Michael Johnson vs. Justin Gaethje take the spotlight this July 7, 2017 at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada.
One sentence summary:
Phil: Chronic insecurity meets pure no-fucks given in exactly the kind of action fight which these cards should have as the headliner.
David: This is the story of the hurricane, the men majorities came to watch maim.
Odds: Michael Johnson -170 Justin Gaethje +150
History / Introduction to Both Fighters
Phil: Michael Johnson has been a staple in the upper end of the lightweight division for a while. He perhaps doesn't get the credit he deserves for someone who will step up and take on absolutely any opponent. Short-notice against Khabib? Sure. Fill in for Khabib against Ferguson? He'll volunteer. With Cowboy and Bendo gone, I think he fits into that spot as the upper-level action fighter who can be relied on to save cards. Hence, he's been slotted in as a pretty stiff test for the incoming bonus machine from WSOF, and has seemed happy to take the challenge.
David: Johnson continues to erect his status as upper echelon gatekeeper. He’s stiff competition for even the elite. But for all of his technical brilliance, Johnson’s resume is somewhat crooked. What does his masterful performance against Edson Barboza have to do with losing to Reza Madadi, for example? Nothing, essentially. But he soldiers on, and has cemented himself as the the kind of fighter to keep away form prospects. Just in case. This is not that case.
Phil: Gaethje is comically violent violence incarnate, and a man who has carved out a pretty good career in the US without the help of Bellator or the UFC. Of course, he was aided a bit by the absurdly generous pay which WSOF foolishly doled out to some of its champs, but it's still very gratifying to see him make it to the big show. He's been the brutality hipster's choice for a while now, and everyone seems pretty excited to see him perform. It's not really because many expect him to be a title contender, but because he is just so damn fun to watch.
David: I’m not sure we’ve learned a whole lot about Gaethje. Even amidst his five title defenses in WSOF. He hasn’t been feasting on Jungle Fight ham and eggers either. Debuting with a win over the broken but still talented Gesias Cavalcante (is there a fighter more hindered by injuries in proportion to his talent than JZ?), he’s gone on to hammer the underrated Luis Palomino, Melvin Guillard, and the way underrated Luiz Firmino. His wins project to make him a successful action fighter in the UFC, but is this a bridge too far?
What's at stake?
Phil: If the UFC gets a champ from another organization and has to pay good money for them, they tend to throw some pretty rough matchmaking at them. Johnson is a good example of that. However, if the fighter shows they can swim with the sharks and wins? They can go into marquee matchups pretty quick. I expect the winner to get something like Kevin Lee, or perhaps the Poirier/Alvarez winner, and all of those fights would be absolutely amazing.
David: The stakes are low-key for Johnson. I doubt there’s a lot of interest in high profile matchups, deserved or not. Whereas with Gaethje, they can promote him as “new blood”.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Johnson is a protean kickboxer, who can mould his approach to the opponent. He can circle and probe with the jab, he can kick, and he can pressure. I think this last is the approach which he's settling into the most, where he pins down the opponent with combinations and his counter right hook. I once asked Connor why Johnson's cross is so ugly, and he explained that it's probably because his hips and feet are so internally rotated. It makes his left straight a bit of a pawing shot, but on the other hand, it adds real centrifugal power to that hook.
Although he comes from a wrestling base, Johnson's natural gifts are clearly as a striker. He's something of a classic Blackzilian in that he tends to panic and try to attempt to explode to his feet in grappling situations. However, it's very difficult to get him there, because his footwork is so good, and because he is just so incredibly fast; probably the most purely quick and explosive fighter in the division bar (perhaps) Nurmagomedov. He also has an extremely underrated chin: it's difficult to think of him being hurt particularly badly on the feet.
David: I feel like Johnson’s cross is neurological in origin. As if his brain knows his fists can kill, but just not this time. Unless! Like punch Tourettes or something. Or maybe it’s just philosophical in nature. I realize I’ve crossed the pretentious point of no return, so lemme finish. Some Jesus scholars argue that the best way to understand who the real Jesus was, is to understand his follower’s beliefs - apocalyptic prophets more than social reformers some say (though there’s plenty of healthy debate). To that extent his ugly cross reflects his pressure philosophy - never looking for kill shots per se, but keeping his hands warm whether in close or at range, which makes some of his punches look like a medium more than a manic.
He fights somewhat anxiously, though. Sometimes he moves a little too much, and before he knows it he’s in the same spot he just pivoted out of. Nate Diaz found success against him by countering his predictable punch entries. When focused and his own headspace, there are few UFC fighters who can dazzle with punch mechanics the way Johnson can.
Phil: What is there to say about Justin Gaethje? His offense is as gorgeous as his defense is... not there. Gaethje's sole concession is to cover up with a high guard, then to simply punch back harder. His game is an odd mixture of prime Fedor and more classical Muay Thai- his looping shots tend to allow him to grab onto his favoured single collar tie, where he can punch, snap down, or even leg kick.
He reminds me of a Thai fighter not so much in execution as he does in mentality: he's one of the few fighters who is happy to trade a good leg kick for getting punched in the face, because he is simply so confident that his durability will win out. True enough, most people who try to go toe to toe with him end up limping helplessly about the cage.
Gaethje is a good wrestler, but largely uses it in reverse to block takedowns, or to hit absurd slams if the mood strikes him.
David: I don’t see shades of prime Fedor, per se, though I see your point. Fedor was an opportunist first and foremost. Gaethje is more in line with Igor Vovchanchyn. Torquing his body for maximum velocity on every punch, and not stopping until everyone is dead. He actually has a lot in common with his opponent, Johnson. His mechanics are actually kind of great. He throws with speed, power, with good shot selection. His leaning jab is excellent too, like he’s probing for blood as much as points. And I’d argue his kicks are the most underrated part of his game. He whips them around as clean as anyone in MMA.
His wrestling pedigree is not wasted, but it’s funny to watch him opt for high risk roll outs, scrambles, and cartwheels a la Tony Ferguson instead of just keeping his composure. Gaethje has the raw skillset to be the John Lineker of lightweight. But I don’t know that lightweight will be as forgiving should he venture that route.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: I'm going to pick an odd one, which is Evan Dunham vs Melvin Guillard. This was seen as a bit of a set-up fight for Dunham: he was considered to be much better than Guillard (and in many important ways was). But. It was a fight I had a very bad feeling about, simply because one guy started off fights as hell on wheels, and the other one was a slow starter who needed to get hit before he could really get rolling. True to form, Melvin blew his doors off.
Luiz Firmino hit Gaethje a lot in the early going, and Firmino is not Michael Johnson.
David: Firmino is an underrated fighter. I remember when Tatsuya Kawajiri was practically the best lightweight in the world before Bushido 9, and Firmino gave all he could handle. Yea he basically backpacked his way to survival, but he never seemed intimidated even in their brief exchanges. Nonetheless, Firmino is a classic jitsu-boxer, capable of one-twos, and not much else. To see him have success with those predictable one-twos AND a jab is extremely telling. Unlike the sport’s premiere brawlers, Gaethje’s counters aren’t automatic. When he’s pressured, it’s sustained, and he prefers to wait out the storm rather than counter with the storm in the way guys like Lineker do. If Johnson is flagging him with combinations, this could get ugly, quick.
Phil: Will the dreadful trash talk have affected either man? Johnson has talked about how he's winning the mental warfare, but I have an odd feeling that Gaethje simply doesn't care much and Johnson is only putting pressure on himself.
David: This feels like the perfect fight for referee interference. Especially if Mario Yamasaki is in there. Gaethje wears a mouthpiece that would fit a teething baby. If he does the same thing he did against Firmino, it could either be a tactical advantage for recovering from Johnson’s attack, or a point deduction depending on whether the ref did or did not get lucky the night before.
Phil: Johnson has been starting faster and faster of late, and I don't think Gaethje has ever fought anyone with his pure speed. This could be a genuinely fantastic fight, but I think it's somewhat likely that Johnson tears right through Gaethje before the WSOF champ can get rolling. Michael Johnson by TKO, round 1.
David: Gaethje’s defense is worrying, and not just because he gets hit, but because of how he responds to getting hit. He’s slow to react, and even slower to defend. If Johnson had a weak chin, I’d be inclined to give him a puncher’s chance. But he doesn’t. So I won’t. Michael Johnson by KO, round 1.