MMA’s most entertaining fighter, Justin Gaethje, seeks his revenge against fellow knockout artist, Dustin Poirier, this Saturday (July 29, 2023) at UFC 291 inside Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.
It’s kind of shocking to realize just how hard fans turned against Gaethje after his loss to Charles Oliveira. Immediately, the narrative shifted, painted Gaethje as a relic of the past era that refused to fight down the ladder, when in fact his only recent losses were to “Do Bronx” and Khabib Nurmagomedov — a pair of pretty decent Lightweights by most measures.
Then, Gaethje agreed to fight down vs. Rafael Fiziev, one of the stars of the next generation. The resulting war proved Gaethje was still at the top of his game, and “The Highlight” insists he has a title run left in him, one that starts with BMF silver.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Gaethje may like to brawl, but there’s a lot of technique hidden in the chaos. He thrives in both the pocket and at distance, and few are more capable at taking an opponent apart in a war of attrition.
Distance management has become an important aspect of Gaethje’s offense, particularly compared to his early UFC run. In the past, 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.
Now, Gaethje picks his shots far smarter. At range, Gaethje is attacking the leg like usual, but he’s no longer in such a rush to progress passed this distance. When he does aim for a big hook, Gaethje sets it up with a couple punches first, often going to the body before swinging high. Other times, Gaethje pushes into the clinch before unleashing, hiding these forward pushes with feints.
Gaethje manipulates distance well-enough he’s doing huge damage on the counter now (GIF). He strikes really well from his back foot, still managing to shift his weight into each individual punch. Often, Gaethje will bait his opponent by firing a right hand, rolling the counter, and answering immediately with his left hook.
Against Michael Chandler, Gaethje really did most of his best work on the counter. First, he “encouraged” Chandler to come forward by slamming his shin into his lead leg as often as possible. When Chandler did advance, Gaethje was looking to duck beneath the right hand or roll off to an angle, often returning fire with the 2-3.
The right uppercut proved a major weapon for Gaethje as well. Chandler tends to bring his head forward as he punches, both with his right hand and while jabbing. As Chandler moved forward behind feints or punches, Gaethje would show his lead hand, get Chandler to cover up, then club him with an uppercut through the guard (GIF). As Chandler backed off from that stinging blow, the left hook often followed.
When pressuring his opponents, Gaethje often presents them with an easy target. Leaning forward with his hands high from a fairly square stance, Gaethje makes throwing punches at him seem simple. 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. The fight didn’t end up going his way, but that’s how he managed to drop Charles Oliveira twice!
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 is now less willing to stumble forward with his hands raised, waiting to block and fire. He initiates offense of his own more, notably using the jab well opposite Tony Ferguson. 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, 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).
Gaethje’s dismantling of Ferguson stands as perhaps the best performance of his career. Ferguson likes to pressure while remaining rangy and tricky, but Gaethje took that option away from him with low kicks. Much of the time Ferguson stepped forward early, he was met with heavy low kicks, which slowed him down and forced his hand.
Rather than flow into the pocket, Ferguson tried to force the issue. Gaethje was there waiting, slipping inside Ferguson’s punches to corkscrew an overhand or come back up with a heavy left hook. Those two counters landed repeatedly, breaking Ferguson down further.
The fight also demonstrated an improvement in Gaethje’s head movement. His ability to slip shots while staying compact to fire low kicks/punches was really impressive, and it continually disrupted Ferguson’s attempts to build combinations. Particularly, Gaethje’s ability to smoothly roll to his right and weave with a tremendously wide left is a lovely example of the duality of Gaethje’s nature.
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.
Gaethje’s last bout versus Rafael Fiziev really felt like a culmination of his kickboxing game, though that’s not to say it was an easy fight. Fiziev came prepared, hunting the body and targeting strikes up the middle (i.e. knees, uppercuts, teeps). Gaethje, meanwhile, was forced to show off every technical trick in his book to pull ahead.
It was all on display. Against a very experienced Muay Thai fighter, Gaethje still landed crushing low kicks by throwing them from close in the pocket, to punctuate combinations, or by feinting his right hand heavily first. Offensively, he had trouble firing forward with combinations against the quicker man, but when he adjusted to sticking a stiff jab down the middle, it landed nearly every time. He also showed his craft by feinting punches, grabbing the head, then hammering away with uppercuts and hooks — always a good idea against a faster opponent.
Finally, Gaethje’s counter work and defensive improvements were on display. He did a remarkably good job of parrying Fiziev’s nasty left body kick, though of course a few did land. When kicked, Gaethje flurried back hard more often than not. At one point, he also blocked then shifted Southpaw, firing forward a flurry from his non-dominant stance that rattled the striking ace.
It was all-around great work.
A two-time Division I All-American wrestler, Gaethje is among the division’s most credentialed wrestlers. Rather than take anyone down, Gaethje’s 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.
Against Fiziev, Gaethje did actually time a couple double legs in the center of the cage, hiding them amidst the chaos of the brawl. Progress!
Defensively, Gaethje largely 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 often 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.
Admittedly, this did not work out well versus Khabib. Nurmagomedov smartly game planned by focusing on cutting the angle on his double leg shot, which often put him behind Gaethje. Starting scrambles in such an advantageous position was huge for Nurmagomedov, who quickly took mount or back mount and demonstrated his superior jiu-jitsu.
Michael Chandler found out the hard way that Gaethje’s scrambling is still top-notch, however. Chandler was picking up momentum early in the third when he timed a double-leg nicely, lifting Gaethje up and trying to slam him. While in mid-air, Gaethje dove between his opponent’s legs in something of a funk roll attempt. As a result, Chandler pretty much landed on his own face, hurting himself and handing momentum back to “The Highlight” (GIF).
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, the only two men to really drag Gaethje down were able to submit him, but they were also the best pair of ground fighters in UFC Lightweight history. Oh, and Gaethje was exhausted first by Khabib and rocked by Oliveira — a pair of really, really bad places to be that could realistically submit anyone.
Against a more reasonable (but still black belt) threat in Luiz Firmino back in the day, Gaethje showed good fundamentals in fighting hands and escaping the back.
Gaethje is 34 years of age and has been in some wars. He’s also at a point where his experience and violent nature may finally be melding into one consistent output, a struggle that has always been at the forefront of Gaethje performances. He has time for a final run, but there’s no room left for missteps.
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.