveira, Khabib, most likely Islam.

Kyte: I’m so fascinated by this one because, obviously, Gaethje is so much fun to watch, but he’s another one of those guys that is just a little bit short of being as good as he could be because he’s willing to get into those car crashes and demolition derbies.

Marshall: You know I hate this, right? I hate picking apart the faults of people that do the sport that I did and are so much better than me at doing it; I feel like I’m Monday Morning Quarterbacking.

I tried to be good and I just wasn’t as good, so I always hate saying what these guys are not good at because they are so much better than I was, but yes, that is Gaethje’s drawback is that you can get him into those car crashes. And it’s one of those things that is inevitable.

It’s so hard, when you feel like you’re losing a little bit — because that’s when he does it, and he is losing, because the other person is making him walk backwards. But we’re going to see what happens if he stings Poirier early.

UFC 291: Poirier vs Gaethje 2 took place live from the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah on July 29, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass