MMA, like most combat sports, is tough on the participants.
But it isn’t just dodging punches or fighting off chokeholds that presents a challenge – it’s trying to stay in the winning column consistently while still exciting the crowd.
Though many fans appreciate the technicalities of a good clinch battle against the cage or a proverbial chess match on the ground, there’s nothing like two warriors leaping into combat and swinging for the fences. But while such a style may be fun to watch, it isn’t necessarily the best way to ensure a successful career and a healthy life afterward.
When Justin Gaethje made his UFC debut, he improved his professional record to 18-0 at the expense of Michael Johnson. He also solidified his reputation as a can’t-miss attraction who favors aggressive striking battles and believes in going for the finish.
But he tasted defeat for the first time at UFC 218 when he fell to former lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez in the third round. On April 14’s UFC on Fox card, he suffered his second consecutive loss to Dustin Poirier.
Though his fighting style may cover it up well, Gaethje has some impressive wrestling credentials to his name. He was a two-time state champion in Arizona and an NCAA Division 1 All-American. Given he has such an impressive pedigree, many have wondered why he hasn’t implemented it into his game. It seems Gaethje has asked himself the same question.
“I don’t know, I honestly don’t know the answer to that question,” said Gaethje. “It definitely would be a good idea. I have to get people guessing if I’m going to take them down or not. They know what I’m coming with right now. Everyone knows I’m going to come in there and I’m going to stop your takedowns. So yeah, it would benefit me to keep them guessing.”
Gaethje is known to utilize a boxing-style guard as part of his defense, but that was countered effectively by Alvarez in their fight. With well-placed uppercuts and wide hooks to the body and head, he was able to inflict heavy damage. Poirier effectively countered Gaethje’s leg kicks with straight punches, rocking his opponent on multiple occasions and eventually securing the stoppage win.
Fighters who have a good wrestling background can often find more success in their strikes. A good example is lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov or former welterweight and middleweight champion Georges St.-Pierre. Because they can always threaten with a takedown, they’re able to let their hands go while their opponents must think twice about doing the same.
Gaethje says his plan against Poirier wasn’t so much about not wrestling, but rather attacking the leg with kicks. His commitment to the strategy may have ultimately been his undoing, and it’s unclear where he goes from here.
After admitting he only has about five fights left in him, it could be make-or-break time for the once undefeated standout. One or two more big wins could be enough to propel him to a title shot.