UFC Pound for Pound Fighter Rankings: Justin Gaethje makes his grand entrance after masterful performance
Gaethje showed poise and maturity in getting past 'El Cucuy' at UFC 249 in Jacksonville
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,.
Men's pound-for-pound rankings
| 1. Khabib Nurmagomedov||Lightweight champion||28-0||--|
|The mauling grappler from Dagestan, Russia, continues to evolve fresh off a shellacking of Dustin Poirier. The challenges only get stiffer from here atop such a historically-deep division, although "The Eagle" will welcome a new opponent later this year in the form of interim champion Justin Gaethje after his upset of Tony Ferguson. ? ??|
|2. Jon Jones? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?||Light heavyweight champion||26-1 (1 NC)||--|
|Jones survived a massive scare against Dominick Reyes in a February bout at UFC 247 that left critics wondering if the judges had gotten it wrong. The victory helped "Bones" set a new UFC record for most wins in title fights with 14.|
|3. Henry Cejudo||Bantamweight champion||16-2||--|
|The cringemaster added to his growing legend with a TKO win over former champion Dominick Cruz at UFC 249. Shockingly, he followed it up by announcing his retirement. Should we hold the former two-division champion to his word or assume this is some kind of power play for leverage and money? Either way, at 33, Cejudo is only getting better. ?|
|4. Stipe Miocic||Heavyweight champion||19-3||--|
|Miocic may very well be the greatest heavyweight in UFC history and it's appearing more likely the 37-year-old will get a chance to defend that claim later this year in a trilogy with Daniel Cormier. Should he win, the menacing Francis Ngannou is next in line for a rematch.?|
|5. Israel Adesanya||Middleweight champion||19-0||--|
|"The Last Stylebender" struggled to edge a non-combative Yoel Romero by decision in his first title defense at UFC 248. Despite boos from the crowd, Adesanya employed a survive-and-advance strategy to avoid danger. Up next is expected to be unbeaten Brazilian slugger Paulo Costa in a fight that all but guarantees action.?|
|6. Kamaru Usman||Welterweight champion||16-1||--|
|Usman capped off an impressive year by out-slugging Colby Covington over five brutal rounds to defend his 170-pound title at UFC 245. The only question now is whether UFC will match him against red-hot Jorge Masvidal for all the marbles later this summer. ??|
|7. Alexander Volkanovski||Featherweight champion||21-1||--|
|There's a new sheriff in town at 145 pounds, and he won the title with brilliant efficiency in outpointing Max Holloway in December. Volkanovski, whose game plan and control of distance was nearly flawless, will need to repeat his feat after Dana White announced a rematch with Holloway is next.|
|8. Daniel Cormier||Heavyweight||22-2 (1 NC)|
|Although he turned 41 in March, Cormier remains focused on one more fight in a trilogy against Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight crown. A victory would help DC cement his legacy as the greatest UFC fighter the division has ever known and one of the best overall in history.|
|9. Justin Gaethje||Lightweight||22-2|
|Just how good is Gaethje? Apparently, much better than we thought after "The Highlight" continued his evolution from reckless brawler into calculated destroyer by snapping Tony Ferguson's incredible 12-fight win streak. Gaethje captured a shot at Khabib Nurmagomedov's crown by showcasing just how scary he can be when mixing patience and craft with fight-ending power.?|
|10. Max Holloway||Featherweight||21-5||--|
Holloway saw his incredible 14-fight win streak at 145 pounds come to an end at UFC 245 against Alexander Volkanovski. A rematch later this year will offer "Blessed" a chance to reclaim his former standing following the close defeat via decision.?
?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
|1. Amanda Nunes||Bantamweight/Featherweight champion||19-4||--|
The greatest female fighter in UFC history continued to cement her legacy by adding a second win over former 145-pound champion Germaine de Randamie in their bantamweight title bout. She will next defend her featherweight crown in June against Felicia Spencer.
|2. Valentina Shevchenko||Flyweight champion||19-3||--|
|The best 125-pound fighter in the world looked unbeatable at UFC 247 in her flyweight title defense against Katllyn Chookagian. The gap between Shevchenko and the rest of the division is so wide, it's very likely her next defining fight comes against a champion below or above her. Up next is Joanne Calderwood.|
|3. Weili Zhang||Strawweight champion||21-1||--|
|Zhang's inevitable ascent to global stardom after becoming China's first UFC champion only continued in her first title defense at UFC 248. She co-authored quite possibly the best fight in women's MMA history against Joanna Jedrzejczyk and answered any remaining questions about her skills, toughness and cardio.?|
|4. Joanna Jedrzejczyk||Strawweight||16-4||--|
|At 32, the former champion proved she's still got a ton left in the tank by pushing Weili Zhang to the limit in a split-decision loss. Jedrzejczyk suffered heavy damage including a grotesquely swollen face yet showed a limitless level of resolve. The loss drops her to 0-4 in title bouts since 2017.?|
|5. Germaine de Randamie||Bantamweight||9-3||--|
|As far as moral victories go, "The Iron Lady" scored a resounding one in her decision loss to Amanda Nunes in their UFC 245 rematch. De Randamie earned the respect of Nunes after rocking her twice and nearly submitting her, which forced the women's G.O.A.T. to play it safe by wrestling.|
Just missed:?Rose Namajunas, Tatiana Suarez, Jessica Andrade, Claudia Gadelha, Aspen Ladd, Marina Rodriguez
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