The Evolution of Justin Gaethje Part 2: The Path Ahead

Last month we did an in depth analysis on the changes Justin Gaethje has made in his game to change from the UFC’s most violent fighter to a master tactician. In the post we looked at how Gaethje has changed from a brawler in his first three fights against Johnson, Alvarez, and Poirier to a tactician in his last three fights. We laid everything out in the article below. I recommend reading it first!

Now that Justin Gaethje has beat his best name yet, Tony Ferguson, he has a date with Khabib Nurmagomedov to unify the titles. We will take one more look at Gaethje and look ahead to the imminent matchup with Nurmagomedov.

Justin Gaethje Versus Tony Ferguson

Justin Gaethje captured the interim lightweight belt against Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 last night. He fought a perfect fight that saw Tony Ferguson put away for the first time in his career. But it wasn’t easy. In the first article we talked about Gaethje’s path to victory against Ferguson. To recap:

“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.”

This was Gaethje’s exact game plan. He took away Ferguson’s mobility early on by attacking the legs. As with many of his previous fights, especially with the Michael Johnson fight, the damage to legs paid dividends later on for Gaethje. While Ferguson didn’t break as fast as Johnson did, he ultimately couldn’t walk by the end of the fourth round and limped around in the fifth.

Gaethje’s cardio was also on point. He did a fantastic job of energy management and was patient which allowed him to actually fight. Against someone who is known to out-cardio his opponents and break them, Gaethje fought a perfect fight in the cardio department. He broke Tony Ferguson and claimed the interim belt.

And to the last point, Gaethje fought incredibly well and didn’t get out of control when Ferguson engaged. Gaethje, instead, countered and exited pretty much at will. While Ferguson did connect on a huge uppercut at the end of the second round, Gaethje was saved by the bell. Coming out of the third round, Gaethje wasn’t wild or unruly. His cornerman, Trevor Wittman, simply had Gaethje go out and do what he did for most of the fight already. The damage was worn on Tony Ferguson’s face by the end of the third and his time was numbered.

In addition to showing great cardio and restraint in the striking, Justin Gaethje’s head movement was on an entire new level at UFC 249. In the first half of his UFC stint, Gaethje was susceptible to shots straight down the middle. Gaethje has worked on his footwork since the Alvarez fight and has shown improvement from the Vick fight on.

His head movement has also been a thorn in Gaethje’s side since the start of his UFC tenure. But, again, from the Vick fight all the way down to the Donald Cerrone fight at UFC Vancouver, Justin Gaethje has shown incremental improvement each fight. The Ferguson fight, however was an entire different monster in this regard. Gaethje often dipped and rolled with Ferguson’s punches, looking like a seasoned boxer.

Now Justin Gaethje takes his newly-sharpened tools to his first undisputed title shot. He takes on perhaps the most dominant UFC fighter that we’ve ever seen: Khabib Nurmagomedov.

The Path Ahead: Justin Gaethje Versus Khabib Nurmagomedov

Both Justin Gaethje and Khabib Nurmagomedov have the toughest challenge ahead for both of their careers in the fight with each other. Gaethje has never faced a fighter with the specialized skill set that Khabib has. On the other hand, Khabib hasn’t yet faced someone with as much pressure and tenacity as Gaethje. Both fighters will be tested to the max. How does Gaethje get the job done against the undefeated Dagestani?

Khabib is a fantastic wrestler. He comes from the most dense wrestling region in the world and has roots deep in the sport. He is a two time combat sambo world champion. Khabib simply breaks down opponents on the ground, giving them no room to breathe. In his last title defense against Dustin Poirier, Poirier told his corner that he couldn’t keep Khabib off of him. Khabib’s pressure has brought him to 28-0 and has only lost one round against his opponents.

Justin Gaethje will have a hard time getting the job done when he and Khabib tango, that is certain. But how can he get it done is the question. Up until now, most fighters have tried to negate what Khabib will do, wrestle. They almost always abandon their game plan and go to damage control mode. That is a trap Gaethje cannot afford to fall into. He is an All-American wrestler himself and, while he won’t likely out wrestle Khabib, he can do enough to negate certain areas of Khabib’s grappling and hold his own.

First step is octagon control. While Khabib isn’t terrible wrestling in open space, his bread and butter is against the cage. Khabib traps his opponents against the cage and imposes his will. Gaethje will have to stay off his back foot and be the attacker in the matchup with Khabib. Best option for Gaethje is to keep the fight standing. Staying away from the cage gives Gaethje the best shot at keeping the fight on the feet.

We’ve seen Khabib get rocked before at UFC 242 against Dustin Poirier in the second round. Poirier, unfortunately, took a page out of Gaethje’s old book and tried to hard for the finish. Khabib survived and went on to bludgeon Poirier for the rest of the fight. But what you can see is Poirier caught Khabib coming forward. It’ll be that fearlessness and bravado that’s Gaethje needs to get in there to win this fight. Gaethje showed against Ferguson that while he has his opponent hurt, he is no longer out there throwing bombs like a maniac. He’s calculated.

Second step is keeping his cardio in check. Khabib makes his opponents work. They work to keep him off of him, they work to get back up, they just work. One thing Gaethje can look to is the first round of Khabib’s fight with Conor McGregor. While McGregor did get taken down, he did negate most of Khabib’s advances by accepting where he was and keeping Khabib from doing serious damage.

Third, work the legs like he has always done. In the first Gaethje article we talked about the pure volume of his kicks, especially when Michael Johnson got kicked in the leg 25 times in the first round alone. Kicking Khabib’s legs out can pay off later in the fight making Gaethje a hair faster than Khabib.

I believe if Gaethje can stick to this game plan he can absolutely succeed against Khabib in a title fight. Wether or not that’s enough will remain to be seen until the two get locked in a cage together.