The time to doubt Justin Gaethje is over. In fact, it’s been over for some time now. It should not take his interim lightweight title win to realize Justin Gaethje is a force of nature. For much too long Gaethje has been framed as a dumb brawler. Unfortunately for these doubters, and many of his opponents, he is very much a brawler but not a dumb one.
Even in his UFC arrival, he proved to be an interesting peg into the top of the lightweight pool. Michael Johnson, though inconsistent, is a tough stylistic match for Gaethje, specifically at that time. Lightning-fast hands and powerful hooks are a constant threat to anyone getting too close to Johnson, just ask Dustin Poirier and Edson Barboza; two higher-ranked lightweights who both took losses to the quick hitter. Even the odds favored Johnson to win that night, but much like being hit in the face, Justin Gaethje doesn’t care about odds. Despite getting dropped early and tagged often, Gaethje had no problems weathering the storm. While obviously skilled, his grit and determination were a large component to his first win, TKO’ing Johnson late in the second.
Justin Gaethje 2.0
Most people know that after suffering his first two back-to-back losses Gaethje refined his style. Tuning down the aggression is making a world of a difference. His next three fights after his losses were against James Vick, Edson Barboza, and Donald Cerrone, all opponents I would have picked Gaethje to knockout prior to his evolution. Despite this, the change was very obvious in all three of these short-lived fights.
Prior to his interim title fight, many believed his style matched up well to end Tony Ferguson’s incredible 12 fight winning streak. I am among one of those people. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would have pick Gaethje by TKO in round 5. Especially since Gaethje is outspoken about not having great cardio, and Tony Ferguson only speeds up as the rounds go on. It is rare that fighters reach their potential, but after claiming the interim belt, Gaethje has done just that.
What’s next? Hopefully what is deserved, which is a shot at the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov. While Ferguson and Khabib have no fighting similarities, and Gaethje’s takedown defense remains mainly clouded in mystery, his performance against Tony leaves plenty of optimism. Understanding a Khabib fight is typically straightforward. All of his opponents have one goal, to stop the takedown. Many are successful on Khabib’s first attempt, but the numbers dwindle as Khabib relentlessly pursues it and gets it. It’s almost inevitable.
This begs the question: What will a Khabib fight look like if he is unable to secure a takedown? If we take a look back at Khabib’s one questionable win against Gleison Tibau, it doesn’t look pretty. Though neither man performed well on the feet, if Khabib remains standing against Justin it is likely to get violent very quickly.
That is a big if, though. Conor McGregor is seemingly only dangerous for a round or 2. In round 3 of his fight against Khabib, it remained standing. Although Conor won the round, Khabib was never in trouble. By that point Conor’s exhaustion caused his offense to be merely point-scoring. If Justin Gaethje gets a full five minutes of stand up with Khabib there is no question that Khabib will be in the most trouble he has seen in his career. Khabib’s abilities cannot be doubted, but now he will face another man who has silenced his own doubters.
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