UFC Fighter Profile: Justin Gaethje
By Ross Markey
Cowboy vs. Gaethje is a dream standup matchup.
Reckless. The only adjective we can really use to describe not only the career, but also the fighting style of cult hero Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje.
The hugely entertaining Arizonian returns to the Octagon this weekend at UFC Fight Night Vancouver, in a five-round meeting with fellow fan-favourite Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone, in a clash that almost guarantees fireworks.
Gaethje has experienced a mixed bag of fortunes since his arrival to the promotion back in 2017, scoring three wins and dropping the first and second defeats of his career.
The former WSOF lightweight best amassed a perfect 17-0 record before signing with the UFC, establishing himself as a highly dangerous striker with his predominantly boxing style, storming though Luiz Firmino, Luis Palomino, Nick Newell, and Brian Foster.
Despite his lack of dynamic standup attributes, Gaethje enters the Octagon against Cerrone as arguably the more dangerous striker. The 30-year-old also possesses one of the best abilities to take a clean shot in mixed-martial-arts today, with only Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez stopping him via strikes, albeit late on in their respective fights.
‘The Highlight’ has faced a similar kicking threat as ‘Cowboy’, in just his last walk to the Octagon, in the form of Brazil’s Edson Barboza. Granted, Barboza and Cerrone have hugely contrasting techniques with their Muay Thai and Kickboxing backgrounds but one thing they certainly both offer is the knack to knock an opponent unconscious with a single shot.
As much a Gaethje is known for his somewhat brawler status, he’s also widely known for his wrestling prowess, and the simple fact that so far in his five-fight stint with the organization, he is yet to display it offensively.
Given Cerrone’s grappling proficiency, particularly off his back, I would hazard a guess that Gaethje’s own grappling ability will be left backstage come Saturday night. ‘Cowboy’ has finished eighteen separate bouts via submission, most recently stopping Mike Perry via a patented armbar, a joint lock he has used so far to claim the victory in a staggering four contests. His use of a triangle proves even more detrimental, which has halted eight opponents.
In his first career loss to Eddie Alvarez, the now ONE Championship lightweight contender ripped the body with brutal hooks for the opening three rounds on his way to a late knockout finish. Similarly to his loss to Poirier, Gaethje relied on his sheer grit and ability to withstand punishment to survive before a late barrage.
We’ve never seen Justin Gaethje finished or completely flatlined via a single shot before, something the high kicks of ‘Cowboy’ may provide us.
Gaethje, on the other hand, has lodged three-leg kick stoppages in his eight-year career, just one behind the aforementioned Barboza in the lightweight division and the utilization of kicks against the lead leg of Cerrone early and often may prove successful this weekend.
Cerrone tends to set up his kicks with punches, similar to fellow Jackson-Wink MMA trainee Holly Holm, and the persistent chopping from Gaethje will surely force Cerrone to assume a lightfooted stance.
A pressuring, pace-pushing game plan has garnered much success against Cerrone over his lengthy career, a style Gaethje is more than accustomed to. Nate Diaz landed on cue against Cerrone, Leon Edwards outlanded also, and against the slick boxer Jorge Masvidal, Cerrone was stopped inside the opening seven minutes.
Against Barboza and James Vick, we really witnessed a fast-tracking Gaethje who allowed zero time for setups, utilizing the clinch, which is an important and quite interesting component to this clash, with Gaethje favoring ‘dirty boxing’ in the early goings against Barboza.
A victory for either man this weekend propels them toward a shot at Khabib Nurmagomedov’s lightweight championship, with Gaethje and Cerrone also rumored earlier to summer to throw down with Conor McGregor before the turn of the year.
According to the ‘Notorious One’, Gaethje was in line to face him in July at an event at New York’s, Madison Square Garden, before the Dubliner suffered an injury to his left hand in sparring, which scuppered the meeting for the time being.