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UFC Vancouver: Donald Cerrone vs. Justin Gaethje Toe-to-Toe Preview - A complete breakdown

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Phil and David breakdown everything you need to know about Donald Cerrone vs. Justin Gaethje for UFC Fight Night 158, and everything you don’t about jail and rehab interludes.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Donald Cerrone vs. Justin Gaethje headlines UFC Vancouver this September 14, 2019 at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.


Record: Donald Cerrone 36-12-1 NC | Justin Gaethje 20-2

Odds: Donald Cerrone +160 | Justin Gaethje -170

History / Introduction to the fighters

David: I’ve enjoyed Cerrone’s shift from Chad to Character-Actor Chad. As he’s gotten older, he’s gotten grumpier. It benefits him in some ways. He’s not going anywhere unless you step on his front lawn—a lawn filled with smokeless tobacco and chicken bones. No matter who you are, tread carefully. At this point, Cerrone is just a more competitive retirement touree. Unlike Chuck Liddell or Tito Ortiz, Cerrone doesn’t need to fight on a medical wheelchair with a flip back desk. That’s part of the joy. There’s nothing deeper, or metaphorical about his presence here. He’s here to kill or be killed. Unfortunately for him, this fight is set up to be the latter.

Phil: Donald Cerrone is still around, still being put into main events, and still pretty much justifying his position there. Although it’s been a while since he beat a top-shelf opponent, the Al Iaquinta win looked like vintage Cerrone, and he even had a fairly competitive round with Tony Ferguson before starting to get somewhat predictably run over. The uncharitable would say that almost everyone has a good first round against Ferguson, but Cerrone is back in the saddle with predictable rapidity, and seems in good spirits, riding happily off into an absolute horror of a matchup.

David: Gaethje’s ascent reminds me of Dustin Poirier’s. Gaethje started out a great action fighter, but like with all action fighters, they won’t bend to the will of strategy. That’s part of their charm: they’re driven by the intuition of combat rather than the mechanics. Which makes for more drama. Or so the story usually goes. What helps in these situations—whether it’s Gaethje, Poirier, Lawler, etc—is when there’s a strong base to deal with. Luckily for Gaethje, he has a strong base of skills to work with. Either he’s got the extra gear, and it helps shape the division, or he’s got that extra gear, and it’s not enough.

Phil: Gaethje’s recent career has been oddly atypical. If there was one thing which characterized his WSOF run, it was that when Gaethje didn’t have a crushing physical advantage, he tended to soak up tons of damage before getting his opponent out of there. In those Barboza and Vick fights, he’s been getting his opponents out of there quickly. Perhaps just a result of generous style matchups, or perhaps we’re seeing the rise of Justin Gaethje: Contender.

What’s at stake?

David: A lot, given that this fight is really just action fodder. Cerrone will never work his way into the title picture. No not because Dana White would never gift wrap a title shot undeservedly to a fighter. Cough, Chael, sneeze, Sonnen. But because there are other fights people actually want to see now that lightweight hasn’t stalled from legal issues, and nonsense. It’s all gonna depend on how well Gaethje looks. I suspect he’ll look quite well.

Phil: Cowboy fights too frequently to not get recycled into another matchup if he wins. If the UFC calls, he just doesn’t seem able to say no. With a Gaethje win, it’s difficult to think that he doesn’t go one of two places: the Khabib-Ferguson winner (sometime in 2021, presumably) or the McGregor fight. Conor apparently said that he was going to fight Gaethje, and it would make some sense for all parties concerned. Unless McGregor goes to jail, or rehab, or whatever.

Where do they want it?

David: Despite Cerrone’s Clint Eastwood schtick, his pugilism has progressed in some significant ways. It’s nothing major. For the most part, he’s still the tough, yardbird, red meat-crunching lightweight he began as. Well, maybe for all the part, he’s that tough, yardbird, red meat-crunching lightweight he began as. But he’s such a knowledgeable fighter at this point, his experience takes him to tactical places that preserve his violence output, allowing for danger in unexpected places. The saddle of Cerrone’s power is his legs. Unlike the rest of his weapons, Cerrone can use his kicks/knees as punctuation, and exclamation. He also does a great job of sneaking them through while also getting unbelievable velocity of strikes that are otherwise casually chambered. It’s a phenomenon we see with someone like Robert Whittaker: fighters that just seem to naturally avoid telegraphing their attacks despite the copious amounts of power behind them. Cerrone can fight everywhere else. I don’t want to downplay his well-roundedness, but the rest feels like an atavism in the context of Donald’s overall fight prowess by contrast. Does this bode well (or not) for this matchup against Gaethje? I would say no, but I guess that would be a spoiler alert.

Phil: There isn’t much we can say about Cerrone that we haven’t before. I will say that he is one of those fighters where a sense of consistency and a general knowledge of how he fights can occasionally obscure just how much he’s improved. If you watch his old match against Nate Diaz, you see an upright kicker getting sucked into punching exchanges, and then just getting his head bobbled around repeatedly in punching exchanges, completely baffled as to what to do if Diaz isn’t simply scared off by a one two. The modern Cerrone is not a diverse boxer, but he can parry and slip, and he can counterpunch. He does have a tendency to wear down if he gets stuck in that kind of match (reference Masvidal and Ferguson) but he’s far more comfortable than he ever was before. Other than that, everyone knows the script. Diverse kicks, step knee, “underrated” wrestling and amazing on the ground. The other area he’s improved in is the clinch, where he at least won’t be bullied quite as comprehensively as poor Edson Barboza.

David: ‘Action fighter’ is so often just a pejorative in MMA. It’s usually just a string of synonyms to imply a fighter doesn’t have enough skill, and so they replace that skill with sheer will, drama, and impulse. Gaethje—even in defeat—has never had this particular problem. Even in fights he ended up losing, there’s never been the sense that Gaethje is either failing to follow a gameplan, or actively being neutralized by the gameplan of his opponent. How this works for him follows a familiar logic: he moves forward, throws strikes, rinses, repeats, and whatever shots he takes in between this loop is just a necessary evil. Gaethje has reached this level because he’s not head hunting, or tossing out rote combos. Gaethje uses his crude tracking mechanism to simply land; wherever, and however. He chambers quickly, and has access to a wide array of angled attacks that hit quicker than opponents expect. What helps this broadsword mentality is that he’s willing to lunge in with chopping hooks, which cuts down on unnecessary energy while also shortcutting any traditional methods of closing the gap.

Phil: Justin Gaethje is many things, but perhaps the most underrated trait is his efficiency. He absorbs a lot more damage than some fighters, but no-one that fights him gets away from fighting him. A somewhat plodding fighter, he nonetheless cuts down the available space in the octagon with alarming rapidity. Something which his opponents should be particularly concerned with is the level of nuance which his defense is starting to pick up: whereas before it was mostly a double forearm guard into catch and pitch counters, we’re increasingly starting to see Gaethje moving his head on the way in, slipping his way and staying on top of his feet during deeper punching exchanges. Keeping his eyes on the opponent allows him to choose when to turn his punches into a clinch exchange, or change up his punch selection. He’s still not marvellous defensively in a void, and you can get him to default to his old double forearm, but anything which can tilt that damage dealt to damage received equation in his favour can provide outsize benefits, considering how much weight is on the “damage dealing” side.

Insight from past fights

David: The Vick fight told us a bit, here. Vick was able to comfortably kick to the body at range, and catch Gaethje on the end of his jab. Of course, the difference is that Vick has never faced top competition, and has predictably struggled against better fighters, whereas Cerrone has not. The other difference is that if Gaethje closes the distance, he’s eating a hangar of elbows, knees, and his own assembly line of counterblasters.

Phil: One of the dynamics in this fight is a simple one: Cerrone hates being pressured, and Gaethje is very good at pressuring. It is worth noting that Cerrone has generally done reasonably well against slow-footed fighters like Iaquinta and Story. There’s essentially a range you have to traverse to get it on Cowboy, and if you rush over it or just stand in it, he’s got weapons for both choices. It’s only the people who slide through it quickly and efficiently, without just leaping at him, that have done well. I think Gaethje fits that mould, but he’s notably a bit slower than even guys like RDA.


David: Despite their respective ages and fight experience, the pugilism toll is always a concern. Especially in the middle of a firefight where it’s the body, not the mind, that has final say.

Phil: I was honestly glad to see the Cerrone-Ferguson fight waved off. It was only going one way. Until that fight, Cerrone had had surprisingly clean wins, but it was a reminder of the insane amount of damage the man has absorbed over the course of his career.


David: Something I’ve harped on before, but part of the issue Cerrone has in these matchups is that he doesn’t have access to transitional striking. His leg kicks are brutal, but if he’s having to shift range constantly, he’s not a combination puncher who can reset with ease. He doesn’t close the gap with his strikes so much as look for high danger strikes in intervals. Gaethje being able to walk him down with the kitchen sink will be the difference. Even though Justin doesn’t have singular power, he’s a solid bullseye puncher. Justin Gaethje by TKO, round 2.

Phil: Gaethje is a bit slower than some of the opponents Cerrone has faced, perhaps a bit more minded towards taking damage to achieve his goal. He’s not a southpaw, which has often been Cerrone’ kryptonite. Even taking this into account, it’s hard not to look at Gaethje and see an absolute nightmare for him. A fearless, powerful, ultra-durable fighter who will sit in the pocket, throw big, accurate punches and deal attritional damage to Cerrone’s body and legs, as well as his aging chin. It’s a bad recipe. Justin Gaethje by TKO, round 1.