Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Johnson: Better Opponent, Same Fight

If Michael Johnson was better than the rest of the opponents on his record, Justin Gaethje didn't seem to care. We examine the instant classic, and the fan friendly style of MMA's most masochistic knockout artist.

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Jul 11 2017, 8:47am

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

They keep saying that he gets hit too much, and that it won't cut it against elite fighters but Justin Gaethje just stopped the number five ranked lightweight in the world in what could be described as an early front runner for Fight of the Year. Well, that or a typical Gaethje fight. The World Series of Fighting champion moved forward, absorbed some shots, gave some shots, and melted his man with the pressure, advancing his record to a spotless 18-0.

Gaethje does get hit too much, but fighting isn't an exact science. There have been hundreds of great fighters who get hit a lot. It ages a fighter quickly, and raises the chances of him being knocked out, but durability is a game changer if you can rely on it. I'm certain that Gaethje will get knocked out with blows to the head at some point if he hangs around long enough, in fact so is he, but as with the Diaz boys: a gameplan built around knocking him out with one good blow to the noggin hasn't seemed to help anyone just yet.

The 'Bull Guard'

One of the great misconceptions in mixed martial arts is that covering up doesn't work without ten ounce gloves to hide behind. Certainly there are some very, very bad instances of covering up in MMA. Martin Kampmann and Stefan Struve were notorious for putting their arms up, backing onto the fence, and getting beaten up there. But every round that Nate Diaz won against the current lightweight champion and pin point accurate hitter, Conor McGregor, relied heavily on covering up. In their first fight, McGregor was opening up willingly and exhausted himself against Diaz's forearms, leaving himself open for checking hooks and the classic Nate Diaz one-two in the aftermath.

Notice how through the flurry, Nate pushes in and then steps back. Crowding and withdrawing through the opponent's swings both improve a fighter's chances when he puts the earmuffs on.

In the second fight, Diaz was stung with sharp counters each time he reached for McGregor. Midway through the second round Diaz stopped leading and instead buried his chin on his chest, raised his forearms and walked straight at McGregor, forcing his way into range first, and it worked an absolute treat. Without clean holes to counter through, McGregor was forced to throw at Diaz to keep Diaz from simply walking in on him—these blows glanced off Diaz's guard and Diaz stepped in anyway. If he hadn't covered up, gritted his teeth and started walking in, Diaz wouldn't have been able to put the pace on McGregor and tire him as effectively as he did.

Covering up serves its purpose completely adequately when the opponent isn't given the chance to stand back and pick his shots. Standing still, out in the open with your hands up is only going give the opponent time to look and to think. When a fighter is crowding his man, flustering him and hurrying his shot selection, moving in and out as his opponent unloads, the double forearms guard becomes far more effective. The idea being that you aren't going to avoid getting hit, but you can avoid the clean connections on the most vulnerable spots, and if a tough fighter doesn't have particularly good reflexes or anticipation that will absolutely do the job.

All blows to the head are not created equal. A flush connection on the point of the chin is worth a hundred blows bouncing off the hard top portion of the skull (in immediate results within a fight at least, both are pretty bad for your brain). The worst places a fighter can punch are his opponent's forehead and the top of his head. Gene Tunney famously wrote of Jack Dempsey that through twenty rounds with him, despite Dempsey's low hands, he could never find Dempsey's chin. Always it was Dempsey's cheek or forehead that Tunney's hands rebounded off while the Manassa Mauler's chin remained pinned to his chest. For many fighters who excel at burying their chin, looking up through their eyebrows and moving forward, the forehead is part of the guard. In bareknuckle fighting this is especially important because the small bones of the fingers and hand break a lot more easily than the bone bowling ball that is the skull. In the bareknuckle Burmese sport of Lethwei, this is termed the 'bull guard' and fancy name aside it is exactly what Diaz used against McGregor, and what Gaethje used against Johnson. Take a look at this punch and ask how bad it could have been if Johnson had scored on Gaethje's jaw. Instead it dinged off Gaethje's skull and he continued, completely unfazed.

Gaethje's game was the same throughout: he moved forward, slipped or absorbed shots, and put in hard low kicks when he could to take the wheels out from under Johnson. Meanwhile Johnson attempted to circle out and straight shoot, in the style that we expected to make him a bad match up for Gaethje.

If you had followed Gaethje before this fight with Michael Johnson, a nice surprise in the first round was Gaethje's defensive work. Applying pressure means a fighter has to use their presence, it is the exact opposite of being elusive and the fighter is always there to be hit. Gaethje used his high guard nicely, along with some head movement to evade most of Johnson's best blows. Trevor Wittman is clearly doing good work, because Gaethje used to be a lot more hittable against much less accomplished opponents.

The downside of the high hands, head down method of guarding is that it opens up the body to blows. In The Tactical Guide to Gaethje vs Johnson we speculated that Johnson's left straight to the body could be an important weapon in this fight and he went to the body with his left hand frequently. (Similarly, the last round and a half of McGregor versus Diaz II saw McGregor open up with body strikes beneath Diaz's high guard).

An upside of ducking in whenever the opponent throws anything is that an aggressive opponent can drive their face directly onto the covering fighter's head. Gaethje's flurry of offence in the opening minute came after Johnson stunned himself on a nodder.

And of course lowering the head to block the path of the opponent's is a completely legitimate technique in freestyle wrestling, and Gaethje could be seen performing the head block consciously amid those borderline butts in the striking exchanges.

Gaethje's high guard frustrated Johnson so much that the latter began to grab Gaethje's wrists. In Nate Diaz versus Conor McGregor II, McGregor began checking Diaz's hands and rolling over into elbows in the final round, which is a great answer to high forearms. Johnson was a little slow to get going with his offence and Gaethje's answer was to simply windmill his right hand around and into the haymaker he is known for.

Gaethje's trouble in this fight didn't come from his forward moving, high hands and chin down style as much as it did from his offensive habits. In the Tactical Guide we noted his constant leading with low kicks. Naked low kicking from directly in front of the opponent is an invitation for a response and while Gaethje's awareness and timing is enough to keep him just out of danger a lot of the time, the first telling blow of the fight came as he was caught on one leg.

The second instance that Gaethje was stunned came off an uppercut. A lovely connection which was found, once again, as Gaethje was recovering from a kick and out in the open.

Generally Gaethje did a better job of turning his body, moving his head, and dropping his guard into the line of the blow when Johnson was shooting for uppercuts through the fight. These can be a major problem for a fighter who ducks down behind his guard when his opponent starts firing.

The final big blow that had Gaethje reeling came as he opened himself up to swing. With his right hand down by his waist, Gaethje attempted to swing a left hook back at Johnson, while Johnson was still punching. Gaethje has always had a tendency to open up wide when he swings back with counters, but it is especially noticeable on his left side as he is so much less dexterous with his left hand.

Gaethje's cover-and-counter swings seemed to save him somewhat when he was hurt as Johnson risked the same fate as Palomino when he opened up on the wounded Arizonan. Gaethje was noticeably winded by Johnson's lefts and rights to the body and was breathing heavy in the second round. As Johnson went to the left hand to the body twice in a row, Gaethje timed a right uppercut that had Johnson diving for his legs.

From there the crowd got to see what Gaethje is so famous for: beating people up on the fence. His left hand always pulling on the collar tie or stiff arming Johnson away, his right hand always loading up for uppercuts, overhands or elbows, Gaethje brutalized Johnson against the cage.

Each time Johnson hit the mat, by knockdown or by failed takedown, the exhausted Gaethje beckoned him back up to the feet. A Groenhart knee connected on Johnson's already busted up nose, followed by some more dirty boxing and that was all she wrote.

Murthel Groenhart uses this knee in almost every fight, opening half of his attacking combinations with it and Gaethje has connected it in several of his fights. It certainly helps if you chuck a ton of right low kicks before attempting the air-hike because otherwise all the opponent sees is a run-up. For a chuckle, check out this youtube clip of Wittman and Gaethje demonstrating the knee back in 2014 and apparently Gaethje himself arguing with people in the comments about the effectiveness of the move.

Justin Gaethje's UFC debut delivered everything it promised. He moved forward relentlessly, he got hit, he got into trouble, and then he wilted his opponent under fire. There were weaknesses displayed—some new, like just how effective the bodywork proved for Johnson, some old like getting nailed off low kicks—but there was also improvement here. Firstly, Gaethje's simple head movement looked more effective than this writer can recall, against the best opponent of his career. The right straight to level change—the open guard equivalent of the old jab-and-duck—was also a nice addition for this bout, and Gaethje's bodywork made all the difference when he finally committed to it.

While Justin Gaethje is still a fighter whose physical attributes (mainly his toughness) are relied on too heavily in fights, he is certainly not just that anymore. Sure, he'll get knocked out at some point and everyone will say "I knew that style would get him into trouble", but to put it frankly: it'll keep working until it doesn't, and it'll be a damn fun ride while it lasts.