Justin Gaethje: Still in the Title Picture?
... or is he the scariest gatekeeper in MMA?
Courtesy of Paul Miller of MMA Freaks.
Without digging deeper into his career, Lightweight contender Justin Gaethje’s 2-2 UFC record obscures his pre-UFC undefeated status, and an impressive 19-2 overall professional record. A fighter doesn’t go 17-0 as a professional and win the WSOF Lightweight Championship without being a complete and dominating fighter.
Nevertheless, now batting only .500 since moving up to the big leagues, some are tempted to say that Gaethje cannot compete with the best of the best in the UFC’s 155lb division. Looking at his two wins against Michael Johnson and James Vick, and his two losses against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, there is a fairly stark difference in experience and accomplishments between Alvarez and Poirier on the one hand, and Johnson and Vick on the other. This gives the impression that there is an upper echelon at 155 that Justin Gaethje cannot crack, but that mid-ranked contenders and up-and-comers should beware. This impression inevitably leads some to conclude that Gaethje may be an exciting fighter and a tough test for anyone, but that ultimately, he is destined to be a gatekeeper at 155lbs.
But again, dig deeper into those two losses. Look at the damage Gaethje did to both men he lost to, and look at how both Poirier and Alvarez had to dig deep to gut-out those wins against a man who does not quit, and who proves himself willing to absorb incredible punishment in the pursuit of dishing out some of his own – and man, he dishes it out, win or lose. And in both losses, Gaethje put up such a fight that both Alvarez and Poirier were in danger during several moments of those fights, if only things would have gone a little differently for Gaethje… he was closer to toppling two big names and claiming their title aspirations as his own, than people give him credit for.
But here he is at 2-2, coming off a win against James Vick at UFC Fight Night 135 in Lincoln Nebraska. Vick has had high aspirations and has been spoken about as a future contender. But as we saw, there are levels to this thing, and Gaethje showed us that if Vick wants to fight contenders beyond Gaethje, he has some work to do. Gaethje’s spectacular 1st round KO sent Vick back down the ladder. In other words, he kept the gate.
The UFC’s Lightweight division is arguably its toughest, most stacked division. Nurmagomedov, Poirier, Ferguson, McGregor, Alvarez, Lee, and Barboza are all stacked up in front of Gaethje. Considering what he did to Alvarez and Poirier in his two losses, it’s easy to imagine Gaethje giving problems to any or all of them. But in the final analysis, does he have more than a puncher’s chance against any of them? With his chin-forward, brawling style, it’s hard to make the case that he does, given his mediocre 2-2 UFC record.
Tough veterans like Pettis, Iaquinta, and Diaz are pushing from behind, along with a slate of up-and-comers who see their pathway to title contention running into Justin Gaethje. Against fighters that would need to get past him for a shot at a top contender, it is easier to imagine Gaethje doing exactly what he did to James Vick.
After his victory against Vick, Gaethje made the point that after a loss, you fight somebody ranked lower than you; after a win, you call out somebody ranked higher. He mentioned Ferguson. Unfortunately, Ferguson is already slated to face Pettis, for some reason, no one can quite figure out. Nevertheless, it doesn’t look like we’ll be favored with a Gaethje/Ferguson fight any time soon. So what’s next for Gaethje is anybody’s guess at this point. It will be interesting to watch how he fares against the top tier, as well as how he fares against those vying for contention. Whether Justin Gaethje is still a top contender for the UFC Lightweight title, or a gatekeeper destined to frustrate the aspirations of would-be contenders, remains to be seen.