Igniting the main card of this Saturday's The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale is a featherweight tilt pitting TUF 12 winner Jonathan Brookins vs. Dustin Poirier. The featured hurrah is a heavyweight collision between Roy Nelson vs. Matt Mitrione and the broadcast airs on the FX channel at 9:00 p.m. ET after the Fuel TV (7:00 p.m. ET) and Facebook (5:30 p.m. ET) preliminary cards take place.
Featherweight Dustin Poirier (12-2) seemed destined for a perch atop the 145-pound totem pole until he suffered a high-profile loss to Chan Sung Jung in his last turn. That bout in May, a Fight of the Year candidate, was a paralyzing defeat for Poirier, yet it was only the second of the burgeoning 23-year-old's career and his first as a featherweight -- and the young southpaw fought valiantly.
Before hitting The Korean Zombie speed bump, Poirier had etched a name for himself as a surging future contender with 5-straight wins; 3 were unruly stoppages (Zackary Middlewright, Pablo Garza and Max Holloway) and the pair of decision wins (Josh Grispi and Jason Young) were still highly definitive. Poirier is a lengthy and ultra-game volume boxer with a purple-belt rating in BJJ that plays out close to the black belt in MMA.
Jonathan Brookins (13-5) was the likable TUF 12 entry who returned to his natural weight class after winning TUF 12 as a lightweight. The Gracie Barra Orlando product entered the show having battled respectably with featherweight champion Jose Aldo in the WEC, in which he fell by 3rd-round TKO after a gritty showing. Brookins dropped a decision right out of the gate when he drew a monster in Roufusport's Erik Koch and is currently coming off a submission loss to Charles Oliveira, though he did tack on a thunderous win over Vagner Rocha by 1st-round TKO in between those stumbles.
The 6-footer prefers to apply the leverage from his gangly frame in the form of frenetic wrestling instead of rangy striking, which brings the fight to his core competency of submission grappling. Of his 13 career wins, Brookins has 8 submissions and 3 TKOs with 2 decisions. His style is fairly unusual, as his fringe striking is a little wide and clumsy, which often results in Brookins eating a few spoonfuls of leather on the way in for takedown attempts. Wrestling wise, he doesn't have glossy collegiate credentials and works most of his mojo in the clinch, typically with his signature lateral drop after his initial single or double leg shots are stuffed.
He should have the wrestling advantage against Poirier and will definitely have a hefty size advantage (6'0" tall vs. 5'9"), but his striking tendencies remain a big concern. Once he's tied up and able to lean on his opponent, he's clearly comfortable and in his element, but seems the exact opposite in free movement. Finesse is a word that comes to mind for what's lacking in Brookins' stand up: his entries are somewhat telegraphed and rarely set up well with his hands, his footwork is a tad plodding, his hands wander away from his chin too far and too often, and his head remains quite stationary with his chin sticking out.
His durability, length and heart have compensated for his striking flaws in the past, but I'm not certain they will against Poirier, who can squeeze the trigger and chamber off an obscene quantity of scorching punches. Additionally, Poirier's takedown defense has been stable -- though the first loss of his career was in the lightweight division against wrestling standout Danny Castillo. Still, Poirier shucked off 8 of Castillo's 11 takedown attempts despite the loss, and he'll have to rely heavily on that skill against Brookins.
Poirier's takedown defense is a mixture of excellent footwork, good striking balance and traditional use of the sprawl and underhooks. He's wise in anticipating incoming attempts and cutting a retreat angle while rapid-firing with long and precise counter strikes. From a distance, he'll get his feet involved and fire roundhouse kicks to the legs and body or keep opponents at bay with a sharp front kick to the midsection, which was an integral tool to dismantle Grispi. In close, Poirier's even more deadly with his speed, high-volume output and solid punching power.
Poirier is well equipped to frustrate Brookins with his sprawl-and-brawl. His cage motion and counter striking must be on-point to deal with Brookins' length, and he can't suffer any lapses, as Brookins is one of the most tenacious fighters in the game who'll keep scrapping until he's unconscious or the bell sounds. If Poirier hadn't shown such deceiving ground prowess, I'd still give Brookins a good shot here -- he's still only 27-years-old with room to improve on his asphyxiating top game, which is amongst the best in the division. However, even if Brookins can force a ground fight, Poirier is technical and slippery on the mat and should be stable enough to avoid submissions and slip out of a fair amount of encounters with escapes.
My Prediction: Dustin Poirier by decision.