UFC 244 will play host to perhaps the most promising lightweight talent in the sport, the former Edinboro University standout and four-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, Gregor Gillespie.
Gillespie himself once likened his style of fighting to the relentless abrasive efforts of a crashing ocean, stating the following in the wake of his victory over Vinc Pichel last year:
“Persistence is everything. You miss one? Fine. You miss five, you miss ten? Whatever. You get the nineteeth one and then you end up in the position you want to be in.
“I’m like water to a rock. Water will go through that rock eventually.”
If you’ve watched this guy fight, you’ll quickly realise that these are not just empty attempts to boost his own notoriety.
It is nothing short of baffling that Gregor hasn’t been widely held to the same level of regard as many of his fellow rising talents who have quickly jumped the queue on their own respective upward trajectories.
Perhaps this is indicative of a preference for the flashier elements of the standup game. The undeniable truth of the matter, though, is that this man is one of the best lightweights in the business, and in my eyes, potentially the most underrated talent on the UFC roster.
When he’s not in a position of complete and utter dominance on the ground, he’s gifting us with high-octane slobberknockers on the feet and in his unbeaten venture through the sport’s most dangerous division, he has only found himself straying outside of pure excellence in the briefest of moments.
Six wins and five straight finishes have led The Gift to his UFC 244 pairing with the former divisional interim-title challenger Kevin Lee – a fight that will likely lead the eventual victor to a top-5 opponent.
Although no doubt the toughest fight of his career to date, a win over Lee will be enough to make this man a household name within the context of the 155lb ranks. And trust me, I am backing him to make an almighty splash if all goes his way on November 2.
While the sport has, of course, seen its fanbase grow in their shared knowledge of the game and, in particular, in their grasp of the art of grappling, Gillespie’s last win saw him come under a level of criticism usually reserved for the reigning lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
And while I wouldn’t usually be one to meet these type of arguments head on, I feel as though it’s important to highlight how ridiculously entertaining this guy has been to watch over the course of his career.
Though a stellar wrestler and a record-breaker at Edinboro, he bowed out of the sport in favour of MMA due to the sheer dominance of the great Jordan Burroughs in his weight-class as well as the desire to test himself within the more multi-faceted demands of his current home.
For those who know how brilliant the Olympian Burroughs has been over the last decade or so, it’s easy to see that Gillespie made the right call. There are few wrestlers in MMA who inflict their game upon their opposition quite like he has been able to so far in his rise.
Like he himself will tell you, the style he employs once the cage doors close is one built on persistence and constant pressure. He is the storm, the wind, and the crashing waves that will eventually rip your feet from beneath you and begin to destroy your chances of getting your hand raised with each passing second.
A promotional debut decision victory over Glaico Franca gave way to a five-fight streak of finishes that culminated with a destruction of the insanely tough Yancy Medeiros in January.
I feel as though a lot of people had their first exposure to The Gift in that fight and in the vein of those who criticise the divisional champion, were quick to brand him with the tags that are usually reserved for that grinding style of control.
And no, I’m not going to meet these criticisms head on. MMA as a sport requires a certain level of appreciation for fighters like Khabib and Gillespie and to be honest, if you can’t see past the limitations of your untrained eyes, I can’t see myself being the one to change your mind.
That being said, it did irk me to a certain extent as people took shots at Gregor despite the fact that the road that led him to UFC Brooklyn was defined by his insane tempo.
I will, however, suggest dipping into your UFC Fight Pass account to watch his Fight Of The Night-winning showcase against the valiant Jason Gonzalez. Trust me, you’ll get a sense of what this guy is all about.
Looking at lightweight right now, the road between Gregor and the top of the pile is one that will see him coming within close proximity of the fighters who should have the tools to nullify his relentless offense.
Justin Gaethje, Tony Ferguson, Khabib Nurmagomedov. All boasting superb wrestling pedigree and on paper, a path to victory against this man.
But that’s what makes this weekend’s clash against Kevin Lee so interesting.
It’s hard to peg someone for greatness before they pass their litmus test and in The Motown Phenom, we have the type of fighter who will represent the clearest route towards defeating this rising talent.
The beauty of Lee vs. Gillespie lies in their shared wrestling base and the challenge that will both be presented on the night and also foreshadow what comes in the future for Gregor.
Lee is absolutely no slouch in the grappling and wrestling departments and his background as a standout Div II wrestler at Grand Valley State University, Michigan along with his very solid and underrated skills as a striker will give us a sense of how his adversary fits into this stacked divisional picture.
I’m a fan of Kevin Lee. He’s a young fighter who boasts incredible athleticism and while there have been questions over his ability to take a shot in recent times, I consider him a very difficult stylistic matchup for Gregor Gillespie.
I just think that the standard has been undeniably set during Gregor’s six-fight UFC run to date. Say what you will about his promise once his reaches the upper-echelons, but if you want to point to an unranked lightweight run that displayed a level of domination comparable to this one, you’d have to roll back the years to the current champ.
There are similarities between Gillespie and Nurmagomedov, for sure, and, of course, I do think that it’s far too early to wonder at how a fight between them would go.
But as we’re watching the sport of MMA evolve, the specialists of the world – and more specifically in this case, the smothering wrestlers – are once again beginning to establish themselves to the forefront of the game’s progression.
If you’re all over your opponent in a top position, barring the tricky guard-players and scramblers, that’s a pretty solid way to make the risk you’re taking minimal.
I don’t know how far Gregor Gillespie can go in this division, but based on what I’ve seen so far and the sheer brilliance of his UFC run, I would urge you to sit up and take notice if he can get past Kevin Lee this weekend.
Like Nurmagomedov before him, this is a style built on complete and total domination on the mat and just like the sitting champ during his rise, moments of any real resistance have been few and far between.
I’m already willing to vouch for Gillespie as the most underrated prospect on the roster because of this. The ability to dictate the pace and direction of a fight is second to none and the manner in which this man can bend fighters to his will is incredibly impressive.
If he can do the same to a bad matchup like Kevin Lee this weekend, I truly believe that we should be speaking about The Gift as a genuine threat to the lightweight crown before long.
And although it is unlikely that Nurmagomedov hangs around long enough for us to see that matchup, I think Gregor’s style makes him the perfect successor to the fearsome Dagestan-native’s reign.
Watch Saturday night’s main-card opener closely, folks. I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re about to learn a lot about the future of the lightweight division.