Head Kick City: Justin Gaethje knocks out Dustin Poirier to cap wild UFC 291

In the combat sports company’s latest visit to Salt Lake City, another main event ends with a head kick. Meanwhile Delta Center owner Ryan Smith vows to try and make MMA “a staple of the summer” here.

(Michael Brandy | Special to The Tribune) Justin Gaethje celebrates after his second round knockout of Dustin Poitier during UFC 291 for the BMF Belt at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Saturday, July 29, 2023.

It was déjà vu all over again.

For the second time in 11 months, a UFC pay-per-view in Salt Lake City culminated with a knockout head kick.

Saturday night at the Delta Center, Justin Gaethje claimed the “BMF” belt and set himself up for a future lightweight championship shot, as he closed UFC 291 by putting Dustin Poirier to sleep with a right kick to the head just seconds into the second round.

Last August at what was then Vivint Arena, Leon Edwards stunned welterweight champ Kamaru Usman in the final seconds of their bout with a perfectly-placed head kick.

Gaethje got it done a bit earlier vs. Poirier, and in the process avenged his loss in their epic first bout in 2018.

Salt Lake City’s second UFC pay-per-view event in less than a year wound up living up to its predecessor, with only two of the 11 fights going to the judges’ scorecards all evening.

(Michael Brandy | Special to The Tribune) Justin Gaethje, left lands a punch against Dustin Poirier during UFC 291 at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Saturday, July 29, 2023. Gaethje won the fight by knockout in the second round.

Here are some of the most memorable moments from UFC 291.

Highlights from the undercard

First bout of the night • Brazil’s Priscila Cachoeira, aka “Zombie Girl,” got the Delta Center riled up and singing along as she entered to The Cranberries hit “Zombie.” Her opponent, Miranda Maverick, naturally entered to the theme song from the movie “Top Gun.” May every fighter’s walk-up music be so inspired — these two set a high bar. Maverick won with a third-round armbar submission, then continued her “Top Gun” theme by exiting the cage to Kenny Loggins’ “Highway to the Danger Zone.”

The low blow that wasn’t? • There was a bit of controversy in the opening regular prelim bout between Jake Matthews and Darrius Flowers. Flowers went down to what he alleged was a kick to the groin, and took several minutes to recover. Except the video replays appeared to show Matthews’ foot catching Flowers in the stomach. It didn’t ultimately matter, as Matthews won by rear-naked choke in the second round.

Another UFC 278 throwback • A while before the Gaethje-Poirier bout ended the way it did, Roman Kopylov vs. Claudio Ribeiro provided its own callback to UFC 278. This one was lower stakes than both of those other fights, but Kopylov’s knockout head kick was no less spectacular.

Main card recap

Michael Chiesa vs. Kevin Holland • Chiesa, the No. 12-ranked welterweight was making his return after a lengthy layoff due to a back injury, looked physically overmatched. Holland landed several significant strikes early, sprawled well against a couple of takedown attempts, then finished things off quickly by landing a well-placed knee to Chiesa’s chin, then quickly securing a d’arce choke for a tapout at 2:39 of the first round.

Tony Ferguson vs. Bobby Green • There was some bad blood coming into this one, with Ferguson claiming both that Green had insulted him, but was also scared of him, which obviously didn’t sit well. “El Cucuy” was a huge crowd favorite Saturday, and got the people going even more with a first-round knockdown … but that was pretty much it. He went for an ill-advised takedown in the second round that saw him get mounted and eat hammer fists. In the third round, Green picked him apart with striking, knocked him down, then choked him out with six seconds left in the fight. Ferguson has now lost six straight, while Green got to shout out his former trainer and still-Utah legend Jeremy Horn.

Derrick Lewis vs. Marcos Rogerio de LimaLewis opened up during fight week about his struggles with eating and cutting weight, and vowed he was in better shape — but conceded he was worried about the altitude. So he decided to have a short work night. He opened with a flying knee that cracked de Lima on the chin, scored a knockdown, and got the TKO in 30 seconds. He celebrated his win with some Degeneration-X crotch chops, then took off his shorts and ran around the octagon. His 14 knockouts are the most in UFC history.

(Michael Brandy | Special to The Tribune) Derrick Lewis celebrates after a technical knockout win over Marcos Rogerio De Lima during UFC 291 at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Saturday, July 29, 2023.

Jan Blachowitz vs. Alex Pereira • After being spoiled with fireworks all night, the crowd was less than thrilled with this more plodding affair. Pereira landed a ton of leg kicks, Blachowitz got a takedown in every round, and the two each got some work done with their fists — Blachowitz seemingly landing the heavier combos, but the Brazilian scoring with crisp jabs. Periera’s light heavyweight debut sees him score a split-decision win, 29-28, 28-29, 29-28.

Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje • The first round was pretty back-and-forth between the combatants. Gaethje took some big swings and landed some big shots, but Poirier landed some precision strikes of his own — opening up a cut above Gaethje’s left eyebrow that referee Herb Dean and a ringside doctor were inspecting closely between rounds.

Poirier said afterwards he thought he’d hurt Gaethje and was picking up on some tendencies. Then came a kick he simply didn’t see.

“I thought I had four more rounds. I didn’t know it would be two more minutes,” Poirier said.

Gaethje, meanwhile, was gracious toward Poirier, noting that he absolutely does not want a third installment in their rivalry.

“In the cage after the fight, I said, ‘Hey man, let’s both agree never to fight again!”

Parting shots and thoughts

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz owner and Smith Entertainment Group chairman Ryan Smith addresses the media following UFC 291 at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on July 29, 2023.

Trilogy? • Utah Jazz owner and Smith Entertainment Group chairman Ryan Smith stopped by the media room after UFC 291 talked about the experience of hosting both UFC 278 and UFC 291.

Despite UFC chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein telling The Salt Lake Tribune that it might be difficult to put a PPV in Salt Lake for a third straight year, Smith told reporters Saturday, “We’re already talking about next year.” He added that it’s his goal to try and make a UFC event “a staple of the summer” in Utah going forward.

(Michael Brandy | Special to The Tribune) Fans Adam Jeannin, Daniel Hoffman and Jake Cibrian react after scoring Derrick Lewis’ cup after his knockout of Marcos Rogerio De Lima in the first round during UFC 291 at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Saturday, July 29, 2023.

Noteworthy numbers • UFC 291 drew a sellout crowd of 18,467. It also obliterated the Delta Center record for a live gate, bringing in $6,556,443.97. Both numbers topped the figures from UFC 278, which brought in 18,321 fans, and a then-arena record for a live gate receipt at $4,297,655.42.

Bonuses • The four “Performance of the Night” bonuses went to Gaethje, Lewis, Green, and Holland, respectively.