UFC 274: Justin Gaethje's path to becoming one of UFC's iconic fighters

·Combat columnist
·5-min read

There are many things which go into making Justin Gaethje perhaps the most destructive force in combat sports today. He’s incredibly well conditioned, and it’s like he can run a distance at a sprinter’s speed. He’s extremely mentally tough, and can block out pain or other distractions as easily as swatting away a fly. His kicks are brutally efficient and often takes the legs out from under his opponent.

He has one of the best coaches in MMA and with him, they’re known for the brilliance of their game plans. And Gaethje is a powerful, physically strong man who takes a punch and keeps attacking like few others can.

But it’s Gaethje’s athleticism that makes him such a special fighter. He’s the kind of guy who could always do everything a little better than everyone else in a sporting realm, regardless of whether he’d practiced.

Gaethje, who challenges Charles Oliveira on Saturday in Phoenix in the main event of UFC 274 for the lightweight title, has become one of the sport’s most popular fighters because of his frenetic style, the pace at which he competes and his ferociousness in the cage.

Javier Mendez prepared former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov to fight Gaethje in what turned out to be Nurmagomedov’s final fight. Mendez said he made it a point every day to remind Nurmagomedov about working on defending Gaethje’s kicks.

But Mendez said it’s not just a Pier 6 brawl and there is much method behind Gaethje’s seeming madness.

“Khabib was so good and so talented and so special that really, reminding him of the kicks was the one thing I needed to stay on top of,” Mendez told Yahoo Sports. “And every day, I would tell him about it, even if he didn’t really want to hear much about it after a while. For Oliveira, Gaethje’s going to present all-around problems. Everywhere they go, problems.

“He is a very strategic fighter and he knows what he is doing. I felt they felt that Khabib was vulnerable to leg kicks, which was true, and they went after it. But Justin’s a smart fighter and he has an extremely intelligent coach [Trevor Wittman] who approaches the game in a smart way and always devises a smart plan. Oliveira can’t just be thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll take him down, la la la,’ but try taking him down. It’s not going to be that easy.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 06: Justin Gaethje reacts after his lightweight fight against Michael Chandler during the UFC 268 event at Madison Square Garden on November 06, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Justin Gaethje reacts after his lightweight fight against Michael Chandler during UFC 268 at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 6, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

UFC president Dana White said Gaethje’s success is no shock. Gaethje is 22-3 in MMA and 6-3 in the UFC. His losses were to Eddie Alvarez, Dustin Poirier and Nurmagomedov.

Gaethje’s won Fight of the Night six times in his nine UFC outings and had Performance of the Night three times. White said Gaethje has the full package.

“He’s got a great chin,” White said of Gaethje. “Unbelievable knockout power in both hands. Vicious leg kicks and great takedown defense. It doesn’t get any more dangerous than that.”

Michael Chandler, who fights Tony Ferguson on the undercard Saturday, lost to Gaethje in an important bout in November. He told Yahoo Sports that Gaethje’s takedown defense is even better than he thought.

The two had a wild shootout that had fans screaming and on their feet, but Chandler didn’t plan it that way. But he said he couldn’t find the openings he was looking for to get Gaethje off his feet.

“I had the game plan of going in there and fighting very smart, trying to get to his legs and take him down,” Chandler said. “But it just didn't happen. I think Justin Gaethje has underrated takedown defense, not necessarily just with his wrestling takedown abilities, but with his, the way that he moves his body, dips his head, throws overhand rights and left hooks. I didn't see the openings like I thought I was going to.”

That’s all due to Gaethje’s amazing athleticism. He said he believes his size is the only thing that kept him from potentially playing another sport professionally.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 06: (R-L) Justin Gaethje punches Michael Chandler in their lightweight bout during the UFC 268 event at Madison Square Garden on November 06, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Michael Chandler and Justin Gaethje's epic slugfest at UFC 268 in November was the winner of the 2021 Yahoo Sports Fight of the Year. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

He was a quarterback in high school and had one of the best arms around.

“I can throw a football 60, 70 yards,” Gaethje said. “I can throw. I was a quarterback in high school … and if I wanted to do anything else, it was going to be I would be a professional quarterback in the NFL.”

But Gaethje, who was an All-American wrestler at Northern Colorado, was only 5-11 and weighed between 150 and 160 pounds. Tom Brady is 6-4, 225 pounds. Aaron Rodgers is 6-2, 225. Ben Roethlisberger is 6-5, 245.

There aren’t a lot of sub-6-foot quarterbacks in the NFL, but football’s loss was MMA’s gain.

He’s become one of the sport’s iconic fighters and wears out opponents with his pace.

“If you’re not ready for that pace he’ll push, he’s going to fry you,” Mendez said. “He’s going to be relentless from the first round to the last round. He’s not going to stop. He’s going to continue to push and kick and punch. He’s not much of a takedown guy. He could be, but he’s not because he doesn’t care to go to the ground.

“And he hits so hard and has so many tools, he’s just really a difficult guy to prepare for and to handle, no matter who you are.”

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