When the UFC announced its own ranking system most in the MMA sphere thought it to be a farcical exercise. A panel of rankers of vastly varying competence were arranged and balloted to create rankings which often turn out to mainly reflect who has received the most press coverage that month. They have succeeded, however, in making the crop of talent outside of the UFC almost an afterthought in discussions of MMA. The UFC rankings are now considered to be the MMA rankings even by many savvy, veteran fans.
But rankings are really just a comforter. We cling to them because of the unpredictability of this sport and the many stylistic match ups that destroy the notion that 'x is better than y and therefore must be better than z'. They simply allow us to reward those few fighters who can build some consistency amid this chaos. Perhaps the most interesting story in the lightweight division is being played out away from the UFC's rankings and it focuses around a man who routinely encourages fights to devolve into chaos but has yet to taste defeat there. I am of course referring to the World Series of Fighting lightweight champion, Justin Gaethje.
To be clear, you will not catch me trying to portray Gaethje as a perfect fighter. Goodness, no. If such a thing existed, Gaethje would take far too much damage to meet the criteria. But the fact is that 'perfect' doesn't exist in fighting and one size does not fit all. There are technicians and brawlers, timing based fighters and speed based fighters. There are fighters who rely on some of their physical attributes, and others who rely on others. Justin Gaethje leans on his tremendous durability and his one punch power, amid simple but effective set ups and well timed counters. What I will say about Gaethje is that his style, his attributes, and the nature of the fights he forces his opponents into are more than enough to ask some stern questions of anyone you can name at lightweight.
Gaethje's last fight took place at WSOF 29 over the weekend. Taking on a tough veteran, Brian Foster, Gaethje got the job done in under two minutes with powerful, well timed low kicks to buckle Foster's lead leg.
A lot of Gaethje's game is built around catch-and-pitch. He'll put his forearms up on the sides of his head, tuck his chin deep to his chest, and make what they call the 'bull guard' in the bareknuckle Burmese sport of Letwei. Attempting to take the blows with the hardest part of the head, where they are unlikely to be felt with any severity. As the opponent flicks out their jab, he'll return with full powered swings.
Timing Foster recovering from his jab was a neat trick. Fighters who have been working too much on their boxing can get into the habit of allowing that lead knee to begin to turn inwards as they bounce into and out of their jab. Terrific for scoring with the jab in boxing, placing the body behind the lead shoulder. Not great if you are going to need to check or take low kicks because an inwardly rotated knee is a collapsible knee.
Though what fans have really been attracted to in Gaethje is his punching power. It is quite something to behold. He'll wing these big shots, clip the opponent with just a glancing blow, and still send them to the floor. On some occasions he'll connect and it looks as though he is throwing his opponent to the mat.
Just as often, he'll come out of the clinch with short punches which turn opponents heads around. Dirty boxing is an area in which so, so many strides could be made by a wrestler willing to experiment and learn how to pummel into his punches, but it remains one of the most underused areas in the game.
A nice transition from wrist control to the left hook into a flurry, followed by a signature loss of balance.
Hacking down with low kicks out of the clinch, a la Anderson Silva.
Gaethje is a master of many variations of the level change uppercut.
What is truly hypnotic about Gaethje, and why I would want to see him brought in to the UFC or Bellator to meet whatever fate he will sooner rather than later, is the fact that he is always flirting with absolute disaster. He is an accomplished wrestler who can stuff the best shots from even bad positions, and yet he insists his fights be contested on the feet and takes great pride in his record there. But he also does a ton of things which get him into trouble and force him to fight uphill. A man of Gaethje's ability who fought more conservatively might not get the knockouts, but he would be cruising past the competition with little difficulty. It seems as though it is Gaethje who provides all of the back and forth in his fights.
For instance, against Brian Cobb it was abundantly clear that Gaethje was the stronger wrestler. Yet in the first round he attempted a jumping knee and was easily taken down. Cobb spent the rest of the round on Gaethje's back. Had Gaethje's low kicks not finished Cobb in the final round, he probably could have taken the decision.
Though when your answer to getting taken down is to get up and arm roll straight to side control, it's easy to see how you could get overconfident.
Similarly, Gaethje is excellent at timing the right low kick to his opponent placing weight on their lead leg, but he is also pretty good at forgetting that when their weight goes down on that leg, it's because there is a punch coming at his head. Bas Rutten, who performed the commentary for many of Gaethje's fights, has been despairing of this for years. There is a difference between landing a tasty counter low kick and throwing a low kick and getting hit in the face, and Gaethje is many times on a knife edge.
Gaethje getting caught on one leg by Palomino.
While he may lack the defensive savvy of UFC champion Rafael dos Anjos, he makes use of pressure in similar ways. Gaethje's opponents spend much of the fight backing towards the fight, covering up under fire, and then running to get back to the center of the cage. A Gaethje fight is a march towards exhaustion, with a decent chance of a knockout along the way.
So the real question is how Gaethje will develop. He is the definition of a swarmer, but that is a style which rapidly takes it out of a fighter. Relying heavily on his physical attributes, Gaethje could well be on the way down by the time he turns thirty. But the shades of technical brilliance are there in Gaethje from the well timed counters to the level changes into uppercuts. He clearly appreciates the craft of striking and has thrown himself into learning it, it is simply that he seems to enjoy all the 'dos' and ignores all of the 'do nots'. One thing is for certain: whether you see it as the desire to be exciting or willingly employing poor strategy, Gaethje is the kind of fighter who even the most casual of fans want to see. Exciting, explosive, rarely going to decision, and never caught stalling for an instant, Gaethje is a man made for television.
The UFC should be knocking the lad's door down with offers to fight. Bellator should be chasing him to offer him a bout against Will Brooks. And World Series of Fighting should be throwing money at him to lock him into a longer contract. Wherever he ends up over the next few years, you should be able to get a terrific kick out of following his bouts and the chaos amid which he thrives.
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