While they may appear as a tangled mash of chaotic random violence, mixed martial arts bouts are intrinsically a race to see which fighter can be the first to solve the problems their opponent presents. Many are familiar with this problem-solving competition in the form of classic match-ups — striker vs. grappler, jiu-jitsu vs. wrestling — but as the evolution of the sport has driven athletes to develop into well-rounded combatants, the challenges we see them creating for one another are much more nuanced.
Two of these aforementioned fully developed fighters, Justin Gaethje, and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, will be stepping into the Octagon at UFC Fight Night 158 this Saturday. As each man is the proprietor of a multi-faceted, fully-developed array of martial arts techniques, the problems they will be creating for each other will be more intricate than the standard “striker vs. grappler.”
Three particular aspects of the bout— which man cuts the cage, who can establish their preferred pace and range, and the possibility of the bout transitioning into the grappling realm — are likely to be the realms in which both Cowboy and Gaethje have the opportunity to introduce quandaries to one another; whoever is able to find resolutions to these questions first will likely have their hand raised at the end of the night.
Cage cutting — the act of controlling the position of the fight inside the Octagon through footwork (usually with the intention of placing an opponent against the fence) — is important in every bout, but as a principal weapon in Justin Gaethje’s arsenal, it will be of imperative importance when Cowboy and Gaethje share the Octagon.
Justin Gaethje always seeks to trap his opponents up against the fence through the implementation of proper footwork: here we see Gaethje keep James Vick trapped inside the warning track (the black line on the canvas mirroring the cage wall) by repeatedly moving in front of him to block his escape attempts.
It may appear simplistic, but it takes immense amounts of discipline and skill to trap an opponent in this position; if Gaethje were to commit to an attack before the proper time, Vick would easily be able to circle out and escape. By remaining patient, Gaethje is able to restrain Vick (and other opponents) against the cage, which greatly hampers their offensive capabilities. To avoid being caught in this position, a preemptive defense of circling away from the fence and back to the center of the cage before Gaethje can seal his trap (as we see Cowboy utilize against Tony Ferguson below) is crucial. Yet, Justin Gaethje has developed a high level of cage cutting skill: circling back to the center will be vastly easier said than done.
If Gaethje can place Cerrone against the fence for extended periods, it will greatly play to his favor, as it will force the high-pace/close-range engagements that have been historically problematic for Cowboy.
Pace and Range
It is well known that any fighter looking to throw Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone off of his game should deprive him of the two resources his style of striking requires: space and time. Cowboy is an exceptionally technical kickboxer: if given the proper time and space, he can implement breathtaking combinations on unconsenting opponents as if they were Thai pads held by a trainer. A few years ago Cowboy made it known that he had stopped sparring in favor of a more “technical” training approach of focusing on cleaning up his combinations; his most impressive knockouts are evidence of this high degree of skill.
However, notice that in the clip above (and the one later on) that Cowboy’s knockouts tend to arise when his opponent is sitting at the proper range and looking to trade (identical to the range that a trainer would sit to hold pads). If an opponent gets in Cowboy’s face with constant pressure and forces the fight into the range of “mutually assured destruction” — where both fighters are so close that they can strike each other at will — Cowboy is deprived of the necessary time and space to employ his timing and rhythm-based game. The fight is now a close-quarters slugfest, which greatly favors fighters who have been sparring hard in the gym. Tony Ferguson was able to force this range against Cowboy to great effect: it has long been a staple of “El Cucuy’s” game.
As Justin Gaethje has historically been a fighter who seeks to step into the range of “mutually assured destruction” and “bite down on the mouthpiece” in preparation for a slugfest, this could prove immensely problematic for Cowboy. Here we see him react to exuberant pressure from Tony Ferguson by charging forward wildly, an ill-advised tactic.
That’s not to say that the problem of Gaethje’s pressure can’t be solved: if Cowboy can drag the fight into the later rounds, then the limitations of cardio might cause Gaethje to ease his foot off the gas pedal, giving Cowboy the time and space necessary to provide us with another highlight-reel KO.
While the constant pressure and disrespect of personal space are likely to be assets for Justin Gaetje, the intrinsic in-close nature of this range tends to leads to grappling exchanges. Here we see Cowboy take advantage of the “mutually assured destruction” range set by Tony Ferguson, clinching his opponent and taking him down.
If the bout does traverse into the realm of grappling, that would be substantially advantageous for Cowboy, regardless of whether he is on top, or the bottom. With 17 victories by way of submission, Cowboy’s grappling is underappreciated only due to it being overshadowed by his striking prowess. A significant portion of these submissions have been off of his back: he has shown a fondness for the triangle choke throughout his career, but easily his most notable submission victory was his recent armbar submission of Mike Perry. In an immaculate display of skill, notice how Cowboy underhook’s Perry’s leg as soon as he steps it forward, swinging himself into a perfect armbar.
If he finds himself on top of his opponent — an occurrence usually preceded by Cowboy’s preferred takedown: a trip from the clinch — Cowboy will implement a traditional BJJ gameplan of working his way to a dominant position in order to achieve the means of submission; typically a rear-naked choke from the back, or a triangle from top control like he used against Alexi Oliveira.
Typically when the UFC matchmakers treat us fans to a card as spectacular as UFC 242, we then have to eat our vegetables with a handful of underwhelming cards before we can savor a main event of big names — but not this week. Thankfully, UFC management decided to keep the hype generated from Khabib vs. Poirier rolling by giving us a compelling bout between two fan-favorite names in a matchup that creates the perfect symbiosis of what makes MMA so entertaining: high-level problem solving manifested into sheer excitement and violence. If either Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone or Justin Gaethje is fighting, that bout is certain to be a barn burner; locking them in the Octagon together is as close to a guarantee as we can get that this fight will be a remarkable spectacle.