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Justin Gaethje isn’t sure why James Vick is talking so much trash, but he knows the payback will be sweet

Justin Gaethje faces James Vick at UFC Lincoln.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

A lot has been said in the lead-up to UFC Lincoln’s main event. Most of it by James Vick.

Ahead of the Aug. 25 contest, Vick has disparaged Justin Gaethje at basically every possible turn. He’s called his fellow lightweight contender a B-level fighter who lacks a world-class skill set, a clown who’s been exposed by the Octagon ranks. He’s dubbed Gaethje the “Homer Simpson of MMA,” and promised that he’s too smart, too sophisticated, too technical to fall pray to Gaethje’s torturous approach to the fight game. It’s a curious tactic considering the trail of broken bodies Gaethje tends to leave in his wake. Even in his lone defeats, Gaethje ensured that Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier limped home well aware they had been through something far more ruinous, far more visceral than a regular fist fight.

Because when one gets locked inside a cage with Justin Gaethje, they tend to learn a little about themselves, and the depths of hell through which they’re willing to crawl to prove their worth in the sport’s most talent-rich division. So considering that, it’s easy to understand Gaethje’s puzzlement regarding the type of wild claims Vick has been making to every microphone in sight in the countdown to UFC Lincoln.

“He just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get it,” Gaethje told MMA Fighting. “I don’t know, man. I don’t know, I don’t really care. I just can’t wait to put him to sleep, really, honestly. I don’t know. I don’t know why he’d say his volume is higher than mine, I don’t know why he’d say that he’s more athletic than me. I don’t know why he thinks he deserves the opportunities that I’ve gotten. He doesn’t understand how I’ve earned what I’ve gotten, how I earned three top-five opponents, how I earned three out of four main events, how I earned four Fight Night bonuses. He doesn’t understand. He feels entitled for some odd reason.

“He’s only fought one top-15 guy — he went to sleep. There’s a huge difference in the way we both went to sleep. He’s the definition of someone who’s not a fighter. How do you get knocked out laying on your back for three minutes when you don’t even go all the way to sleep? You know you’ve got fans and family out there worried about you — get up on your feet and find the stool. Small things like that, I just don’t think he understands what we’re doing here.”

There is exasperation in Gaethje’s voice when the topic of Vick arises, but not the fervent sort. Instead, Gaethje’s delivery is cold. Almost bored. Gaethje knows his opponent has been clamoring for a second chance to challenge the lightweight top 10 for years now. Now that it’s here, Vick is certainly making his presence felt. Gaethje just wonders if Vick may be making the rookie mistake of building himself up too much for a costly and precipitous fall.

“I just fought two of the best guys in the world in my weight class, and you didn’t hear one of them spouting this stuff out because they’re not stupid,” Gaethje said. “They knew that they were going to have to dig deep, they were going to have to prepare, ultimately, for themselves to go out there and give everything and be in a war that they knew they couldn’t avoid. He thinks he can avoid it, and when he can’t, he’s not mentally prepared.

“There’s gotta be one smart person around him that says, ‘Hey, even if you do think this guy is not on your level, why would you down-talk your opponent? Because if he beats you, when he beats you, you take on all that shit-talking you were just talking.’ He takes it on himself. So, he’s just putting more pressure on himself, honestly, and I’m excited. I’m excited to put him to sleep. I’m excited to put him in a fight. He tries to avoid the fight at all costs, and he’s not going to be able to do that.”

That’s not to say Gaethje is overlooking the dangers Vick brings into the cage. Far from it. After losing back-to-back coin flip affairs against Alvarez and Poirier, Gaethje knows he’s in no position to incur a third straight setback. He came a hair’s breadth away from winning both fights, but admits he ultimately was thwarted by the same mistake twice. He got too complacent, too comfortable with the chaos unfolding in the cage. He had one gameplan — take their legs home with him — and feels he was well on his way to being successful until he became too content and lost the vigilance that makes him a fight-finishing terror.

That’s something he’s worked “a tremendous amount” on fixing for Vick, a lightweight whose 6-foot-3 frame makes him one of the more peculiar opponents at 155 pounds.

“He’s obviously the tallest guy in the lightweight division,” Gaethje said. “He thinks he fights long. He could utilize his length better. He’s constantly running away from the fight. Every fight I see, he’s trying to avoid interactions, avoid striking interactions, and like I said, you can’t [do that again me]. Like I said, he’s going to run into the fence eventually, and he can’t go backwards anymore.

“He’s never even been in a five-round fight,” Gaethje added. “He’s never had the chance to go more than three. If he did have a five-round fight opportunity, he would’ve been in the fifth round many times, because he doesn’t go in there to finish people. He has a couple finishes. That was a very lucky punch he landed against (Joseph) Duffy, but other than that, like I said, he tries to avoid conflict. And we’re in there to create conflict. I’m in there to create conflict — and he’s not going to be able to avoid that.”

Another adjustment Gaethje had made for his UFC Lincoln camp is one that could pay dividends moving forward. After shunning wrestling for the past several years, Gaethje has brought in his old college mat coach, 2006 NCAA champ Ben Cherrington, to assist him once or twice a week for grueling grappling-only practices. For the first time, Cherrington will be in Gaethje’s corner at UFC Lincoln, and Gaethje speaks glowingly about what the extra time with his old coach his done for his physical fitness.

“Honestly, it’s just a different kind of shape. The reason I don’t wrestle is because I’m nervous to get tired, and I get tired in wrestling because I didn’t wrestle for the last three years or so. So, it’s just really to get in shape. It’s definitely not implying that I’m going to go into my fight and wrestle, by any means,” Gaethje jokes. “But he’ll be in my corner so maybe I’ll remember to take one or two double-legs.”

Ultimately, this time out feels a little familiar for Gaethje. It was only last summer that the former World Series of Fighting king found himself matched against Michael Johnson for his long-awaited UFC debut, and Johnson took it upon himself to drive down the same road Vick is now cruising for UFC Lincoln. Johnson insulted Gaethje. He disparaging Gaethje’s level of competition to the media and promised to run circles around the all-action fighter. He disrespected Gaethje every leg of the way, and in the end, he lost a piece of himself in that Octagon and promptly abandoned the lightweight ranks.

Will history repeat itself?

Only time can tell, but one thing is certain: If Gaethje wasn’t already motivated enough, Vick’s words have certainly added a little extra spice to an already important night.

“You can only say so many things, man,” Gaethje said. “At the end of the day, August 25, you have to get in there. They have to lock the Octagon, he has to get locked in there with me, and he’s going to have to deal with this. He’s in the UFC, he’s ranked No. 11 in the world — I’m not saying the guy’s not worthy. He fell into this, for one. It’s not like he was set up for this fight. Someone fell out and he stepped up, so he’s got the balls to step in there. I just don’t think he understands what he’s going to have to go through.

“Not to diminish my last two fights, but I didn’t like Michael Johnson. I was fired up for that fight, and I really had a lot of respect for the last two guys that I fought, so it’s definitely different for me. Motivation has been different every day. He lit a fire under my ass, and I’m excited to go out there and extinguish it on August 25.

“I’m going to march him down and make him pay for everything that’s come out of his mouth,” Gaethje continued.

“It’s going to be the most terrifying night of James Vick’s life. He will wake up a humbled turd, and he won’t look at himself in the mirror the same for a few weeks, I can guarantee it. He’s going to be a smashed turd when I’m done with him.”

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