‘Dude just walks forward like a zombie’: Inside the minds of those who have fought Justin Gaethje


Eddie Alvarez regarded like he was holding a golf ball in his mouth, and his proper cheek was comically swollen. To compound issues, Alvarez’s left leg was barely cell because of quite a few exhausting kicks to it.

In Detroit, the previous UFC light-weight champion was embroiled within the third spherical of a back-and-forth barnburner with Justin Gaethje at UFC 218 on Dec. 2, 2017. Neither man was giving an inch. Close to the center of the ultimate spherical, Alvarez pulled Gaethje right into a clinch, pushed his head down and landed some brief punches to Gaethje’s face.

“I knew he was exhausted; he knew I used to be,” Alvarez informed ESPN. “So, we’d get in a clinch and we would begin speaking to one another. However I used to be punching him. … I used to be telling him to ‘eat that.’ I am like ‘eat this, eat that.’ After which, he in return, stated to me, ‘I like it.'”

Shortly afterward, Alvarez landed a knee in a clinch that knocked Gaethje out, escaping with a victory in a Struggle of the Evening efficiency for each. For Alvarez, Gaethje’s verbal response to him that evening was a testomony to his never-back-down perspective — his unbridled ardour for combating itself, maybe much more than successful.

“We had been nonetheless combating as exhausting as we might,” Alvarez stated. “I used to be attempting to form of impose my will. He is nearly like, ‘F— you, I prefer it — preserve doing it.'”

Gaethje has ridden that unbreakable mentality to a UFC light-weight title shot in opposition to Charles Oliveira at UFC 274 on Saturday in Phoenix, not removed from his hometown of Safford, Arizona. He has received 5 of his previous six fights and is taken into account some of the thrilling MMA fighters on the planet. Gaethje, 33, has received $50,000 combat evening bonuses 9 instances in 9 UFC fights. Six instances, he has received Struggle of the Evening.

Gaethje’s nickname is “The Spotlight,” however those that have been within the cage with him differ on what makes him distinctive. Is it his iron-clad chin? His booming leg kicks? Or perhaps it is simply an uncommon thirst for violence?

ESPN spoke with a number of of Gaethje’s former opponents to search out out precisely what separates him from others within the UFC’s stacked light-weight division.

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Editor’s notice: Solutions have been edited for readability and brevity.

Misplaced to Gaethje through unanimous choice at UFC 268 on Nov. 6, 2021 — Watch this fight on ESPN+)

He’s a heck of a competitor. I knew that. He is acquired the cardio, and he is acquired the ending facet with each punch he lands. He is acquired the toughness in addition. I knew I used to be in for the combat of my life that evening. I believe I acquired caught up within the second after I landed these first couple of punches and damage him within the first spherical. I believed I used to be going to have the ability to knock him out. I believed I’d have the ability to end him, which only a few guys have been capable of do.

Justin Gaethje does a extremely good job of his stance — he is at all times in an excellent place, and he bends over and geese his head and throws form of wild, overhand looping punches at instances. Lots of instances, they’re technical. Typically, they’re form of bent-down overhands, which stored his legs away from me, so there wasn’t a time to shoot for a takedown. I believed the best path to victory was to go on the market and take him down and beat him on the bottom. However the alternative actually did not current itself, and he had nice protection when it did. He is acquired nice reactions.

He is a whole fighter. All people thinks he is a brawler. Together with his combat type and willingness and need to have interaction into these loopy exchanges, everyone thinks that he is only a brawler. He is much more technical than many individuals give him credit score for. And a whole lot of that’s his will to compete, but in addition coach Trevor Wittman is a genius contained in the lab there in Colorado.

The most effective fights for the followers are those the place somebody will ask me what I bear in mind, and I am saying I do not bear in mind a factor concerning the combat. What I bear in mind most is the second we shared after the combat. I believe the best second was after I grabbed his face. I put my arms round him. We had been hugging one another. And I stated, “Dude, I knew you did not hate me. We’re the identical actual particular person.”

He stated a few issues like I’ve a punchable face, and he could not wait to punch me. After all, that is a part of his pre-fight. Gotta get into the appropriate way of thinking to combat a man. I used to be like, “Dude. I knew you did not imply these issues. We’re reduce from the identical fabric. We are actually as near the very same particular person as athletes as you may discover.” Generally that finally ends up as a boring combat. And generally, yow will discover your self in a solidified peg in blended martial arts historical past. And that is the place we had been at Madison Sq. Backyard. It was actually cool.

He acquired his hand raised. Then, again within the medical tents, I overheard him as a result of he talks fairly loud — all of us speak fairly loud after fights, your adrenaline remains to be coming down. He is like, “My leg, man! My leg is all jacked up! These leg kicks.” I pulled the curtain and was like, “Yo, dude, you are telling me that I damage one of the best leg kicker within the recreation? I damage his leg with my leg kicks?” He was like, “Yeah, dude, I did not count on you to throw these leg kicks.” It was some nice moments that the individuals would possibly by no means see behind closed doorways, again behind the curtains.

Eddie Alvarez, ONE Championship light-weight

Defeated Gaethje through third-round knockout at UFC 218 on Dec. 2, 2017

The best way he steps within the pocket and commits to his energy and the issues he does, you solely try this when you have an timeless perception and religion in your recreation plan, in your capability. And the best way he fights, individuals name it reckless abandon. Nevertheless it’s not. It is simply an timeless religion and perception in what he is doing and what coach Trevor Wittman put collectively in opposition to opponents.

It is distinctive, and it’s important to be ready for it. When you’re not, you may end up in the course of the combat — seven minutes into the combat — in the course of a twister that you just’re not ready for. That is one of the simplest ways I can describe it. What appears to be chaos, that is his residence. That is the place he feels snug. And he brings different fighters into that chaos, they usually’re not used to it. They are not ready for it. That is the place he lives.

Most fighters want to enter the combat figuring out they’ll get their tires flattened. That is the form of dedication he has to leg kicks. He is nearly like, “I’ll commerce a bishop for a queen.” He considers his kick a queen and something you are going to throw at him a bishop. He is prepared to make that commerce all day lengthy. If you are going to attempt to injury him, you are not going to harm him with out giving freely your leg. So, 100% he will decide to that. And he does not have a look at it as a short-term funding. It is long-term for him. He is OK with buying and selling a leg kick for a punch to the top, so long as he is aware of you possibly can’t stroll anymore by the eighth minute or ninth minute of the combat.

It is distinctive as a result of most fighters do not wish to take any injury. Justin Gaethje nearly submits and says, “I’ll take injury and I am superb with it. However I’ll inflict much more in return.” It is a particular mentality, and you must be prepared for it earlier than you interact in a combat with him.

It is not a lot Gaethje’s chin. It is like his spirit. His spirit is far stronger than most. He’ll go deeper than most opponents are prepared to go, and you may really feel that contained in the cage. For many of my coaching camp for him, it was extra of a psychological battle with myself — telling myself, “You are gonna be right here, it isn’t gonna really feel good, it isn’t gonna be good. However you must get snug with it.”

If you do not have your opponents in coaching go after you in that method and put your self in and follow that chaos and that form of struggling, then it is all going to be new to you on combat evening. It is not going to be good for you. In preparation for somebody like him, your coaching camp can be uncomfortable, and it may be chaotic.

Luis Palomino, Naked Knuckle Preventing Championship fighter

Misplaced to Gaethje through TKO at WSOF 19 and WSOF 23 in 2015

Gaethje is an entire different animal, man. I believe what makes him is the strain he can push ahead. And his capability to maintain that strain. It is not solely a bodily factor — it is a psychological factor, too. His capability to maintain a tempo the best way he does is the primary factor. Then his chin, he can take a nasty hit. I hit him exhausting. I hit the dude with all the things. I dropped him, and he dropped me. However man, getting up and recovering the best way he recovers is wild. That is what makes him so particular. I hit fairly rattling exhausting. I’ve acquired some fairly good one-punch knockout energy.

I fought him twice inside 5 months. After the primary combat, I landed in Miami, and the president of WSOF, Ray Sefo, referred to as me and doubled my contract. And that is coming off a loss. As a result of the combat broke the NBC Sports activities rankings data. It could have been the combat of the 12 months on the planet if it wasn’t for Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald. They stole that one.

I am much more technical right now than I used to be again then. However then, I used to be extra harmful, and I used to be wilder. Once I would throw a robust mixture — whether or not it concerned my low kicks or flying knees — each time I threw that, normally the combat was over. I discovered myself doing that three or 4 instances in a combat with this dude. And his capability to return again is simply ridiculous. Simply take that punishment, and the dude simply walks ahead like a zombie. It is simply not regular.

His leg kicks had been superior. He is acquired bony shins. When you have a look at the primary combat, we each stroll in, meet within the center, and do the identical approach — we throw a low kick collectively — his shinbone lands on my ankle. I’ve photos of my ankle twice the scale of what it’s. That was the very first thing that occurred within the combat. So, I could not put my weight on that leg to examine the kicks he was throwing at me. Not solely might I not use my weapon, however I could not defend, both. He noticed that within the third spherical and began hurting me there. That was the tip of the combat.

It is not simply bodily. It is psychological, too. The dude is like, not there. Like mentally, one thing is mistaken with this dude. However then once more, he is there. He is catching all the things, and he is conscious of all the things. He will get in a zone, a really harmful zone. He is like, “No, I am right here to combat. It is time to destroy one thing — myself or anyone else.”

Gesias Cavalcante, former Strikeforce and WSOF light-weight

Misplaced to Gaethje through first-round TKO at WSOF 3 on March 23, 2013

Once I fought Gaethje, he was younger and reckless. He is nonetheless somewhat reckless right now. Coming into the combat, I used to be assured in my expertise to take him out, particularly within the later rounds. He began fairly aggressively originally, throwing all the things. I bear in mind pondering, ‘Man, this man actually throws all the things with all the facility that he has.’ He ended up touchdown a knee on my brow that opened a reduce they usually referred to as the combat.

He had one combat that went 5 rounds in opposition to Tony Ferguson (in Might 2020), and I believed Justin is now able to be a champion. Till then, it was nearly like he did not care about shedding. He was simply going all-out. He is at all times put within the work and he is a brilliant good man. I beloved sharing the cage with him.

Misplaced to Gaethje through second-round TKO at WSOF 11 on July 5, 2014

I believed that I might hit him and transfer out of the best way. And stick him with exhausting pictures after I timed it. After which I knew he was a very good wrestler, however I knew if I might catch him swinging exhausting, I might take him down and beat him straightforward on the bottom. Not straightforward, however I had extra grappling expertise. He was a wrestler at that time and did not do a lot jiu-jitsu.

I began off doing nicely. I believed I hit him a bunch of instances clear. I’ve knocked individuals out earlier than, in all probability a couple of times. Or in follow. And never on function. However you already know once you land that shot that knocks somebody out. what it appears like. And I hit him with these pictures about thrice. I used to be taking a look at him. I used to be like, “What the hell? What?” He had these eyes like he was somewhat out of it, however he stored shifting ahead and combating. Stored this intense strain. It was actually exhausting to cope with. To be trustworthy with you, it form of acquired one of the best of me.

I used to be ready for him to be powerful. However he was next-level powerful. There is not any stop in him. I used to be shocked that he might stand up to a few of the clear ones I acquired and simply preserve shifting ahead. I believed it was humorous, like what the f— is happening? I hit him and was like, OK. I am going to do it once more. So, I did it once more. Oh, OK. And I did it once more. It was like a knee, a head kick and an uppercut. You possibly can beat him, however you may by no means break him.

I do not suppose he places as a lot strain on himself to win as others do. I do not know the way dangerous it might have an effect on him if he misplaced. Like life would go on, and he’d simply have one other combat. Preventing somebody like that, that appears like they don’t have anything to lose, is harmful. I informed him [before the fight], “Actually, I believe I am gonna knock you out.” And he stated, “It is sure to occur ultimately.” That is what he informed me. “When you had been to do it, that will be superior.” You are not imagined to say that. He is a pleasant man, a category act.

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