Check the story stream on the right side of the page or the links at the bottom of the article for previous installments, in which I've discussed the methods behind the selection process and criteria for inclusion.
3) Justin Gaethje, Lightweight (11-0)
Years Pro: 2.5
A Division 1 All-American at 157 pounds during his tenure at Northern Colorado, Justin Gaethje complements the wrestling skills you'd expect from a decorated and highly athletic collegian with a vicious striking repertoire. Superficially, he fits neatly into the category of the standard MMA wrestle-boxer, but that's not really his game; instead, he's almost like a nineteenth- or early twentieth-century boxer, with his emphasis on rapid forward movement to close the distance, diverse clinch game, and exceptional ability to inflict enormous amounts of damage at close range. Out of all the prospects on this list, Gaethje has beaten the most credible competition: J.Z. Cavalcante, Dan Lauzon, Brian Cobb, and Drew Fickett all number among his victims, with all of those victories by stoppage. Gaethje has developed rapidly under the experienced eye of Grudge's Trevor Wittman, showing substantial improvement from bout to bout, and if he continues to get better there's almost no limit to how high he can rise.
Let's start with striking. As I mentioned above, it's possible to categorize Gaethje as a wrestle-boxer, but that label substantially distorts the nature of his game: range striking isn't Gaethje's strength, though to be clear he's still pretty good at it. If you're looking for a clean, technical, jab-heavy boxing style, Gaethje's not your man; if you want to see brutal knockout punches that send opponents flying like something out of a 1960s Batman episode, however, Gaethje might be the guy for you. His ruthless right hand is his strong suit, which he'll throw as a cross, uppercut, or most often, as a sledgehammer overhand, but he also packs quite a wallop in his left hook. He's one of the most gifted punchers I've ever seen: he does a great job of keeping his feet under him as he throws, which means that every punch carries his full bodyweight behind it. This is a learned skill, to be sure, but it seems to come naturally for Gaethje. Watch his feet in this GIF:
The uppercut that finishes the fight isn't thrown with the kind of heat-seeking intensity of the overhand that precedes it, but look at the way it snaps Dan Lauzon's head back: that's the product of proper weight transfer. In addition to his arsenal of punches, Gaethje throws mean low kicks - he stopped Brian Cobb in the third round with them, and absolutely brutalized Lauzon the Younger throughout their fight - but he could stand to improve his timing, setups, and technique a bit. They're brutally hard, some of the hardest in the sport, but he actually turns his hip over just a touch too much, which throws off his balance and makes him slow to recover his stance. Gaethje will also throw the occasional flying knee and spinning backfist when his opponent's back is to the cage: they suit his athleticism and explosiveness quite well, and the contexts in which he throws them show his polish as a striker.
I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the negatives, namely Gaethje's defense. He tends to bull his way forward with his chin tucked and hands a bit low, and relies on his toughness to eat shots as he works his way into range. He's vulnerable to combinations, and he can be baited into leaning into his opponent's strikes This works against the quality of competition he's faced so far, but it won't fly forever; he doesn't need to suddenly morph into Anderson Silva, but some semblance of head movement would be an improvement. All told, however, Gaethje's exceptionally dangerous at range, even if it isn't the best facet of his game.
Gaethje's wheelhouse is infighting and the clinch, and his game at distance, however effective, is mostly a bridge to get him to close range. Once there, he's an absolute monster, and does a fantastic job of integrating his positional grappling with clinch strikes: he'll move from over-under to the double collar tie, unload a knee or two, and then switch to the single-collar tie for a stream of hard uppercuts. He consistently looks to throw elbows on clinch breaks - that's how he opened a cavernous cut on JZ Cavalcante's head that led to the doctor's stoppage - and more generally, is exceptionally effective at delivering offense in transition. He also uses his wrestling base in creative, MMA-specific ways: he'll throw knees from the double collar tie, snap his opponent down and transition to the front headlock, and then continue the unrelenting barrage of vicious clinch strikes. As far as wrestling goes, he doesn't look for takedowns all that often, though it's possible that his offensive wrestling might re-emerge when he starts to fight opponents in the top echelon of competition. He does have a knockout by slam on his record, and when he gets his hands on an opponent and decides to take them down, they tend to land hard. Defensively, he's quite sound, with a quick sprawl, good technique against the single-leg, and excellent balance and awareness in the clinch. He can be taken down when his striking (especially his kicks) gets wild, which happens from time to time, but by and large his wrestling base is good enough to keep him on his feet.
We frankly haven't seen much of Gaethje's ground game, given his wrestling base and the fact that he generally wants to stand and trade. If he does get taken down, he doesn't have much to offer from the bottom, and he has a bad habit of giving up his back as he stands back up; this repeatedly got him in trouble against Brian Cobb. In the brief periods where we've seen him in top position, he maintains a heavy base and demonstrates the same ridiculous power in his ground and pound that he possesses on the feet. He's also an excellent scrambler, as his athleticism would suggest, which lessens the risk inherent to his wild technique. Again, however, it's likely that top-flight competition could make him pay dearly if he doesn't close up these gaps.
Gaethje's future looks bright. He's trained by a brilliant coach with a long track record of success, Trevor Wittman, and has access to fantastic training partners like Brandon Thatch and the rest of the crew in the talent-rich greater Denver area. He's shown substantial improvement from fight to fight, slowly adding more tools at range and in the clinch (the elbows are a relatively recent development). Gaethje also possesses outstanding physical tools. He's explosive and covers distance quickly, which helps to minimize the effects of his porous defense at range; he scrambles well; and then there's the brutal, crushing power in his strikes. Nobody on this prospect list hits harder than Gaethje, and that kind of power can only partially be taught.
Most promisingly, Gaethje is only 25, with less than three years of professional experience, so he's a long way from being a finished product. The fact that he's beaten this level of competition so early in his career suggests that there are big things in his future. He's currently tied up in WSOF - he signed a five-bout deal prior to the Patishnock bout - so he probably won't hit free agency until some point in 2015 (I doubt that contract includes a champion's clause), assuming he stays healthy and is able to fight regularly. At that point, he'll be only four years into his career, still in his physical prime, with a boatload of hype and possibly an unbeaten record. If he tightens up some of the wildness in his game, Gaethje could legitimately challenge for a title in the UFC, and at the worst become a mainstay of the top 10. He's practically there already.
25-23: Steve Mocco, Michinori Tanaka, and Nick Newell
22-20: Max Nunes, Gleristone Santos, and Walter Gahadza
19-18: Ramazan Emeev and Rick Glenn
17-16: Georgi Karakhanyan and Jim Alers
15-14: Tyrone Spong and Marlon Moraes
13-12: Mansour Barnaoui and Islam Makhachev