Justin Gaethje smashed Donald Cerrone in the first round, thus putting himself in title contention.
A very significant win, to be sure, but it’s not just because of the rankings, or because of the opponent he beat, to be frank. Many fight fans believed the outcome would be the same every time, it’s just that nobody expected it to play out the way it did.
The outcome of this fight is huge because once again, Justin Gaethje, without taking any significant damage, knocked his man spark out in the first round, for the third time in a row.
Justin Gaethje vs. Cowboy Cerrone sent ripples across the lightweight division
Granted, it was a very favorable matchup, just as it was with James Vick and Edson Barboza. James Vick trips over his own feet and has a brittle chin that he lays out on a platter when backing up. Edson Barboza can’t strike if he doesn’t set his feet, he’s engaged to the fence, he’s met the parents, they’ve graced the pair with their blessings. Cowboy Cerrone is a terribly slow starter and has pretty much only the intercepting knee to threaten pressuring fighters with. Even then, if his opponent is savvy enough, the knee will miss.
Not Just the Low Kicks
Even though the fights were short, with every minute or so Gaethje has shown us, it is plain to see that his craft is undergoing an evolution. He’s always had “the Craft” — it was just ignored or downplayed even by expert analysts in favour of the somewhat overemphasized wildness and recklessness.
Gaethje was always good at making the right decisions in a fight. His ring cutting is almost impeccable by MMA standards and his defense was always solid for what he wants to do, otherwise he’d never string more than two wins in row. It’s just that by constantly putting himself in harm’s way, never taking a step back, and staying in the pocket for such prolonged periods of time he made it inevitable that he’ll get hit. Granted, always going to the cover-up leaves a lot of openings for a crafty opponent to sneak blows through, which is what happened against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier.
Admittedly, Gaethje himself seemed to buy into the idea that he’s a one-note fighter, which cost him wins over those men. But those were hard match ups against exceptional fighters. Even though Gaethje got tunnel vision against them, his style is so effective and he is such an athletic and gritty character he very obviously took chunks out of them. Both Alvarez and Poirier had to do very intelligent things to overcome Gaethje, a feat which took strategic and tactical brilliance, as well as not an insignificant amount of good old physical toughness from both men.
Why Do We Fall?
It’s safe to say that Gaethje took the back-to-back losses as a learning experience. Regrettably, it’s not uncommon for a fighter to either double down on the habits that have led to him losing in the first place, or to simply regress. A fighter can shut down from taking high-profile losses, especially more than once. Not Justin Gaethje, apparently.
It’s been said many times by many people much smarter and more knowledgeable than me, but against Vick and Barboza we’ve seen a more controlled Gaethje. It was a bit raw against Vick, where he hung around Vick’s preferred range for too long and got hit with several body kicks many would have rather seen him pressure past right away. It was decidedly more focused against Barboza, but there too he took some damage on his lead leg from Barboza’s cobra-quick low kicks.
The result was the same in each of those fights, though, and it seems Gaethje is catching on to why. It seems at some point everyone, including perhaps Gaethje himself, began thinking that Justin Gaethje is just the low kicks, just the old ultraviolence. But he always had that ability to hit people with such speed and such force that whenever he made a good connection it looked like he hit his man with a battering ram. A more measured approach just makes it easier to make those connections.
Pressure fighting is all about using your presence to intimidate your opponent into walking himself into a corner and making mistakes, and it doesn’t really need to be actual physical pressure. The threat of the knockout is very tangible and it’s a tremendous asset for any fighter on a mission to break his man.
This may sound like “it only takes one shot” type of talk, and it’s never true and it’s very rarely a good thing when a fighter starts believing that. Even the great Sugar Ray Robinson has been quoted as saying that he lost a step when he stopped boxing and instead sought after the knockout in every fight.
But this seems to be a different sort of self-assuredness. Gaethje of today shows more nuance in the way he picks his blows and the way he sets them up. He feints more often, he threatens people with level changes, he will take a step back and come in from a more advantageous angle. He starched Barboza with a stepping right hook of all things!
Gaethje himself has said in his post-fight media scrum that he’s always had this nagging doubt that he’s good enough to win by outclassing his man. Interestingly, the former Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler has noted in his JRE appearance that he felt like Gaethje possesses a bit of an insecurity about whether he’s good enough to win a fight in any way other than turning it into a war.
Apparently now, with his newfound confidence in his hands and the trust he now has in his exceptionally good eye for openings, this doubt has gone away. It may be either a good thing or a bad thing — depends on who he’s up against — but this is without a doubt a very significant development.
So much so that he didn’t employ his usual pressure against Cerrone, who many picked against just because of the way these two match up style-wise.
Instead of walking his man down right away, Gaethje stayed on the outside, picking at Cerrone with his trademark low kicks, but with different intentions in mind. It seemed that Cerrone struggled to find the correct distance, and Gaethje was happy to keep picking at Cowboy with the idea of drawing him out. Cowboy kept moving though, attempting to connect with jabs, but got hit with hard rights in return, and the leg kick remained a constant threat throughout the fight. At one point Gaethje threatened to crumple Cerrone with a big left hook, but Cowboy recovered.
The remaining minute played out pretty much the same way, with Gaethje picking at Cerrone and Cowboy struggling to find an entry. Cerrone has always had a great poker face, but it was clear that he was getting tired of having his leg chewed up. Cowboy attempted to enter with a marching combination, and Gaethje met him with a right hook whilst Cerrone was in the middle of shifting stances. The blow whipped Cerrone’s head around and put him on his knees.
Cowboy attempted to get up, but Gaethje was quick in securing a collar tie, and he went to work right away, battering Cerrone with hellacious uppercuts. Cerrone’s legs went limp and once again he found himself starring at the canvas, all whilst Gaethje kept on raining down punishment. Gaethje, in an uncharacteristic show of mercy, yelled at the ref to step in. One more hard shot to the side of Cerrone’s head, and the referee called a stop to the fight.
A Bad Man
Gaethje utilized solid lateral motion, his feet were quick and there was no loss of balance Gaethje has become somewhat infamous for. It almost looked like Gaethje is trying to prove some sort of a point.
The point being that maybe he doesn’t need to be a chugging locomotive constantly moving towards you, always there to be hit, that he doesn’t need to be a constant engine of chaotic violence. He’s always had depth many don’t or didn’t see, but now that depth has grown and it has grown enough to let him win fights against elite opposition without having to break them down with fatigue at breakneck pace, possibly risking getting murked in the process. The man is a knockout artist now.
Granted, Cowboy’s entries have never been anything special, and moving in pumping alternating fists against Gaethje was not the smartest decision. Nevertheless, Gaethje coaxed that decision from Cowboy with his kickboxing at range, and landed a perfect counter-right hook on an opponent that was coming towards him. This scenario was basically the opposite of what everyone expected from Gaethje, and the opposite of many finishes Gaethje has had up until that point. And that is kind of beautiful.
This win and the way Justin Gaethje won solidifies the threat he poses to any and all contenders in this division stacked with talent. It solidifies the threat posed to the reigning champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and the number one ranked Tony Ferguson.
Time will tell if there’s going to be another traffic jam at the top of the division. Dustin Poirier is seeking to redeem himself after his heartbreaking loss. Paul Felder is busy dragging himself to the top by the skin of his teeth. And Conor McGregor is still out there, always ready to throw the rankings into disarray with a single utterance of the dreaded M-word.
But right now it seems fairly certain that Justin Gaethje has made his case clear — and for many people it’s no longer just about Ferguson and Nurmagomedov in the title picture.
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