Voting is now open for the 12th annual World MMA Awards. Head here to vote for your favourite fighters and MMA personalities.
Fighters Only has extended the nomination period from 12 months to 18 months (1st January 2019 – 30th June 2020) to best account for all global MMA action and performances.
The star-studded, black-tie 2020 World MMA Awards event will be held in October 2020 on a date and location to be announced.
In the lead-up to the big show, we are profiling each of the 12th annual World MMA Awards nominees.
Justin Gaethje is nominated as the Charles ‘Mask’ Lewis Fighter of the Year in the 12th annual World MMA Awards.
Interim UFC lightweight champion Justin Gaethje has spent the last 18 months cementing his status as the real deal.
“The Highlight” has been a fan favourite since his eye-catching displays in the World Series of Fighting, where he won gold before moving over to the UFC in 2017.
While his UFC run started off with a bang in his memorable KO win over Michael Johnson, Gaethje suffered two consecutive knockout losses to ex-UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez and former interim titleholder Dustin Poirier afterwards. Those were the first two losses of his professional MMA career.
Gaethje put a halt to that losing run with an emphatic knockout victory over the towering James Vick, but 2019 was the year he showed that he had evolved his game and put those two losses well behind him.
On 30 March, 2019 the Arizonan took on Brazilian Muay Thai specialist Edson Barboza. Given Gaethje’s penchant for engaging in shot-for-shot firefights with fearsome strikers, this was seen as a risky contest as he sought to ascend up the UFC rankings.
Fortunately for him, Gaethje passed this formidable Barboza test and in style.
After a wild exchange of leg kicks in the early going, Gaethje quickly showed off his power in the first skirmish of punches.
Barboza was clearly hurt, but did well to recover and held onto Gaethje with his back to the fence as he regained his bearings.
The pair broke and Barboza looked to have recouped his wits as they fought on in the centre of the Octagon.
Buoyed by his early success, Gaethje looked to land more punches and did just that, sending Barboza into retreat once again following another session of trading hands.
Gaethje stalked Barboza towards the fence once again, but this time landed the kill shot with a big, looping right hand as Barboza looked to circle out of trouble. No follow-up punches required as referee Keith Peterson dove in to save Barboza from any further punishment after crashing down to the canvas.
The Barboza victory was the first true example of the lessons Gaethje learned from his losses to Alvarez and Poirier.
Gaethje had both Alvarez and Poirier in trouble in their fights, but seeing his opponent wobbled would ultimately be Gaethje’s undoing. He would recklessly seek the spectacular finish and quite often got hurt in doing so.
Instead of rushing in to finish the job against Barboza, Gaethje was aggressive, but patient – picking his shots and opting for quality over quantity.
With this new-found tactical nous, Gaethje would go on to test his skills and fight IQ against one of the wiliest veterans around in Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.
Gaethje and Cerrone met in Vancouver on 14 September, 2019.
At this point in time, Cerrone had not long fought Tony Ferguson, losing to a doctor’s stoppage in between the second and third rounds following an entertaining contest.
Despite that loss, Cowboy was enjoying somewhat of a career renaissance. Before Ferguson, Cerrone ended his brief stint as an undersized welterweight and dropped back down to his best weight class to dismantle rising prospect Alexander Hernandez in early 2019 with a TKO win.
He then out-thought and outfought former UFC lightweight title contender Al Iaquinta, beating him over five rounds and positioned himself as a lightweight in the outer-reaches of the title picture once again.
Cowboy’s stock was still high by the time he faced Gaethje. As game as Cowboy always is, he couldn’t handle Gaethje’s power.
The opening four minutes of the bout were competitive. Cowboy had more of his success at range, landing his jab and front kicks to the body.
However, whenever the distance wasn’t there, Gaethje would either thud a thunderous leg kick or land hooks and vicious uppercuts while in close quarters.
Cowboy got caught in the crossfire one too many times. A straight right from Arizona’s Gaethje planted Cerrone, who fell to his knees. Gaethje then swarmed him with punches while motioning referee Jerin Valel to stop the fight in between each blow. It was clear that Cowboy wasn’t adequately defending himself and the fight was eventually called to a halt.
Though furious at Valel in the immediate aftermath of the fight, Gaethje was soon lapping up the crowd’s applause as his ascent up the UFC rankings kicked into high gear.
For the first time, Gaethje’s name was firmly in the title picture of the UFC’s most talented division. While that was the case, not even Gaethje would have thought his next fight would be for the interim UFC lightweight championship.
That transpired eight months later.
UFC 249 was all systems go to take place on 18 April, 2020 inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The main event was the eagerly-anticipated (and oft-cancelled) UFC lightweight championship bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson.
As you will all be too aware, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic hit. On 18 March, 2020 the New York State Athletic Commission announced the fight would not be going ahead in The Empire State as planned.
With the world locking down, Khabib announced on 30 March that he was stuck in his native Dagestan, Russia and wouldn’t be able to fly out of the country for a rescheduled bout to take place in a then-undisclosed location.
Scrambling for a replacement fight under such uncertainty, Gaethje got the call and agreed to replace Nurmagomedov and face Ferguson for the interim title.
After a series of cancellations, things changing and goalposts being moved amid the pandemic which is still ongoing today, it was confirmed that UFC 249 would take place in the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida on 9 May.
The first UFC main event held behind closed doors, Ferguson – Gaethje was enthralling viewing for MMA fans watching at homes across the world.
Without a vociferous crowd in attendance – a crowd which would have lapped this fight right up – you could hear every strike’s shattering impact and there was plenty of that in this particularly violent contest.
Gaethje unarguably produced the finest performance of his career to dispose of the iron-chinned Ferguson.
It was all one-way traffic as The Highlight chewed up the legs of “El Cucuy” with some downright nasty calf kicks. And when he wasn’t kicking Ferguson’s legs out from underneath him, Gaethje was landing power punches with pinpoint accuracy and for a long, sustained period of time.
Ferguson somehow withstood the punishment being dealt his way until eventually succumbing to Gaethje’s suffocating pressure in the fifth and final round.
The fight’s end came as a blinding jab to Ferguson’s nose forced him to step back, pause and shake off the cowbwebs.
Gaethje smelled blood and looked to land some fight-ending blows but referee Herb Dean stopped the contest before Ferguson was dealt any further damage.
The clinic put on by Gaethje meant he was now the interim UFC lightweight champion, Ferguson’s ridiculous 12-fight win streak had been ended, and that we’d have to wait even more time to ever see El Cucuy fight Nurmagomedov – that is now the unenviable task of Gaethje’s.
At the time of writing, it’s expected that Nurmagomedov and Gaethje will compete in their UFC lightweight unification bout at UFC 253 in September.
As daunting a task it is to face the unbeaten Nurmagomedov, many now feel Gaethje could be one of the few fighters who have the tools to do it.
He may not show it in his most recent MMA performances, but Gaethje is a talented wrestler – a Division 1 All-American with the University of Northern Colorado – and his particular grappling strength lies in defensive wrestling, which could be key against a combat sambo expert like Khabib. Then there are Gaethje’s more obvious tools: accurate striking and fight-ending power.
But that’s not just it. The last 18 months have shown how much Gaethje’s game has evolved. The patience and fight IQ he showed glimpses of against Barboza – his first fight of 2019 – was all to see against Ferguson. Gaethje thoroughly beat down Ferguson in a manner of which we had never seen before. Not only that, but Gaethje was hardly ever in any form of trouble against one of the most dangerous fighters in UFC lightweight history.
From early 2019 to June, 2020, Gaethje went from a man looking to continue the recovery of his career following two devastating defeats, to adding interim UFC gold to his collection.
Three fights, three knockout wins and a UFC belt to boot. That’s why The Highlight is more than a worthy contender for Fighter of the Year in the 12th annual World MMA Awards.
Is Justin Gaethje your Fighter of the Year?
Voting is now open for the 12th annual World MMA Awards.
Head here to vote for your favourite fighters and MMA personalities.