mma / Columns

Gaethje Emerges as the Star of a Crowded Weekend

July 10, 2017 | Posted by Dan Plunkett

Forty-four UFC fighters competed over the weekend in two average events, which, if well-curated, could have been pruned down to one excellent event. Although stellar main events lifted both shows, the top story of the weekend belonged to the main event bout that fell through. Saturday night could have played home to a major statement from Amanda Nunes or the biggest moment of Valentina Shevchenko’s career, but instead Nunes pulled out on fight day due to sinusitis, and therefore abdicated the night to a middleweight named Bobby Knuckles. But although Mr. Knuckles took the spotlight on Saturday, he, nor anyone else competing on Saturday, had little hope to steal the weekend from Friday night’s star.

Justin Gaethje signed with the UFC in May with a crisp 17-0 record. Such unbeaten streaks are rare in mixed martial arts, and it many cases they signal that a fighter has been carefully matched or otherwise kept away from high level competitors. In Gaethje’s case, he fought most of the best lightweights that were available to him while competing for World Series of Fighting from 2013-2016, many of which turned into rough-and-tumble slugfests – the type of fights that would become synonymous with Gaethje.

By the time Gaethje signed on with UFC, those performances, against fighters that once were or would have been middling fighters on MMA’s largest stage, gave onlookers pause about his odds against UFC’s best. Michael Johnson, Gaethje’s first opponent in the octagon, promoted their fight based on the idea that he, a proven top lightweight ranked #5 heading into Friday, would smash the unproven minor leaguer stepping up a few rungs too many on the ladder.

Almost immediately, Johnson slammed Gaethje with a left hand that had the former World Series of Fighting champion off kilter. True to his reputation, Gaethje regained his footing within seconds and took the center of the cage. Johnson remained aggressive with punches, but he was soon driven backward by Gaethje’s pressure. Pressure is Gaethje’s game, and even as Johnson continued to strike with his back near the fence, he was in Gaethje’s world. A steady stream of low kicks attacked Johnson’s legs, and thunderous hooks threatened more visual damage. Halfway through the round, Gaethje scored with a left hook that rattled Johnson, but the UFC veteran had his composure back quickly.

Johnson upped the tempo, looking to return the favor, but Gaethje was still the fighter moving forward. After receiving solid knees in the Thai clinch Johnson returned to the center of the cage, but he was soon pressured back again. Gaethje began to throw a series of right hands – a straight, hooks, and uppercuts, when Johnson pushed him away to reestablish himself in the center. With 26 seconds left, Johnson made Gaethje’s knees weak with a right uppercut. Gaethje backed away, needing space to survive the round, and Johnson gave him none. Johnson took Gaethje down, but Gaethje quickly stood and covered up against the fence. Johnson landed a clean left as Gaethje ineffectively covered up facing away from his opponent. Gaethje fought back with a right hook, but Johnson would not be stopped. He threw uppercuts and knees as Gaethje struggled, when finally the round ended.

The first five minutes of Gaethje’s UFC career began and ended with him on wobbly legs, but in the four minutes and change between those moments, and by surviving them, he had already proved he belonged.

Gaethje emerged from his corner for round two on steady feet, but Johnson stood as the fresher fighter. This time, Johnson was more cognizant of keep his back off the fence, scurrying to the center of the cage when he realized Gaethje had pressed him to the outside. It was back in the center when a Johnson left made Gaethje dance. Swaying like a wacky waving, inflatable, arm flailing tube man, Gaethje stumbled until the fence supported him. Johnson, perhaps beginning to feel fatigue, slowed down the action and clinched with Gaethje. After a brief rest allowed Gaethje to recover, they exchanged elbows and Gaethje landed a knee in the Thai clinch.

The fighters reset in the center. Gaethje was breathing heavily, but was nonetheless active, particularly with low kicks. Johnson, although tired, remained the more active fighter. Maybe deciding that Gaethje’s skull was too thick, he began to pay more attention to his body.

As the clock fell under 90 seconds, Gaethje hurt Johnson with a right uppercut. In desperation, Johnson returned to his wrestling foundation and shot for a takedown that Gaethje defended with ease. Johnson stumbled back to the fence on rubbery legs, and Gaethje pressed for the finish. Uppercuts and elbows kept Johnson off balance and he fell to the floor. Gaethje called for his opponent to stand, and Johnson complied at the behest of the referee, albeit slowly. A knee to the body, a straight right, and a low kick forced Johnson to shoot for a another takedown, but the result was the same as the last.

With the clock ticking below 30 seconds, Johnson aimed to eat up any time he could in returning to his feet, pulling any trick he could to survive to the round’s end. But already overcome with fatigue and badly hurt, it was too great a feat. A jumping knee forced Johnson’s back to the fence, where Gaethje aimed knees at his opponent’s head. By the time Johnson fell, there was no question the fight was over, and the referee agreed.

Each round was among the most exciting of the year, and the fight was among the best main events in UFC history. Not only was Gaethje able to beat one of the 10 best fighters in UFC’s best division, he did it with the same unrelenting, measured brawling style that carried him through his run as WSOF champion. It was a debut the exceeded the highest expectations and not only made Gaethje an overnight contender in the UFC lightweight division, but also made him a star.

Gaethje is exactly the type of fighter the UFC loves to promote and is best-suited to promote. His all-out striking style and attitude guarantee excitement, in addition to adoration from UFC fans. He is also willing to engage with his opponents on the microphone. As long as he is placed on the correct platform, Gaethje is going to be a big star. He is a strong opponent for anybody in the top 10, and a tremendous opponent for reigning lightweight champion Conor McGregor, should he return to mixed martial arts.

For years, Gaethje has impressed a relatively small, hardcore audience. On Friday, he proved he can translate those performances to the highest level of the sport, which makes him one of UFC’s best free agent signings in a long time.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at plunkettdan@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.