Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje lived up to his nickname in providing an early fight of the year quality performance against Michael Johnson. The fight was a slugfest that ended with Gaethje keeping his record a flawless 18-0 and notching his 15th KO/TKO stoppage. There is no doubt Gaethje will be a contender in the Lightweight Division moving forward, but how high he will rise is still very much an unknown. Using comparisons to combatants of the past, the following is a breakdown of the Justin Gaethje that entered the cage Friday night.
Fight Mentality: Chuck Liddell
The world witnessed a Justin Gaethje against Michael Johnson that was reminiscent of the fighter who ruled the Light Heavyweight Division as the UFC began their incredibly fast growth, Chuck Liddell. Society remembers Chuck as a knockout artist who always looked to finish the fight with strikes and put on a show for his fans. It is often overlooked that Chuck had very high level wrestling skills because he was addicted to the knockout finish. Gaethje, like Chuck, has more skills in his arsenal than we saw last night but it was evident he wanted to live up to his nickname for the fans eagerly anticipating his debut.
Offense: Mike Tyson
Comparing Mixed Martial Artists and Boxers, who would ever do such a thing?! Although Gaethje visibly lacked Tyson’s devastating one punch power, his style of striking was very similar. If you eliminate a few knees and leg kicks, he primarily used his hands to do the damage. Gaethje stood in the pocket and held his hands high in front of his face trading vicious blows with MJ until late in round 2 when he started to gas badly. He also lacked the head movement of Tyson but I can’t help but draw a comparison in watching the fight.
Defense: Diego Sanchez
According to ESPN stats (blame them for any stats that are wrong), Gaethje was hit with 91 of 200 strikes in just under two rounds of action. The only other fighter that can absorb strikes this well is Diego “The
Nightmare Dream” Sanchez. Unfortunately, absorbing strikes is not defense and being compared to Sanchez from this standpoint is not good for career longevity. His defense was non-existent. Let’s hope Gaethje takes the road to fix this flaw rather than continuing down his current way towards “Yes” cartwheels.
Chin: Fedor Emelianenko
As noted above, Gaethje absorbed a ton of punishment in a short period of time while still ending with a victory. There is no one in the history of the sport that has done this better than Fedor Emelianenko. Add into this that Gaethje was wobbled a few times by MJ and it felt like I was watching a prime Fedor overcome adversity. Every Time that Gaethje lost his legs from a strike it reminded me of The Last Emperor’s famous “Duck Walk” against Kazuyuki Fujita.
Cardio: Clay Guida
The striking output from both fighters was remarkable. Gaethje landed 104 of 174 punches thrown in just under two rounds, averaging 10.6 SLpM. If the fight were to continue at this pace for five rounds he would have broken Nate Diaz’s UFC 202 striking output record (252/435) with 265/444. The reality of the matter is there was no way Gaethje, or MJ for that matter, was keeping up this insane pace. Therefore it would be wrong to compare Gaethje’s cardio to the legendary pace of Nate Diaz. Clay Guida seems to be a better example even though his fighting base is wrestling. Clay always goes for broke and leaves it all on the table. At times he gasses out just like Gaethje, but both warriors seem to be crazy enough to push through the pain.
Justin Gaethje brought the fight on Friday night and benefitted from a mentally weak Michael Johnson feeding into his game plan. Gaethje surely ranks among the Lightweight elite but to defeat any of the big three in Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson, or boxing great Conor McGregor he must develop some sort of defense. If not, he will find himself napping rather than unsuccessfully climbing the cage.