In the wake of Justin Gaethje's recent defeat at UFC 254 to the newly crowned pound for pound number one, and Lightweight Champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, the UFC YouTube channel released their customary episode of the “Fight Motion” video series which provides highlights of their marquee bouts through the lens of slow-motion video footage.
I always look forward to watching installments of the Fight Motion series, perhaps even more than the live events themselves — the slow-motion footage provides you with a level of detail the live events just can’t match, revealing things that are impossible to notice in the fast-paced action of a live fight.
After watching the Fight Motion highlights I’ll often develop a new opinion of a bout, usually realizing that a particular fighter’s win was not as clear cut as it might have originally seemed; in slow-motion everything is revealed, you can see the subtle changes in a fighter’s expression as a punch or kick lands, you can see those moments when they were hurting a lot more than the live footage of the bout lead you to believe. The Fight Motion highlights of Khabib and Gaethje’s bout is a perfect example of this, showing that Gaethje had his opponent in a lot more danger than a live-view of the fight would lead you to assume.
I’ve embedded the episode of Fight Motion below so you can see for yourself what I’m talking about, skip to 4:21 to see the highlights of the Khabib/Gaethje bout.
As can be seen from the footage there was one aspect of Gaethje’s fight arsenal which was providing him with more success than any other — his infamous leg kicks. I say infamous because he is widely looked upon as having one of the most devastating leg kicks in MMA, a lot of his knockout wins have come after he’s all but disabled his opponent’s ability to move through damaging their legs, and he’s even scored a TKO over an opponent from leg kicks alone. After Gaethje lost to Dustin Poirier at UFC Fight Night: Glendale his opponent openly admitted Gaethje’s leg kicks were unlike anything he’s experienced before:
My quad is partially torn because of him. I had to do a lot of physical therapy. I didn’t know it in the fight, but I knew it the night of and the next morning. He tore my quad. I’m trying to think of another time I’ve been seriously damaged with kicks. Jim Miller hurt my calf really good, but nothing like that.
In the Fight Motion highlights, there are several clear instances when you can witness the full effect of Gaethje’s leg kicks on Khabib. When I watched the fight live I didn’t think Justin’s kicks were having their usual effect, but in slow-motion the heavy grimaces on Khabib’s face tell a different story. Gaethje was also having a lot more success with his boxing than I originally thought, there are several punches that he lands square on Khabib’s chin, and that make him momentarily stagger.
Of particular interest, at 5:11 in the highlights, Gaethje comes incredibly close to completely swiping Khabib’s feet from underneath him as his knees visibly buckle and he begins to fall to the canvas — what saves Khabib? He manages to latch on to Justin’s legs and take him down with him, leading to the sequence of events that culminated in Khabib managing to sink in the triangle that won him the fight.
Yes, you read that right, just as Gaethje almost had Khabib folding from a leg kick, Khabib manages to turn the situation to his advantage and win the fight. I guess that’s what champions are made of but the slow-motion footage shows how close Khabib was to putting that championship status in jeopardy, stumbling to the canvas with Gaethje staring down at him, who knows what might have happened if this had been the case…We can only dream.
After the fight, Gaethje said “I had him in trouble, I wasn’t very many kicks away from him you know not being able to walk, he’s going to be limping for at least the next three weeks” I was skeptical when I first heard Justin say this, I thought that it was his wounded ego talking but after watching the Fight Motion highlights I’m inclined to believe he was completely right in his assessment. I’m not sure Khabib could have taken many more of those leg kicks before he began to fold, physically and mentally, under the pressure, just like so many of Justin’s opponents have before him.
Why are Gaethje’s leg kicks so damaging?
During a recent appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Gaethje explained that the reason he’s able to throw such punishing leg kicks is because of the density of his bones, saying that a full-body Dexa Scan by UFC doctors found that he ranked highest out of all active fighters in the UFC for the density of his bones. Expanding on this point, Gaethje’s long-time coach Trevor Wittman said:
Your low-kick for many years wasn’t thrown with the right technique but when you kick people they’re like ‘Oh my gosh’, you have a sharp heavy [shin] bone it’s so unique.
So there it is, as with so much sporting success it’s largely down to genetics. Basketball players might be blessed with height, and Marathon runners with large lungs, Gaethje on the other hand can be thankful for the genes that provided him with dense bones. As funny as it might sound, in a sport largely based around moments of bone to bone collision, dense bones are a good asset to have, the fact that Gaethje can inflict so much damage with his leg kicks without hurting himself is a testament to that.
The future of Justin Gaethje and the lightweight division
In the immediate aftermath of his win at UFC 254, Khabib declared his retirement from MMA, recent speculation suggests the Dagestani fighter may go back on that decision but for now at least the lightweight title appears to be up for grabs. It seems fair to assume that Gaethje might not to be too far away from another shot at the title himself, but he’ll have to contend with several other fighters also vying for that chance, namely; Dustin Poirier, Tony Ferguson, the newly signed Michael Chandler, and, of course, Conor McGregor.
It’s hard to predict how things will play out in the lightweight division, it would have made sense at this point to book Gaethje/Poirier 2 for the title or as a title eliminator, it has the perfect backstory; we would get to see if Justin could manage to avenge one of only three losses he’s had in the octagon and whether Poirier can deal more effectively with those dastardly leg kicks. However Poirier looks to be booked against Conor McGregor in January and, if that bout goes ahead, it will undoubtedly play a big role in deciding the future of the lightweight division.
Whatever the future holds for the UFC’s lightweight division, one thing we can know for certain is that Justin Gaethje and his leg kicks will be playing a big part in it, making him a formidable adversary for any of the high-level fighters mentioned above. Gaethje recently said he will keep fighting until he has had “five more wars” in an effort to limit the amount of serious damage his body receives during his MMA career, this seems like a wise decision but then you would expect as much from a fighter with a university degree and plans of being a social worker when he hangs up the gloves. So until those five wars have happened we can expect to see more lead legs getting chopped like wood curtesy of Justin Gaethje — the Arizona native who has some of the densest bones in MMA.
Thank you for reading,