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James Vick says Justin Gaethje has been ‘exposed’ in UFC: ‘I don’t think he’s a world-class fighter’

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For the better part of two years, James Vick has called for his second crack at a top-10 lightweight opponent in the UFC. With a 9-1 record in the promotion’s deepest division, highlighted by a four-fight win streak over consistently solid competition, it’s an opportunity that Vick has long deserved. And now he’ll get his chance.

Following a flurry of news late last week, Vick is slated to meet No. 7-ranked lightweight Justin Gaethje in a pivotal contest on Aug. 25 in the main event of UFC Lincoln. Initially scheduled to fight the No. 14-ranked Paul Felder on July 14 at UFC Boise, Vick stepped into the UFC Lincoln matchup on short notice as a replacement for Gaethje’s original opponent Al Iaquinta. And for Vick, who shares a bit of a rivalry with Gaethje, the chance to finally propel his name into the division’s top 10 couldn’t have come at a better time.

“I’m excited. I’m like a little kid, I’m getting this opportunity against a guy I really don’t care for,” Vick said Monday on The MMA Hour. “He’s a clown in my mind, and it’s a great opportunity for me. The moment they called me, I accepted the fight. I said yes, I’ll take it, 100 percent. And I feel blessed to be where I’m at. I feel like this is my destiny, to win this fight and go on to move to bigger things and become a world champion, and I feel like this is just all part of the process, the way it was supposed to happen.”

Vick, 31, has a contentious history with Gaethje that dates back to last year after the former WSOF champion made his successful Octagon debut with a thrilling war of attrition against Michael Johnson. Following his win, the then-undefeated Gaethje questioned on the mic whether he would find his equal in the UFC, and Vick promptly answered the call with a request to UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby. Several back-and-forths between the two fighters have occurred since, both on social media and in interviews, and Vick made it clear Monday that he isn’t impressed by what he has seen from Gaethje thus far in the UFC.

“For him, to be where he’s at, I think he’s doing a good job, because honestly I don’t think he’s a world-class fighter,” Vick said. “I don’t. I think the guy padded his record against B-level competition outside of the UFC, and now that he’s come over here, he’s been exposed. He’s been beat, he’s been knocked out. He has world-class heart, he’s a warrior, he’s not a punk — this dude is a warrior, I understand why he’s a fan favorite. I get why fans love him so much. I mean, I like watching him fight.

“The dude’s exciting. He’s a tough guy, but I have all those attributes too. If you think that I can’t bite down on my mouthpiece and throw leather, and sit there and tough it out and just win like that — I don’t have to fight like that, because I have a skill set. I think he lacks that. He has world-class heart, world-class grit in him, but he doesn’t have a world-class skill set, and I think he’s going to be exposed. I just don’t even think he’s a top-10 fighter in the UFC.”

Known for his ridiculously fan-friendly style and his slew of Fight of the Year contenders, Gaethje has struggled in the UFC since winning his debut against Johnson. The 29-year-old has lost back-to-back contests at the hands of Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, both via KO/TKO — the first setbacks of his professional career. The performances have led some of Gaethje’s critics within the division to question whether Gaethje’s forever-march-forward approach can succeed at the highest levels of mixed martial arts.

And after watching Alvarez and Poirier set the blueprint for how to deal with Gaethje, Vick is confident that he can achieve the same result in an even more impressive manner.

“First off, I feel like I’m going to hurt him faster than a lot of those guys did,” Vick said. “I think I’m going to hurt him quicker. I’m taller, it’s going to be harder for him to get in on me, so when he comes in, he’s really going to get lit up. I think he caught them early. They didn’t move quick enough to get out of the way of some leg kicks. They didn’t check them. They should’ve just come out immediately and checked the first two of them, just stepped off. Instead, they tried to meet fire with fire a little too early, and then they were shook up a little bit from the low kicks, then from there they kind of just had to bite down.

“And they bit down on their mouthpieces, and they basically showed they have more will than him also. I mean, he’s a tough dude and has will too, but there’s plenty of us in the UFC who have that. They showed it as well.”

If Vick is victorious at UFC Lincoln, he will finally have hunted down the kind of big-name scalp that has eluded him thus far in his MMA career. At that point, he hopes a shot at title contention won’t be far away, especially considering that his UFC lightweight record — at that point, 10-1 — will stand above nearly everyone else’s in the division aside from two of the top dogs, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. He also believes Gaethje is far from the most skilled opponent he’s fought — he listed Joseph Duffy, Francisco Trinaldo, and even Valmir Lazaro as foes who he’d rank above Gaethje in regards to skill.

So given that, Vick plans to use his dance date against Gaethje as a means to prove just how talented he is compared to his top-ranked peers.

“[Gaethje] fights that way every fight, and this is what people don’t understand, is, the reason why he fights like this — and I’m really not trying to discredit him, I’m really not; I mean this when I say this, even though me and him have our personal issues — but the guy, he fights the way he fights because he has no choice,” Vick said. “He has a short reach, he’s not very fast, he’s not that athletic. He fights with the attributes he has. The only way he can win is to bite down on his mouthpiece and break people. He throws tons of low kicks because he’s really hardly even flexible enough to throw high kicks.

“He doesn’t have a lot of attributes, so he did great with what he had. So he has no choice but to fight in those ways. A lot of us that do have grit and toughness just like he does, we have other options. I can put on a show for the fans and not get beat in my head for 15 minutes. I can just go out there and knock somebody out. Now, granted my last fight wasn’t maybe as exciting as people wanted it to be, but before that, I highlight-reeled three people in a row. So I can put on exciting fights without taking beatings. He can’t. He has to take a beating; if not, he’s never going to have a chance to win.”