Justin Gaethje may have suffered the first loss of his MMA career when he battled Eddie Alvarez this month at UFC 218, but that’s not what matters most to the former World Series of Fighting champion. Gaethje has long vowed that the entertainment value of his fights is more important than the result, and with Alvarez vs. Gaethje a surefire lock to land on nearly every major ‘Fight of the Year’ list for 2017, Gaethje is simply happy that the contest lived up to people’s lofty expectations.
“Looking back, it lived up to the hype,” Gaethje said Monday on The MMA Hour. “I told people before that I had the ‘Fight of the Year’ until I fought again, and that’s what I do. It’s what I do every time. I get a bonus every time, and man, I really had a lot of fun in there. That’s first and foremost. It was the time of my life. Honestly, being in front of that many people, being able to put my skills on the line at the highest level on a pay-per-view, all of those things, it was a dream come true for me.
“I have to keep reminding myself that I lost,” Gaethje continued. “I don’t know. I signed up for this. I said it before, I said it many times, that I was going to lose (eventually). If I lost, I hoped that I would get knocked out. All of those things came true. I love the sport, I’m a fan of MMA, I’ve been a fan of MMA since before I started it, I was a fan of Eddie Alvarez before I started fighting, so just the culmination of events that have transpired in my life through hard work, through specifically hard work, it’s just, I’m happy. I’m happy for myself. I’m happy for my family. I’ve been trying to prepare my mom and sisters for all of that for a long time, so when it did happen, they were like, ‘Well, you’ve kinda prepared us for this.’ So it wasn’t that bad.”
Gaethje, 29, is nicknamed “The Highlight” for a reason. The Arizona native is one of the most exciting fighters in the sport — a reputation he backed up with his UFC debut this past summer when he won a thrilling war of attrition over Michael Johnson at The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale. Gaethje promised to bring the same kind of fireworks against Alvarez at UFC 218, and he delivered in spades, trading blows with Alvarez for nearly 14 nerve-racking minutes before getting knocked out with a vicious knee to the head in the closing moments of a grueling third round.
“Man, he’s tough. He’s a warrior,” Gaethje said of Alvarez. “I bring it out of people. I’ve been telling people I need to start smiling to my opponents and shaking hands and just being nice, so then when the bell rings, I catch them off-guard, because I used to catch people off-guard, but everyone’s ready now. They know I’m coming full of fury, and he was ready. He was so in shape and his cardio was on point. I couldn’t break him. I broke 18 people in a row. And on my 19th fight, I found someone that I could not break, and I enjoyed it. I appreciated it.
“When he threw that knee, it was perfect timing, perfect spot,” Gaethje added. “He kind of rope-a-doped me. We were sitting there, not relaxing, but I kinda got relaxed for a second because I was so comfortable in the clinch right there, landing those hard uppercuts, and I think we were talking to each other, like, ‘Aha, good one, good one,’ and I was like, ‘Ah, f*ck, you’re bringing it all. I’m right here.’ And I think that’s when he kneed me, or it was pretty close to that. But man, I loved it. I love what I do.”
The stoppage epitomized everything Gaethje had talked about for years whenever he prophesied his eventual first loss. And surprisingly, Gaethje said he remembered everything about the finishing sequence other than the moment of impact.
“I retained that whole fight. I lost probably like 10 seconds,” Gaethje said. “I remember seeing his arms up and then I saw the referee waving it off, and I thought for a second the fight was over, time had run out, and then I realized that [the referee] had stopped it. I thought I was fine and I got up — because in the back, I told the ref that if I lost, I wanted to go to sleep, which, I still want to apologize to the ref for that, because I feel like I shouldn’t be putting him in that position. But yeah, I got up, and I saw his hands up and I saw him waving them, and I tried to tell the ref, ‘You son of a b*tch!’
“But every time I got to the ‘b*tch,’ I couldn’t say it. I was like, ‘You son of a b—, you son of a b— ... okay, good stoppage, good stoppage.’ So yeah, I remember all of it. It was crazy. I’ve been worse off after other fights, I’ll tell you that.”
Gaethje now finds himself at an interesting position within the UFC lightweight ranks.
The division remains stuck at a standstill with UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor enjoying a seemingly endless hiatus and interim champion Tony Ferguson sidelined by a recent surgery. So for Gaethje, the options regarding what comes next are limitless, and he’s looking forward to seeing what life is like without feeling the pressure of an undefeated record to maintain.
“I’m happy to get it over with, I’ll be honest with you,” Gaethje said. “In hindsight, I’d love to be undefeated still, but that’s not what this sport is. Now we can actually focus on what I do good, my timing, my attitude. I’m a wrestler and I just boxed with one of the best pure MMA boxers I think there is, so I’m happy with my skills, I’m happy with my coaches, I’m happy with the life I chose and all of that.”
In a way, Gaethje is almost treating his experience against Alvarez as a win. He said he enjoyed the Alvarez fight more than he did his win against Johnson, and he’s looking forward to returning back into action in four to six months — after a lengthy rest — to restart his climb up the mountain.
“When you win, you get to pick someone in front of you to fight. But when you lose — I’m still ranked No. 5 in the world in the UFC, so coming off a loss, now I get to give someone behind me a chance,” Gaethje said. “And we’ll see which one of these loudmouths — Kevin Lee, Dustin Poirier — one of them is going to have to get me on my comeback, so I’m excited for that.”