Donald Cerrone will step inside the Octagon for the fourth time in 2019 when he takes on Justin Gaethje in the UFC Fight Night 158 main event on Saturday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia. A dream matchup pits two of the most exciting and ruthless strikers in Ultimate Fighting Championship against one another, with the winner perhaps moving one step closer to a title shot. While both men are predominantly strikers, they possess underrated grappling skills. Cerrone’s stance and striking tendencies resemble a high-level Nak Muay, and he can finish a fight on the ground with his jiu-jitsu. Gaethje, meanwhile, is an aggressive wrestle-boxer who will punt his opponent’s legs and defend any takedowns heading his way.
Their showdown provides the material for this edition of The Film Room.
When working on the lead, “Cowboy” prefers to strike in long combinations. Like any muay Thai-based fighter, he loves to start and end combinations with kicks, which have set up some of the best knockouts of his career. In his leading attacks, he rarely overextends on punches or puts himself out of position to defend. He will occasionally get overzealous and cross his feet while walking forward with combos, but overall, he is tactical and patient. With 12 years of professional experience, Cerrone is comfortable striking at range or in the pocket. However, Gaethje is perhaps the smartest inside fighter in MMA today, so as much as we may want to see “Cowboy” play into his style and give us a “Fight of the Year” contender, it would be best for him to stay patient and work on the outside.
Gaethje is at his best when plodding forward with a high guard and forcing opponents to the cage, where he can pick them apart in the pocket. Keep an eye on how he will change his pace during these exchanges. Sometimes he swings for the fences until somebody drops, and other times, he is intelligently picking his shots while keeping constant pace and pressure on the opponent. Gaethje’s ability to mix up his attacks highlights his exchanges in the pocket. Many fighters will attack the head and body, but Gaethje adds another threat by mixing in leg kicks at close range. Leg kicks are usually distance strikes, and most fighters are not thinking about them when trading in the pocket. As a result, they work wonders in wild exchanges.
Gaethje might be the most exciting fighter in the UFC today, but his bread-and-butter technique will always be the standard-issue leg kick. Leg kicks generally are not seen as fight-ending strikes, but Gaethje is one of the few MMA fighters who have multiple technical knockout wins via leg kicks. More importantly, they limit the movement of opponents and make it easier for Gaethje to trap them against the cage and force exchanges in the pocket. He will lead with leg kicks, counter with leg kicks and even throw some while clinching against the cage. In summation, Gaethje is the most creative leg kicker in MMA today.
Staying true to his muay Thai base, Cerrone also throws lots of leg kicks. Notice how often he uses them on the counter. This is common in muay Thai but rarely done in MMA, and they could work perfectly against Gaethje when he is plodding forward with his hands.
Intercepting knees would also work well against Gaethje. They are not used nearly enough in MMA, but they are the perfect counters for aggressive opponents who like to headhunt. All Cerrone has to do is raise his knee upwards and let the opponent run into it. Eddie Alvarez used this a few times against Gaethje, and each time, it stopped him in his tracks and forced him to reset at range.
Gaethje’s takedown defense and grappling background are often afterthoughts due to his exciting style. Despite being known for his striking, Gaethje was an NCAA All-American wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado. He has offered up very little in the way of offensive wrestling, but he wields some of the best takedown defense in the division. Even with his stance square and out of position, he can defend takedowns and secure top position.
Cerrone’s ability to fight effectively on the feet and on the ground makes him one of the most dynamic offensive competitors of all-time. Seventeen of his 34 career wins have resulted in submissions, nearly doubling his number of knockouts (nine). He generally only relies on his grappling when he fails to get the job done on the feet, so we might see him shooting for desperation takedowns.
Like every fighter who enters the cage, “Cowboy” has his imperfections. He is good at staying defensively responsible when working on the lead and not leaving himself open for counters, but he historically struggles with pushy opponents who force him to work off his back foot. This could spell trouble for him against Gaethje, who can be quite aggressive and is adept at mixing in counters with his leading attacks.
The bull guard defense worked wonders for Gaethje outside of the UFC, but he has started to face more competent fighters with the ability to exploit the deficiencies of this style. Since he keeps his hands high, Gaethje is prone to body shots and any strikes up the middle, like the knees mentioned earlier and uppercuts. Alvarez perfectly exploited these holes and ripped to the body any chance he could, mixing in knees up the middle to give Gaethje the first loss of his career.