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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 135’s Justin Gaethje

Former World Series of Fighting (WSOF) Lightweight kingpin, Justin Gaethje, will look to bounce back opposite rangy boxer, James Vick, this Saturday (August 25, 2018) at UFC Fight Night 135 inside Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.

I don’t buy into that narrative that Gaethje is exposed.

Don’t misunderstand, a pair of losses at the end of a perfect (18-0) run definitely hurts. At the same time, Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez? Those two are complete savages, elite Lightweights at the top of the game who can give anyone trouble. More than that, Gaethje didn’t get outclassed or handled in any way. He brutalized them both and had momentum in his corner prior to getting stopped late in each fight. In short, my point is don’t sell stock in Gaethje just yet. Fighting is a game of small adjustments. Gaethje already gives anyone in the division hell, so think of the possibilities of he just makes minor adjustments to his approach.

With all that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Gaethje’s current skill set:

Striking

Gaethje is undoubtedly a brawler, but not a dumb one. The talented wrestler stalks opponents heavily, forcing them to throw back and making them pay as a result.

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.

This approach is rather unique in mixed martial arts (MMA), and as a result, we focused on it specifically in this week’s technique highlight.

JUSTIN GAETHJE FOF VIDEO

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 always 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.

In my opinion, closing the gap is the part of Gaethje’s attack that requires the most work. Too often, he’s content to just swing with a wild right hand and hope to fall into the pocket. There’s no reason for that — Gaethje could force a brawl while also jabbing, or he could take a note from Nate Diaz and simply walk forward with his hands up. Gaethje is too willing to get over-commit to sloppy strikes when he’d be a lot better off focusing on cutting the cage and relying on tighter boxing until he’s in range to brawl.

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 is brutal. In another slick clinch moment against Poirier, Gaethje used an elbow, uppercut, inside low kick, and finished the series with a high kick, pulling down on Poirier’s wrist to land the strike (GIF).

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 reasonable 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, 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.

Last time out, Gaethje commitment to the low kicks got him in trouble against Poirier. They did a ton of damage also, but Poirier was finally able to land a clean cross while Gaethje was standing on one leg, a terrible position to absorb an impact.

Wrestling

A two-time Division 1 All-American wrestler, 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 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.

Even when exhausted, elite wrestlers tend to have the ability to explode just enough to escape (GIF).

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

As his time as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) showed, Gaethje does not particularly care for Brazilian 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

This bout is hugely important for Gaethje’s career. He’ll always have a spot on the roster as an action fighter, but the idea of an action fighter slugging his way to the top of the division is so much more enjoyable — remember the days when Robbie Lawler ruled Welterweight? It’s time to see if Gaethje has the ability to adjust, and whether the hope that Gaethje turns it around and goes on a title run is viable.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional 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.