Dustin Poirier vs. Anthony Pettis headlines UFC Fight Night 120 this November 11, 2017 at the Ted Constant Convocation Center in Norfolk, Virginia.
One sentence summary
Phil: A fight that's likely to be a lot bloodier and more violent than "Diamond vs Showtime" makes it sound.
Odds: Dustin Poirier -105 | Anthony Pettis -105
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: Poirier is one of the those strange instances where I feel like I know less about him now than when he was a strong prospect. His overall skills have stayed the same. He’s a dangerous fighter with many different options to finish, but he’s very much a live by the sword, and die by it kind of fighter. There was no better reflection of this than the Eddie Alvarez fight. In a way, this fight is perfect for Dustin. In other ways, definitely not.
Phil: When Poirier started in Louisiana, I think there was definitely a feeling that he was destined for big things. That documentary Fightville is still one of the better (non-Smashing Machine) MMA docs, and reveals a young man who is simultaneously confident, vulnerable and simply naturally inclined towards violence. In the time since, he's kept a torrid schedule, and has slowly ground his way towards the top of two separate divisions, albeit with periodic and shattering derailments, including the losses to Michael Johnson, Korean Zombie and, obviously, McGregor.
David: The most bizarre thing about Pettis is how much of a premiere talent he is, and how little currency that talent gives him inside the octagon. Even after beating Gilbert Melendez, Pettis never looked like some force that could be a mainstay in the division as champ. Although Wheaties might disagree. But to hit such a wall, and being just 30 no less? I wonder if we’ve ignored something about Pettis that makes him so deficient right now. Whatever the case, he’s still a must-watch pugilist.
Phil: It all goes back to the RDA fight. I remember how much Khabib had been saying that RDA was going to smash Pettis, and afterwards he said: "Many people will beat him now. I think he is exposed." It was one of the coldest, most accurate bits of shade I've seen thrown. Ever since then, Pettis has lost more than he's won, and his wins have just seemed... scrappier than they once were. He submitted Oliveira in a way which several other people already have at this stage, and it's been a while since he just iced someone with a headkick like he did in the days of yore.
What’s at stake?
David: A lot. Especially considering that they’re not fighting for a title anytime soon. If Pettis loses, the loose thread keeping him in the vicinity of high profile will be cut completely. He’ll be a flashy gatekeeper and nothing more. A win, and he’s still a flashy gatekeeper. He’s young-ish enough to gain some traction if the division trips over itself, but I’m fascinated by his career trajectory.
Phil: While there is at least now an interim title belt, it still feels very, very difficult to climb lightweight. Alvarez-Gaethje winner is next in line after Ferguson, and other than that there are a still guys like Lee and Khabib floating around. The winner of this one builds some momentum, but man do you need a lot of it to make a dent up there.
Where do they want it?
David: Poirier has one of the cleanest approaches to spam offense you’ll find in MMA. With his straight left, he weaves a spell of punch traffic around his opponents without ever having to throw a ton of combinations. Still, he’s good at that. When he has to work going backwards, he chambers a crisp right hook to support the left. Poirier’s issue, to me at least, has always been the way he seems to unleash more weapons on the counter than when moving forward. I think it also helps explain why he’s not a fighter that seems to excel the longer the the fight goes. When dynamic fighters stumble into the later rounds, it’s usually because either they have bad cardio, or the matchup just isn’t favorable. But fighters like Swanson, Jung, and maybe we can include Alvarez to some extent, were right there on his dinner plate. He’s a little like Jose Aldo, reflexively countering to his detriment. It means he’s always dangerous, but never quite able to dictate the pace with active tactics.
Phil: Poirier is one of those fighters who has become more dangerous, and who inarguably fits into a higher echelon than he did in his earlier career, while retaining approximately the same weaknesses as he ever did. His basic defense is nothing to write home about, and when things start going south he has a visible tendency to panic or fight emotionally. That being said, his offense is now so dangerous that many fighters will simply not get the chance to take a swing at his defensive liabilities. He was a good puncher at featherweight and is a monstrous one at lightweight. He's learned to stick at his effective range to be able to run the old left straight / body kick / leg kick mixup, but can also choose to just keep bulling inside behind hooks, into his genuinely ferocious clinch game. This itself leads to clinch takedowns and a head control / d'arce choke series. Much like Matt Brown in the co-main, if Poirier is stifled early then he's a much different fighter, but it has become progressively harder to do.
David: Pettis has progressed in subtle ways. Before he used a strict surgical attack on the feet to unhinge his opponents, and hope they went for a desperation takedown for him to proceed with his lethal guard attack. Now he uses that strict surgical attack to lump a bit more offense into those intervals of offense. Granted, Jim Miller was too stationary (and shopworn) to say Pettis has improved in significant ways at doing this, but it’s a nice wrinkle to an otherwise creative display. At his best, Pettis’ perfect plan tomorrow approach works in tandem with his movement. While he doesn’t cover a lot of distance, or angle for strikes (something that has contributed to his losses), he pivots and shifts in a half open stance to set up more...eccentric moves. He’s an open field fighter who would have been more at home in one of those Chuck Norris pits. Pettis’ boxing works like a weed whacker; good at chopping and trimming, but it’s not gonna take out the gopher hiding underneath. For that, he uses his kicks, releasing high impact charges to the body so that eventually a little chopping and trimming is all he needs.
Phil: Like Poirier, Pettis' problems have been defensive in nature. Mediocre footwork, poor head movement combined with an absolute lack of any offense in the clinch have made for sizable voids, allowing a number of potential gameplans to be assembled against him. Unlike Poirier, who is defensively porous but constantly feeds one part of his game into the other, Pettis' flaws have fundamentally left pieces of his game floating in space. He's an underrated wrestler, but rarely has any way of accessing his excellent submission and top game unless his opponent takes him down first. His mixup between the jab, cross, head and body kick is still devastating, should he be given the space to land it, but can be effectively exploited by circling off, or simply countering his jab as he stands bolt upright. That Pettis remains a serious threat is a tribute to two things: his incredible toughness, and the sheer dynamism of his offense.
Insight from past fights
David: A lot. Melendez (judged purely from the striking obviously) and dos Anjos are proxies for how to neutralize Pettis, but these were swarming attacks. Barboza showed how one-note pressure, even from distance, could be just as effective as long as you remain precise. Poirier is something of a cross between them, perhaps closer to Donald Cerrone if anything. In theory, I think this bodes well for Pettis. Pettis doesn’t deal well with pressure, but it has to be pressure combined with precision. Cerrone doesn’t close the gap aggressively, and so Pettis closed it for him, working comfortable from the center, moving around without being angrily tracked the way RDJ did. In a five round fight, I like Pettis’ chances to win the last two rounds emphatically. Poirier can be slow on the draw, moving forward before computing his strike entry, and he doesn’t have the raw momentum that guys like RDJ and Holloway have when marching ahead. Plus, Pettis is not a fighter that gets hit a lot. When he does, he’s never revealed a granite chin to complicate his durability. It’s probably the least appreciated part of his game.
Phil: I think Poirier is absolutely a man who you do not want to be backed against the cage, throwing a repetitive jab-cross with your head in the air. There are few better examples of this than his fight with Bobby Green, where he cracked Green with a right cross, stepped back into his natural southpaw as Green circled off, then decked him with the left.
David: I vote we kill this section. Maybe we can replace it with ‘Youtube comment that crudely and ineloquently describes this fight by accident’.
Phil: Is Poirier still salty that Alvarez moved onto better things after their fight, despite losing like 90% of it?
David: The more I reflect and watch tape for this one, the more I think Pettis dominates (paralysis by analysis perhaps?). Pettis won’t grant Dustin a lot of space unless he’s backed against the cage, nor will Dustin throw multiple punches at a time (or cut distance quickly enough) to keep Pettis borrowed into a backstepping shell. That leaves Pettis to fight (mostly) patiently at range, and these will all be magnified in the later rounds as long as Pettis is accumulating offense in support of his usual unique strike selection. Nobody catches Pettis with one shot and just forges ahead, and having that one shot turn into the big fat kill is even less likely. Maybe I’m missing something (the ground game favors Pettis too), but this feels like Pettis’ to lose. Anthony Pettis by TKO, round 5.
Phil: I think this is going to be one of the rare cases where I think I disagree not only with the outcome, but with the story of the fight. I think Poirier is a nightmare style matchup for Pettis. He's gotten increasingly good at crushing space and punishing lazy shots which come back at him, and he's a ridiculously powerful hitter. His clinch game is as evil as Pettis' is nonexistent. He is still by some extent the less durable fighter and often takes his eye off the ball, but he normally fights out of southpaw, denying Pettis his favourite open stance body kick, and the natural place that he likes to fight is almost exactly where Pettis is at his worst. I think there's a good chance that Poirier crowds him against the cage and simply obliterates him. Dustin Poirier by TKO, round 1.