The bout between Eddie “The Underground King” Alvarez (29-5 1 NC) and Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje (18-1) was widely considered the frontrunner for Fight of the Night on an already stacked UFC 218 card. The match didn’t disappoint as Alvarez not only became the first man to defeat the much-hyped Gaethje but knocked the iron-jawed brawler at the end of a war of attrition.
How did he do it?
Pinning the Guard
Gaethje’s defense is far better than people give him credit for. At the first hint of danger, he will cage his face behind his forearms and roll with punches. He never takes clean headshots from this guard and it helps further tire his opponent. Few fighters are willing to risk trading headshots with Gaethje as his absurd power and chin will win almost every time.
Body shots would work in theory, but it’s exceptionally risky. After all, getting in Gaethje’s punching range without having your hands near your chin is like swimming off the coast of Australia with an open cut. But while Gaethje was the harder hitter and stronger overall, Alvarez had better boxing.
And for the first time in his up and down UFC career, it was all Alvarez needed.
His punches to the head weren’t really hurting Gaethje, but Alvarez was landing enough that Gaethje would pre-emptively turtle when it looked like a punch was coming. This “pinned” the guard to Gaethje’s head which left his body open. Gaethje couldn’t throw his best counters with his forearms high, so Alvarez dove in for deep body punches with little risk. He began landing with such force that the normally unflappable Gaethje was forced to cover his midsection which stymied his offense.
These body shots would become the foundation upon which Alvarez would gift Gaethje his first defeat.
The Illusion of a Gas Tank
Gaethje is an exceptional athlete but he tires just like any mortal. But he always looks the fresher fighter because his opponents absorb tremendous beatings in the time that it takes Gaethje to gas himself. Alvarez was the first fighter to see the bottom of Gaethje’s tank without looking like a crime scene photo.
Here’s the thing about pressure fighting: it’s extremely energy intensive. But it’s more draining to run away than it is to chase someone down, so great pressure fighters can drain an opponent’s legs without landing too many shots. However, the dynamic is reversed if the pressure fighter whiffs on their shots.
Alvarez repeatedly got close enough to lure Gaethje into swinging but darted out of range most of the time. The damage on Alvarez’s face is a testament to Gaethje’s tremendous power rather than his connection percentage. By the third round, Gaethje was so gassed that he conceded the clinch advantage to Alvarez, a normally unthinkable scenario. Gaethje would throw wobbly leg kicks and hooks while Alvarez made like a southern family reunion and went to town on some ribs.
The knockout wasn’t just due to a powerful knee, but because Gaethje was so exhausted that he had no way to recover any fight-altering damage.
Is Alvarez “Back”?
While his first-round knockout of Rafael Dos Anjos to win the UFC lightweight belt is his most impressive achievement, most people regard it as the result of a fluke punch. This war with Gaethje, however, is the best fight he’s ever fought.
He looked like the Eddie Alvarez that everyone expected when he migrated from Bellator. He was darting in and out, giving as good as he got and ultimately outlasted an elite competitor. But is this really what Alvarez is capable of or did he just match up well against Gaethje?
It’s a little bit of both.
In our predictions for this fight, we pointed out that while Alvarez wasn’t necessarily the best lightweight overall he possessed the perfect skill set to exploit Gaethje’s weaknesses. At the same time, even the commentators noted that Alvarez looked healthier and more relaxed than he had in any other UFC appearance.
Either way, Alvarez is no longer a “gimme” fight for the UFC lightweight division. To beat him is to earn a shot at the belt while losing to him is no shame whatsoever.