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Justin Gaethje is one of the most exciting fighters in the UFC.
When "The Highlight" steps into the Octagon, you know there will be a grueling bout. Gaethje has received a performance bonus in all six of his UFC fights, three of which were arguably Fight of the Year. The man has no off switch. No quit in him, no matter the damage he has taken. He defines violence.
Despite all of his accolades, when you look at Gaethje's résumé, you can't help but wonder why he's avoiding an integral part of his skillset. Gaejthe was a state champion wrestler in high school and was an NCAA Division I All-American during his time at the University of Northern Colorado. Yet, in the UFC, he has only attempted one takedown.
Notably, Gaethje has a 21-2 professional MMA record with 19 of those wins coming by a finish. Gaethje was the World Series of Fighting lightweight champion, so he entered the UFC expecting to challenge top opponents. His two losses came from former UFC champions, Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. The two TKO losses were a result of vicious body shots that wore Gaethje down until the ref had to stop the fight as he was still clawing at his opponent.
Most fighters with his brawling style are entertaining for a few years, but over time the damage from long-term abuse in the cage becomes apparent. They start getting knocked out more frequently until the UFC inevitably forces them to give up. But Gaethje is a different breed of fighter (and human). He knows this is a brutal sport that takes no prisoners. At 31 years old, Gaethje is still young but recognizes that punishment taken is more significant than age. If you don't get out early, it is often too late.
Since Gaethje understands this, it's hard to comprehend why he doesn't utilize what is perhaps his greatest strength, wrestling. It is difficult to critique the performance of a fighter with the record he has amassed, but you can't help but question his game plan, especially when he continues to charge at his opponents with his head held high. Gaethje has weathered every storm, and despite all the damage he has endured throughout his career, he has never been knocked unconscious. This is a good sign for his longevity in the sport, but that doesn't mean there haven't been times where he should have at least attempted a takedown.
While he has said, "I will fight until I don't think I am the best", or "until I get the belt," which are often standard fighter phrases, he seems to mean it. After his back-to-back losses to Alvarez and Poirier in 2017 and 2018, he admitted he might only have five fights remaining before he retires. What he didn't predict was that after losing those fights, he would win his next three with relative ease. On Saturday, he fights for the interim lightweight title vs. Tony Ferguson, and it doesn't appear that Gaethje has any plans of quitting.
So why does Gaethje avoid utilizing his wrestling? First, you don't have people call you "The Human Highlight Reel" by laying on your opponent until you win by points. That's not to say fighters who use wrestling or jiujitsu can't be exciting. To the contrary. Some of the best fights occur when two high-level grapplers face off. But too often, fighters use it as a crutch to take a comfortable victory when they are up on points. Therefore strikers are generally paid more and are more likely to get performance bonuses, as Gaethje has proven. It is also why someone with Gaethje's style entered the UFC before a wrestler like Ben Askren, who had an equally impressive résumé.
On the flip side, Gaethje wears his opponents out by leaving himself open to significant strikes. Perhaps, this was most visible in his UFC debut against Michael Johnson. Johnson had Gaethje rocked in the first and second rounds. Because this was Gaethje's first UFC fight, many called for the ref to end the fight, as he continued to get hit with everything in Johnson's arsenal. Soon, it became apparent that the former WSOF champion would not be going out. His opponent continued to throw haymakers until he was worn out. Gaethje patiently seized the opportunity, turned the tables and stopped Johnson late in the second round.
More likely than anything else, the answer is as simple as Gaethje's admission that his body won't allow him to take the less challenging path. It's crazy to ponder and must make his coaches furious, but when the bright lights are shining, his instincts undoubtedly take over. While he understands it would be beneficial to his game, and there have been opportunities that would have allowed him to escape dangerous situations, he can't convince himself to take that road. Perhaps this is engrained in him from his pre-UFC days when he was facing lower-level opponents with weaker abilities. At this point in his career, it's hard to expect him to change.
Ferguson is known for his crafty striking but is also extremely dangerous on the ground. Don't expect Gaethje to be looking for a takedown Saturday, but if "El Cucuy" tries to submit him, look for Gaethje to tap into his wrestling days and possibly even a powerful slam as he did in his first MMA fight.
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