Sometimes you see fighters coming up outside the UFC and you can’t help but wonder how they’d fit if they found their way in. I can remember a media person saying to me at one point during Justin Gaethje’s run as WSOF lightweight champion that he would be exposed in the UFC; that his style of kill or be killed would, inevitably, get him killed. There seemed to be something to that, just as there’s always something to everything in such casually held hypotheticals. But I couldn’t help but want to test that theory against anything other than the Luis’s and Luiz’s that Gaethje was playing in-cage roulette with at WSOF.
Three fights into his UFC career, Gaethje has become the rare specimen that lives up to the wildest billing. You plug him into a fight and there’s a hiss of electricity to it. Though we insist on using them, rankings mean nothing to him. He goes to church because his mama makes him, not because he believes in celestial structures. Wins are nice, and losses are okay, so long as there’s a shared sense of thrill and trauma. He wants you to experience, as a viewer, what it’s like to be packed into a locker and then thrown down a hillside. It’s pretty basic, really — he wants your jaw to drop while you turn to the nearest spectator and ask in all sincerity: Is this man human?
This is what speaks to Justin Gaethje.
He did it again against Dustin Poirier at UFC on FOX 29 in Glendale, right there in his familiar stomping grounds in Maricopa County. He made Poirier commit himself to going deep, one of the unwritten challenges for every fighter that takes the pledge to face Gaethje. If Poirier was going to beat “The Highlight,” he needed to outlast him — to survive the war of attrition. He needed to exhaust Gaethje’s power supply like you would with an alien in a video game, and compromise his lead leg in the process. He needed to tee off on that ever-hittable, lucid face — a face that came out of he copper mines, flashing like a strobe — and keep teeing off, like his life depended on it, until the eyelids closed.
Poirier did just that, even though he was operating with one eye and one leg. He scored a fourth-round TKO by adrenalizing the challenge. He treated Gaethje like a ritual that he needed to endure to get to a title shot, which he promptly called for on the microphone afterwards.
”This is my 20th fight in the UFC,” Poirier said, having landed 65 percent of the 283 strikes he threw in just over 15 minutes. “I’ve been knocked out, climbed back, over and over again. Two weight classes. Dana…Khabib…let’s f*cking go! It’s time!”
It’s a credit to Poirier — just as it was a credit to Eddie Alvarez and Michael Johnson — that he met Gaethje on his own terms. He went on national television to engage in a fistic orgy, a spree of violence that would bring people out of their seats. He saw Gaethje move forward after each punch he landed until he couldn’t move forward anymore. That’s what had to be done from a gladiatorial perspective. He had to prove himself against a human buzz saw.
If that’s what Gaethje’s legacy ends up being, here’s guessing that would be fine with him. He wants to drag the warrior out of the man, to plumb his depths for courage. If you want to beat him, you have to dig deeper than him. That’s his challenge, and his contract with his public. When Alvarez survived his encounter with Gaethje, he all but put his loss to Conor McGregor behind him forever. It was like an Etch-a-Sketch that made all context disappear. Surviving 15 minutes with Gaethje is a lifetime of reinvention. That’s what Gaethje is. A minefield that he invites any would-be contender to try and walk across.
And after three fights in the UFC, he’s now the most glorious 1-2 you’ll ever find. It turns out his kill or be killed attitude is a hit in the octagon, yet he loses nothing in defeat. There is no exposure. He is the same fighter that hacked down the Luis and Luiz’s in WSOF, only on the bigger stage. He makes everyone else better, gives color to the epaulettes. The UFC could plug him into a fight with anyone from Anthony Pettis (!) to Nate Diaz (!!) tomorrow, and it would boggle the mind in ways that has less to do with wins and losses than it does communicating the hell in between.
And it could book Poirier against Nurmagomedov tomorrow to minimal complaint, because Poirier — somehow, some way — found it in him to get by Gaethje. He dug so deep, he found himself justified in asking.