This weekend, Justin Gaethje is set to challenge Khabib Nurmagomedov for the UFC lightweight throne. It was a long road to get here. When Gaethje made his UFC debut in early 2017, his all-action style had already made him the favored cult icon of some of the saddest people on earth: hardcore MMA fans. Casual fans, on the other hand, weren’t altogether sold on the Highlight’s prospects. Early bettors had made Gaethje a favorite ahead of his debut bout with Michael Johnson, but by fight night he was officially the underdog.
Among those who doubted him, defense was maybe the most oft-cited reason that Gaethje’s style would never work on the biggest stage in MMA. More specifically, the critique was that he didn’t have any. And to be honest, these weren’t entirely easy charges to argue against. Sure, Gaethje had a working rudimentary defense, but he did get hit a lot. He did rely on his endurance and durability. He did turn every fight into an absolute mess of a brawl, and he probably was lucky to have made it so far without being knocked out.
Gaethje did end up beating Johnson, of course, in perhaps the crowning example of a textbook Gaethje bloodbath, but the doubters hadn’t imagined everything. Gaethje’s style was predicated entirely on his toughness, superhuman compared to most people, freakish compared to most fighters, but merely excellent by world championship standards. Michael Johnson was not long for the lightweight top ten, but he still came within a hair of putting Gaethje away. And toughness alone wouldn’t stop the likes of Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier from jabbing, outmaneuvering, and tearing chunks out of Gaethje’s considerably less invincible midsection.
At this level, pretty much everyone has a chin. What sets the best apart from the rest is the squishy stuff between the ears.
According to trainer Trevor Wittman, change couldn’t come until Gaethje wanted it for himself. After his second loss, at the heavy hands of Dustin Poirier, Gaethje told his trainer he needed a change. “What’s your purpose?” Wittman asked him. “You were most exciting fighter, what do you want to be now?” Gaethje told his coach he wanted to be champion; Wittman told him he needed to get smart. “To be the best fighter in the world, you have to be the best defensive fighter. Don’t change who you are, naturally, but you have to understand defense. And defense starts with position.”
Through his next two fights, there was something different about Gaethje’s bearing. A little more upright, a little more balanced, and much more willing to take a step back when necessary. But the true scope of the transformation Gaethje’s style was undergoing didn’t become clear until September of 2019, when he faced Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, who isn’t a cowboy, but who does share Gaethje’s reputation as a legendary action fighter.
From the moment the fight began, Gaethje was controlling range like never before, happily slinging shins at the legendary kicker and evading or blocking most of those that came back at him. Cerrone, well known for wilting under heavy pressure from hard punchers, seemed like an easy mark for the old Justin Gaethje, yet the new one held back, taking only the openings Cerrone gave him. Only a minute after the first bell, and despite the controlled pace, Cerrone realized that the fight was already slipping out of his control. Gaethje was proving harder to hit than he’d expected, and greedy about the range. Each time Cerrone ventured forward into striking distance, Gaethje taxed him with short, sharp punches.
But veterans are supposed to outfox less experienced opponents, and you won’t find many veterans more grizzled than Donald Cerrone. If he was going to get Gaethje’s respect, he would have to lean on his experience, and attack in layers.
1. Pressing forward just outside boxing range, Gaethje gives Cerrone a feint.
2. Another pawing feint gets him into mid-range, with Cerrone controlling his wrist.
3. But Cerrone is no sitting duck. He hits one of his favorite moves, rolling under Gaethje’s right hand before coming back with a combination.
4. But when Cerrone pops up, Gaethje isn’t where he’s supposed to be. Still crowding Cowboy, Gaethje has pivoted off to the left. Cerrone senses the danger and immediately turns to face him...
5. ...but Gaethje is already punching. This left hook goes wide...
6. ...only to become a collar tie that sets up a hockey goon uppercut straight out of the classic Gaethje repertoire.
7. And now that Cerrone has fully turned to face him, Gaethje gives him a shove on the back and takes the opposite angle...
8. ...even feeding Cerrone a small mouthful of left hook on his way back out of range.
This sort of layered attack may very well have flummoxed the previous, less crafty version of the Highlight, who swung his counters so hard he was liable to fall over when they missed. But that was a Justin Gaethje who merely enjoyed fighting. This new version was finally starting to understand it.
When Gaethje finished Cerrone near the end of the first round, he did it moving backwards, with a counter. From brawler, to pressure fighter, to counter puncher—this was the path Gaethje had chosen for his run at the title.
Had Gaethje stayed on the pressure fighting track, he might have begun developing something like Gennady Golovkin’s jab, a spearpoint behind which to push forward and set up harder combinations. To be clear, Gaethje does have a good, hard jab, which we will soon see. But there are even cleverer ways of setting up power shots. Defense, too, can be an offensive weapon. In a way, the counter puncher’s defense becomes his jab.
For example, one of the jab’s primary functions is that of a simple measuring stick. If you can touch your opponent with your jab, then you know you can land something else; if, however, your jab falls short, then you know what you need to do.
But say you don’t put that first punch out there. Say you wait for the opponent to do the jabbing, and when he does, you open the rear hand you keep neatly tucked beside your chin and try to catch it. Because you know what a good catch looks like, you don’t reach for the incoming punch; you let it come to your hand. And wouldn’t you know, rangefinding actually works the same way in reverse. If you don’t catch anything, you can be pretty damn sure you’re at a safe, and therefore nonthreatening distance. If, however, you do feel the slap of knuckles against your palm, you know instantly to be wary of further strikes—and if you’re the countering type, you might just want to start swinging some of your own. These conclusions don’t simply occur to you; you can literally feel the distance through your hand. That’s vital. At speeds like those seen at the top of the lightweight division, feeling is considerably quicker than thinking, and far more reliable.
So defense can gather information just as well as a jab—but that’s not all the almighty jab can do, is it? One of the its other chief functions is to create the positions for further, harder punches. Even the heaviest overhand is nothing unless the angle is right for it to land. With a good jab, a fighter can blind his opponent just long enough to get his feet in position for the perfect knockout punch.
But what if this works in reverse, too? What if you could get your opponent to serve up exactly the angle you want without throwing a single punch?
In his most recent fight against Tony Ferguson, Gaethje did just that, flaunting by far the most elegant footwork of his career.
1. Having just dropped Gaethje at the end of round two, Ferguson comes out pressuring hard.
2. Gaethje circles right, and Ferguson follows him.
3. Gaethje continues circling, even crossing his feet to cover ground a little more easily.
4. Moving into range, Ferguson takes a big step to his left in an effort to cut Gaethje off.
5. But Gaethje stops circling. Suddenly, Ferguson is standing square, within range of a man in nearly perfect position to land a straight right hand with plenty of follow-through. Gaethje barely has to adjust his feet at all...
6. ...as Ferguson walks straight into his fist.
Good defense creates uncertainty in the opponent’s mind. Miss once, and you might get a bruise on your ego. Miss a few times, and you start to second guess yourself. Miss often enough, and every move you make becomes, at best, an educated guess. Depth perception always suffers the most. With head movement and footwork, a fighter can blur his opponent’s sense of distance, till he has nothing but instinct to tell him when he is and when he isn’t close enough to hit, or be hit in return. A less inherently confident opponent might pick this moment to forget about winning and engage survival mode, but a man like Tony Ferguson is going to make the best guesses he can, and, failing that, take as many chances as possible, serving up his chin on a platter again and again.
Footwork like this—or, to translate that into Gaethjean, feetwork—will almost certainly be the one development of Gaethje’s which has the most profound impact on this weekend’s fight with Nurmagomedov. And Gaethje knows this. The man has always had an uncanny ability to assess himself and his own career in brutally honest terms. Even when Poirier handed Gaethje his second KO loss in a row, there could be little doubt that Gaethje would move past it, if only because he had so often talked about the fact that, sooner or later, his style was going to get him put on his ass. But perhaps for the first time, Gaethje seems to see his opponent in the same clear light.
Shortly after beating Ferguson, Gaethje already seemed to have a better understanding of the champion’s game than any opponent prior. “You got to stay off the fence,” he told Joe Rogan. “You got to have feetwork. Without feetwork, you can’t stay off the fence. … If he’s taking a shot in the open, it’s to drive you to the fence to finish the takedown. He’s not getting takedowns in the open.”
Drawing reckless footwork out of the opponent is one thing, but what about the more assertive approach the offered by the trusty jab? Defense can trick the opponent into giving the opening away, but what if you want to take the angle by storm? Is there such a thing as aggressive defense?
If you haven’t figured out where these loaded questions are leading by now, then counterpunching may not be for you, after all. Anticipation is kind of a big part of it. But that’s okay! Justin Gaethje used to be a pressure fighter, too. And as far as “aggressive defense” goes, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that this is the kind of defense Gaethje does particularly well.
1. Gaethje smashes Ferguson’s head out of the way with this clanging lamppost of a jab.
2. After four rounds of attrition, that jab is enough to make Ferguson paw defensively at the next feint Gaethje gives him.
3. Once Ferguson can feel that Gaethje is within range of his hands, he parries Gaethje’s hand down and comes over the top with a skipping-stone right. But Gaethje has been the one landing jabs and getting a feel for the distance, and he is already moving to evade.
4. Gaethje watches the punch sail past his nose, but even as his head is pulling away, his left foot is sliding off to an angle.
5. When Gaethje uncoils, his right hand is perfectly in line with Ferguson’s jaw, at the perfect distance.
6. The same step which lines up the right hand creates a clean path for the left hook, which clunks Ferguson on the point of the chin.
7. Ferguson all but loses his feet.
Just like a jab, a defensive move can hide within it the footwork which makes the follow-up punches possible. In this sequence, if Gaethje were to have pulled and countered without moving his feet, Ferguson likely would have withstood the first punch much better, and possibly evaded the second altogether, even if only by stumbling backward. Instead, the tiny adjustment of Gaethje’s left foot opens his hips and gives his right hand enough room to not only find Ferguson’s chin, but plow straight through it. Stunned, Ferguson becomes an easy mark for the left hook that falls from the same angle, and his lackadaisical retreating step, crossing his feet, destroys his stance’s ability to dissipate shock. All 155 pounds of that left hook land clean on the chin. A little closer, and that might have been the end, right there. Anyone but Ferguson, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten this far in the first place.
And yet after over four rounds of increasingly one-sided punishment culminating in this beautiful two-three combination, all Ferguson’s legendary toughness could buy him was another two minutes before the referee was forced to save him. Justin Gaethje became the first man to ever stop Tony Ferguson. Only a technical knockout but, technically, a real knockout.
Maybe none of this is enough to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov. Boxing defense is all moot if you can’t stop the takedowns, and Gaethje may well have overestimated his ability to keep his back away from the cage for the better part of 25 minutes. But not many people, even those who knew in their hearts he would win his UFC debut just over three years ago, expected Gaethje to make it this far. And it didn’t happen by accident. Justin Gaethje asked for the hardest road the UFC’s lightweight division could offer, and he got it. He predicted he would be knocked out eventually, and he was. Twice.
All fighters welcome challenges, but not all take full advantage of them. Justin Gaethje’s hard road might have broken him, but instead it molded him into something better. Something smarter, sharper, and calmer than ever before. Something a lot less like a mere action fighter, and more like a champion.
For a more in-depth look at Gaethje vs Khabib and other bouts of UFC 254, don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, featuring wrestling guru Ed Gallo.