UFC 291′s main event in Salt Lake City promises to be a chess match with a couple of car crashes mixed in

Former interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje comes to Salt Lake City to promote his ‘BMF’ title bout vs. Dustin Poirier, and vows that violence and carnage will be on tap for mixed martial arts fans.

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) UFC lightweight fighter Justin Gaethje does a split-screen interview with opponent Dustin Poirier from the offices of the Utah Sports Commission in Salt Lake City. Those two will main event the UFC 291 pay-per-view set to take place at the Delta Center on July 29, 2023.

When UFC 278 came to Salt Lake City this past August, the mixed martial arts promotion’s first-ever pay-per-view event in Utah had automatic cachet with fans as it was headlined by a welterweight championship match featuring the then-undisputed No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

On the heels of that sold-out success, the premiere combat sports organization in the world is making a quick return to the Beehive State, with the UFC 291 PPV taking place at the Delta Center on Saturday, July 29. (Tickets went on sale Friday at 10 a.m. MT.)

This time around, however, the primary draw is slightly less conventional.

There will be another belt on the line that night … but rather than one imbued with decades of history and respected provenance delineating the champion of a long-established weight class, it will instead be the second coming of what was originally intended to be a one-off gimmick.

When lightweight contenders Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje meet in the Octagon, they’ll be fighting for the “vacant” BMF title.


It stands for Baddest Mother … well, you can figure the rest out.

Still, even if that belt is more about bolstering reputation than ranking, even if the victor’s reward is more conceptual than tangible, the appeal of a BMF bout to fans is straightforward enough — the implied promise of fireworks.

Or, as Gaethje succinctly described the forthcoming proceedings to The Salt Lake Tribune during a promotional appearance in Utah on Thursday:

“It’s gonna be a chess match of sorts, with a couple of car crashes mixed in between.”

Well said.

Tony Ferguson, left, falls backward after taking a punch from Justin Gaethje during a UFC 249 mixed martial arts bout, early Sunday, May 10, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Gaethje and Poirier are, indeed, two of the UFC’s most decorated and celebrated merchants of violence — the former nicknamed “The Highlight” on account of his penchant for bringing fights to sudden and spectacular stops with his devastating striking, the latter highly regarded for a versatile and well-rounded offense equally capable of rendering an opponent unconscious via either knockout or submission.

Their respective résumés are littered with Fight of the Night, Knockout of the Night, Submission of the Night, and Performance of the Night bonuses, indicative of an ability to deliver an explosively entertaining effort. Furthermore, they already have a compelling shared history, with Poirier earning a TKO victory over Gaethje in their thrilling, back-and-forth match back on April 14, 2018.

And so, the 155-pounders are, indeed, worthy spiritual successors to the hypothetical title — even if the BMF title was never meant to be contended beyond its original inception.

The history of the belt is an exceedingly brief one. At UFC 241 in August 2019, welterweight fighter Nate Diaz — a cult hero to MMA fans for his streetwise braggadocio and no-frills fighting style — celebrated a victory by boldly declaring himself “the baddest mother[expletive] in the game,” then calling out knockout artist and ascendent star Jorge Masvidal.

The two subsequently were booked for the headlining match of UFC 244 on Nov. 2, 2019 at Madison Square Garden in New York, with UFC president Dana White announcing that the winner would be presented with a commemorative belt embossed with “BMF,” as a means of hyping up a rare PPV not headlined by a traditional championship match. Masvidal was won the match by TKO and thus was awarded the belt when a ringside doctor determined between rounds 3 and 4 that a cut above Diaz’s eye was too significant for him to safely continue.

The symbolic title was never defended, as it was never intended to be. However, Masvidal’s retirement from MMA in April apparently got the wheels turning within the UFC braintrust, prompting them to declare the title “vacant,” thus enabling them to resurrect the figurative belt and once again utilize it to promote yet another PPV without a traditional championship match.

Though Gaethje was initially dismissive of and derisive toward the belt when it was first conceived four years ago, he naturally has changed his tune now that he’s associated with it.

“I mean, in a sport like the UFC where entertainment is such a big part of it, there’s only one of these on Earth, and so I have to be happy to fight for it,” Gaethje said in his exclusive interview from the offices of the Utah Sports Commission. “… Me and Dustin Poirier are the perfect people to fight for it, as Masvidal and Diaz were last time.

“It’s almost more prestigious than a [traditional] UFC belt, in the fact that it’s less likely for you to even fight for it,” he added. “In the past, I thought it was kind of a gimmicky thing, but now, being in this position, there’s no reason to think it’s anything other than a prestigious title that’s gonna set me up for for a [lightweight] title shot in the future. It’s everything that I fight for and everything that I’ve wanted.”

Though UFC 291′s main event is technically a rematch, Gaethje believes their prior matchup is wholly irrelevant now, noting that in the five-plus years since, both men have evolved into significantly different fighters, and that his mental and emotional maturation have him better equipped to earn a different result this time around.

He added that had the UFC not asked him recently to rewatch that original match, he wouldn’t ever have bothered queueing up the footage.

“Now I just have to be my best self, be perfect, make no mistakes. Ultimately, he’s gonna prepare as hard as he can, I’m gonna prepare as hard as I can, and as soon as you’re OK and you understand that there’s a little bit of luck and a little bit of chance involved in this game, and you can embrace that, then it makes it so much more fun.” Gaethje said. “So I’m gonna be prepared. I’ve fought him before — I felt like I was fighting a great fight, even though I fought like an idiot at the time. But I think my skills now that I possess will allow me to beat him convincingly.”

Beyond the BMF matchup, UFC 291 is filled with myriad compelling fighters and bouts.

The co-main event is a light heavyweight contest between former divisional champ Jan Blachowicz and recent middleweight champion Alex Pereira, who is making his debut in the higher weight class. UFC legends and fan favorites Tony Ferguson, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, and Derrick Lewis are all on the card.

Still, Poirier vs. Gaethje 2 is undoubtedly the main attraction.

As the 34-year-old Gaethje sat in the Utah Sports Commission office recording a split-screen interview for ESPN along with Poirier and former fighter turned commentator Daniel Cormier, the two combatants were asked why the tenor of their upcoming matchup seemed to be one of mutual respect, as opposed to being dominated by the professional wrestling-style histrionic promos that are so en vogue these days.

Both men invoked the ultimate ethos of the BMF title — verbal sparring is unnecessary when fireworks are inevitable in the fight.

“There’s no need for animosity,” Gaethje explained. “We’re two of the best, most violent athletes in the sport, we both love what we do, we both love the carnage, and we’re both content with what we’re about to put ourselves through.”

“You want us to talk s--- back and forth. Look, these kinds of fights don’t need that,” Poirier added. “You know what you’re getting — what’s understood don’t need to be explained. Twenty-five minutes of something nasty is what’s gonna happen July 29th. And we both know that.”

Dustin Poirier, right, kicks Conor McGregor during a UFC 264 lightweight mixed martial arts bout Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)