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Justin Gaethje, MMA's No. 1 action star, sees clear path to defeating James Vick

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Justin Gaethje (18-2 overall, 1-2 UFC) has earned Fight of the Night honors in each of his three UFC bouts. (Getty Images)

Justin Gaethje has lost his last two fights, epic battles against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier.

It might be better, though, to refer to them as defeats rather than losses. Because anyone who saw either of those fights knows there were no losers.

Gaethje is hands down MMA’s No. 1 action star and has earned Fight of the Night honors in each of his three UFC bouts. On Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, Gaethje will face James Vick in the main event of UFC Fight Night 135 that will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1.

It’s an important fight for him, even though the chances of the UFC cutting him if he loses are virtually nil. But for a guy who has been a winner all through his athletic career – two-time state champion wrestler in high school, All-American collegiate wrestler, lightweight champion for the World Series of Fighting and 18 consecutive wins to start his MMA career – a third consecutive defeat wouldn’t sit well.

And so Gaethje said the words that must give chills to anyone who plans to watch the fight.

“I kind of feel backed into a corner because everyone knows you don’t want to lose three in a row anywhere, least of all in the UFC,” Gaethje said. “I know I lost to two of the best guys in the world, Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez, but that’s why I came here, to fight the best. I was right there in both of those fights, and that makes me feel good, but the bottom line was I didn’t get it done.”

He intends to change that on Saturday, and has been boosted in that effort by Vick. Vick, who is 13-1 overall in MMA and has won four in a row since a knockout loss to Beneil Dariush at UFC 199, has been disparaging Gaethje at every turn.

Vick has called Gaethje reckless and has mocked his high-contact fighting style. While Gaethje can’t understand the criticism, there is a part of it he agrees with. He said he believes he needs to fight more under control.

“I could be more patient in there and at the end of the day, that’s the key to what I’m going to be trying to do in there,” Gaethje said. “I just need to be more patient and realize I don’t need to be in as many exchanges. I know I can pick my shots better. My style really hasn’t changed much.

“I have fought the same way I’ve always fought. I take chances and I think my object was to go in there and create car crashes and be the object with the most force. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to go out there and totally overhaul my style, but I think I can pick my shots better and not get in as many exchanges.”

Dustin Poirier (R) throws an elbow at Justin Gaethje in their lightweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Gila River Arena on April 14, 2018, in Glendale, Arizona. (Getty Images)

Vick is a massive lightweight, at 6-feet-3 with a 76-inch reach. He’s able to stay in the pocket and counterpunch, catching guys from a distance after forcing them to commit.

Gaethje and his 70-inch reach will avoid standing on the outside and trading with Vick, because that would play into Vick’s hands. But Gaethje said he sees the path to victory clearly.

“I’m not going to lead with shots from the outside, that’s for sure,” Gaethje said. “I have to put my head into his chest and fight him from there. He doesn’t like to be in an actual fight, so I need to get to his chest and make him fight me.”

Translation: Vick is a counter striker and Gaethje doesn’t think he has a good chin. So Gaethje believes if he can force Vick to trade, it will be to his advantage.

“He does a lot of back-pedaling and he relies on his length, which I don’t blame him for, but he’s not the guy who is looking to get into exchanges. When he does get into an exchange, he gets hit a lot and when he hits people and opens up, he gets hit. He doesn’t take a punch that well and so I think you see him fight a certain way to avoid that.”

Gaethje believes his athleticism and his timing are what will carry him to success.

He was a multi-sport athlete and learned to react and not think.

“I think one of my strengths when I fight is my timing, which I developed after playing every single sport,” he said. “Timing is a big part of every sport and I learned that because I was always doing something. As a fighter, I don’t concentrate on certain things. I’m never having a thought process. I’m just constantly reacting. I see and react, see and react, see and react.

“I think my reaction time is something I’ve worked on in wrestling and in my whole athletic career and it’s translated well into fighting.”

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