Knockout artist, Justin Gaethje, will challenge dominant wrestler, Khabib Nurmagomedov for the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight crown this Saturday (Oct. 24, 2020) at UFC 254 inside Flash Forum on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
It’s been a wild ride for Gaethje, but would “The Highlight” want it any other way? Gaethje stormed into UFC undefeated and with a reputation for incredible fights, living up to both halves of that recipe with a barn-burner knockout win in his debut. However, consecutive knockout losses sent Gaethje back to the drawing board, and those defeats had many believing he would never become a title threat. Instead, Gaethje returned better than ever, and the results have been simply dominant. A more measured — yet still incredibly active and aggressive — Gaethje is one of the most dangerous Lightweights in history, but he still has a monumental task ahead of him.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Gaethje may no longer be the brawler that once ruled World Series of Fighting (WSOF), but many of his same strategies and techniques apply to the refined version. Perhaps just as interesting, his current four-fight win streak has equally split his strategy between aggression/pressure and hard-handed counter punching.
Regardless of overall strategy, 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). In general, he struck especially well from his back foot, baiting Cerrone forward with the low kicks then cracking him with huge shots.
When pressuring his opponents, Gaethje often presenting 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.
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 most recent performance — his five round dismantling of Ferguson — stands as the best 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 (GIF).
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.
A two-time Division I All-American wrestler, Gaethje is likely one of the division’s best wrestlers. We’d know 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). Of course, Khabib’s brand of chain wrestling and top control may prove a different story ...
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.
Gaethje is on the best run of his career, looking smarter and more powerful than ever. He has the finishing tools and wrestling background to present Nurmagomedov with a different set of challenges than past opponents, which is the only thing we can ask of a challenger ahead of a match with a longtime champion.
His whole career has been building to this opportunity — let’s see what Gaethje can do with it.
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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.