While it might not be accurate to say that Justin Gaethje is underrated as a dangerous fighter or underappreciated by the UFC fanbase, it is fair to say that he is misunderstood.
By using perhaps the most aggressive, violent style of fighting plausible Gaethje has simultaneously racked up a long list of victories while cultivating a reputation as a “bite down on the mouthpiece and swing for the fences” fighter. While it is self-evident that Gaethjae likes to stand and trade, it is inaccurate to say he does so randomly or without intellect.
Upon a closer look of his spectacular first-round knockout of the esteemed Edson Barboza, we can see that Justin Gaethje is actually very skilled at controlling the cage, corraling his opponents against the fence where they are sitting ducks for his overtly aggressive attacks.
Cutting the Cage
The reason why Justin Gaethje was able to finish Edson Barboza in such a short manner of time is that he was able to force Barboza into his preferred method of combat, a close quarters brawl against the fence. Throughout his career, Justin Gaethje has earned a reputation as one of the most bloodthirsty fighters on the UFC’s roster, producing entertaining spectacles by being willing to “bite down on the mouthpiece and swing.” While Gaethje is keen to trade shots with his opponent until one of them falls, his opponents usually don’t like to do that, so Gaethje has to force them to. The best way to do that is to trap them against the fence where they are in between the cage and the “warning track,” the black line mirroring the fence that runs around the Octagon.
By pushing his opponent back to the fence Gaethje effectively limits their escape routes, forcing them to stand and trade or attempt to escape. Of course, a good fighter won’t let themselves be forced back into the cage, so Gaethje has to walk them down using appropriate footwork and ring cutting. The key successful ring cutting, and therefore pushing your opponent to the fence is to always move forward by stepping diagonally, never straightforward. If a fighter steps forward in an attempt to drive their opponent back, the opponent will simply step to the side, circling out and escaping back to the center. In order to keep them trapped, any forward movement will have to come from a diagonal step, which will add lateral movement and keep the pursuer in front of their opponent. Subsequent, little, diagonal steps will slowly move the pressure fighter closer to their opponent while keeping them in front of them, eventually driving them back to the fence.
In this clip below we can see Gaethje use this approach to keep James Vick trapped against the cage. Notice how his forward movement comes from diagonal steps, while he employs lateral steps to counter Vick’s attempts to circle, keep Vick in front of him. If he were to step directly forward then Vick would simply circle around Gaethje and escape to the center of the cage.
The Effects of Trapping
Once Gaethje has successfully walked his opponent back to the cage he has placed himself in a situation in which he has numerous advantages. The most obvious advantage is that the pressuring fighter, in this case, Gaethje, has the option to retreat back to the center of the cage if the exchange is not going well for him. Obviously, the trapped fighter doesn’t have the ability to retreat, as there is nowhere to go. This is perfect for a fighter with Gaethje’s style as he very much likes his opponents to stand still and trade.
In such a scenario where Gaethje has pushed them back against the fence, the trapped fighter has three viable options. They can accept that they are trapped and launch into an attack, a poor choice against Justin Gaethje as this is exactly what he wants you to do. Gaethje has made a successful career by drawing opponents into wild exchanges where his toughness and willingness to take excessive damage earns him victories. In this clip below we see Gaethje braw Edson Barboza back to the fence and start engaging in a slugfest. Barboza temporarily elects to stand and trade, but quickly remembers (and realizes first hand) that this is where Gaethje is strongest. He then chooses to employ one of his other three available options, circling out to his left, but Gaethje just a good job of staying in front of him and keeping him on the fence.
As we mentioned, when pushed against the fence a fighter has three options. They can stand and trade (bad idea with Justin Gaethje), or they can attempt to escape, either to their left or to their right. This is where pushing the opponent against the fence provides another advantage for Gaethje. As most fighters don’t like to be placed here, especially against a brawler of Gaethje’s caliber, they will attempt to escape quickly, often haphazardly. Much like a goalkeeper defending a penalty kick in soccer, Gaethje’s opponent only has two options, left or right. By repeatedly putting his opponent in this position and forcing them to make this choice, Gaethje is continuously increasing the chances that he will guess correctly which direction they will attempt to escape and eventually catch them. Here we see James Vick attempt to escape to his right, then his left and then finally commit to going right. Gaethje is able to stay in front of him with proper diagonal footwork as he catches Vick with an intercepting left hook, and then puts him down with a stern straight right.
While forcing the opponent to make the decision between going left and right over and over leads to a drastic increase in the chance that Gaethje will catch them, it also allows him to see how his opponent prefers to escape. Overwhelmed by Gaethje’s shocking level of aggressiveness and high pace, Barboza escaped off the fence by circling to his left every time he was placed there. Here is the same clip from above where Barboza escapes to his left:
Again, to his left:
And finally, the finish where Barboza attempts to circle to his left again:
Prior to the finishing blow, Barboza had attempted to circle off of the cage to his left on three separate occasions. Upon the fourth attempt, Gaethje knew exactly where he was going and intercepted him with a beautiful right hook that removed Barboza from the realm of consciousness. This is an almost mirror image of Gaethje’s knockout of James Vick, as Vick went right and was caught with a left hook, while Edson Barboza went left and was caught with a right hook.
While Justin Gaethje’s style might appear to be a just a utilization of his toughness as he bites down and swings for the fences, in reality, it is a well thought out game plan that employs intelligent control of the cage in order to place Gaethje in a position where he can capitalize on his willingness to trade damage and gamble that he is the one left standing when the dust settles. To view him as just a brawler with no method to his madness would be a mistake for both his spectators and future opponents alike.