There are fights you watch to see what happens, and then there are fights you watch because you can’t wait to see what happens. When No. 2-ranked Dustin Poirier (21-6 UFC) and No. 3-ranked Justin Gaethje (7-4 UFC) step inside the Octagon, it’s guaranteed violence. The two lightweight contenders will battle in a five-round main event at UFC 291 in Salt Lake City. To pay homage to these two warriors who have combined for 17 Fight of the Night bonuses, the UFC has put the BMF belt on the line. While it’s a fun gesture for both fighters, the stakes of Saturday night’s main event are much higher.
With both combatants at 34 years old, their long quest of chasing the undisputed lightweight title is at the crossroads. The winner will have a strong case to call for a title shot early next year, while the loser likely will be left behind.
Poirier has surged to a -150 favorite at BetMGM, while Gaethje is the underdog for the fourth time in his last five fights. Poirier also holds bragging rights after finishing Gaethje in the fourth round of their first fight in 2018. Is he a solid bet to do it again, or does the value lie with “The Highlight” to enact revenge when it matters most?
Dustin Poirier (-150) vs. Justin Gaethje (+125)
Fans are poised for another epic war, but bettors have a much tougher job trying to thread the needle between these two UFC greats. Poirier’s and Gaethje’s resumes are near identical, with both fighters earning recent wins over Michael Chandler and getting finished before reaching the mountain top by Charles Oliveira and Khabib Nurmagomedov.
My initial instinct when glancing over the odds is to gravitate toward the dog in such a closely contested contest. Gaethje is coming off a win as a bigger underdog against Rafael Fiziev, showing the ability to execute a more technically sound game plan flawlessly. He has always been willing to run through fire to prove he is impervious to violence, but we are seeing a more mature approach during his final run at gold. His evolution as a fighter is awesome to watch, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to throw my money behind him against Poirier.
When trying to justify backing Gaethje, I am unable to see how his new brand of tactical warfare works over five rounds against Poirier. “The Diamond” has cleaner and more technical boxing, holding a significant advantage in the area where the majority of the fight will play out. In their first meeting in 2018, Poirier outlanded Gaethje 174-115, landing 93% of his shots from distance and connecting on 81% of head strikes before putting Gaethje out in the fourth round. Now, it’s not 2018 anymore, but Gaethje’s recent answers to closing his defensive liabilities will come with much more risk Saturday night. Out of the southpaw stance, Poirier will be able to load up and return fire the moment Gaethje throws out the left jab that worked so masterfully against Fiziev. There is a scenario where Gaethje’s leg kicks are the equalizer on the feet, but anything from the left side is inviting a counter from one of the division’s most powerful strikers.
With everything on the line, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gaethje try to steal a round with his wrestling. However, the paths to success on the Gaethje side are more likely to help him in a decision. Anyone who has watched Poirier fight is fully aware that we are more than likely going to see a finish. Nine of his last 11 fights and each of his last four never made it to the scorecards. The odds for the fight to not go the full five rounds is currently -250, implying a 71.43% probability.
History doesn’t always repeat itself. The historical data is on the side of the fighter who got the upper hand first. Per Gianni The Greek from UFC Live on the Line, the winner of the first fight has won 78% of rematches when entering the bout as the betting favorite (2010-present). Both fighters have the ability to finish the other, but this is one of the few times Gaethje will be at a disadvantage where he is most comfortable. I am on the side of the market and still see value at the current odds. My best bet is Dustin Poirier on the moneyline, but I am not against leveraging the prop market to get some plus money on Poirier to win inside the distance (+175) as well. Best bet: Dustin Poirier ML (-150)
Stats provided by ufcstats.com and Richard Mann.