As I write this, we are fresh off of a big night in Salt Lake City at UFC 291. Main evented by two standouts in an already talent filled division, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje squared off for the BMF title. A bit of a gimmick by the UFC, which is rich because they “don’t do gimmick fights”, although to be honest, I don’t mind it. Not every man or woman on the roster can win this belt, and that alone makes it special. Almost like it’s own mini division within the UFC. The fighter to leave the cage with the shiny new belt at UFC 291 was Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje, a fan favourite, a man that literally, no exaggeration, does not have one single bad or boring fight, and I really mean that, and as you’re about to see for yourself, Gaethje has been having fight of the night contenders since his days as WSOF.
After the bout concluded, I wrote a 5000 word article on Dustin Poiriers career, calling it a “Deep Dive“, covering every single one of his fights. And here I am today, doing the same thing with The Highlight himself. And I am very excited to go back and watch this mans entire career from start to present.
That’s the thing with this series, it isn’t about retired or past their prime fighters that are still competing, and although I may cover a retired legend from time to time like Nick Diaz or Robbie Lawler, this videos in this series will be reserved for my favourite fighters on the roster, of old, new and current, whether retired or not.
But enough of that, let’s get to some fights.
Justin Gaethje exploded onto the pro MMA scene a seasoned D1 All American wrestler, although at this point in his career, you’d never know it, as Gaethje’s preferred method of Mixed Martial Homicide is a stand and bang war until somebody falls. Going 7-0 on the regionals in Arizona and Colorado, finishing six of the seven bouts, with Justin even scoring himself a neat little rear naked choke finish, which feels weird to even say out loud.
The footage, as always, is hard to find. And any footage we do have is just handheld cameras with Gaethje flying past the lens like some sort of violent orb, throwing heavy hands, leg kicks and even shooting takedowns, whaat? Yeah, takedowns.
WSOF 2 – March 23rd, 2013
Nevertheless, with a record of 7-0, Gaethje signed for WSOF, which is now known as the PFL, and at WSOF 2 was scheduled to face Gesias Cavalcante, in what was a somewhat sloppy brawl, both fighters clashing heads multiple times and clinching up as they crashed into each other, with Gaethje being the cleaner striker overall, stuffing takedowns when necessary and landing a few stinging right hands on Cavalcante, eventually gaining a TKO victory via doctor stoppage, not the last time the doctor had to step in to save a fighter from Gaethje.
WSOF 3 – June 14th, 2013
Back again at the very next big WSOF event, Gaethje this time was to fight Brian Cobb, with Gaethje’s awkward leg kick timing giving Cobb issues from the opening bell, and would continue to do so for the entire fight. Everytime Cobb would focus on the leg kicks, Justin would fire shots down the pipe, and eventually, the damage was just too much, one more stinging leg kick from Gaethje and Cobb began to limp backwards, trying to keep himself together. A body kick and another big leg kick from Gaethje which landed right on the side of the knee and Cobb recoiled once again, trying to find his feet underneath him. Being unable to put any weight on the lead leg, he tapped to strikes in the third round.
WSOF6 – October 28th, 2013
The Highlight was then scheduled to fight none other than younger brother of UFC Veteran, Joe Lauzon, Dan Lauzon. Another Gaethje meat grinder of a fight. Rough and sloppy, (pause) and with plenty of clinching, dirty boxing and leg kicks to wear Lauzon down, Gaethje debuted a technique that we would see for many many years to come: shelling up. High guard, arms covering the face as much as possible and standing right in front of his opponent, begging them to throw a shot, and Lauzon fell for the bait. Just as he thought an opportunity arose to tee off on Gaethje, Justin lands a big counter overhand right followed by a signature right uppercut which put Lauzon out cold.
WSOF 8 – January 18, 2014
His next fight was for the WSOF 155 pound title, and Gaethje made quick work of one Richard Patishnock. Dirty boxing, flying round the cage like a psychopath and attempting to smash his head through Patishnocks face, this was like any other WSOF Gaethje fight, with Justin landing actually a pretty nice little rare combo: a big knee to the head and then a lightning fast heavy right hook, a hook that was so heavy, in fact, that Gaethje was almost in the car park of the venue by the time he realised the shot had landed. After chasing down Richard for the finish, Gaethje started spamming elbows like the right trigger was stuck on his controller, and Patishnock looked absolutely scared for his life, as Gaethje throws a superman elbow, spinning elbow and then drops him with a perfectly timed leg kick, Patishnock had nothing left for the madman that was in front of him, and after a few more shots, the ref jumped in to stop the bout, Justin now being crowned as WSOF Lightweight Champion.
WSOF 11 – July 5th, 2014
Not much to say about this one to be honest, all respect to Nick Newell for choosing this as a career and making it into a title fight against Justin Gaethje with literally one arm. Justin scores the finish in round 2 with a nice right hand that drops Newell, another win via TKO, defending his LW strap for the first time.
WSOF 15 – November 15th, 2014
Second title defence for Gaethje, well, what would’ve been, except the man across the cage from him, Melvin Guillard missed the 155 pound mark, meaning the title was no longer on the line. Gaethje however, was really starting to come into his own as a fighter. Don’t get me wrong, he was still just as wild as usual, but you saw him making the adjustments. After headhunting early, Gaethje then went to his best weapon, the leg kicks, and systematically broke Melvin down, winning via Split Decision, although I’m pretty sure the judge that gave it to Guillard was smoking crack, either that, or he’s just a moron. Never can be too sure with MMA judges.
WSOF 19 – March 28th, 2015
Another car crash from Gaethje, the man in the passenger seat this time being Luis Palomino, the two went back and forth, with Justin keeping the fight at breakneck pace in an attempt to drown Palomino, who was barely above water by the end, throwing back at Gaethje whenever he had the energy to do so. After landing a couple of solid leg kicks, Luis dropped to the canvas. As Gaethje was no longer trying to take his opponents life in the cage, and instead was at least semi trying to just win the fight, he gestured for the ref to stand Palomino back up. Dirty boxing, and a leg kick from the mauy thai plum clinch, something that even today is rarely ever seen in the sport of MMA, and Luis was almost done. A big flying knee and another leg kick from the plum clinch, the Peru native dropped again, this time Gaethje decided to go for the mercy kill. Title defence number two in the bag.
WSOF 23 – September 18th, 2015
Luis Palomino got the rematch against Gaethje, and honestly, watching the fights back, I have no idea why they gave Palomino the rematch instead of another contender. I guess it was because the first fight was a back and forth war, but still. Maybe there was some context back in 2015 that I’m missing. Maybe they were rivals or there was a pull out, either way. Gaethje once again finished the fight, this time even quicker, with a signature shell up-bait and throw, the exact same technique he used to finish Dan Lauzon 2 years prior. Landing a few ground and pound strikes and securing the finish.
WSOF 29 – March 12, 2016
Another TKO win for Gaethje, going to the leg kicks early and often, with opponent Brian Foster visibly grimacing everytime Gaethje got anywhere near him. Big calf kicks, over and over again, Foster took one last gunshot to the leg before he fell to the canvas holding his knee on some Peter Griffin vibes. RIP to anybody that tried to stand and leg kick with this version of Gaethje, the man did not care. He’ll go shin to shin, full power and not even flinch. Makes me sick. I love it.
WSOF 34 – December 31, 2016
In his final bout for the promotion, on a 16 fight win streak, Justin Gaethje stepped into the WSOF cage for the last time in his career. Matched against Luiz Firmino, the two traded throughout the fight, with Gaethje getting the better of the exchanges as the rounds went on, taking big damage from Firmino in the second, and as the third round was coming to close, it was obvious that Firmino could no longer see out of his right eye due to the egregious swelling from Gaethje’s strikes. The fight was called off in between the third and fourth by the doctor, and Justin ended his WSOF run with another victory.
TUF: Redemption Finale – July 7th, 2017
In possibly the most exciting UFC debut to date, maybe only rivalled by Michael Chandlers explosive KO on Dan Hooker a couple of years ago, Justin was booked to fight part time GOAT, part time tomato can Michael Johnson, who as I’ve mentioned before on this channel, can give any fighter on the planet issues, whether it’s at 145, or 155 pounds, and honestly, MJ probably deserves his own video to explain how up and down this man’s career actually is. Gaethje got hurt badly in this fight, almost out on his feet at times, as both fighters swung hard shots at each other, some grazing, and some clean, nevertheless; Gaethje went home with the win that night after he landed a short uppercut that rocked Johnson, and then a series of big knees, with MJ eventually taking a seat against the cage and the ref jumping in. Second round TKO for Gaethje in his UFC debut.
UFC 218 – December 2nd, 2017
From one great fight to an even better one, Gaethje was then booked to fight self proclaimed “Most Violent Man In The UFC”, Philly’s own Underground King, Eddie Alvarez, in what was a barn burner of a bout, both men bloodied by the end. The jump in competition here for Gaethje cannot be understated, going from fighting decent fighters in WSOF, to getting Michael Johnson and Eddie Alvarez back to back is insane. Ultimately, the body work and toughness from the underground king was too much for an undefeated Gaethje, and after a big knee up the middle from Alvarez, the fight was over. Gaethje takes the first loss of his career in a fight for the ages.
UFC on Fox: Gaethje vs. Poirier – April 14th, 2018
As I said in my Dustin Poirier Deep Dive, there aren’t many fights that I’ve rewatched as much as this one. Pure entertainment from two of the most exciting fighters on the roster, they went to war. This was Gaethje’s first UFC main event, and he was going to make it count. He opened up with his trademark leg kicks, going for the calf of Poirier and also targeting the inside leg, I’ll throw a picture of the aftermath on screen. Dustins leg was chewed up. I mentioned earlier that Gaethje does something special, he treats his leg kicks like any other strike, and will throw them from any range and even from the clinch, to the surprise of Poirier, who would stand at boxing range with Gaethje, assuming his legs were safe, and Gaethje would prove him wrong everytime. Eventually, Dustin and his corner made the read and started timing Gaethje’s leg kick, with a final kick in the fourth round being greeted with a counter left hand from Dustin, which sent Gaethje stumbling backwards, and after a sloppy exchange between the two, Justin dropped to his knees and the ref waved the fight off. Gaethje would get his revenge 5 years later, but this loss stung him bad. This would be the last time we ever saw Justin Gaethje 1.0 in the cage.
UFC Fight Night: Gaethje vs Vick – August 25th, 2018
In his second main event in a row, Justin was matched up with 13-1, 6’3 prospect James Vick, 2 losses back to back, there were now some talks about Gaethje being overrated, and I even personally remember seeing a reddit post after the Poirier loss that went through Gaethje’s WSOF run, explaining that he gets hurt in every fight and really is not UFC calibre. Justin’s catchphrase before the Vick fight was: “I’m here for a good time, not a long time.” But now, it seemed The Highlight had bigger plans. James Vick had called Justin “Homer Simpson” in the lead up to the fight, a reference to the Simpsons episode in which Homer starts a boxing career, with his only skill being his durability. Homer would get beat up for the majority of a fight, only for the opponent to gas themselves out hitting homer and lose out of exhaustion. And honestly, it wasn’t a bad comparison at the time. But to the surprise of James Vick, patient Gaethje made his debut, and instead of running at Vick, head down and dirty boxing, Gaethje tracked Vick as he circled the fence, and caught him with a beautiful overhand right in the very first round, knocking him out cold in what would go on to be the start of a run to the title for Justin, and unfortunately the start of a bad losing streak for James Vick, who lost every single fight of his career after this. Not the last time Gaethje would take somebody’s soul in the cage.
UFC on ESPN: Gaethje vs Barboza -March 30th, 2019
Another main event, another first round KO for Gaethje, this time against a UFC legend in Edson Barboza, who’s recently shown he’s certainly still got the skills to compete at the highest level, a win that has aged well. Barboza has probably the nastiest leg kicks in MMA, having multiple leg kick TKO’s on his record and throwing them with perfect form. Although Gaethje won the leg kick battle in this short fight, and as he backed Edson up against the fence, Barboza leaped to his right in an attempt to circle out with his hands down and chin straight up in the air, something that had plagued him earlier in his career, and Gaethje capitalised with a big right hook, knocking Edson out cold.
UFC Fight Night: Cowboy vs Gaethje
Continuing the streak of first round finishes, Gaethje made quick work of Donald Cowboy Corrone, a friend of his, and a man every MMA fan should be more than familiar with. Gaethje was a nightmare matchup for Cowboy, and towards the end of the first round, caught him with a beautiful right hand that dropped Cowboy to a knee, a couple of uppercuts in the clinch and another right hook from Gaethje and the fight should’ve been over, but referee Mark Smith wanted to see a more clear end to the fight, and after another couple of reluctant right hands from Gaethje, the fight was waved off, with Justin visibly angry with the ref, who in his opinion was the cause of unnecessary damage to his friend.
UFC 249 – May 9th, 2020
UFC 249 was originally scheduled to be headlined by long awaited lightweight matchup Tony Ferguson vs Khabib Nurmagomedov, a bout that was booked and cancelled five times, with both of the fighters taking turns to pull out due to injury time and time again. This time, the bout was cancelled because the lightweight champ could not travel to the event due to the planet going into lockdown. Justin Gaethje was given the shot against Ferguson for the interim lightweight belt, in one of the eeriest fights I have ever watched. There was no crowd due to the situation the world was in, and Gaethje hits very hard. Every single shot that was landed took more and more out of Ferguson, who went from a 12 fight winning streak, to a 6 fight losing streak after this fight. Another victim to Gaethje’s newly controlled violence. I’m just gonna be quiet a minute and play you the audio from this fight so if you haven’t seen it, you really understand the damage done to Tony in the cage. Gaethje finished Ferguson in the fifth and final round, one last big shot from Gaethje and the ref had seen enough, waving it off and winning Gaethje the interim title.
UFC 254 – October 24th, 2020
Justin was given the chance to unify the belts against lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov, with some stating Gaethje was a bad style matchup for Khabib. Great takedown defence, a D1 wrestling background and deadly strikes that Khabib would have to answer for on the feet, which he did. Eating some thudding kicks from Gaethje and tanking through them, ultimately out grappling The Highlight and putting him to sleep in round 2 with a triangle choke, Justin failing at his first attempt to capture Undisputed UFC Gold.
UFC 268 – November 6th, 2021
In 2021’s fight of the year. Justin Gaethje and Iron Michael Chandler took years off of each others lives with a fight that would see both men almost out on their feet. Chandler was the perfect dance partner to bring the old Gaethje back for one fight, and he showed up in a big way. Eating huge right hands that have KO’d many lightweights from Chandler, flying knees and non stop pressure, Gaethje was never going to wilt. This is what he was made for; and he started to turn the tide, landing a huge uppercut that almost KO’d Chandler, Justin went to the scorecards for the first time in his UFC career, winning the majority of the fight, outclassing Chandler in the leg kick battle and landing some heavy hands, also reversing Chandlers takedown and literally front flipping over him, great stuff. Gaethje bounces back from the Khabib loss looking on form.
UFC 274 – May 7th, 2022
Fast forward to 2022 and Lightweight has a new king, Charles Oliveria, a man that I will definitely be making a Deep Dive on very soon, and a veteran of the UFC who holds the record for most submissions in UFC history, a dangerous brazilian warrior, a black belt in BJJ, with non stop pressure and big time power. Gaethje started the fight extremely well, even knocking Oliveira down. Charles was coming forward for the kill, and Justin was happy to meet him in the middle. Big leg kicks from Gaethje as usual, with Olives doing a good job of getting his lead leg out of the way and then stepping in with some hard shots to counter. Often going for the single collar clinch, swinging a left hook and grabbing the back of Gaethje’s head with one hand and throwing shots with the other, and on the exit from one of those clinches, Oliveira threw a right straight that sent Gaethje flying to the canvas, taking his back and latching up a rear naked choke. If you’ve been paying attention, Justin never gets dropped by one big shot like this, and went on to say Oliveira was the hardest puncher he had ever faced. Gaethje loses his second chance at the Undisputed belt.
UFC 286 – March 18th, 2023
Some time has now passed with Gaethje at the top of the division, and it’s only natural that the young and hungry prospects should get a chance at one of the big contenders. Gaethje was scheduled to face 29 year old elite muay thai kick-boxer Rafael Fiziev; a man that will probably hold a belt before he retires. But Gaethje’s experience and conditioning was just too much for the prospect, and Justin showed that he’s not done yet, butchering Fiziev’s face and winning a pretty much exclusively stand up fight against one of the best pure strikers in the division, and actually shooting the first takedown in years, to the delight of the fans, that ultimately just want to see Gaethje win, he has a D1 wrestling background and literally never uses it, it’s mental. Nevertheless, Gaethje defends his spot at the top of the division against a very dangerous young man.
UFC 291 – July 30th, 2023
And here we are. Last weekends bout for the BMF title. A rematch that the UFC were promoting as a “car crash for the ages”, this was instead a 2 round technical striking match, with Dustin landing some hard shots early, particularly a straight left hand that seemed to stun Justin, who then recovered and started landing some big punches of his own, not to mention the leg kicks, which were already starting to hurt Dustin. Then in round 2, Gaethje throws a cross-headkick that wraps around the guard of Poirier and sends him crashing to the mat, unconscious. Probably one of the only headkicks I’ve seen Justin throw, and it lands perfect. Mirroring the defeat of his long time friend and training partner Kamaru Usman, who had suffered a KO loss from the exact same technique only a year earlier in the same building. Poetry in motion.
And here we are today, with it looking likely Justin will get a chance at the title again before he retires, we can only wish him the best. UFC’s Lightweight division is now under a new champion, Islam Makhachev, a dangerous southpaw with great footwork and the dagestani wrestling ability of his long time mentor and friend, former LW champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Justin’s strengths against Khabib are the same strengths he will have if he faces Islam, great takedown defence and a dangerous man on the feet for anybody in the division.
There are many words you can use to describe Gaethje’s fighting style, and I’ve heard many catchphrases over the years.
“He throws caution to the wind.”
“He sets himself on fire just to burn you a little bit.”
And maybe 5 years ago; those statements would be accurate, but the man we see in 2023 is not that same reckless fighter. Gaethje has many wrinkles to his game, some of the deadliest leg kicks in MMA history, hands of stone that can KO any fighter he steps in there with, an all american wrestling background and the heart of a lion. You will never see Justin Gaethje quit, and as he’s shown before, it’s kill or be killed for The Highlight.
It’s been a pleasure to watch this man’s career, and I am grateful he’s still giving us these fight of the year contenders every single time he laces up the 4oz gloves.
Ladies and gentlemen, your favourite fighters favourite fighter, Justin Gaethje.
Thank you for everything, and I can’t wait for the next one.