'Dude just walks forward like a zombie': Inside the minds of those who have fought Justin Gaethje


Eddie Alvarez looked like he was holding a golf ball in his mouth, and his right cheek was comically swollen. To compound matters, Alvarez's left leg was barely mobile due to numerous hard kicks to it.

In Detroit, the former UFC lightweight champion was embroiled in the third round of a back-and-forth barn burner with Justin Gaethje at UFC 218 on Dec. 2, 2017. Neither man was giving an inch. Near the middle of the final round, Alvarez pulled Gaethje into a clinch, pushed his head down and landed some short punches to Gaethje's face.

"I knew he was exhausted; he knew I was," Alvarez told ESPN. "So, we would get in a clinch and we'd start talking to each other. But I was punching him. ... I was telling him to 'eat that.' I'm like 'eat this, eat that.' And then, he in return, said to me, 'I love it.'"

Shortly afterward, Alvarez landed a knee in a clinch that knocked Gaethje out, escaping with a victory in a Fight of the Night performance for both. For Alvarez, Gaethje's verbal response to him that night was a testament to his never-back-down attitude -- his unbridled passion for fighting itself, perhaps even more than winning.

"We were still fighting as hard as we could," Alvarez said. "I was trying to kind of impose my will. He's almost like, 'F--- you, I like it -- keep doing it.'"

Gaethje has ridden that unbreakable mentality to a UFC lightweight title shot against Charles Oliveira at UFC 274 on Saturday in Phoenix, not far from his hometown of Safford, Arizona. He has won five of his past six fights and is considered one of the most exciting MMA fighters in the world. Gaethje, 33, has won $50,000 fight night bonuses nine times in nine UFC fights. Six times, he has won Fight of the Night.

Gaethje's nickname is "The Highlight," but those who have been in the cage with him differ on what makes him unique. Is it his ironclad chin? His booming leg kicks? Or maybe it's just an unusual thirst for violence?

ESPN spoke with several of Gaethje's former opponents to find out exactly what separates him from others in the UFC's stacked lightweight division.

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Editor's note: Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Michael Chandler, UFC lightweight

Lost to Gaethje via unanimous decision at UFC 268 on Nov. 6, 2021 -- Watch this fight on ESPN+)

He is a heck of a competitor. I knew that. He's got the cardio, and he's got the finishing aspect with every punch he lands. He's got the toughness to boot. I knew I was in for the fight of my life that night. I think I got caught up in the moment when I landed those first couple of punches and hurt him in the first round. I thought I was going to be able to knock him out. I thought I would be able to finish him, which very few guys have been able to do.

Justin Gaethje does a really good job of his stance -- he's always in a very good position, and he bends over and ducks his head and throws kind of wild, overhand looping punches at times. A lot of times, they're technical. Often, they're kind of bent-down overhands, which kept his legs away from me, so there wasn't a time to shoot for a takedown. I thought the easiest path to victory was to go out there and take him down and beat him on the ground. But the opportunity really didn't present itself, and he had great defense when it did. He's got great reactions.

He's a complete fighter. Everybody thinks he's a brawler. With his fight style and willingness and desire to engage into those crazy exchanges, everybody thinks that he's just a brawler. He's a lot more technical than many people give him credit for. And a lot of that is his will to compete, but also coach Trevor Wittman is a genius inside the lab there in Colorado.

The best fights for the fans are the ones where someone will ask me what I remember, and I'm saying I don't remember a thing about the fight. What I remember most is the moment we shared after the fight. I think the coolest moment was when I grabbed his face. I put my arms around him. We were hugging each other. And I said, "Dude, I knew you didn't hate me. We're the same exact person."

He said a couple of things like I have a punchable face and he couldn't wait to punch me. Of course, that's part of his prefight. Gotta get into the right state of mind to fight a guy. I was like, "Dude. I knew you didn't mean those things. We're cut from the same cloth. We are literally as close to the exact same person as athletes as you could find." Sometimes that ends up as a boring fight. And sometimes, you can find yourself in a solidified peg in mixed martial arts history. And that's where we were at Madison Square Garden. It was really cool.

He got his hand raised. Then, back in the medical tents, I overheard him because he talks pretty loud -- we all talk pretty loud after fights, your adrenaline is still coming down. He's like, "My leg, man! My leg is all jacked up! Those leg kicks." I pulled the curtain and was like, "Yo, dude, you're telling me that I hurt the best leg kicker in the game? I hurt his leg with my leg kicks?" He was like, "Yeah, dude, I didn't expect you to throw those leg kicks." It was some great moments that the people might never see behind closed doors, back behind the curtains.

Eddie Alvarez, ONE Championship lightweight

Defeated Gaethje via third-round knockout at UFC 218 on Dec. 2, 2017

The way he steps in the pocket and commits to his power and the things he does, you only do that if you have an undying belief and faith in your game plan, in your ability. And the way he fights, people call it reckless abandon. But it's not. It's just an undying faith and belief in what he's doing and what coach Trevor Wittman put together against opponents.

It's unique, and you have to be prepared for it. If you're not, you'll find yourself in the middle of the fight -- seven minutes into the fight -- in the middle of a tornado that you're not prepared for. That's the best way I can describe it. What seems to be chaos, that's his home. That's where he feels comfortable. And he brings other fighters into that chaos, and they're not used to it. They're not prepared for it. That's where he lives.

Most fighters need to go into the fight knowing they will get their tires flattened. That's the kind of commitment he has to leg kicks. He's almost like, "I'm going to trade a bishop for a queen." He considers his kick a queen and anything you're going to throw at him a bishop. He's willing to make that trade all day long. If you're going to try to damage him, you're not going to hurt him without giving away your leg. So, 100% he's going to commit to that. And he doesn't look at it as a short-term investment. It's long-term for him. He's OK with trading a leg kick for a punch to the head, as long as he knows you can't walk anymore by the eighth minute or ninth minute of the fight.

It's unique because most fighters don't want to take any damage. Justin Gaethje almost submits and says, "I will take damage and I'm fine with it. But I'm going to inflict a lot more in return." It's a special mentality, and you need to be ready for it before you engage in a fight with him.

It's not so much Gaethje's chin. It's like his spirit. His spirit is much stronger than most. He'll go deeper than most opponents are willing to go, and you can feel that inside the cage. For most of my training camp for him, it was more of a mental battle with myself -- telling myself, "You're gonna be here, it's not gonna feel good, it's not gonna be good. But you need to get comfortable with it."

If you don't have your opponents in training go after you in that manner and put yourself in and practice that chaos and that kind of suffering, then it's all going to be new to you on fight night. It's not going to be good for you. In preparation for someone like him, your training camp will be uncomfortable, and it's going to be chaotic.

Luis Palomino, Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship fighter

Gaethje, Chandler put on fight of the year candidate

Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler kick off the UFC 268 main card with an incredible three-round battle.

Lost to Gaethje via TKO at WSOF 19 and WSOF 23 in 2015

Gaethje is a whole other animal, man. I think what makes him is the pressure he can push forward. And his ability to sustain that pressure. It's not only a physical thing -- it's a mental thing, too. His ability to keep a pace the way he does is the No. 1 thing. Then his chin: He can take a bad hit. I hit him hard. I hit the dude with everything. I dropped him, and he dropped me. But man, getting up and recovering the way he recovers is wild. That's what makes him so special. I hit pretty damn hard. I've got some pretty good one-punch knockout power.

I fought him twice within five months. After the first fight, I landed in Miami, and the president of WSOF, Ray Sefo, called me and doubled my contract. And that's coming off a loss. Because the fight broke the NBC Sports ratings records. It would have been the fight of the year in the world if it wasn't for Robbie Lawler vs. Rory MacDonald. They stole that one.

I'm a lot more technical today than I was back then. But then, I was more dangerous, and I was wilder. When I would throw a strong combination -- whether it involved my low kicks or flying knees -- every time I threw that, usually the fight was over. I found myself doing that three or four times in a fight with this dude. And his ability to come back is just ridiculous. Just take that punishment, and the dude just walks forward like a zombie. It's just not normal.

His leg kicks were awesome. He's got bony shins. If you look at the first fight, we both walk in, meet in the middle, and do the same technique -- we throw a low kick together -- his shinbone lands on my ankle. I have pictures of my ankle twice the size of what it is. That was the first thing that happened in the fight. So, I couldn't put my weight on that leg to check the kicks he was throwing at me. Not only could I not use my weapon but I couldn't defend, either. He saw that in the third round and started hurting me there. That was the end of the fight.

It's not just physical. It's mental, too. The dude is like, not there. Like mentally, something is wrong with this dude. But then again, he's there. He's catching everything, and he's aware of everything. He gets in a zone, a very destructive zone. He's like, "No, I'm here to fight. It's time to destroy something -- myself or somebody else."

Gesias Cavalcante, former Strikeforce and WSOF lightweight

Lost to Gaethje via first-round TKO at WSOF 3 on March 23, 2013

When I fought Gaethje, he was young and reckless. He's still a little reckless today. Coming into the fight, I was confident in my experience to take him out, especially in the later rounds. He started pretty aggressively at the beginning, throwing everything. I remember thinking, 'Man, this guy really throws everything with all the power that he has.' He ended up landing a knee on my forehead that opened a cut and they called the fight.

He had one fight that went five rounds against Tony Ferguson (in May 2020), and I thought: Justin is now ready to be a champion. Until then, it was almost like he didn't care about losing. He was just going all-out. He's always put in the work, and he's a super nice guy. I loved sharing the cage with him.

Nick Newell, Bellator lightweight

Lost to Gaethje via second-round TKO at WSOF 11 on July 5, 2014

I thought that I could hit him and move out of the way. And stick him with hard shots when I timed it. And then I knew he was a good wrestler, but I knew if I could catch him swinging hard, I could take him down and beat him easy on the ground. Not easy, but I had more grappling experience. He was a wrestler at that point and didn't do much jiu-jitsu.

I started off doing well. I thought I hit him a bunch of times clean. I've knocked people out before, probably once or twice. Or in practice. And not on purpose. But you know when you land that shot that knocks someone out. You know what it feels like. And I hit him with those shots about three times. I was looking at him. I was like, "What the hell? What?" He had these eyes like he was a little out of it, but he kept moving forward and fighting. Kept this intense pressure. It was really hard to deal with. To be honest with you, it kind of got the best of me.

I was prepared for him to be tough. But he was next-level tough. There's no quit in him. I was surprised that he could withstand some of the clean ones I got and just keep moving forward. I thought it was funny, like what the f--- is going on? I hit him and was like, OK. I'll do it again. So, I did it again. Oh, OK. And I did it again. It was like a knee, a head kick and an uppercut. You can beat him, but you'll never break him.

I don't think he puts as much pressure on himself to win as others do. I don't know how bad it would affect him if he lost. Like life would go on, and he'd just have another fight. Fighting someone like that, that feels like they have nothing to lose, is dangerous. I told him [before the fight], "Honestly, I think I'm gonna knock you out." And he said, "It's bound to happen sooner or later." That's what he told me. "If you were to do it, that would be awesome." You're not supposed to say that. He's a nice guy, a class act.