One of the best fighters yet to fight inside the Octagon, Justin Gaethje, will make his debut opposite experienced striker, Michael Johnson, this Friday (July 7, 2017) at The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 25 Finale inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Gaethje is a destroyer.
The 28 year old signed to the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) way back at WSOF 2 after just seven professional fights. An accomplished wrestler with six finishes to his name, the signing was definitely consider significant at the time, but few had any idea just how important that relationship would become.
During his next 10 fights for the promotion, Gaethje remained undefeated and brutalized the vast majority of his opponents. Frankly, he’s the closest WSOF has come to having their own Gilbert Melendez or Eddie Alvarez, a star who is undoubtedly one of the best. Impressively, the reason he could not fully step into that role was because Gaethje found no one who could truly rival him, though that will likely change as he attempts to assault the Lightweight top five.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set.
Gaethje is often labelled as a brawler or bruiser, which is not an unfair term. The Arizona-native is a sick bastard who thrives on blood-and-guts wars of attrition, and his style basically forces opponents to trade punches with him.
Much of the time Gaethje is pressuring his opponents, he presents them with an easy target. Leaning forward with his hands high from a fairly square stance, there’s nothing difficult to hit about Gaethje. He does his best to block whatever comes his way and keeps his chin tucked, but it’s impossible to fully defend against a flurry of kicks and punches without trying to back away or angle off.
Luckily, that’s not Gaethje’s plan.
Instead, he allows plenty of shots to land and returns heavily (GIF). Commonly known as a catch-and-pitch style of boxing, Gaethje capitalizes on the fact that many fighters leave themselves out of position when on offense. Gaethje is included in that flaw, but he capitalizes on it by waiting for the perfect moment to unleash his haymaker.
One of the most common reactions to Gaethje’s shelling up and stalking approach is to jab. On paper, that’s not a bad response, as the jab is a long range weapon that helps fighters away from Gaethje’s kill shots. In practice, however, it rarely works so well. Most fighters do not have a good jab — they throw from too close or do not bring their hands back to the chin — meaning they are, in fact, still at risk of eating a monstrous left hook or overhand right.
Plus, even if they are at a good range, Gaethje will time a low kick at the same time as the jab is unfurling. Boxing dictates that a jab should utilize a lead leg step to extend range, but that leaves the lead leg extremely vulnerable to being turned inward by low kicks. Gaethje is waiting for that jab and is unconcerned by it, meaning he’ll rip into those low kicks more than any others.
When stalking his foe, Gaethje doesn’t just stumble forward with his hands raised. He initiates offense of his own as well, often flicking a jab into his opponent’s face and crushing the lead leg at any given opportunity. Furthermore, he’ll step into big power shots as well, usually his favored overhand right or left hook. To set those shots up, Gaethje will often rip to the body as well, which further builds upon his style of breaking fighters down.
One of the more overlooked techniques of Gaethje is his habit of switching to Southpaw after his right hand. By stepping into Southpaw while throwing the cross/overhand, Gaethje shifts his weight and puts a ton of power into the blow while also loading up his left hand. Now in Southpaw, Gaethje will commonly follow up with a massive left overhand, but he’s also mixed in the left uppercut to great effect.
It’s a powerful setup that covers a surprising amount of distance.
The close range and clinch is another area where Gaethje excels. We analyzed that aspect of his game in this week’s technique highlight, and there will be more below as well!
Aside from the techniques mentioned, one of Gaethje’s favorite strategies on a trapped opponent is the semi-common approach of controlling with the left hand will throwing with the right. Regardless of whether he’s controlling the head or arm of his opponent, Gaethje will be feeding his foe right uppercuts or hooks.
Much of the time, Gaethje has little interest in using his two-time D1 All-American wrestling background in actually scoring takedowns. Instead, he uses wrestling as an offensive asset to set up strikes, as well as keep him on his feet.
On the occasion that Gaethje does shoot, it’s usually to draw his opponent’s hands and level low. Once that happens, the former WSOF kingpin will unleash a cross or uppercut. Defenses are often exposed on the heels of grappling exchanges, and Gaethje takes advantage in a big way. Also worth-mentioning is that Gaethje will feint toward his foe’s feet or even towards the ground before stepping in with strikes.
One of the most significant wrestling techniques to translate into his mixed martial arts (MMA) approach is the snap down. Whenever he gets control of his opponent’s neck/head, he’ll throw his body back — hanging his weight on the neck — and do his best to drive their forehead straight into the mat. Sometimes, his snap down serves as part of his takedown defense, but other times Gaethje will initiate in order to off-balance his foe and set up punches.
Defensively, Gaethje simply does not care about his opponent’s takedown attempts. Even if they’re perfectly timed, Gaethje is usually able to sprawl and re-sprawl until his opponent is stretched out along the mat and in terrible position. If they try to chain wrestle, it’s only a matter of time until Gaethje snaps them to the mat or turns and spins out.
Occasionally, Gaethje is so off-balance that he falls over and gives up the takedown. When that happens, he can usually stand and shake off his opponent immediately, but he’ll also dive forward with an arm roll or tuck under his opponent’s legs. Basically, Gaethje does anything possible to start a wild scramble, trusting in his athleticism and excellent wrestling to land him in top position.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Gaethje doesn’t really care to take people down nor is he taken down that often. In short, that means we effectively know very little about his grappling, though his fight with Luiz Firmino — a PRIDE FC veteran and jiu-jitsu black belt — gave us some insight.
Firmino played that tricky veteran jiu-jitsu style that practically guarantees the fight will hit the mat in some way. He couldn’t hit a real takedown, but he could pull guard and work sweeps off them. He pull into half guard a number of times in good position, but Gaethje used a heavy overhook and solid head position to shut those attempts down.
At one point in the first round, Firmino managed to secure the back clinch and crawl into back mount. From that poor position, Gaethje did a great job of fighting hands to stop the choke will slowly wiggling his hips out of his opponent’s hooks. Firmino hung on for a minute or two, but he accomplished nothing with his great position.
This is Gaethje’s chance to prove himself one of the very best Lightweights in the world. His previous performances have been fantastic, but this is a different level of competition. With a win here, Gaethje is perhaps one fight away from a title shot, which would really be an extraordinary fight.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.