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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on FOX 29’s Justin Gaethje

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The most dominant champion in World Series of Fighting (WSOF) history, Justin Gaethje, will throw down opposite fellow knockout artist, Dustin Poirier, this Saturday (April 14, 2018) at UFC on FOX 29 inside Gila Rivera Arena in Glendale, Arizona.

Gaethje promised that he would be knocked out at some point in his first 10 UFC fights, and his prophecy was realized just a few months ago. In two bouts, Gaethje has lived up to his moniker and helped create two of the greatest UFC fights in history. Even with the Eddie Alvarez loss, Gaethje remains a top contender, an interesting threat to just about anyone in the 155-pound division. His style may be “ugly” and criticisms of his defense are somewhat valid, but Gaethje is already back in the title mix with a victory on Saturday night.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

Gaethje fights like a brawler because he wants to ... and because he forces his opponents into that type of fight. A decorated wrestler with the ability to dictate where the fight goes, Gaethje walks toward his foes and invites them to punch him.

Much of the time Gaethje is pressuring his opponents, presenting 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.

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. That number definitely includes Gaethje, but he tends to throw such clubbing, wide blows that even if he misses the intended target, something lands and knocks his foe a bit off-balance.

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.

That low kick set up — along with a few others — are the topic of this week’s technique highlight. Check it out!

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. After leading with a heavy punch, Gaethje generally does a good job of rolling.

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 set up that covers a surprising amount of distance.

The close range and clinch is another area where Gaethje excels. Hanging on his opponent with a single-collar tie, Gaethje will abuse his opponent with the right uppercut and right hook. If Gaethje is able to force his foe into the fence, he’ll frame with his left hand, breaking down his foe’s posture and allowing him pound away with the right. This also creates an opening for hard knees and elbows, both of which Gaethje uses to great effect (GIF).

There’s also his excellent habit of breaking the clinch with a nasty low kick, which we talk about in the technique highlight above.

Since getting his opponent to try to punch him in a major part of Gaethje’s strategy, it’s safe to assume that he’ll spend some of his time actually getting punched. On the whole, Gaethje does do a good job of at least partially blocking or rolling with shots. Most of the punches he absorbs to the chin are not at full power, even if he does take an absurd number of shots.

As with every style of striking, there are weakness. As Eddie Alvarez showed us last time out, Gaethje does leave his mid-section open in order to tightly cover up his head. That’s compounded by the fact that you cannot tough out body shots — the human body just stops working properly. In addition, both Alvarez and Johnson found success with uppercuts through the guard, and the knee that ended Gaethje’s undefeated run came up that same path directly into his chin.

Wrestling

A two-time Division 1 All-American, Gaethje could easily be considered one of the division’s best wrestlers if he actually tried to wrestle at any point. His wrestling does serve the valuable purpose of keeping him on his feet and enabling him to commit to power shots in the pocket without fear of the takedown, which is absolutely pivotal to his style.

In addition, Gaethje will occasionally use the threat of the takedown to set up big punches. There are generally two ways to accomplish this: a fighter can fake low or briefly touch a leg and come up firing, or they can commit a bit more to the shot, actually get their opopnent moving to stop the takedown, only to suddenly fire a heavy shot. Both strategies are extremely effective, and Gaethje is quite volatile with either, using the takedown threat to create openings for the right hand.

The .GIF below is a quality example of the second style of takedown-striking setup, which involves more commitment to the shot.

One of the most significant wrestling techniques to translate into his mixed martial arts 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)

As his time as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) showed, Gaethje does not particularly care for jiu-jitsu. Just one of his career wins comes via submission, a rear-naked choke back in 2012. Defensively, Gaethje did show some great patience when Luiz Firmino — a skilled black belt — took his back. He’s clearly skilled in bad positions, as Gaethje was able to pretty methodically fight hands and strip hooks until he escaped.

Conclusion

Getting knocked out does not mean that Gaethje is no longer an elite contender, or that his style will not work against high-level foes. Gaethje told us this would happen, but he also knows that he has the ability to defeat anyone in the world at 155 pounds. Still, two straight losses is a fate to be avoided, making this is a crossroads bout for “The Highlight.” It will determine whether he’s relegated into fun action fights or placed against the highest-ranked fighters available.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is a professional fighter and former amateur champion 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.