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Justin Gaethje Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 249’s Justin Gaethje

Knockout artist, Justin Gaethje, will square off with Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Tony Ferguson, this Saturday (May 9, 2020) at UFC 249 inside VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.

After consecutive losses in a pair of close scraps ended his run as an undefeated fighter, Gaethje made a choice. In his last three fights, Gaethje has maintained his usual level of aggression and volume, but he’s done so in a more refined manner. The result? He still forces a similar level of chaos and pressure, but he’s landing cleaner punches and eating counters less. Since this adjustment, Gaethje has picked up a trio of first-round knockouts, putting him right back into title contention and setting up this awesome bout with Ferguson.

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.

Gaethje’s been much more consistent about throwing from the proper distances in his recent wins. In past fights, Gaethje was willing to step forward and wing an overhand just on the off-chance that his foe stepped into it. When he missed, he was often countered, and it’s tiring either way.

Fast-forward to his bout with Donald Cerrone, and it’s a different story. At range, Gaethje was attacking the leg like usual, but his boxing was smarter. If he wanted to land a big hook, Gaethje set it up with a couple punches first, often going to the body before swinging high. Other times, Gaethje pushed into the clinch before unleashing, hiding these forward pushes with feints.

Gaethje manipulated distance well-enough that the finish came on a pull counter (GIF).

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 set up, 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 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’s recent success came almost instantly as the result of small adjustments, proving Gaethje’s aggression and chaotic nature could work at an extremely high level if applied correctly. Winning an interim belt would further confirm that concept, as well as setting up Gaethje for a showdown with Khabib Nurmagomedov.

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 249 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the ESPN+/Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN+/ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 249: “Ferguson 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.

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