Lightweight slugger, Justin Gaethje, will square off with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) kingpin, Charles Oliveira, this Saturday (May 7, 2022) at UFC 274 inside Footprint Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.
For the second time in two years, Gaethje is about to make a grab at undisputed gold. Since reconfiguring his chaotic strategy, “The Highlight” has struck a perfect balance between entertainment and effectiveness. He remains a must-watch athlete, but now Gaethje hands out far more damage than he receives, rather than accepting an equal share on the expectation that he can endure more than his opponent. Now 33 years of age, Gaethje has long hinted that he’s not going to fight forever, so it’s possible this could be his final shot at the belt. Plus, against a fellow willing scrapper, this is likely his best moment, so let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Gaethje has always fought with more strategy than given credit for. The big difference in Gaethje 2.0 versus the original brawling, however, is that Gaethje does far more work on the back foot, letting his opponent walk into huge shots rather than forcing the action himself.
A big part of that improved success came from being more consistent about throwing from the proper distances in his recent wins. 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.
Last time out vs. 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.
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.
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.
Even recently, Chandler did real damage with his body shots and low kicks.
A two-time Division I All-American wrestler, Gaethje is likely one of the division’s best 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.
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 vs. 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 as 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, 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.
Khabib proved a different animal, as he often did throughout his career. Opposite the Dagestani champion, Gaethje pretty much immediately found himself in terrible positions and/or in submissions as soon as the pair were on the mat. The fight was incredibly chaotic though, and it was against the best Lightweight top player of all time, so I wouldn’t declare Gaethje helpless on his back just yet.
Gaethje has refined his skill set and proven himself one of the best Lightweights alive several times over now. He’s about to step into the chaos once more vs. Charles Oliveira, and perhaps this time he’ll emerge with a golden title around his waist.
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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