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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 158’s Justin Gaethje

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The most exciting man in mixed martial arts (MMA), Justin Gaethje, will return to the cage opposite long-time Lightweight contender, Donald Cerrone, this Saturday (Sept. 14, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 158 from inside Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Gaethje has a pair of goals firmly in mind: entertain at all costs and capture UFC gold. Though the former seems to take priority over the latter, it’s worth-noting that the Gaethje’s most recent two appearances prove the two goals are not mutually exclusive. Gaethje’s recent adjustments have made the “The Highlight” more effective than ever, producing two first-round knockout victories in which Gaethje endured little damage. Based on last weekend’s title fight, perhaps an All-American wrestler who refuses to take a step backward is just what’s required opposite Khabib Nurmagomedov’s dominant takedowns.

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

Striking

The tenets of Gaethje’s strategy are simple: maintain a crazy high-pace, pressure constantly, shred the lead leg, and rip power punches. This commonly leads to the wars of attrition that Gaethje desires, but a bit of smartness goes a long way in shifting the ratio of punches absorbed vs. landed further in Gaethje’s favor.

In short, Gaethje is still tough as ever and willing to throw down, but he’s picking his moments better. For a longer explanation of the stylistic shift, check out this week’s technique highlight below:

Despite Gaethje tightening up his offense, most of his overall strategies are the same. 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’s an issue that affects Gaethje as well, though he’s slowly making himself more difficult to counter by closing distance into the clinch.

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. However, Gaethje is very prepared for this action, ready to fire a crushing low kick as his opponent’s lead leg is extended from the jab. Alternatively, Gaethje will slip his head inside and fire an overhand, aiming to finish his foe with a cross counter.

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 (GIF). 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. Against Edson Barboza, Gaethje doubled up on the right hand, landing his second punch as a Southpaw right hook to stop the Brazilian (GIF).

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 Gaethje gains 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 hit a wall against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, a pair of fights that could have went his way given slight adjustments. Credit to “The Highlight,” he has since adjusted and is ready to make another run at the title. While Cerrone is not quite a title contender, he is an extremely dangerous fighters with the tools to stop Gaethje — the perfect opponent for Gaethje to prove that his style can topple anyone en route to the title.


Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Fight Night 158 fight card this weekend right HERE, starting with the ESPN+“Prelims” that are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the main card portion that will stream on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Fight Night 158: “Cowboy vs. Gaethje” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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.