Brawling has long been considered the red-headed stepchild of the fighting arts, but that could soon change thanks to Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje’s introduction to the UFC.
Tonight (July 7) in Las Vegas, Gaethje, in the process of stopping number five-ranked lightweight Michael Johnson in the second round, made an art form of brawling. Relentless, merciless and violent, the former World Series of Fighting champion played his part in a thrilling ‘Fight of the Year’ contender, replete with ebb and flow and knockdowns, and cemented his reputation as one of MMA’s most exciting commodities.
How’s that for a first impression?
Anyone privy to Gaethje’s work in the WSOF, which took his unbeaten run to 17, would have been well aware of the Arizona native’s fondness for a tear-up, but, for those unfamiliar, a star was tonight born in Las Vegas and, moreover, many will have said hello to their new favourite fighter.
Speaking to Fighters Only last week, Gaethje’s coach, Trevor Wittman, sounded excited yet apprehensive about his charge’s fight with Johnson. A step up in class, he envisaged a series of rocky moments and said he fully expected Johnson to sweep the first round or two on hand and foot speed alone.
He was, in retrospect, half right. Gaethje gave as good as he got in the early going. He matched Johnson in the exchanges, even wobbling him with a left hook, and cut off the Octagon, suffocating Johnson, in a way that was both admirable and brave. Leg kicks chopped away; body punches softened. There was no quarter given. For Johnson, no room to breathe.
But, of course, as is Gaethje’s custom, there were, as Wittman predicted, more than a few anxious moments along the way. A southpaw left cross thrown early by Johnson, for example, knocked him off balance and brought a grin to his face, and then, after a period of good work, Gaethje, with less 30 seconds left to run in the opening round, found his legs buckled and senses scrambled by a stunning right uppercut from an orthodox stance.
For a moment, it seemed the end was near. Johnson shot in for a takedown, momentarily got Gaethje’s back, and then proceeded to punch his wounded opponent from the side. He hurt him once more, finishing the round well on top, and effectively had the final say in a round that saw numerous momentum shifts.
Not that Gaethje, 28, cared. He knew he was playing the long game. It’s what he does. It’s what he had trained to do. Therefore, rather than panic, he brushed himself down, smiled to start round two and seemed to outwardly relish the danger he was set to face. To him, this was all fun and round two, rather than a round he needed to survive, merely represented another opportunity for him to punch or elbow Johnson in the face and kick away at his legs.
Johnson, though, was quick to rediscover his groove and it wasn’t long before he again sent Gaethje reeling, this time via a huge right hand, and seemed on the brink of securing an eye-catching stoppage. Gaethje, caught in a whirlwind, was more hurt this time around and follow-up knees in the clinch didn’t exactly help matters, either.
Still, he made it to the other side and Johnson, perhaps wisely, settled back down, careful not to punch himself out, and continued to move on the back foot, spiking Gaethje from afar with sharp and straight counterpunches, as well as some well-placed body shots.
Although an intelligent strategy on the face of it – one Johnson presumably set out to execute – it also provided Gaethje with the very thing he wanted: time and space to go to work; the chance to build momentum; confidence. After all, for a visceral animal like Gaethje there is no greater sight than that of an opponent in retreat mode, voluntarily or not. This action, that of going back, speaks to the destroyer in Gaethje. It motivates him to increase his own pace and output. It makes him hungry.
This was apparent in round two when, not long after Gaethje found himself on queer street as a result of a right hand, he managed to pierce an uppercut of his own through Johnson’s flimsy guard and badly stun the man from St. Louis. Momentum regained, Gaethje now had Johnson trying to hold and survive as elbows sent him to the floor and he looked to stay there. Gaethje, naturally, told him to rise. When he did, the attack recommenced, now in the form of leg-kicks, and Johnson flopped to the deck for a second time. As before, Gaethje signalled for his opponent to dust himself down and return to the eye of the storm. So, begrudgingly, he did.
This time, however, once Johnson was upright, there would be no let-up from Gaethje. He set about Johnson immediately, connecting with a flying left knee, and then finished him against the fence with an accurate right knee to the face.
With that, the fight, one of the best in recent memory, was over at the 4:48 mark of round two.
“It feels fantastic; I love this,” Gaethje, now 18-0, said afterwards. “You cannot break me, I promise you. Drop me all you want; you better put me to sleep or I’m coming for your head, coming for your legs, coming for your body.
“I have the best coach, Trevor Wittman, and for eight weeks he said start low and you will get a nice knockout. That’s what I did. He landed a great uppercut, but I was never out of that fight. Never.”
That, on tonight’s evidence, is the art of brawling. It’s not about wandering aimlessly, taking licks and hoping to get lucky. It’s about smothering and stifling and cutting off an opponent’s space and breathing room. It’s about leg-kicks and body shots and dirty boxing and clinch-work. It’s about staying active when you’re tired. It’s about still believing when you’re down and hurt. It’s about fighting when the other guy no longer wants to fight. It’s winning when winning doesn’t seem possible.
It’s everything Justin Gaethje, MMA’s answer to Arturo ‘Thunder’ Gatti, did tonight in Sin City.