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Fighting Intelligence: Growth of Justin Gaethje Ahead of UFC 249

The UFC kicks off its return with a strong UFC 249 pay-per-view event headlined by Ferguson vs Gaethje for the UFC Interim Lightweight title.  Ferguson was originally slated to challenge the 155-pound, undisputed king, Khabib Nurmagomedov, for the belt on April 18th

However, the seemingly cursed fight has been scrapped for a fifth time now, due to the global pandemic, which is once again depriving fans of one of the biggest and most important fights in MMA history. 

Justin Gaethje ufc
Credit: Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

Ferguson vs Gaethje UFC 249

Instead we will be witnessing the most deserving title challenger anyone could hope for in Tony Ferguson (25-3, with 20 finishes), take on one of the most violent fighters to ever grace combat sports in Justin Gaethje (21-2, with 18 finishes).  

On paper, many view this new main event as a considerable step down from the original headliner, since Nurmagomedov, one of MMA’s most dominant fighters, is now missing from the equation. However, Gaethje replacing Nurmagomedov represents a fascinating detour that may have more depth and competitiveness than meets the eye. Because, describing Gaethje as just a violent brawler or as a gatekeeper to the elite is selling his current abilities short and, most importantly, ignoring the growth in his mental approach to fighting.  

Growth of Justin Gaethje

Gaethje’s change from wanting to be MMA’s most exciting fighter to becoming champion in the sport’s premier weight class hasn’t come swiftly or without sacrifice. Although his record only has two losses, the sheer amount of punishment that he has sustained in his career, even in fights that he won, is equal parts impressive and horrific. He was the lightweight champion in WSOF and was regarded as one of the most savage fighters in MMA. 

Even though he displayed solid techniques and devastating power, what further separated him from his peers was his unrelenting pressure and complete disregard for his own well being. His style made him both a fan favorite as well as a terrifying force for his opponents. So, when you combine this with an unbeaten record, it begs the question, why try to fix something that isn’t broken? Or, at least that’s what the argument was at the time.

Gaethje made his much-anticipated UFC debut back in July of 2017 against the then-#5 ranked lightweight, Michael Johnson. Gaethje remained loyal to his tried and true method of taking one to give one (sometimes actually taking two or three first) and came out with a knockout win despite being significantly rocked by Johnson at the end of round one. As usual in the UFC, his next two fights were against even tougher opponents, Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Porier. He suffered hard-fought losses to both men and proved that he could hang with the elite, but also left the impression that he was just a step behind. 

There is no doubt that Gaethje has always had strong hands and hard-hitting leg kicks, but there was always the feeling that he could be doing more. One problem was that he rarely relied on his jab to set up movement or combinations. And his leg kicks, while powerful and well-timed to his opponents’ shifts in movement, were not effectively used in conjunction with other techniques and thus became predictable. The simplicity in his offensive game was also poorly complemented by his equally undynamic defense. He would mostly press forward with a high guard, where his forearms and forehead were intended to take the brunt of the shots.  However, unlike in kickboxing where it can be difficult to land strikes in between larger gloves, this style of defense is generally insufficient in MMA when going against competent strikers who throw from a variety of angles.  Gaethje had shown hints of being a more well-rounded fighter, but his unwillingness to expand his approach and adapt to each opponent’s strategies was his most fatal flaw.  

After just two losses to elite fighters, referring to Gaethje as a journeyman was not a critique on his record or ability, but rather his mentality. He was focused on being exciting while ignoring the necessary adjustments that would allow him to become a title contender. Stubbornness in your style can prove extremely detrimental at the elite level, where evolution is often key. It seems that those losses have finally awakened him to that fact.

Gaethje Improving Ahead of UFC 249

In Jusin Gaethje’s last three bouts, he has managed to knock out James Vick and Edson Barboza, as well as pick up a TKO victory against Cowboy Cerrone. He continued to display his signature strengths in his power punches, leg kicks and indomitable spirit. However, he was able to exhibit more poise and awareness in these performances that allowed him to take less damage and actually out-skill his opponents. 

There were more combinations from the jab, increased head movement, better use of the clinch, a larger variety of footwork and even the use of feints. Instead of just walking forward the whole time trying to impose his will, he also responded to what his opponent was trying to do. At this point, he doesn’t look like a completely different fighter (nor should he try to), but he does show a much-improved understanding of the fight game that has only made his natural gifts shine brighter.

Ferguson vs Gaethje on Saturday

For the past few weeks, Justin Gaethje has been preparing for likely his most skilled and toughest opponent to date. Tony Ferguson is a complete fighter and a special talent, but he also exudes a hunger that is abnormal for his level of experience. He is unbeaten in his last twelve fights, dating all the way back to 2013, making him look like an unstoppable force. 

Considering this tall order, will Gaethje be able to withstand the level of pressure from Ferguson that he himself has put on others? Will he be able to find the discipline to utilize his renewed style through every chaotic round or will he fall back into old habits? 

Let’s see this Saturday, as Ferguson vs Gaethje headlines UFC 249.

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