Mixed martial arts often calls for a fiery sermon. And who better to deliver it than Justin Gaethje?
Regarded as the most brutal competitor in the sport, Gaethje is a native of Safford, Arizona. For over six years, he’s been spreading his message through his exploits in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight shark tank. Gaethje’s violence often comes in bursts. When he finds a willing dance partner, the results can be breathtaking.
Take the UFC 286 co-main event, for example. Gaethje, the former World Series of Fighting champion, participated in Sherdog’s “Round of the Year” with Rafael Fiziev. The match took place on March 18 at the O2 Arena in London. The entire 15-minute spectacle was pure action. But Round 1 was the real standout.
Sherdog wordsmith Jay Pettry described the round as it unfolded. Fiziev attacked with a body kick immediately. Gaethje slid out of the way, then ran forward with a vicious low kick. Fiziev spun around after absorbing it. The two were uncharacteristically tentative. Gaethje let fly with one kick to the body. Fiziev answered but missed with the same strike.
Gaethje’s lone committed strike was a low kick. He swiped out with a left hand as Fiziev rushed towards him. They both traded heavy punches. Gaethje loaded up on punches, Fiziev did the same. They both hurt one another in a hurry. They reset after a veritable car crash of an exchange. Gaethje broke away and ate a flush head kick without flinching.
Fiziev punched his way into a combo. Gaethje ducked away to stop it and busted Fiziev in the chops with a pair of punches. Fiziev ripped the body with a hook. He aimed a kick to the ribs and chained a few more punches together before Gaethje could react. Gaethje sat down on a hard leg kick. He winged booming punches and clubbed Fiziev instead of landing cleanly.
Fiziev timed an uppercut when Gaethje ducked down. He fired off a body kick. Gaethje raced out with a few swinging hooks, grazing off the target but not getting anything flush. Gaethje grabbed hold of a single-leg takedown. He fired off a huge overhand right to follow as Fiziev defended it. Fiziev walked his foe down and smashed him in the face with a jump knee. He dodged huge punches on the way out before the horn sounded.
Those first five minutes set the tone for a clear “Fight of the Year” contender. An even second round gave way to the decisive third. Fiziev seemed to have the answers at the start. He clipped the Trevor Wittman protégé with a clean one-two and unleashed a sharp front kick to the body.
But Gaethje refused to go away. He found another gear and turned the final five minutes into something of a blowout. He earned a 10-8 on judge Paul Sutherland’s scorecard. Gaethje brought his crushing jab into play more and more. He paired it with uppercuts that sent spit, blood, and snot flying. He mixed in a tactical takedown in the closing seconds.
Forced to go the distance for just the fourth time in his career, Gaethje left the cage with a majority decision (29-28, 28-28, 29-28). He also earned yet another $50,000 bonus for “Fight of the Night.” Fiziev’s face bore the brunt of abuse from the 103 significant strikes he absorbed. The Kill Cliff Fight Club export was a bloody mess. It was the latest masterpiece in Gaethje’s very own Louvre.
“My coach told me… I heard him saying, ‘Stay on the jab.’ Once I landed the first three, I couldn’t believe how clean I was landing,” Gaethje said. “There’s different kind of shots that you land in there. When you feel the full force of energy go in direct lines through their head, it’s a different shot. That’s what I was feeling. He wanted to taste my blood, but unfortunately [for him], he was drowning in his blood. I’m happy about that.”