Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Jonhson: Fighting Styles and a Matchup Clash (Technical Pre-Fight Breakdown part 1 of 2)

gaethje vs johnson
Photo by MMAjunkie Staff

The UFC lightweight division has one of the deepest pools of talent with fighters of various unique styles. It’s one of the most highly anticipated divisions to watch with several polarizing figures like Conor McGregor. Another one is added to the list with the recent signing of the All-American wrestler and undefeated 17-0 World Series of Fighter lightweight champion Justin Gaethje. With this new addition, the roster just became much more interesting. The best way to sum up Justin Gaethje would be with this image.

gaethje flip comp
Rolling Thunder

To say the least, the man is daring! He brings a war every time he steps into the cage and sports a very high finish rate of 1 submission with 14 KO/TKO victories. Gaethje is about to square off soon against a top 5 lightweight in Michael Johnson with wins over current contenders and legitimate top ranked fighters. Both men bring interesting skills to the fight game with styles that invite nothing less than ferocity to the cage. I did my homework to bring you all the information you’ll want to know about these guy’s unique fighting styles and aspects of their skills that make them so brutally effective. At the end of this, you’ll get a glimpse of strategies revealing how other opponents have been able to counter their style and a deeper understanding of how they match up.

Why Does He Take so Much Damage?

There’s a lot of mixed feelings surrounding Gaethje’s approach to the fight game. For one, he’s often branded as a fighter with a style that causes him to take excessive damage. There’s a lot of truth to that statement and it stems from a variety of reasons. For one, He’s a high-pressure fighter who’s always moving forward into a hurricane of punches. Secondly, he has a dominant preference to shell up against strikes rather than to move and evade. What makes things even more dangerous is the fact that he rarely likes to give up ground and usually likes to stay in the pocket to exchange. Gaethje is the type of fighter who’s more than willing to take a shot in order to give one. The damage he takes is a product of his stylistic preference but it also opens up many opportunities for him to be successful as well.

The Craft of Justin Gaethje

A lot of Gaethje’s best offense comes from within the pocket. He’ll often wing very powerful punches or throw heavily committed leg kicks. He’s always ready to pull his shield up to defend, especially with his tendency to walk right into range; Some of the most effective counters are his looping hooks and kicks.

gaethje wall hook comp
Blocks then throw a slipping powerhand

Keep in mind that the way he counters follows the principle of fighting off your centerline. Every time he throws his counter shots, he takes his head off the centerline to avoid the opponent’s counters.

gaethje slip hook
Gaethje throws the power hand, removing his head from the centerline to avoid counters.

He’ll often wait in the pocket to find his timing where he can land that one big shot. The only drawback between his excessive movement off his centerline is that he sometimes finds himself off balance going too far.

Volatile Leg Kicks

He’s got one of the most vicious leg kicks you’ll see in MMA. The best kickers in combat aren’t just the ones who throw hard kicks; they’re also the ones who throw it with great strategic brilliance. The most interesting thing here is that Gaethje’s kicking game presents a very difficult problem for any fighter stylistically. You see, when fighters trade strikes in the pocket, they typically try to headhunt. It’s a common theme in striking to return punches to the head after blocking them in exchanges. When Gaethje blocks punches, he’ll sometimes mix it up and throw leg kicks while trading. He finds so much success with this because of the fact that opponents aren’t typically expecting to get kicked in the leg while exchanging shots during trades. To compliment that even further, opponents are so fixated on the head, they often don’t see the kicks coming from those low angles. Just check out the example below:

gaethje wall leg kick comp 2
Opponents focused on headhunting are unable to block kicks as Gaethje destroys their footwork in close range exchanges.

Note that he always takes his head off the centerline to avoid punches. It also lets him whip a good amount of his weight it to the kick as well.

What makes it even more difficult to block the kicks is the fact that Gaethje will often kick while the opponent is trying to counter. Keep in mind when you strike, you must use your footwork to facilitate the transfer of your weight across your body, which means your legs can’t block kicks during this time. It’s nearly impossible to block kicks or string together combinations while striking when someone is kicking your legs off balance. Footwork is the very foundation of striking, so by destroying the root, you cut off everything else they can do from the feet up.

Gaethje’s kick is also what makes him so tricky to deal with from the clinch as well. He’ll often hold you in the clinch, move his hips back to create the space he needs to kick your legs, and chops away. So while the opponent is stuck in the clinch, they’re often neglecting their legs getting attacked as their primary focus is fighting the hands to gain better positioning in order to escape or transition around the clinch.

gaethje clinch into leg kick comp

It’s no doubt that his kicks are highly effective, but he seems to use them selectively. He’ll place a high focus on imposing his kick games only when he sees that an opponent will cripple from the strikes. His most recent fight didn’t display a heavy kick-oriented approach as previous ones. If Gaethje doesn’t sense his kicks are crippling your mobility, he tends to switch to different approaches.

He does make good use of the utility that kicks provide. Aside from causing damage, kicks can be used to stifle certain offensive strategies. Gaethje has displayed some technically sound use of kicks to shut down opponents looking to score offense. Check out a few of these examples.

Shutting down the Jab

When he finds that he’s on the receiving end of eating jabs, he’ll counter them by throwing a leg kick. The opponent won’t’ typically be able to check the kick while in the middle of using their footwork to strike, he’s often able to punish their leg for it. He doesn’t seem to utilize this enough to deal with jabs, but it’s definitely an option he turns to when needed.

gaethje counters jab with leg kick comp

Shutting down the power hand

He can also shut down the timing of someone trying to land that rear hand shot. Opponent’s looking to time a power shot will often put most of their weight on the lead foot and sometimes end up getting swept when a kick comes through.

gaethje timing kick from counters

Gaethje gets his fair share of criticism about not properly setting up kicks with combinations, but he’s done a fair job of showing he doesn’t need to in order to be successful with them. If you can time your kicks, you don’t need to set them up with combinations. Gaethje may very well be the fighter with the most technical kicking game in the Lightweight Division.

Gathje’s Signature Moves

His kicks are very useful but his offensive game with the hands tends to fall a bit short in variety. You don’t typically see much variation in strikes outside of the occasional jab and wide looping punches like the hook and uppercut. The craziest thing about studying several of his recent fights has to be the fact that I can’t even remember a sequence where he throws a cross. Nevertheless, he makes good use of what he’s got. Check out a few of his signature moves when he goes on the offensive.

Weaving Hooks: 

gaethje weaving hooks comp
Throws his powershot and weaves under the centerline to throw another. He’s often mixing it up between going to the body and head as well as mixing in his wrestling. 

Framing uppercuts:

gaethje frame uppercut comp
Pulls down their head posture to temporarily control their technique, fires an uppercut.


It gets more interesting as we continue on to [part 2] where we discuss methods of countering Gaethje’s style and looking at Michael Johnson’s unique style and how to counter it.


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