Justin Gaethje celebrates after his UFC Philadelphia knockout victory.

After the events of UFC 242, where Khabib Nurmagomedov remained undefeated and unified the lightweight championship, the division’s logjam seems somewhat cleared; the abundantly clear top contender right now is Tony Ferguson, and the next spot in line could be earned by anyone who hasn’t faced Nurmagomedov yet.

A likely inhabitant of that spot is the winner in Vancouver on September 14, between top-5 contenders Justin Gaethje and Donald Cerrone; on one side, a fighter who seemed to find a ceiling on his extraordinarily violent style early in his UFC tenure only to shatter it and remain in the top 5 anyway, and on the other, one who’s maintained absurd staying-power as a borderline-elite presence despite sustaining one-sided losses from time-to-time that would spell the end of that status for anyone else.

The stakes for a fight at the top of lightweight have rarely been this clear; the loser takes a big step back, perhaps to test the prospects of a weight class exploding with them, where the winner likely faces one of the defined top-echelon fighters at 155 (Nurmagomedov, Ferguson, or Poirier) or gets the money-fight upon Conor McGregor’s return.

Donald Cerrone lands a left hand against Al Iaquinta
Donald Cerrone lands his jab against Al Iaquinta (Getty Images)

The Cowboy

After a short but memorable campaign to the upper-end of the lightweight rankings, Donald Cerrone finds himself in a familiar position; having lost to an elite fighter at UFC 238, the legendary workhorse looks to bounce back by making a fairly quick turnaround to fight for the fourth time in 2019. “Cowboy” is getting older and his fights at this point are whether his opponents can find a way to exploit the well-defined weaknesses right below the surface, but Cerrone’s win over Al Iaquinta showed that he’s (at least) still quite good and a challenge for most opponents who aren’t built in way that rips open his weaknesses. A win over Gaethje would be one of the most impressive of his career.

Cerrone’s game is well-known by now; he wants to keep the fight in the open where he can kick freely, and his strongest moments generally tend to come when he’s able to chain his kicks off his unsound but often effective blitzes. Cerrone’s most consistent work tends to be the sort of attrition with which he broke down Al Iaquinta, who he carved up with kicks to the legs and body on the outside that let him take over as the fight went on (although his signature has become the head-kick, which finished fighters as good as Matt Brown and Jim Miller). What got Cerrone his two recent wins at 155 was largely his intercepting knee, a feature he introduced to his game a few years ago as a response to being pressured a lot; Alexander Hernandez apparently tried to put Cerrone under pressure by just blitzing linearly over and over only to run into a knee nearly every time, and Iaquinta’s preference for using the takedown threat as a way to enter the pocket was shortchanged by the same tool. Cerrone isn’t a particularly deep kicker and definitely isn’t a great boxer (with his game being “jab sometimes and shift into blitzes other times”), but his game is constructed fairly well to hide his weaknesses against most opponents.

That said, those weaknesses still exist, and he tends to lose catastrophically when his singular tool to manage the distance is successfully navigated. Cerrone has a number of traits that define a problematic matchup, from southpaws to good body-hitters (where Cerrone’s body is historically quite fragile) to sound pressure-boxers, and he hasn’t really shown an answer to any of those yet. Where Darren Till and Rafael dos Anjos just pushed him back and smashed him, Leon Edwards and Jorge Masvidal solved his approach with relative ease (Masvidal with his careful distance-closing and jab, Edwards with his southpaw kicking and counterpunching game). Cerrone is also one of the more defined momentum-fighters in MMA, for better or worse; his attack snowballs heavily and his opponents tend not to mount comebacks if it piles up, but his losses tend to be extremely lopsided beatings before Cerrone finds opportunities to do anything of effect (and a bad first round often portends a bad fight for him). Whether Justin Gaethje can exploit those tendencies is yet to be seen.

Justin Gaethje strikes Dustin Poirier in a lightweight UFC bout
Justin Gaethje strikes Dustin Poirier in a lightweight UFC bout (Getty Images)

The Highlight

Curiously, Justin Gaethje’s career seems to be following a somewhat reversed-track for an elite talent; where most great fighters tend to start strong only for their weaknesses to be revealed, Gaethje’s limitations were on display just as much as his strengths were in his first three UFC bouts, but the two fights after that showed what he can be against anyone else. Part of it is just standard “outside-the-UFC dominant champ” booking (similar to that of Marlon Moraes, who also drew a tough top-5 contender in his UFC debut to take advantage of his developed skillset before he started to decline), but it also just seemed like a function of pure bad luck to face three awful style matchups in a row. With Poirier out of the picture for now and Alvarez no longer a contender, Gaethje has a path to the title shot that seems less obviously grueling than the one that he had to go through the first time, and that path goes through Cerrone.

Gaethje’s game of pure pressure is deceptively thoughtful; fighters who fit the aggressive-swarmer archetype tend to be underrated technically and defensively, and Gaethje is no exception. Combined with his underrated athleticism for the division (he might be the best athlete at 155, in fact, between his freakish durability and pace, as well as the power in his hands), Gaethje’s technical game has been an ordeal to deal with for each of his five UFC opponents win or lose. Gaethje’s pressure game is quietly one of the soundest in MMA, in fact; his feet are extremely disciplined in cutting his opponent off, he can feint forward and jab to push his opponent back, and he’s a very good counterpuncher (often of the catch-and-pitch variety) which doesn’t allow his opponents to just swarm him and get off the fence.

Defensively, Gaethje is actually fairly sound; while his approach leaves him in harm’s way fairly often, all of his opponents needed serious craft to land clean on his head through a high-guard that Gaethje uses as well as anyone (adjusting it as his opponent throws, countering out of it, and moving his head). In the open, Gaethje’s a very strong kicker, notably to the legs and on the counter, which often shortchanges his opponent’s combinations as it knocks them out of stance (as it did to Dustin Poirier numerous times), and they’re powerful enough to deal serious attritive damage extremely early in the fight. All of that culminates in Gaethje’s game with his opponent against the fence, which is where each of his last three wins ended; Gaethje can herd his opponent into one big shot, as he did to Vick and Barboza, but the Johnson performance was more characteristic of his punishing and relentless clinch-game against a tired foe.

Gaethje’s flaws tend to just be fighters better in his preferred areas than he is; to date, no opponent has been able to outright deny Gaethje of his favored fight, and none have been able to shut him out in that range either, but Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier (and, to some effect, Michael Johnson) were able to find opportunities with their deep skillsets in the pocket. Alvarez and Poirier, in particular, did a great deal of work drawing and manipulating Gaethje’s guard to strike elsewhere (e.g. Alvarez using body shots to set up the uppercut, Poirier using the jab to draw the shell and punching around it), where Johnson found most of his success on the counter. Unlike certain other elite lightweights (such as Barboza), there isn’t a key to beating Gaethje that drastically reduces his effectiveness; anyone who faces him is forced to concede his fight, and the only way to beat him so far has been to be better than him where he’s best.

Conclusions and Capping:

One of the easier fights to call stylistically, both as “Cerrone against a sound pressurer” and as “Gaethje against someone who isn’t an elite pocket-boxer”.

Cerrone isn’t likely to have success with the knee against a fighter who can pressure effectively (instead of just trying to run forward to swarm), and he doesn’t have the footwork on the outside to alleviate Gaethje’s pressure. He’s probably not going to find success in the pocket against someone who can counterpunch his blitzes, and Gaethje probably outkicks him (Cerrone isn’t great at kicking on the backfoot, and Gaethje outkicked Barboza before the finish).

It’s a similar matchup as Gaethje’s last, against Edson Barboza; there’s an outside chance that one hard attack sneaks through, but the fundamental matchup Gaethje presents to someone who historically can’t handle pressure is likely too much to overcome.

Prediction: Gaethje via KO1. This writer caps Gaethje at -450.

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