UFC Pound for Pound Fighter Rankings: Justin Gaethje makes his grand entrance after masterful performance

It’s difficult to accurately tell the full measure of a fighter’s evolution until he is thrown into the deep end of the pool against the truly elite. 

Justin Gaethje dove in head first against Tony Ferguson in Saturday’s interim lightweight title bout headlining UFC 249 and proved he was more than capable of swimming. 

In a brilliant performance that was nearly overshadowed by how absurdly tough Ferguson was in defeat, Gaethje battered “El Cucuy” over nearly five full rounds before breaking Ferguson’s orbital bone and forcing a stoppage. While the win rightfully lifts the 31-year-old Gaethje into a title bout against unbeaten Khabib Nurmagomedov, the untold narrative was just how far “The Highlight” has come. 

A trio of first-round knockouts against James Vick, Edson Barboza and Donald Cerrone entering last weekend certainly spoke of how well Gaethje began to balance his lust for brawling with a deeper focus on the craft of how he sets up his attacks. But even those couldn’t have properly foreshadowed the poise, patience and technical brilliance he would ultimately show in dismantling Ferguson’s 12-fight win streak. 

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Gaethje owes much of his evolution to head coach Trevor Wittman, who did an equally impressive job in helping former women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas evolve from a highlight-reel submission threat to a brilliant boxer. But Wittman’s good intentions wouldn’t have meant a drop in the bucket had Gaethje not decided to stop fighting simply for the love he has in giving just as good as he gets. 

It wasn’t so long ago Gaethje was considered MMA’s answer to beloved boxing Hall of Famer Arturo Gatti. Abandoning his wrestling background in favor of turning each fight into a bar-room brawl, Gaethje won over fans but undoubtedly added an impending expiration date to his career given the damage he accrued. 

A pair of stoppage defeats to elite lightweights Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier in 2018 seemed to suggest the ceiling of how far Gaethje’s abilities could take him. Little did we know, it would turn out to be a turning point for his career. 

Gaethje still loads up with nearly every strike and hasn’t, as of yet, dipped back to rely on any of his amateur wrestling foundation. But he has refined himself just enough to remain ultra dangerous without becoming reckless. 

While it remains an insanely difficult tight rope to balance on, Gaethje did exactly that against Ferguson who has a legendary chin. Gaethje never gassed out, however, and stuck to his game plan by setting up his attacks with such subtle brilliance. 

Should Gaethje figure out a way to bring a ground attack back into the fold, there’s no telling how far he might climb up the pound-for-pound ladder, which was a space of rarefied air recently thought to have been too exclusive for a man of his barbaric talents. 

Not any longer. Gaethje proved on Saturday he’s one of the best fighters in the world, right now, regardless of weight and a legit potential threat to Nurmagomedov’s reign. 

For CBS Sports’ updated divisional rankings, click here.

Men’s pound-for-pound rankings

 Dropped out: Tony Ferguson

Just missed: Jorge Masvidal, Conor McGregor, Dominick Reyes, Robert Whittaker, Colby Covington, Dustin Poirier, Paulo Costa

Women’s pound-for-pound rankings

Dropped out: None

Just missed: Rose Namajunas, Tatiana Suarez, Jessica Andrade, Claudia Gadelha, Aspen Ladd, Marina Rodriguez

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