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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on ESPN 2’s Justin Gaethje

The most thrilling man in mixed martial arts (MMA), Justin Gaethje, will return to action opposite fellow knockout artist, Edson Barboza, this Saturday (March 30, 2019) at UFC on ESPN 2 from inside Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Gaethje is electric to watch, but is he making full use of his potential? Many — probably including Gaethje himself — would argue that he is not. The highly decorated wrestler is rarely seen shooting for a takedown, preferring to slug it out in pursuit of glory and bonus money. On some level, Gaethje’s ruthless aggression is never going to change. At the same time, his last outing opposite James Vick was a promising step in the right direction. The changes were subtle, but “The Highlight” reeled in his wild offense a touch and made more of an effort to cut off the cage rather than follow.

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

Striking

It’s important to note that Gaethje is wild, not stupid. The brawler knows precisely the type of fight he desires, and — win or lose — he’s managed to force each and every one of his past opponents to participate in his type of fight.

Very, very few fighters can match that claim.

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.

For what it’s worth, if there’s one area I think Gaethje could really improve upon without completely changing his core style, it’s avoiding over-committing to punches. Gaethje wins because he forces grueling wars of attrition — he doesn’t need to sloppily swing for the one-punch knockout quite so often when his low kicks will seal the deal if he were patient.

Perhaps the most common reaction initially to Gaethje’s pressure was to jab, which makes plenty of sense of paper: a stiff jab keeps pursuing opponents away and keeps the user out of range from those looping hooks. In this week’s technique highlight, we analyze why it rarely works so well.

When stalking his foe, Gaethje doesn’t always just stumble forward with his hands raised, waiting to block and fire. 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 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 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 I 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 opponent 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 his 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 his opponent tries 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

Gaethje may be set in his ways of pure violence, but he’s also still learning the specifics on how to apply his fighting philosophy and consistently win these wars. This is another dangerous test for Gaethje: he has to find a way to break Barboza’s chin and/or will before the Brazilian’s brutal kicks destroy his own body. In truth, the outcome may depend on just how well he is able to cut off the cage.


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.