By now there is no doubt that Justin Gaethje is one of the most talented and entertaining fighters currently competing outside of the UFC. The undefeated World Series of Fighting lightweight champion is a throwback, a no-nonsense pugilist who lives by the credos of forward pressure and ruthless aggression. And once Gaethje puts his title on the line against Ozzy Dugulubgov at WSOF 33, it will kick off a three-month span that could end up being among the most important of his fighting career.
Ahead of WSOF 33, Gaethje told MMA Fighting that he has two bouts remaining on his WSOF contract. That deal, negotiated in June 2015 alongside deals with two other homegrown stars of WSOF -- Marlon Moraes and David Branch -- made Gaethje one of the highest-paid lightweights fighting outside of the UFC. And it will likely run its course by the end of the year, as Gaethje says that barring injury, he has been promised a spot on the promotion's Dec. 31 venture into New York, with his opponent depending largely on how WSOF 33 plays out.
After that, Gaethje will be his own man, a world-ranked fan-favorite free to negotiate his services to the highest bidder, as is the trend in today's mixed martial arts landscape. And while Gaethje won't commit one way or another on free agency by focusing his gaze too far ahead, if 2016 closes out the way he plans, the undefeated 27-year-old could find plenty of interest in those services.
"I'm a businessman, and I wasn't in the position I am right now three fights ago (when I re-signed with WSOF)," Gaethje says. "Like a lot of guys do, they'll try to go to the UFC too early and you get thrown to the wolves on a minimum contract. That's not a smart way to go.
"We're our own contractors, so we have fight for whoever appreciates our skills the most. And for me, World Series of Fighting treats me unbelievably. I'm one of the top-paid athletes in the organization, deservedly so. I've got just as many fights as anybody and more knockouts than anybody in this company, so I think I should be getting paid more than anybody in this company. I don't know if I am or not, but I'm content with what I'm getting paid right now. I know it's a lot more than a lot of top-10 lightweights in the world are getting paid, so I'm happy with World Series. They treat me well, they put me out there. They could do a little more promotion, but other than that, it's money."
Gaethje isn't joking when he talks about his pay. In his most recent disclosed purse, Gaethje cashed $100,000 on the first fight of his renegotiated deal at WSOF 23. His subsequent title defense at WSOF 29 took place under the Colorado State Boxing Commission, an entity which withholds purse information. However, for the sake of comparison, Branch earned $130,000 on the second fight of his own restructured deal while Moraes earned $160,000 for a similar outing.
So it stands to reason that Gaethje will make a pretty penny on the remaining two fights of his WSOF deal -- which leads to a fascinating question, as well as a crossroads Gaethje will likely face if he continues his winning ways: with the UFC rarely in the business of offering big-ticket contracts to fighters lacking in star power, the time may come when Gaethje is forced to make a decision whether money matters most to him or the glory of fighting the world's best.
And that decision is a difficult one to make.
"The damage I take, especially with the way I fight, when it comes down to putting pen on paper, if you're going to shortchange me and then not appreciate my skills, then I'm not going to be able to trust in you as a business," Gaethje says. "So I'm not going to be willing to put my life on the line, at the end of the day, if you're not going to appreciate my skills. So no, I'm not going to take a pay cut. I don't think I should take a pay cut. I think if someone wants me, they should have to pay me top dollar. Especially if I get two more knockouts this year, there's no way in hell I'm taking a pay cut. I'll literally laugh in their face if they try to."
The reality of choosing between securing a comfortable future in a sport with limited earning windows or pursuing his dreams among the best in the world is one that Gaethje knows he may have to reconcile once the time comes. Yet still, it would be tough to turn down the chance to truly test himself, especially now that Gaethje believes he finally is coming into his own as one of the best 155-pound fighters on the planet.
"I keep saying I'm the best in the world and I'm a coward because I'm not putting myself in position to fight the best in the world," Gaethje says matter-of-factly. "If you want to be the best, you have to fight the best, and they're not in Bellator, they're not in World Series.
"You watch one of my highlights videos, you know I belong with any lightweight in the world. Not one of them is going to come in there and have a great time, walk out of there unscathed unless they get a lucky 13-second knockout. But yeah, man, I can't say I'm the best in the world without ever wanting to fight the best in the world. So I would be lying if I said I did not want to fight Eddie Alvarez right now."
When it comes to Alvarez, it would be foolish to think Gaethje fails to see what is happening to his lightweight brethren competing across WSOF's borders. Alvarez and the sport's biggest superstar, Conor McGregor, are scheduled to make millions of dollars for their champion versus champion superfight at Madison Square Garden at UFC 205. McGregor has already pocketed several seven-figure fight purses over the past few years, and the Irishman's creativity and flair for promotion have influenced the game in a major way, helping to spearhead a focus on business acumen rather than settling for less than what a fighter may be worth, as has been the custom in mixed martial arts for years.
The rise of free agency and the growing support for a fighter's union has also happened concurrently to McGregor's run, and as someone who has always valued entertainment over winning, Gaethje believes the increase in financial awareness among fighters is a welcome evolution from the archaic business models of past decades.
"Once you hear that the top promotion in the world is making 2,000-percent on their investment -- I haven't made 2,000-percent on my investment and I started at four years old, so that's something that you better pay attention to," Gaethje says. "You cannot get left behind in this sport, especially where you're putting your health on the line.
"I can see how people don't understand, but I've sparred with some of the biggest names in the sport, and I knew a long time ago that there was no difference between the companies. It's all about the position you're in right now. And I wasn't as good (of a fighter before), but I get better every time. I have a great coach, Trevor Wittman, so I get better. Three fights ago, I wasn't as confident that I was the best in the world. Right now, I know for a fact that no one is going to step in the cage and have fun and run through me."
It would be easy for someone in Gaethje's position to drive themselves crazy thinking about future possibilities, but Gaethje knows that all of those discussions are, for now, out of his hands. He will entertain the questions simply because they are almost all he is asked; however his focus remains on the present, as it always has been, because there is still much left to be decided in his story, and all it would take is one Dugulubgov left hook to kill everything he has worked toward.
So as WSOF 33 approaches, Gaethje only vows one thing for certain about how his next chapter of his fighting life is going to play out.
"It's going to be the same as always," he promises, turning his focus to Dugulubgov. "I'm going to put pressure, you're going to try to figure it out. You sit there and you're backing up and you're like, ‘just let me breathe, please just let me take a breath.' And I'm not going to give him space. He throws his spinning back kick, he needs space to do all of that. He could get lucky and knock me out in two minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, but the whole time I'm going to be pushing forward and trying to finish him. I think my pressure, people do not understand what it feels like to not have any space for a second. It is suffocating. And then you're asleep."