The Evolution of @Justin_Gaethje: How the UFC’s Most Violent Fighter Is Becoming a Master Tactician #mmaTweet
Justin Gaethje is the UFC’s most exciting fighter by a country mile. In his six fights with the promotion, he has earned a mind blowing six performance awards. Gaethje is aptly named “The Highlight,” Justin Gaethje brings it every fight.
Fans have witnessed a rapid evolution in Justin Gaethje’s fighting since joining the UFC. The stigma has stuck with Gaethje incorrectly. Leading up to his fight with James Vick, Vick taunted Gaethje saying he was punch drunk and chinny. Justin Gaethje has risen up the lightweight rankings and is within striking distance of a title shot should he beat Tony Ferguson at UFC
249, 250 (nobody knows yet).
In this breakdown, we will go through each of Justin Gaethje’s six fights in the UFC and see how his wins and losses have changed him.
Fight 1: Justin Gaethje versus Michael Johnson
Justin Gaethje wasted no time coming into the UFC. He took on the fifth ranked Michael Johnson to make his purpose in the division clear: kick some ass. The fight went down as Fight of the Year and Gaethje won by TKO at the end of the second round. Don’t let the early finish fool you, this fight was chaos.
It’s a common saying in the fight community: styles make fights. Johnson was the perfect test to see if Gaethje truly belonged in the UFC. Johnson is a long fighter and enjoyed a three inch reach advantage over Gaethje. Gaethje also has a high guard and is very susceptible to a straight jab. At this point in his career, Gaethje has made a career out of making people want to fight.
Early on, Michael Johnson exposes a weakness of Justin Gaethje, his head stays on the center line. With some jabs to the face and even a stun early on, Johnson showed Gaethje that he intended to fight at Gaethje’s breakneck pace.
This game plan would backfire on Johnson as Gaethje is the shark in the water. Gaethje does a fantastic job of keeping you thinking about his heavy hands and keeping his opponents eyes off of his feet, a reoccurring theme we will see in his fights. In the first round alone (as you see below) Gaethje landed 25 leg kicks. This pays dividends later on when Gaethje is taking over later in fights.
Justin Gaethje’s pace wears out Johnson fast and Johnson abandons the straight jab he had success with at the start of the fight and starts throwing wild shots, exactly what Gaethje is comfortable with.
At the end of the first round, Michael Johnson lands a giant right hand hook-uppercut-type thing that buckles Justin Gaethje, something that almost assuredly showed up in the film room of Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. The reason this worked is because it wasn’t a clean hook that Gaethje avoided all night. It ended up coming straight up the pipe and connecting because Gaethje’s head movement is rudimentary. Johnson’s mistake was taking Gaethje down and not doing anything with it. That cost Johnson a lot of energy and when Gaethje got back up, he threw wild punches costing him even more energy.
One thing Gaethje also has going against him is his footwork early on. When he is tired, he’s flat-footed and just plods ahead into the trenches. He does well keeping his hands high, but the footwork keeps him predictable.
Johnson catches Gaethje again with a two piece combo, but he makes a similar mistake and let’s his hands fly. Johnson made a bet that he was tougher than Gaethje and it will not pay off. Johnson presses Justin against the fence and uses some elbows and then Gaethje bites down on the mouth piece and fires back.
Michael Johnson continues to bring the power shots that don’t connect and even throws a wild hook that he slips on. While it’s quite evident that Justin Gaethje is tired and has taken some punishment, Michael Johnson is even more tired and has not used his energy reserve wisely.
At this point in the fight, it’s just a battle of the chins and who was the toughest man. Johnson shots for a desperate takedown that was an attempt to bring the fight somewhere that was not on the feet. This was the first sign that the fight was over. Johnson was tired of throwing bombs with Gaethje and wanted to be somewhere else. It was at that point that the fight was won for Gaethje.
Now Gaethje is working the legs again which were severely compromised from round one. A couple kicks to the legs of Johnson has him not able to stand. Gaethje has Johnson dead to rights and goes for the kill with Johnson against the fence. Johnson is covered up as the flying knee came in and folded with the clock expiring. Gaethje has won his UFC debut.
Justin Gaethje lived up to his name of a brawler in this fight. This was his Achilles’ Heel. The holes in his game would be his downfall in his next two games against Poirier and Alvarez.
Fight 2: Justin Gaethje versus Eddie Alvarez
The fight with Eddie Alvarez was a major test for Gaethje. A win over the former champion puts him in striking distance of the champion at the time, Conor McGregor. This would be the first time Justin Gaethje tastes defeat as a professional MMA fighter. Eddie Alvarez fought this fight and discovered things about Gaethje from the Johnson fight.
Gaethje comes out very leg kick heavy again. He will move his feet early on, but he quickly abandons it and begins to hold his ground throwing the bombs to put Alvarez away. This does not happen though, Eddie is very good in close range and slips punches very well. Alvarez patters Gaethje up with jabs in between the big shots as well, adding up over time. Alvarez also works the body very well, ripping Gaethje’s soul out in the very first round.
Eddie Alvarez has incredible head movement in this fight, but that can be attested to Gaethje just firing and not really setting anything up. Regardless, Alvarez made Gaethje miss a lot. This, with the body work from Alvarez, pays off quickly as Alvarez is clearly the fresher fighter at the end of the first round.
Round two, Gaethje knows something has to change, he was beat up pretty bad in the first round. He begins jabbing at Alvarez with some success. But, Alvarez is getting off the better shots and landing bigger. Alvarez doesn’t go straight down the middle as much as Johnson does, but when he does, he snaps Gaethje’s head back on more than one occasion. Alvarez smothers Gaethje with punch after punch. They might not all be 100%, but we’ve seen success with this from the Diaz brothers and Colby Covington. Gaethje is overwhelmed and just fires instead of setting up anything.
Gaethje will also attempt to clinch up and every time he does, Alvarez punishes him with uppercuts and shots over the top. Gaethje is tired early on and Alvarez is simply beating up Justin Gaethje. Alvarez continues to rip hooks to the body and Gaethje does not want any of it. He does whatever he can to get out of the exchange at any cost to his defense. Gaethje does catch Alvarez and swells his face up, but round two was all Eddie Alvarez as well.
Round three is more of the same from Alvarez. He continues to show Gaethje so many different looks that Gaethje doesn’t seem to know what to do except cover up and wait for Alvarez to finish. This is, of course, bad because he’s always swinging as Alvarez is exiting. One thing that Gaethje did well in this fight, as he always does, is attack the leg. Alvarez was struggling in the third and begun fighting southpaw.
Towards the end of the third, there was not much technique from either fighter due to fatigue. Alvarez did a good job pressing against Gaethje making him work more all while spoon feeding him uppercuts in the clinch. Alvarez finally knees Gaethje and puts him down. Due to pure fatigue, Gaethje would not be able to get up and the fight was over. Eddie Alvarez is the winner.
Fight 3: Justin Gaethje versus Dustin Poirier
Dustin Poirier built off of what Eddie Alvarez and Michael Johnson learned from fighting Justin Gaethje. Poirier knew that Gaethje planned to take the fight into deep waters so he can out-man Poirier. Poirier, being a fantastic tactical fighter as he is, did not make the same mistake as Alvarez or Johnson. Poirier was incredibly patient in round one of his fight with Justin Gaethje. A high volume of his strikes were straight down the pipe right into or through Gaethje’s guard.
Justin Gaethje did a good job of having Poirier fight at a faster-than-usual pace, but it wasn’t out of control like Michael Johnson. Fighting at this more patient pace was a byproduct of his gassing out against Eddie Alvarez in the first fight. Dustin came in more patient and it showed.
Another good thing Gaethje did was eat up Poirier’s leg way early on. Poirier was already buckling in round one. Another thing Poirier did well, learned from Alvarez, was how he set his big shots up. Poirier didn’t lead with a hook or uppercut on almost any of the attempts he took in round one. He led in with a jab or straight, often multiple of each then let go. Gaethje covers when these shots come and Poirier kept it mixed up enough where Gaethje didn’t know when it’s coming. Then Poirier exits, not continuing to throw big shots and letting Gaethje fire back.
Round 2 opened up much of the same for Justin Gaethje. He is pushing the pace on Poirier. But this is a calculated move from Poirier. He’s conserving his gas tank and firing off his back foot with small shots that trick Gaethje into firing more shots which are an attempt to get Poirier to brawl.
The second round was a lot of Gaethje offense. I would go so far as to score him that round. But Poirier had two really smart decisions in this round that won him this fight. The first was going to the body. Poirier attacked the body of Justin Gaethje lowering his hands and zapping his stamina. Don’t let the end of the round fool you, while Poirier has his hands on his knees and Gaethje walked away, Gaethje was definitely the more exhausted fighter. You could see in the final minute and a half that Gaethje was slower and his shots were wilder.
The second decision Poirier made that won this fight for him was takedown attempts. While I’m sure Dustin Poirier wanted to get to the ground to grind this out and make Gaethje tired, it didn’t happen, Gaethje defended all four attempts. But this gave Gaethje the mindset that Poirier was dead set on this fight going to the ground. Poirier, on the other hand, was ready to win this on the mat or standing up.
Round three was more of the same from Justin Gaethje. He marched forward with his hands up hunting Poirier’s head. Gaethje caught Poirier with a hook that had him hurt. Poirier backed against the fence and weathered the storm. He kept Gaethje at bay a little bit by jabbing at him. Gaethje has another poor example of pacing himself trying to put Poirier away.
Justin Gaethje also let Poirier off the hook at the end of the round with the second eye poke of the fight. This was at the end of the round with 17 seconds left. Poirier took the rest from the eye poke, took the 17 seconds off and then took the break at end of the round.
Round four was just too deep of waters for Justin Gaethje. With a left straight down the pipe from Dustin Poirier, Gaethje was just too tired and too wobbled to defend the onslaught from Poirier. Just 33 seconds into the fourth round, Gaethje folds and Poirier is the winner.
Fight 4: Justin Gaethje Versus James Vick
Gaethje’s fight with James Vick was the turnaround of his UFC stint. While he didn’t make a drastic improvement from the Poirier fight to this one, he showed the building blocks to becoming a better fighter.
Vick presented a unique problem for Justin Gaethje. Gaethje has shown a vulnerability to the jab and straight with his head on the center line. His footwork never helped him out with this in his first three fights either. James Vick seems like the perfect guy to exploit this weakness. At 6’3”, James Vick had a massive reach advantage and seemingly planned to pick Gaethje apart from the outside with the jab and teep.
Vick never anticipated the footwork adjustment Gaethje would make. If you watch his first engagement with Michael Johnson, he’s flat footed and his stance is quite normal. Fast forward to Vick and his stance is a bit wider, neutralizing some of Vick’s length, but more importantly, he is on his toes bouncing and much more mobile. While his head stays on the line and he gets caught with a few jabs, Gaethje is well aware of the distance and stays away from Vick.
Not much was learned about Gaethje’s hands, except that they were still heavy. The UFC had not seen someone knocked out clean by Gaethje yet, but this would become a trend in his next couple fights.
Fight 5: Justin Gaethje versus Edson Barboza
The blueprint to beating Edson Barboza is out there; take him to the ground and beat his brains in. Gaethje set out to do exactly the opposite of that.
Coming into the fight in Philadelphia, I did not know if we would get pre-Vick Justin Gaethje, the Gaethje we saw with Vick or something completely new. We got something completely new.
Gaethje wasn’t near as light on his feet as he was with James Vick. He was back to his more squared stance as well. But this wasn’t a sign of regression. It was proof that Gaethje made adjustments leading into the Vick fight. Gaethje’s head movement, while not spectacular, was also improved.
Justin Gaethje has become aware of his pitfalls in his game plan and has made the adjustments to fix this. Gaethje wants to give Barboza a PTSD episode from being beat down by Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee. Gaethje does this in a two step process.
First, Justin Gaethje plays lick-for-lick with Barboza early in round one. Attacking the lead leg has a multitude of benefits, including making takedown defense that much harder. Gaethje continues to work at the lead leg of Barboza throughout the entire first round.
Second, Gaethje pushes Barboza against the fence, a place both Khabib and Lee had fantastic success punishing him. Barboza is keen on keeping the fight standing and not having a repeat of his last two losses. As you can see below, Barboza manages to get free, or perhaps is let free, and Gaethje fires off a finishing shot that just misses the mark.
In the finishing sequence, Gaethje goes on to press Barboza to the cage again, but Barboza wants none of it and has his hands down to defend a takedown that would never come. Gaethje fires off another wide hook and it connects, putting Barboza away.
Fight 6: Justin Gaethje versus Donald Cerrone
UFC Vancouver is perhaps the most impressive Justin Gaethje performance to date. Donald Cerrone is a fantastic striker without a doubt. But he does have a tendency to crumble when a fighter pressures him. This basically a layup for Gaethje, if we’re all to be honest. But, regardless of how easy of a fight this is for Gaethje, it was still a very impressive performance. Not only because he flatlines the most dynamic striker he’s ever faced, but he has put together a complete package in this fight.
Very quickly you can see the new and improved footwork from Gaethje in the first exchange. He’s bouncing forward and back, keeping Cerrone’s kicks out of range. Gaethje also gets to work on the legs early on too, as fans have become accustomed to. Gaethje is also showing not only lateral movement, but side to side as well.
Another thing we see from Gaethje that is new, he is correctly countering the jab, his pre-defined “weakness,” and in more than one way. He’s pawed it away, he bounces away, he even slips the jab as well. It’s evident that Justin Gaethje is quite self aware and is working to fix his weaknesses.
Another thing you will see Gaethje has built on since the Alvarez and Poirier loss is his rate of fire. He’s not throwing bomb after bomb when his opponent comes in to strike. He will throw to keep them off, sure, but he doesn’t really brawl like he’s thought to do. This is a much more patient Gaethje that sets traps and looks for you to make a mistake.
That is exactly what Gaethje does in the finishing sequence. Cerrone lunges in and Gaethje side steps to his left. Cowboy is now out of position with his right hand down and his left extended, leaving him exposed on both sides. Gaethje fires a huge right over the extended hand right on the button and puts basically out for the count. It was just a matter of ground and pound and convincing the referee to call the fight at this point.
The Key To Beating Tony Ferguson
Now, Gaethje is set to fight Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title. Ferguson is notorious for his cardio and breaking his opponent late in the fight with his cardio. Gaethje’s cardio is still a question but, as with his footwork and head movement, I’m willing to bet cardio has been a point of improvement in Gaethje’s regiment. He just hasn’t had an opportunity to show it just yet.
You will have to damage Tony Ferguson quickly and get the advantage early on. If you watch in Ferguson’s fight with Anthony Pettis, Pettis goes for the leg and Ferguson’s knee somewhat buckles. Then, inexplicably, Pettis abandons the leg kicks. Gaethje will not make this mistake. As we have seen in all his fights, he’s developed a leg-heavy attack. Damaging the legs of Tony Ferguson is the first step for Gaethje.
Second will be to not engage in a brawl like Ferguson wants. Gaethje will want to remain tactical instead, avoiding Ferguson’s best weapon, making you tired. If Gaethje can show even more improvement from his last fight, he has a legitimate shot at ending Ferguson’s win streak.
It remains to be seen if Gaethje will be able to implement that exact game plan, but that’s the fun of everything. Lock these two guys in a cage and let them bang bro!