Everything you need to know about Justin Gaethje can be gleaned from the match up page of his upcoming UFC Fight Night 135 main event slot opposite James Vick this weekend (Sat., Aug. 25, 2018). The 8.67 strikes-landed-per-minute mark immediately stands out, with only Cory Sandhagen’s one-fight total of 9.09 exceeding him on the card.
Then you look a little farther down and see his mind-boggling 10.68 strikes-absorbed-per-minute. The only person on the page even remotely close to that is Tim Williams (8.95), but the asterisk there is that Williams’ UFC career has lasted less than two minutes. Gaethje, on the other hand, has spent more than 30 minutes inside the Octagon trading unreasonable amounts of leather with some of the hardest hitters below 170 pounds.
Watching “The Highlight” is a unique experience, even compared to fellow concrete-headed sluggers like John Lineker. Though more can happen in mixed martial arts (MMA) than in any other sport, his fights force opponents to all adopt the same gameplan: Get rid of this man while you can still walk. It’s almost gruesome watching him absorb all incoming fire for the sake of whacking a leg or landing an overhand right, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by his single-minded devotion to hurting people.
That’s not to say there’s no art to his craft, though, even if it can be a bit less Starry Night and a bit more Piss Christ. He fights in a way that makes the best of his gifts, namely inordinate power, durability and will. Even on the heels of two stoppage losses, it’s hard to argue that it’s not effective; Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier exploited his flaws perfectly, namely his tendency to leave his body exposed and his vulnerability when throwing kicks, and were still barely able to walk afterward.
The issue? Attrition. As a fan of his since he was turning the thighs of opponents concave in World Series of Fighting (WSOF), I get knots in my stomach watching him compete. He doesn’t have Lineker’s cartoonish unflappability, instead visibly wearing the endless rain of blows. Much like his opponents have a ticking bomb in their heads counting down until they can no longer support their weight, Gaethje’s entire career has an air of impending doom.
Judging by his acceptance that he only has a few fights left before retirement, he knows it, too.
Thankfully, while Vick is certainly capable of beating Gaethje, the lanky striker is significantly less concussive than the likes of Alvarez and Poirier. Though he showed unexpected power in flattening Polo Reyes and Joe Duffy, Vick is at home pot-shotting outside of his opponent’s range until he either falls, loses a decision, or tries a takedown and gets caught in his submission game. For once, Gaethje faces a fun stylistic clash rather than another head-on collision with an iron-handed slugger, something more akin to a chase sequence wherein he’ll look to slow down Vick with low kicks and take his head off with an overhand right before the latter racks up an insurmountable lead.
As much as I’m pulling for “The Highlight” here, I’m just glad he’s finally in a fight that could conceivably not take years off of his life. Win or lose, Gaethje is a gift we need to savor.