By Jon Johnson
DETROIT – Number 5-ranked Safford native Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje (18-1 MMA, 1-1 UFC) took on No. 4-ranked Eddie Alvarez (29-5 MMA, 4-2 UFC) in Detroit Rock City and ended up getting rocked by a lucky knee in one of the most engaging fights of the night.
Alvarez is a former UFC and Bellator Lightweight Champion, while Gaethje entered as the undefeated former World Series of Fighting Lightweight Champion.
Gaethje has said he wants to take on the best and knows that at some point he could be knocked out. That point came Saturday night at the end of a lucky knee strike late in the third round of a brutal fight, in which Gaethje knew he had to knock out Alvarez for a victory.
In the first round, Gaethje came right out of the gate with low kicks and pressed forward against Alvarez, hurting Alvarez’s lead leg in the first minute of action.
Gaethje continued to pound Alvarez with low kicks as he hounded the former UFC champion.
Later in the round, Alvarez continued to attempt to avoid Gaethje and hit a few hooks to Gaethje’s body and face as the crowd began to chant Alvarez’s name as both men were bloodied.
By the end of the round, Alvarez had nearly twice as many strikes landed and took the round, according to pundits.
In round two, the men continued to battle with kicks as Alvarez continued to land hooks to Gaethje’s head, much to the crowd’s pleasure.
Gaethje continued to press forward as he does but Alvarez successful dodged and countered.
The fight continued back-and-forth as advertised, with Alvarez moving backward but having success with the jab.
Alvarez appeared to start to take over the fight with about 1:30 left in the second with hooks to the body but Gaethje continued to fight back with a low kick, that he hadn’t thrown in a while and a knee.
At the end of the second, Gaethje was stunned with a shin from Alvarez after flipping in a crazy move. Alvarez took the second round as well, and it became apparent that Gaethje would have to knock him out to win. Through two rounds, Alvarez had twice as many strikes, but his face was extremely swollen.
In the third and final round, Gaethje’s low leg kicks made Alvarez switch to a southpaw stance with an injured knee.
Gaethje continued to pound the leg kicks causing significant damage to Alvarez’s left leg, turning it purple.
Gaethje then pounded the right side of Alvarez’s face while also continuing to pound Alvarez’s leg. Gaethje continued with the kicks even as Alvarez struck him in his face.
With 1:01 left in the fight, Alvarez somehow hit Gaethje with a knee to the head, which dropped him to the canvas. The referee then stopped the fight.
After the fight, Alvarez said the leg kicks from Gaethje hurt him so bad that he wouldn’t have been able to make it if the fight was longer. Host Joe Rogan then commented that Alvarez had garnered the title of the most violent fighter in the Lightweight Division. Well, at least for now.
Gaethje has always been a fighter and a winner. He won as an all-state wrestler at Safford. Then he moved on to win as an All-American wrestler for the University of Colorado.
He made his MMA debut Aug. 20, 2011, with a knockout slam against Kevin Croom and amassed a 7-0 amateur record and became known as a vicious fighter as he won there.
He then signed with the World Series of Fighting on Jan. 22, 2013, and quickly rose to become its inaugural lightweight champion with a first-round knockout of Richard Patishnock in January 2014. Gaethje then successfully defended his title five times, as well as a non-title defense because his opponent didn’t make weight and finished with a 10-0 record.
Gaethje then took his talents to the UFC, and after a nasty bit of pre-fight goading, dispatched then No. 5-ranked Michael Johnson (17-12 MMA, 9-8 UFC) in what was the fight of the night and introduced himself to the UFC in grand fashion and made an extra $100,000 for performance of the night and the fight of the night.
Gaethje’s style is exciting to watch and dangerous to be in, but one thing is for certain, even though he lost Saturday night, he is a winner and will come back to fight again.