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After three weeks off, the
Ultimate Fighting Championship
returns with a Fox Sports 1
offering that’s a solid affair, if a bit nondescript past a fun
main event. The main draw for the UFC’s third card in Nebraska is
Justin Gaethje, who provides action every time out, but otherwise
it’s mostly a parade of decent veteran bouts, save an important
flyweight tilt between John Moraga and Deiveson Figueiredo, plus
the return of top middleweight prospect Eryk Anders. Drew Dober and
Jake Ellenberger also provide some local flavor, as Ellenberger
even headlined UFC’s last affair in the Cornhusker state, but in
general, this card’s a solid trifle that’s helped a ton by being
the UFC’s only card across a five-week span.

So let’s get to the analysis for UFC Fight Night 135: Gaethje vs.
Vick:

FS1 Main Card

Lightweights
Justin
Gaethje
(18-2) vs. James Vick
(13-1)
Odds: Vick (-155), Gaethje (+135)

Somehow, Justin
Gaethje
‘s UFC career thus far has managed to be a
disappointment while also living up to the hype. Gaethje came into
the UFC off a white-hot run in World Series of Fighting, where he
defended his lightweight title in can’t-miss brawl after can’t-miss
brawl. And three fights into his UFC tenure, Gaethje has remained
the most exciting fighter in the sport; all three fights have been
fight of the year contenders, and his 2017 bouts against Michael
Johnson
and Eddie
Alvarez
were instant classics. But while Gaethje’s brought the
excitement, his actual record has been a bit more mixed; Gaethje
was able to beat Johnson by luring him into a brawl, but Alvarez
and Dustin
Poirier
were able to use a combination of patience and strategy
to exploit the flaws in Gaethje’s style and walk out with a
victory.

Gaethje has a defined gameplan every time out that guarantees
action, using his background as a top-shelf wrestler to keep the
fight standing, and prioritizing offense over defense, relying on
pressure and durability to overwhelm his opponents. At best,
Gaethje can either force a brawl, where he’s almost always the most
comfortable man among the chaos, or is able to hit two or three
hard blows on his opponent for every one he eats, relying on that
durability and sheer relentlessness to eventually win a war of
attrition. But Alvarez and Poirier were able to break open
Gaethje’s game, despite eating a ton of abuse in the process;
Gaethje’s style of shell defense, putting his arms in front of his
face so he can counter and get back on offense quicker, leaves his
body wide open, and both opponents were able to do some work that
paid dividends later, eventually outlasting Gaethje and pouring
things on for the finish. Gaethje’s been open about the physical
tradeoffs of his brutal fighting style, as well as the limited
amount of fights he has left in his body, so this is a crossroads
fight if he ever wants to become a real contender in the UFC’s
lightweight division.

On the other side of things, we have Texas’s James Vick,
who’s taken a much more circuitous route towards being a UFC
headliner. Vick was an unknown prospect heading into season 15 of
The Ultimate Fighter, but was a surprising standout on a stacked
cast; beyond making his way to the season’s semifinals, Vick’s
6-foot-3 frame alone cuts a fascinating figure at 155 pounds. But
it took years for Vick’s career to get going in earnest. Constant
injuries limited Vick to about one fight a year, and the UFC never
saw fit to progress him up the ladder, so Vick would show up every
twelve months, turn back another prospect, and then wind up back on
the shelf. Vick did eventually get a big opportunity in a
late-notice spot against Beneil
Dariush
at UFC 199, but Dariush ate his lunch, leaving Vick
with little momentum one again. But the last year and a half has
finally been kind to Vick; he’s finally stayed healthy, and after a
breakout win over Joseph
Duffy
at UFC 217, the UFC’s given him some shine, first with a
plum fight against Francisco
Trinaldo
in Austin this past February and now with this
headlining slot against Gaethje.

Vick’s also improved as a fighter; where most of his bouts have
seen him be a defensively twitchy fighter who’s dangerous enough to
get away with being reactive, the Trinaldo fight in particular saw
him more comfortable leading and finally using his frame to pick
apart a foe. Vick’s association with Team Lloyd Irvin,
as well as some of the comments he’s made to Gaethje in the leadup
to this fight, don’t exactly make him the easiest guy to root for,
but from a career standpoint, he’s put in the work to earn a big
chance here.

As I just said, Vick’s much-improved, but this bout does feel more
like a referendum on Gaethje; does his style limit him to strictly
being an action fighter at the UFC level, or is Gaethje still a
fringe contender that just happened to run into some tough
matchups? Vick does have the frame to pull off the gameplan that’s
defeated Gaethje to date, as he can pick him apart from range and
then get the hell out of dodge, but Vick’s also been such a
reactive fighter throughout his career that I do have to question
if he can stay calm under Gaethje’s relentless pressure. And
because of that, I’ll have to take Gaethje here. Unless Gaethje’s
chin is fading, a distinct possibility after late knockouts at the
hands of Alvarez and Poirier, I do think he can absorb Vick’s
offense and outlast and overwhelm him at some point over the course
of five rounds. I still have visions of Vick’s loss to Dariush, so
my pick is Gaethje via knockout, and I’ll say it even happens on
the earlier side, in the second round.

Next Fight »
Johnson vs. Fili


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