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Justin Gaethje: The New Old Guard

For long-time UFC fans, Justin Gaethje’s explosive debut against Michael Johnson does not feel all too long ago.  Yet in a rapidly changing scene, Gaethje now approaches the tail end of his career.  Throughout his UFC tenure, “The Highlight” has become a fan-favorite through his electrifying performances.  The undisputed title, however, has still eluded the former interim champion.  Having now won the BMF belt, he has once again emerged as a potential title challenger.  

Image – DAZN

While fans appreciate Gaethje’s exciting style, the BMF belt holder has evolved significantly throughout his time in the UFC.  He once fought with reckless abandon, which produced some of the most exciting fights in the division’s history.  However, he quickly suffered devastating losses to top contenders Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Porier as a result.  These veterans survived Gaethje’s relentless offense and inflicted too much damage for Justin to endure. 

                                                                                             Image – AZCentral

Gaethje rebounded with a streak of quick knockout wins against James Vick, Edson Barboza, and Donald Cerrone.  He then delivered a stunning masterclass against Tony Ferguson to capture the interim title, ending Ferguson’s infamous winning streak.  In this fight, Gaethje demonstrated a newfound patience, and methodically beat Ferguson round after round.  This win set him up to face the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Unfortunately for Justin, Khabib delivered his own highlight reel finish against him early in the second round.  Despite these optics, Gaethje certainly had his moments in the short lived fight.  He cracked Khabib with several hard shots and did stuff several early takedown attempts.  However, fans most vividly remember the ease with which Khabib dominated Gaethje on the ground, finding a quick submission.  

After an exciting win against Michael Chandler, Gaethje challenged for the belt once again, this time against Charles Oliveira.  Again, Gaethje lost via submission, this time in round one.  While the fight was quick, it was nevertheless incredibly competitive.  Gaethje dropped Oliveira multiple times, but refused to engage in Charles’s guard.  Ultimately, Charles’s own knockout power allowed him to drop Justin and secure the submission  win.                                                                                                                                                      Image – MMA Fighting

The fact that Gaethje’s two title shots both ended in quick submission losses have led many to write him off as a potential title winner.  With Khabib’s protege Islam Makhachev now holding the belt, many simply expect a repeat of Gaethje’s loss to Khabib.  While Islam has himself proven to be an all-time great, this potential matchup may not be so simple.  Although both are incredible grapplers, Islam and Khabib fight very differently.  While Khabib relentlessly walked Gaethje down, Makhachev fights more defensively.  Gaethje would thus have more room to operate on the feet, although he will also have to deal with Makhachev’s own striking fluidity.  While Makhachev has a clear grappling advantage, Gaethje has shown tremendous takedown defense, which should at least give him some opportunities to land on the feet.

By all accounts, Islam should be favored in a fight against Gaethje.  After an early KO loss, Makhachev’s run in this division has proven nearly flawless.  Having just knocked out Alexander Volkanovski, his stock could hardly be higher.  Even so, a fight between these two could prove much more competitive and entertaining than many are expecting.  Gaethje has an opportunity to finally capture an undisputed title—and he will certainly come prepared to take it.

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