The World Series of Fighting's NBC debut has been plagued by pull-outs, but the main event, which has been constant throughout all the changes, holds the intrigue and makes this a must see event.
Justin Gaethje is the current (and inaugural) WSOF lightweight champion. 11-0 as a professional, with 9 knockouts to his name, Gaethje was a Division 1 All-American wrestler, but has used his wrestling ability to keep the fight on the feet thus far.
There, he makes violence happen.
With 'The Highlight' as his cage moniker, Gaethje seems to only want to live up to it. He uses all facets of Muay Thai, but without much flair. It's the vigour he puts into his strikes that have elevated him to a must-watch fighter.
His leg kicks are brutal (ask Brian Cobb) and his short elbows head-splitting weapons. He's not afraid to throw knees, but it's mainly to get his opponent to lift his head back enough to set them up for his main weapon: his punches.
As Bloody Elbow stylistic analyser and MMA oracle Patrick Wyman said in his scouting report on Gaethje:
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.
This is a fair assessment. There's an air of Stanley Ketchel about the heavy handed brutality Gaethje wings at his man, but I'd come a little bit closer to the present day and say he reminds me most of Gene Fullmer. His punches can look sloppy, but it's the way he turns into them and distributes his weight that makes them more than the sum of their parts. But it's his overhand right that reminds me most of Fullmer, an arching, clubbing shot which has sagged the legs of a decent list of veterans, including JZ Calvalcante (fighting Melvin Guillard on the televised main card this Saturday) Drew Fickett (way past his best but wasted in under 15 seconds) and Dan Lauzon (UFC stalwart Joe's brother).
The way Gaethje has been brought forward to this point is the perfect way to raise a prospect in my opinion. Different tests each time out, winnable, but with the potential for slip-ups should his head not be in the game.
That's not to say he's been complete flawless. His desire to end fights quickly in a blur of savagery has seen him get tagged, and although he comes back quickly, this may prove his undoing against the elite of the division. See his fight with Richard Patinshock, which despite a quick and brutal finish for Gaethje, saw him get caught amidst his wild assault.
Patrick Wyman on Gaethjes poor defensive tendencies:
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.
Despite his wrestling credentials, we haven't seen much of Gaethje's ground game, nor his ability to snatch submissions.
That's pretty much all we've seen from his opponent.
Nick Newell sports the same 11-0 undefeated record as Gaethje, but it's submissions that are his bread and butter. He has 8 sub victories to his name, and a particularly nasty guillotine choke.
What adds to that impressive ledger is the fact Newell is a congenital amputee.
Patrick Wyman with the scoop on Newell:
Let's get it out of the way right now: yes, Nick Newell is the one-armed fighter. One-handed is actually a better description, as his left arm ends just below his elbow due to a condition known as congenital amputation, leaving him without a left hand or forearm. No, this isn't an advantage for him, and conversely, I haven't included him on this list out of some misguided desire to be politically correct. He's a legitimate prospect with excellent athleticism in one of the most talent-rich weight classes in MMA, with finishes in ten of his eleven wins.
The issue with Newell is exactly what I've already proclaimed to be good about Gaethje. He's been brought up against average (at best) opposition. In Shaun-Al Shatti's excellent piece on Newell at MMAFighting.com Newell laments the criticism of his level of opposition, but frankly the numbers don't tell the whole story, though his rise to contendership has been admirable regardless, and not just because of his disability.
Newell himself comes from a wrestling background, though a far less illustrious one than Gaethje.
A former wrestler at Division 3 Western New England, Newell's game predictably revolves around the takedown. He has a quick shot, and finishes well with a variety of foot sweeps; his throws from the clinch are also a dangerous facet of his game, and he consistently scrambles well in transition. From the top, Newell is an absolute beast. His ground and pound is outstanding, particularly his left elbow, and he has a variety of effective guard passes.
Newells striking, as you might expect, is merely functional. You might think that against such a hot prospect that a one-armed fighter, even one as exceptional as Newell, would be at a severe disadvantage against a beast such as Gaethje. It's something Patrick Wyman noticed long before the fight was made.
The lack of a left hand is a distinct disadvantage at range, and several of his opponents have demonstrated that it's possible to hit him with a right hand or kick, though none have been able to fully capitalize on this opening: given that both he and Justin Gaethje, who throws an enormously powerful right hand, are signed to WSOF, we should soon find out precisely how problematic this really is.
Newell does have an opportunity to snatch a submission, despite the champ's superior wrestling chops. Patrick Wyman called this way before the fight was even made.
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
However, Gaethje is a good scrambler, so Newell will have to be as quick to see an opportunity as he has been so far in his career.
I expect this to be an exciting fight as long as it lasts. But Gaethje is the safe bet, and I expect him to put Newell away in the first round. That isn't just because Newell has a disability, because he's figured out how to make it work for him in the cage. It's because Gaethje is in the ascendency, and looks a borderline top 10 talent.
Justin Gaethje by knockout, round 1