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
Gaethje (18-2) vs. James Vick
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