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TUF 25 Finale: Justin Gaethje and the art of brawling

WSOF NYC - Gaethje v Zeferino & Fitch v Shields Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

“Brawler” stands alongside “unorthodox” as one of the most over- and mis-used descriptors in mixed martial arts (MMA). Do you prefer looping punches to straight ones? You’re a brawler. Are you aggressive and willing to engage on the inside, even if you’re technical about it? You’re a brawler. Are you just plain bad at striking? Congratulations, buddy, you’re a brawler!

“Brawler” is a shortcut for color commentators who think anyone with a good one-two combination is a “technician.” It’s lazy analysis that gives the viewer zero insight as to the fighter’s abilities.

Here’s the thing: Great striking is not following the textbook to the letter. Great striking is using your skills and physical abilities to their fullest in pursuit of a specific goal. For brawlers, that goal is inflicting as much punishment as humanly possible. It’s not that they don’t know how to defend themselves or are incapable of doing so, it’s that they’re willing to sacrifice defense for the sake of doing more damage.

That’s the distinction between what I consider true capital-B “Brawlers” and tough guys like Diego Sanchez. Sanchez slings punches without rhyme or reason and could absorb punishment, but he didn’t use that durability to set up new avenues of attack, instead just spamming the same two punches over and over. Compare that to someone like John Lineker, who uses his concrete jaw to land body shots while opponents’ hands are occupied rearranging his face.

Next to Lineker, few fighters embody this platonic ideal of brawling more than former World Series of Fighting (WSOF) champion and upcoming UFC headliner, Justin Gaethje, who will make his promotional debut next weekend (Fri., July 7, 2017) against Michael Johnson at The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 25 Finale. Not only is he among the most entertaining martial artists in the sport, he’s a legitimately fascinating study.

Blessed with an iron chin and mind-numbing power in his hands, Gaethje brought an outstanding wrestling pedigree into his MMA career. He’s parlayed those three facets into an absolutely devastating whirlwind of offense that’s suffocated all comers so far.

The most notable example of these simple building blocks coming together into a cohesive assault is his leg kicks, which are arguably the most frightening in the division next to Edson Barboza’s. When you’re willing to let your opponent counter if it means planting their feet and can stuff reactive takedowns, you can kick as hard as you want.

Those kicks are the cornerstone of an attack designed to, for lack of a better word, make your life suck. Brutalizing the legs, brushing aside takedowns and power punches with equal disdain, and refusing to let up with head-knocking power punches and savage clinchwork, Gaethje saps the wills of opponents with the inevitability of an avalanche. He makes opponents think, “I don’t want to be in here anymore,” and from there it’s all over.

Gaethje would not be having the success he’s had if he tried to be a technician. The method in which he fights, while still a work-in-progress, utilizes his gifts to their fullest. It’s not a style built for longevity, but it doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the striking of converted grapplers or general incompetent stand up artists. There’s science there, even if that science looks like it’s being performed by drunk grad students in their final semester.

Look at Jackson/Winklejohn or Tristar. While many of their fighters share common tactics or specific techniques, the majority have their own unique styles. Compare that to Edmond Tarverdyan, who tried to turn every fighter who walked through his doors into a dedicated jabber and sent them on tragically long losing streaks as a result. There is so much more to striking than just knowing the basic motions.

Is Justin Gaethje’s style textbook? No. Does he have holes in his game that need fixing? Yes. Is he just a mindless slugger? Hell no.

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