He finally made his long-overdue first UFC appearance and he definitely did not disappoint. He stayed true to himself, true to his fighting style and true to his fans by bringing us more violence in ten minutes than most fighters currently on the roster have ever managed. Justin Gaethje has arrived.
“You cannot break me” were his words in his post-fight interview and I don’t think anyone was doubting him after Friday night’s performance. He got rocked hard on two separate occasions but was still able to put on a strong striking display and knock Michael Johnson out late in the second round. The picture he painted of Johnson hunched over against the cage while Gaethje methodically dragged his hands away from protecting his face and unleashed knee-strikes straight from hell was a scary, scary one indeed. Michael Johnson’s last outing was a three-round demolishing courtesy of the unbeaten eagle, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and he still looked far worse for wear after spending two rounds opposite Gaethje.
The news has also broken just the other day that he’ll be coaching the newest season of The Ultimate Fighter alongside Eddie Alvarez, this shows that the UFC has faith in Gaethje to be the newest PPV draw in a landscape that’s lacking in them. All of this is rightly so, Gaethje has spent just shy of three years ruling World Series of Fighting’s lightweight division with an iron chin and hands of stone. His first UFC fight only proved that anyone of any ability can and probably will be forced into fighting Gaethje’s fight and as eighteen people can tell you, you don’t win when that happens.
The plan here is clear and simple, give him a strong amount of airtime to get people interested in him as a person and a personality then build towards a guaranteed exciting scrap against an opponent who’s going to be only too happy to stand and trade with him. This should give Gaethje a whole new legion of fans converted by his all-action, high-risk style. It’s a throwback to a simpler time, the earlier days of MMA when people like Wanderlei Silva and Rampage Jackson were causing carnage across the globe. He’s the embodiment of that “Just Bleed” guy and he’s everything we didn’t realise we missed from MMA in the early 2000’s.
His style is one that does not lend itself to a lengthy career and its unlikely he’ll be fighting into his late thirties like some of the more conservative fighters, but at the age of 28, he’s still got at least a few years left in the game at his peak-performance level. At present, the lightweight division is a state of flux, the current champ McGregor is off getting the biggest payday of his life by competing in a different sport and the two clearest contenders, Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, are circling each other for another attempt at booking the interim title-fight that was promised earlier this year. The next person in the UFC’s official rankings just so happens to be the very man going to spend a few months coaching against Gaethje during The Ultimate Fighter 26 and so long as the eventual title unification bout goes off without a hitch, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Gaethje to get the next title shot after steamrolling Alvarez.
For anyone who doubts that this might be the eventual plan the UFC, bare in mind that the last two people to receive a lightweight title-shot were Alvarez and McGregor, the first was given his title-shot after only three fights in the UFC, one of which he lost to Donald Cerrone, and the second had never even fought at lightweight in the UFC. Should Gaethje make his way past Alvarez then he’ll be 2-0 under the UFC banner, undefeated in all contests and have the head of an ex-champion on his mantelpiece. If that doesn’t say title-shot, then I don’t know what does.