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Justin Gaethje at a Crossroads

August 20, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Justin Gaethje

Justin Gaethje is the prince of violence. He ignores his wrestling background for any offensive purpose, shunning it in favor of swinging kicks at his opponent’s legs, and flinging hooks at their head. Gaethje is the most exciting fighter in the UFC by choice. That has both brought him to where he is, and perhaps hindered him from going further.

For a long time, Gaethje only knew winning. In seven recorded amateur bouts, he maintained a perfect record. After seven pro victories in as many bouts, he made his home in World Series of Fighting. In his first bout there, he stopped Gesias Cavalcante, who in another lifetime was considered one of the very best lightweights in the world. Within a year, he captured the World Series of Fighting lightweight championship, and soon thereafter he was the biggest star the short-lived promotion ever made.

Gaethje broke fighters. How do you deal with a fighter that’s always in your face, battering your legs, launching fists at your head, and seems to recover from everything you dish out? Everyone fell to the pressure. Gaethje finished his opponent in all five of his WSOF title defenses. Nobody even made it to the championship rounds.

In 2017, the UFC signed Gaethje away from WSOF. Gaethje’s style is a dream for any MMA promoter, but particularly for the UFC, which has always favored aggressive strikers. The UFC immediately put Gaethje in a marquee position—the main event of The Ultimate Fighter 25 finale.

This was the test for whether Gaethje belonged on the big stage. Of course, he was more than worthy of a UFC roster spot, but would he still be effective against the world’s best lightweights?

Michael Johnson was the fighter tabbed to welcome Gaethje to the UFC. Johnson had lost three of his last four bouts, but he carried a top-ten ranking (among UFC fighters, at least) into the bout thanks to an impressive knockout over Dustin Poirier the prior year.

What ensued was perhaps the most exciting debut bout for any fighter in UFC history. Johnson hurt Gaethje more than once, but even on shaky legs, Gaethje pressed the action. Toward the end of the second round, Gaethje hurt Johnson and put him down for the count. The bout was widely lauded as one of the year’s best. In addition to winning Sherdog.com’s Fight of the Year honors for 2017, the outlet named the second round the best round of the year. MMAJunkie.com declared the first round as the round of the year.

The fight proved Gaethje could hang in the top level of the UFC, but two fights later, he’s still searching for his second UFC victory.

Five months after the Johnson bout, Gaethje shared the cage with Eddie Alvarez. In another “fight of the year” candidate, Gaethje felt defeat for the first time.

Watching Gaethje vs. Alvarez, it didn’t have all of the momentum swings that made Gaethje’s bout with Johnson so exciting, but it was more brutal. It reminded me of Don Frye vs. Ken Shamrock, in the sense that it would take something out of both fighters going forward.

Both fighters fought their best fight. For the most part, Alvarez was a step ahead of Gaethje. His boxing was sharper, and he beat on Gaethje’s body with punches. Still, Gaethje was never out of the fight. He bludgeoned Alvarez’s legs, and at one point it seemed that Alvarez might not be able to stand. But at the end, Alvarez, with both eyes bruised and his cheek swollen, landed a knee that sent Gaethje to the floor. For the first time in his career, Gaethje didn’t recover from the blow.

Four months later, Gaethje went down again. Again, it was a “fight of the year” contender, but again, a more technical boxer took advantage of the holds in Gaethje’s defense. His opponent, Dustin Poirier, tagged him with a straight left hand that made him loopy. Gaethje fell seconds later, and that was that.

Gaethje’s style has been one of kill or be killed. For the large majority of his career, he killed. He walked through his opponents’ strikes—or weathered the storm when they hurt him—and forged on until he stopped them. At the elite level, Gaethje will face opponents that can hurt him more often and survive his attack longer. Gaethje seems to welcome getting hit, but he needs to change that to reverse his fortunes at the highest level.

On Saturday, Gaethje returns against James Vick. Vick, a lanky lightweight with a more diverse striking attack than Poirier or Alvarez, has been looking for an opportunity to fight a top name for a long time. It should be an excellent fight. Gaethje will surely test Vick’s mettle, and Vick passing that test would mean a great deal. Without making major adjustments, Gaethje could still win the bout, but he’ll still likely hit a wall trying to jump to the next level. Perhaps these are simply the woes of being the prince of violence.

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

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Justin Gaethje, Dan Plunkett

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