Arizona native Justin Gaethje won two high school state titles at Gila River Arena, and on April 14 he returned to the arena to fight in an Ultimate Fighting Championship main event in front of a packed house at the arena for the first time since 2007.
Gaethje, who entered the fight ranked No. 6 in the UFC lightweight division, pounded and battled No. 5-ranked Dustin Poirier in front of more than 12,000 standing fans inside the arena before losing by technical knockout in the fourth round.
“I know the fans booed me, but we left it all out here in the octagon for everyone. Justin is a warrior and wouldn’t have stopped unless (referee Herb) Dean stepped in like he did,” Poirier said after the bout to the crowd. “I’ve been through two weight classes, this is my 20th fight in the UFC. I know what it’s like to battle through adversity, get knocked down, get knocked out and stand back up. I would never ask for something unless I knew I earned it.”
Poirier then called out new lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, demanding a match from UFC President Dana White.
“So, Dana, (UFC matchmaker Sean) Shelby, Khabib, let’s go!”
White said after the fight that Poirier was definitely a contender for the lightweight title.
“Absolutely (he’s a title contender),” White said after the fight. “He’s definitely in there. He was one of the guys we were thinking about calling last to take the fight (at UFC 223), but we didn’t want to screw up this event. Thank God we didn’t.”
Poirier and Gaethje were primed to have a battle for the ages and didn’t disappoint as the crowd was on its feet the entire four-round fight and long after it was over. The two fighters went out throwing punches back and forth with Poirier connecting on numerous jabs to open the fight.
Gaethje came out swinging widely, looking for a knockout punch early, but Poirier was able to avoid the hard punches. Gaethje connected on short jabs to Poirier’s face and body and both fighters took a lot of punishment in the first round.
Poirier dominated early, punishing Gaethje with numerous shots as he avoided early punishment. In the second round, Gaethje was able to get a barrage of punches to Poirier’s head and body, but Poirier was able to respond by forcing Gaethje back against the cage numerous times.
“This was two guys trying to finish each other, and I just hope the fans loved it,” Poirier said. “When (Gaethje) started to cover up, I just wanted to start going to his body and try and set him up for a finish.”
In the third, Gaethje started to turn the tables on Poirier as he connected with a number of huge punches that left Poirier wobbly early, but he was able to escape the pressure and battle back after getting a break after Gaethje accidentally poked Poirier in the eyes twice, forcing a point reduction from Dean.
As the fourth round opened, Gaethje went out quickly trying to force Poirier back with a number of punches to his head, but Poirier was able to withstand Gaethje’s pressure. He was then able to get more shots while Gaethje struggled to remain upright.
“We both had mutual respect for each other and know what we are both capable of doing,” Poirier said. “We didn’t need to sell this fight because the fans knew what they were getting and I am just glad we could put on a show.”
Poirier connected with a right that rocked Gaethje before Poirier was able to connect with six more shots to Gaethje’s head as Dean stepped in and called the fight with 33 seconds gone in the fourth round.
“I have paid my dues and done the hard work and have been close to the mountain top and done it over and over again, and I am hitting my stride and I am ready to go,” Poirier said. “I smell gold and I think it is close.”
“The crowd here in (Glendale) was amazing and they were loud all night,” White said. “(Gaethje) is very respected in the division and this was just an amazing fight for the fans here. I think everyone here (in Glendale) did an amazing job and the entire fight card was strong.”
In other bouts on the card; Courtney Casey, who trains at The MMA Lab in Glendale, battled Michelle Waterson for three rounds before losing a split decision 29-28, 28-29, 29-28.
“When I heard the split decision, I was worried,” Waterson said. “I felt like I had done a lot more in the fight and I had escaped every submission attempt, but you never know what the judges see – and that is the difference between half of my pay.”
Casey, ranked 10th in the strawweight division, nearly had Waterson (ranked seventh) in an arm bar submission twice but Waterson was able to escape.
In the first round, Casey pursued Waterson around the cage, connecting with numerous right hands to Waterson. Late in the round, Casey controlled from top position and grabbed Waterson’s arm and nearly got the arm bar submission with 15 seconds left, but Waterson was able to escape.
In the second round, Waterson opened with some big kicks that forced Casey back to the cage, before she rebounded and caught Waterson with some jabs.
With just over a minute left in the round, Casey again spun around and got Waterson in an arm bar, but was unable to cinch it in and Waterson escaped the second submission attempt.
“I felt great throughout the fight and I was getting the better of the grappling,” Waterson said. “I felt I was doing enough to get the unanimous decision, but I am very happy to get the win.”
In the final round, Casey went out looking to brawl with Waterson as she pressed forward and again got Waterson to the mat. Waterson was able to escape and continued to use high kicks to keep Casey from getting an attack late.
Casey then got on Waterson’s back and nearly got a choke, but Waterson was able to escape to hang on for the victory.