Last weekend, I watched Justin Gaethje rematch Luis Palomino for the World Series of Fighting lightweight championship. Perhaps best known as the only Peruvian to tap out to a Peruvian Necktie in a major MMA organization, Palomino is a tough and credible fighter--what I think of as one of MMA's elite journeymen. I watched Palomino send Gaethje staggering across the cage with a left hook in the very first round. I watched Gaethje double over as Palomino battered his body with knees. I watched a brawl whose recklessness and violence paled in comparison only to the first fight between these same two men . . . and I cam away from it all thinking, "Wow. Justin Gaethje is a hell of a fighter."
This is the Coming Storm, a series in which I look at the up-and-coming in the world of mixed martial arts. The fantastic Bloody Elbow Scouting Report already does a better job of finding prospects than I ever could, so this series is focused on analyzing those up-and-coming fighters that have already revealed themselves in some significant way. In the first installment of this series, some months ago, I wrote about one of my favorite young fighters, American Top Team's Mirsad Bektic.
Though Bektic's approach is entirely different from Gaethje's, both men strike me as fighters with immense potential. It's just that Gaethje, for better or worse, is stuck with a style that can't possibly look as consistent or as beautiful as Bektic's. Gaethje is, essentially, a brawler. In analyzing his skills, I hope to get at least some kind of view into the mentality that makes his wildness so effective, and so endearing.
In an interview with Patrick Wyman for Sherdog.com, Gaethje explained his feelings about a style that he feels is designed to get ratings and put butts in seats.
"Wrestling is the thing that shaped me and made me who I am today . . . but I think the sport has progressed from that . . . a lot of wrestlers complain about not getting paid, and I think they have no grounds to do that . . . if you're not out there to put on a show for the fans and to prove to yourself that you're the best in the world. I think that's the only objective [you should have]."
When asked, however, if he had made a calculated decision to be an exciting fighter, Gaethje changed his tune. "Well . . . that's just the way I am, you know?" Turns out that, despite his rationalization, this is just the way he knows how to fight. "Even in sparring . . . I don't want my teammates not to punch me. If someone's not going a hundred percent against me I'll switch partners."
For some fighters, brawling is in the blood. So what is it that makes Gaethje so exciting, and how does he manage to succeed at such a spectacular rate (15-0 with 12 KOs) despite a style that seems to deliberately incur risk?
FIGHTING ON FEEL
First of all, Gaethje is a standout in-fighter. In close, where his wrestling experience makes him incredibly comfortable, he shows off what I believe to be the hallmark of his entire style: his feel for fighting. Some fighters intellectualize combat, and those tend to be the ones we admire for their slickness and skill. Gaethje is of the polar opposite persuasion, something he himself acknowledged in a discussion with WSOF commentator Todd Harris prior to his latest fight.
"Justin Gaethje told me yesterday," recalled Harris during the broadcast, "He cannot take breaks, because when he takes breaks he tends to go backwards and that's something he can't [afford to] do here."
Gaethje may not be a thinking fighter, but he knows enough about his own tendencies to recognize that fact, and actively fights in such a way that he can do as little thinking as possible, reacting to his opponent almost entirely on the bases of gut feeling, athletic reflex, and a healthy dose of machismo. The result is often far more beautiful and complex than you might expect.
Here, Gaethje shows off his tremendous instincts for in-fighting, putting together a masterpiece of transitional fighting that would make Frankie Edgar blush.
Mixing things up by going for a double leg takedown, Gaethje has his attempt beaten by a quick underhook from Palomino, which raises Gaethje's left arm away from Palomino's hips, effectively killing the initial shot. Rather than fighting Palomino with brute force, Gaethje immediately flows to a second takedown attempt, using his left as a sort of clothesline to shove Palomino backward, while his right hand taps the back of Palomino's knee. Palomino defends that, as well, but he's off-balanced, and now two layers deep into a web of Gaethje's making. Gaethje has the initiative, and he quickly changes from wrestling to striking, seamlessly turning his high left arm into a collar tie, and using that grip to yank Palomino chin-first into a brutal uppercut that sends him straight to the canvas.
This seems to be an ability that Gaethje sharpened in his days as a D1 wrestler, and you can still see his aptitude for transitional fighting in the grappling sequences on the ground.
Gaethje is fond of what in wrestling is called "referee's position," in which he can use his weight and strength to exert force on a turtled opponent. Swtiching between a waist cinch and a crotch pry, Gaethje will prevent his opponent from standing, threatening to break him down either with punches or a wrestling ride. Sometimes, however, it behooves the man on top to let his opponent have his way, even if only for a moment. Showing the same instinct for going with the flow that we saw in the previous example, Gaethje lets up on Palomino as he works his way to his hands and knees, taking his weight away as he stands. This makes Palomino think that he's just about to escape, but as he plants both hands on the canvas, Gaethje takes advantage of the opportunity to wrap both hands around his midsection. As Palomino climbs to his feet, Gaethje simply goes with his upward momentum, lifting him into the air and slamming him right back down to the canvas, ending up right in side control.
If brawling is about inflicting maximum damage to an opponent, both psychologically and physically, then there are few techniques better befitting the brawler than a good ol' fashioned slam.
I've spoken at length about Gaethje's innate fighting sense, and for the most part he seems like a man who performs better when he isn't compelled to think. I do not believe, however, that Gaethje is a "thoughtless" fighter, nor do I think that brawling implies a lack of intelligence. One need only look at Gaethje's first finish of Palomino to see the tactical gears grinding away.
Here, Gaethje hurts Palomino with a pair of leg kicks, both of them thrown in the clinch. Most fighters will choose to attack with knees to the head or body in the clinch, but Palomino had already proven nearly impossible to knock out, so Gaethje began pummeling Palomino's legs with low kicks, preventing him from lifting or moving his legs by dragging him downward in the clinch.
The first time that Palomino goes down, Gaethje instinctively jumps on him, but thinks better of it and backs out. Palomino's already come back from numerous knockdowns with renewed vigor, so Gaethje determines to bring him back up to the feet for some more punishment. In the next exchange, he lands another leg kick in the clinch. Palomino buckles, but fights his way out of Gaethje's collar tie and lifts his left leg to protect his battered thigh from Gaethje's scything shinbone. Instead of simply chopping away regardless, Gaethje takes a step back, and quickly jumps back in with a flying knee. The high profile strike doesn't land cleanly, but it doesn't have to. It puts Palomino's mind on threats other than the leg kick, and convinces him to swing away with a few counter punches. It's then that Gaethje lands the final kick, chopping Palomino's legs out from under him and dropping him to the canvas, where he has no choice but to wait for the referee to save him.
It can't just be feel that makes Gaethje tick, because you don't feel when you've got an opponent hurt from a specific strike; you see it and process it mentally. To capitalize on that information doesn't take much thought, but to do so in a way that keeps the opponent from immediately guessing your intentions does take some planning.
What makes Gaethje unique, then, is that he seems to be at his most calm and collected in the midst of a firefight. In a lull he will make indefensibly strange decisions, throwing wheel kicks and taking punches apropos of nothing. But with momentum on his side, even when he's taking punishment, Gaethje's ability to make calculated decisions skyrockets. Unlike most fighters, Justin Gaethje doesn't need time and space to collect his thoughts, but rather the opposite. For "The Highlight," it's putting the pressure on that takes the pressure off.
To give you an idea of the unique challengers of training someone with a true brawler's mindset, Gaethje's trainers have had to plead with him the past to throw fewer punches. While most coaches are constantly imploring their fighters to overcome their trepidation and follow their first one or two punches with several more, Gaethje was instructed after his second round with Palomino "not to throw punches four, five, and six," because the long combinations were putting him into too many tight exchanges with the heavy-handed challenger.
Gaethje's a natural fighter. No one could say that his style is optimal by traditional standards, and it's certainly not good for his long-term health. You can tell when you watch him fight, however, that he loves every second of it. It may not be what we're used to, but there's still a strange kind of beauty in that.
For more on the mentality of brawlers, check out this week's episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.