Expectation can be a crippling factor in the fight game, but not for Justin Gaethje.
The longtime WSOF champion finally put pen to paper with the UFC in 2017, and given his penchant for thrilling and usually violent encounters, the MMA world waited with bated breath for the announcement of his debut.
The main criticism of how the former Division I All-American had fought up until that point had been how much damage he had taken on route to victory.
In a lot of his fights, the undefeated Gaethje would take just as much as he gave. Often, just as it seemed he was about to fall, the Colorado native would find a way to finish his counterpart, but many believed that UFC’s elite would prove a bridge too far for his signature style.
The fact that Gaethje found some truth in those assessments only added to his appeal ahead of his promotional bow.
“I’m not promising success,” he told Ariel Helwani ahead of his debut on The MMA Hour. “I’m not promising that. I’ll promise you that I will get knocked out here in the next, like, 10 fights, because it’s a game of freakin’ centimeters and fractions of seconds. Come on. I’ve watched every single one of my fights in slow motion, and I live. I beat you to the time. I beat you to the punch. I’m in your face, and you can’t breathe. Not for a second will you be able to breathe.”
Michael Johnson had showcased his knockout power with an upset win over Dustin Poirier nine months before he would clash with Gaethje. To add to that, the one flush shot he managed to land on Khabib Nurmagomedov had been held up as proof for pockets of the fanbase that Conor McGregor would prevail if he ever fought the unbeaten Dagestani.
Johnson was insulted that Gaethje even suggested that he was going to find his “breaking point” at the TUF Finale on Jul. 7.
“Gaethje is a f*cking fool,” Johnson said, just days before they were due to lock horns. “Who’s broken me in the UFC? I’ll wait. You can tell me who — nobody has broken me in the UFC and it won’t be a newcomer, I’ll tell you that.”
When all the talk was done, Johnson hunkered down awaiting the opening bell in Las Vegas with a look on his face that implored Gaethje to show him what all of the hype had been about.
Ten seconds into the fight, the newcomer had already been backed up by Johnson’s left straight. Thirty seconds later, a right hand from Gaethje followed by a knee from his clinch set the fistic narrative that would see the fight ebb and flow until it met its brutal conclusion in the second round.
With less than 30 seconds left in the first, Johnson clipped Gaethje with a right shovel hook. Reacting to the blow in slow motion, the former WSOF champ leaned forward as if he were looking off the side of a cliff. Johnson jumped all over him and poured on a barrage, later taking him down to see out the round.
The smile on Gaethje’s face ahead of the second stanza cemented him as a fan favorite.
Just like Johnson appeared to query his fortitude before the first bell, a lot of the watching world had never seen a Gaethje fight before. That smirk made them believe that Gaethje was, as he had claimed, at his happiest in the midst of violence. And if it didn’t convince them, the remaining minutes of the contest certainly would.
Johnson fed him another crisp right that put him on wobbly legs a minute into the second, but Gaethje just kept coming. It would be another three minutes before Gaethje hit the mark on “The Menace,” but as soon as Johnson’s legs sacrificed his poker face, Gaethje didn’t let him breathe, fulfilling the promises he had made to Helwani’s listenership six weeks before.
Despite his own evident exhaustion, Gaethje threw everything at his opponent to find the stoppage — knees, elbows, punches and kicks. He could have followed Johnson to the ground with 45 seconds left in the round, but instead, he asked him to stand up.
Three more knees against the fence slumped Johnson to the floor. As the crowd exploded with delight, the defeated party sat bloodied, forced to acknowledge that Gaethje did exactly what he had planned to do in his opening remark to the UFC world.
With just one fight, Gaethje had established himself with his new employers. He even got a shoutout from the famously uncomplimentary absentee lightweight champion, Conor McGregor, when he appeared in Glasgow two months later.
“Where’s my equal at?” Gaethje asked in his post-fight interview.
Five months later, UFC 218 would provide an answer to that question.
2. Yancy Medeiros vs. Alex Oliveira
Something special comes over Yancy Medeiros whenever he fights on the same card as his close friend and training partner, Max Holloway.
As Medeiros had proven against Erick Silva at UFC 212, Holloway fighting Jose Aldo had been a good omen for him in the past. Despite being a big underdog heading into his bout with Alex Oliveira at UFC 218 — where Holloway would make his first featherweight title defense against Aldo in the main event — the Hawaiian once again defied the odds.
Eddie Alvarez vs. Justin Gaethje was the fight that everyone had earmarked ahead of 218, but after suffering two knockdowns and inflicting two knockdowns before ending the fight in the third round, Medeiros’ win over Oliveira stole a lot of the headlines on Dec. 2.
3. Eddie Alvarez vs. Justin Gaethje
Justin Gaethje won the status as “UFC’s most violent” for his showing against Michael Johnson earlier in the year, but Eddie Alvarez claimed that the abstract title would be put on the line when he faced the former WSOF champion at UFC 218.
Alvarez looked like his lead leg had been chewed up to the point of no return by the time the second round came around, but it didn’t dissuade him from putting himself in danger. At every opportunity he entered the pocket, planted his feet and landed flurries of hooks that tattooed Gaethje from his belly button to his forehead.
Gaethje was dangerous as long as he was standing, but in the third round Alvarez finally broke the previously undefeated fighter with a knee to the head that stopped the fight as it entered the final minute of the final round.
4. Georges St-Pierre vs. Michael Bisping
Georges St. Pierre proved a lot of his doubters wrong when he returned after a four-year hiatus, making history on his capture of the middleweight title with a third-round submission over Michael Bisping at UFC 217.
After St-Pierre showcased a far more offensive striking style than expected, Bisping took the momentum back in the second after being taken down. With the former welterweight king in his guard, the Brit landed cutting elbows to the returning great, who seemed to have the wind taken out of his sails by Bisping’s unrelenting defensive shots.
But then the Tristar man buckled Bisping with a left hook before putting him to sleep with a rear-naked choke in the third round. The victory was made all more impressive when St-Pierre grappling coach, John Danaher, revealed that GSP had planned to overcome the three biggest criticisms of his career on his return to the Octagon.
5. Jessica Andrade vs. Angela Hill
Some will argue that Jessica Andrade’s 15-minute war with Angela Hill was the greatest strawweight fight ever after the two collided at UFC Fight Night 104 back in February.
Andrade would win all three rounds on the judges’ scorecards, but Hill’s perseverance was what made the fight one to remember. Despite the Brazilian’s brutal and battering approach, Hill managed to give her moments of pause, catching her clean at the beginning of the second round and even dropping her with a left hand in the last five minutes.
The win proved enough to warrant a title shot for Andrade, who later lost to Joanna Jedrzejczyk via unanimous decision at UFC 211.
Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2017 Fight of the Year played out.
- Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero
- Brandon Girtz vs. Derek Campos 3
- Darren Elkins vs. Mirsad Bektic
- Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier 2
- T.J. Dillashaw vs. Cody Garbrandt
- Max Holloway vs. Jose Aldo 1
- Frank Camacho vs. Damien Brown
- Eddie Alvarez vs. Dustin Poirier
- David Teymur vs. Lando Vannata
- Lando Vannata vs. Bobby Green
- Nathaniel Wood vs. Josh Reed
- Amy Montenegro vs. Celine Haga