Both Justin Gaethje and James Vick are hoping to blaze a path to the championship, but a victory at UFC Lincoln is necessary to make the jump into title contention.
The UFC lightweight division is about to enjoy what could be the best era in its storied history. Names like Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson are all poised to collide and it has made the weight class the biggest glamor division in mixed martial arts today. But while the title picture has the star power, the entire UFC top ten is hoping to book marquee bouts at the top of the weight class. Justin Gaethje and James Vick are two of those individuals, but they will have to prevail at UFC Lincoln first.
In a year when business and free agency have been a hot topic of discussion, Justin Gaethje is a prime example of just how much of a difference having the UFC brand behind you can be. Despite holding the lightweight title in WSOF and entering the company undefeated, he became a breakout star in 2017 with just one fight. He has turned in three consecutive contests that are considered a “Fight of the Year” and became the only male fighter to take home two awards at the World MMA Awards this past July.
But while Gaethje has become a must-watch fighter in the UFC, he is also now in a precarious situation. He has dropped two straight to elite title challengers, and a third could well drop him lower in the rankings and potentially end any title aspirations for the near future. The double-edged sword of his exciting style has become a popular topic. On the one hand, in less than a year in the UFC, it is what has made him one of the most popular fighters in the entire sport. On the other, fans, pundits, and even Gaethje himself have pointed out that he could be more successful and could extend his career if he changed it to incorporate more wrestling and take less damage.
James Vick has quietly accumulated an impressive 9-1 record in the UFC since making his debut with the company in 2013. He has put together a five fight win-streak in the past and is currently on a four fight win-streak heading into Saturday’s contest. Despite his success and level of activity, Vick is currently ranked only tenth in the division. The fight with Gaethje is set to be his breakout performance and an impressive victory could be what he needs to be considered one of the serious contenders at 155.
More recently, Vick added heat to the bout with Gaethje following the 25th Anniversary Press Conference where he exchanged words with “The Highlight.” In what became the most memorable exchange of the event, Vick called his opponent the “Homer Simpson” of MMA and insinuated that Gaethje’s penchant for taking damage will lead to a dramatic demise at his hands.
Stylistically, Gaethje will have to deal with the height, reach, and versatile game of Vick. The main question, will Gaethje alter his famous “brawling for dollars” strategy? Assuming he does incorporate more wrestling after two straight losses, he could look to wear Vick down with forward pressure per his usual and use the clinch against the fence to drag the fight to the ground. While there is plenty of talk of fighting more conservatively, the best option for Gaethje will be to keep the fight in close range where the reach of Vick is neutralized.
For Vick, he should look to emulate the strategy used by Dustin Poirier and pick Gaethje apart with strikes at long range Footwork and accuracy are crucial as the durable Gaethje will be looking to close the distance and Vick will want to avoid a brawl where he gives his opponent an easy opportunity to do damage. Vick has also shown an underrated submission game and he should take any opportunity to take Gaethje down and eliminate any threat on the feet.
Moving forward, both men will wait to see how the rankings play out as more high profile fights take place. This fall is expected to produce big winners, but those who fall short could be looking at either Gaethje or Vick as their next opponent. With much of the top ten booked, both men could likely await to see how the fights in October and November are resolved before signing another bout.