Justin Gaethje scored perhaps the most impressive victory of his career last month when he knocked out Edson Barboza with a wicked first-round punch at UFC Philadelphia.
The win gave Gaethje back-to-back knockouts following a similar performance last August against James Vick — and in today’s UFC climate, where the manner an athlete wins is just as important as whether they win at all, “The Highlight” knows he may have set himself up for a big opportunity in his next outing at 155 pounds.
“I think a win like that, man — it’s all about how you win nowadays,” Gaethje said recently on The MMA Hour. “You’ve gotta win, but I won in very impressive fashion, and in this game that does a lot.”
The biggest problem now for Gaethje is, in his own words, the “clusterf*ck” currently torpedoing the top of the UFC’s lightweight division.
The promotion’s three highest-ranked 155-pound fighters — champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, former interim champion Tony Ferguson, and former champion Conor McGregor — all are expected to be sidelined for the foreseeable future due to a variety of circumstances. Nurmagomedov is serving a suspension from the Nevada Athletic Commission for his post-fight conduct at UFC 229, while Ferguson is dealing with personal issues and McGregor is stuck at an impasse on negotiations with the UFC.
Still, Gaethje certainly would rather be in the spot he’s in now than the spot he would’ve resided if things went poorly at UFC Philadelphia. And it appears that he can credit his back-to-back losses against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier for his recent career turnaround.
Gone are his old brawling ways. The more measured and patient standup approach Gaethje executed to perfection against Vick worked like a charm once again against Barboza, and Gaethje admitted that the setbacks he suffered against Alvarez and Poirier were the pushes he needed in order to make the necessary adjustments for the sake of his career.
“It was two losses, so I was able to go back and go back to the drawing board, man,” Gaethje explained. “I never went [back to the drawing board]. Every time I won, you just had to keep building on what was successful. That’s how this game works. It’s like a roller-coaster. When you’re up, you’re up; when you’re down, you’re down.
“So you’ve got to ride those waves, and I was having so much success with the style that I was choosing to go out there and fight, because through my seven amateur fights and then through those first 18 [professional] fights in a row, I went out there with one goal, one intention — to create chaos — and I was 25-0. So you can say stuff all you want, but there’s no reason I would’ve ever tried to change that.
“And once I fought the best guys in the world — Poirier is, bar none, I think, one of the best standup guys that there is in my weight class, and just technical-wise, his ability to take angles and stuff is just crazy. So to fight those guys is just crazy.”
Gaethje wasted little time calling out Nurmagomedov in the aftermath of UFC Philadelphia. His manager, Ali Abdelaziz, wrote on Twitter in the days afterward that Gaethje’s next fight would be a No. 1 contender match or a fight for some kind of title.
Prior to Poirier’s interim title victory over UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway at UFC 236, Gaethje indicated that he would be interested in fighting the winner. But more so than anyone else, Gaethje has his eyes set squarely on Nurmagomedov. He believes his formidable mix of standup skills and a wrestling background of being a Division I All-American at the University of Northern Colorado would make him the toughest stylistic matchup for Nurmagomedov in the entire lightweight division.
“I think my wrestling credentials alone would benefit me so much in that fight, my ability to stop the takedown,” Gaethje said. “And I’m very confident in my standup, I’m confident in my coach and the gameplan that we would come together with and go out there and execute. I think with my athletic ability I’m a tough out for anybody.
“My ability to scramble, create scrambles,” added Gaethje. “We’re sweating more [in MMA], I’m more slippery than people wearing singlets and wrestling in college or any wrestling match. So all those factors come into play when it comes to that grappling. And yeah, I’m not going to go in there to wrestle with him. I’m going in there to stop takedowns, and that’s what I’ve been good at this whole time. And in the clinch, I throw hard shots.
“So you can’t fail or prosper without going out there and taking that chance, so I’ve gotta put myself in a position [to get the fight], and I think as opposed to anybody else at the top of this division, I would be the toughest out for him. No doubt. And it’s a challenge that I’m looking forward to.”
Nurmagomedov’s prodigious wrestling and grappling acumen has helped the Dagestani champion dominate the UFC’s lightweight division to the tune of a perfect 11-0 promotional record. Throughout that run, Nurmagomedov has rarely even been truly challenged. Nurmagomedov’s coach, Javier Mendez, said on a recent episode of The MMA Hour that he doesn’t believe Gaethje poses any threat to the lightweight king.
So why does Gaethje believe he can succeed where so many others have failed?
He simply wants a chance to try.
“Who knows, man. My wrestling coach is Ben Cherrington, 2006 national champion from Boise State, NCAA,” Gaethje said. “So I work with him twice a week, and if I was to get that fight, my training camp would be based around being in shape. I’m not saying I could beat him in a wrestling match, but a wrestling match is what I did my whole life. He’s not going to go out there and dominate me in a wrestling match.
“What it comes down to is my cardio being up to par with his, and the ability for me to grapple in as many situations and get into as many scrambles as he’s able to get into, because that’s where he breaks people. He gets you in the scrambles and you get tired. That is some tiring stuff. That’s why I avoid it, because I don’t want to get tired — I want to try to knock him out. You can’t pin people in a fight and I’m trying to get out of there as soon as possible. So yeah, that would be my focus.
“I would and will focus on that when I fight Khabib. I’m starting to do it now, so that when I do get that fight, I can wrestle for 25 minutes if I need to.”