Updated: Mar 21
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images
The UFC 286 on Saturday night saw Justin Gaethje prove to be the warrior he is before he talks of ending a great career. He was fighting against Rafael Fiziev. It was a short 3 round battle that was remarkably competitive.
Fiziev, in the 3rd round, scored many decisive blows to Gaethje. It would have eradicated many welterweights, let alone lightweights. However, Gaethje, as usual, fought the pressure and scored a great uppercut in the last seconds of the fight. The judges seemed to favor Gaethje with scores of 29-28, 29-28, and 28-28.
With Gaethje’s win, he improves to 24-4. His losses were only to world champions. Fiziev, because of his loss, drops to 12-2. He had a six-win streak before this devastating loss.
Justin Gaethje vs Raphael Fiziev
This fight gave us all a very necessary reality check. We all watched Fiziev’s spinning heel kick KO over Brad Riddel, then Fiziev’s brilliant fake flying knee combination, which Raphael Dos Anjos fell to, and that training footage in Thailand where Fiziev looked like a power ranger. In all, as the MMA community, we thought Fiziev’s striking surpassed the top three lightweights in the world. Especially after Justin Gaethje’s most recent loss to Charles Olivera, we thought the sophistication of Fiziev’s striking outpaced the ‘Highlight’. So much so that we even had Gaethje as a 3-to-1 underdog going into this fight. Boy were we wrong.
Let’s be fair to ourselves though, the lead-up to this UFC 286 co-main event served to guide us here. I’ll set the stage: Fiziev claimed his striking in preparation for this fight exceeded even his past performances, so much so that Gaethje would have to implement a grappling-heavy strategy to secure a win in this fight. So this seems scary, but what is Gaethje’s rebuttal? Gaethje begins to return to this same hill he has died on several times before and responds that he has this mystical wrestling ability he’s been hiding.
Let’s face some facts here: Gaethje is 34 years old, started competing in MMA in 2008 (and we all know your ability to wrestle decreases drastically with the length of one career), and when he hit the floor with Khabib Nurmagomedov and Olivera he was a fish out of water. However, Gaethje deserves some due since he did wrestle Division 1 and has been wrestling since four years old. But his best work is done with his hands, and he was seemingly ceding that ground to Fiziev already in the build-up. Gaethje did not seem confident.
Gaethje’s lack of confidence was reflected in his performance in the first round. Aside from a very powerful leg kick to the calf (Gaethje’s bread and butter), Fiziev kept control in the first with his quick hand speed and smart combinations. The second round saw both fighters starting to become more comfortable.
The beginning of the second round was Fiziev, with him landing at a higher clip, but later in that round began to trust his hands more, and his combinations led to some gruesome blows. In his corner before the third round, Fiziev, now with one blackened eye and a mouse under the other, realized he had to explode here to change the tempo and win.
At the beginning of the third round, Fiziev exploded with a series of hard, fast combinations, the final of which led to Gaethje’s legs buckling. But Gaethje, being as tough as a steak from Applebees, did fall and persisted in regaining the lost momentum. Gaethje’s coach Trevor Whitman advised him to fight behind his jab, which worked wonders.
Gaethje’s jab is long and powerful for the weight class and worked well to suppress the creativity of Fiziev. We began to see the form of Gaethje that clinically dismantled Tony ‘El Cucuy’ Ferguson for the Interim Lightweight Title in 2020. Gaethje won via Majority Decision with the judges’ scorecards reading: 29-28, 29-28, 28-28.
Fiziev is a young blossoming talent and will certainly be back. My desired matchup for Rafael Fiziev would be Mateusz Gamrot.
Gaethje, after the fight, pointed to the complication of his age. He alluded to this being his final run at the title, calling out the loser of the upcoming number–one contender bout between Beneil Dariush and Charles Olivera. This would not be a bad idea, but my desired matchup for Justin Gaethje would be a second meeting with Dustin Poirier.