After doing everything short of outright begging for his chance at advancement in the UFC’s stacked lightweight division, James Vick will finally get his shot at a top-ranked opponent on Aug. 25 when he meets Justin Gaethje in the main event at UFC Lincoln.
The matchup is the culmination of a long and frustrating road to contendership for Vick. Despite holding a 9-1 Octagon record that stands as one of the best in the 155-pound division, Vick has struggled to find an opponent in the UFC’s lightweight top 10 who would agree to a dance date against him. Even the Gaethje booking arrived out of circumstance more than anything else — Vick was originally slated to fight the No. 14-ranked Paul Felder at UFC Boise, but jumped at the chance to fight the No. 7-ranked Gaethje instead after Gaethje’s opponent Al Iaquinta withdrew from the match.
Nonetheless, Vick hopes his years-long matchmaking nightmare is over. He predicted recently on The MMA Hour that a win over Gaethje would put him at either No. 6 or No. 7 in the UFC’s lightweight rankings, and at that point, the combined strength of his top-10 ranking and 10-1 Octagon record would give him a viable path to title contention. And once he gets there, Vick doesn’t plan on doing any favors for any of the lightweights who turned him down during his rise, chief among them one-time title contender Kevin Lee.
“Here’s the thing: F*ck Kevin Lee,” Vick told host Luke Thomas on The MMA Hour. “He’s turned down two fights with me, and I’ve been calling this guy out for two years, so the only way I’m fighting Kevin Lee is two reasons: If it’s going to be a main event, or I’m not taking the fight, and they’re going to have to give me more money. Because how many times do I have to f*cking call this guy out? I’m tired of it. I feel like I’m being desperate, begging to fight this guy for two years now, and he continues to turn down fights. Same thing with him and (Michael) Chiesa. F*ck them. Their ship has sailed.
“How many times do I have to call someone out until it’s a joke? Like, what happened to the dignity of a man? At least Gaethje has some dignity. They asked him to fight me on basically two hour’s notice on Wednesday night, he took the fight and I took the fight. These guys have no dignity as f*cking men and as fighters to fight people. So, yeah, I’ll fight him, but I’m going to get some incentive for it, because I’ve been trying to fight the guy.”
Instead, Vick said that he’ll be eyeing a matchup against one of the top dogs in the division: Former interim titleholder Tony Ferguson. Vick reasoned that after UFC Lincoln, only Ferguson and lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov will carry a UFC lightweight record that betters his own, so, he asked, why wouldn’t the Ferguson fight make sense?
As for his original opponent, Felder, the 31-year-old Vick admitted that he felt sorry for how the rug was pulled out from under “The Irish Dragon,” but expressed happiness that Felder still ended up with a chance to earn a paycheck with a short-notice welterweight fight against Mike Perry this weekend at UFC 226.
“I felt bad pulling out of the fight, I did, for Felder,” Vick said, “because I get his frustration, because I’ve been there. I’ve been frustrated. Of course, he would’ve done the same thing with the main event [opportunity], and I think he understands that and everything. But I think Felder’s got a great chance of winning this fight against Perry, I really do, because I don’t think Mike Perry’s way bigger than Paul Felder. I think he’s maybe a little bit bigger, but Paul Felder has a really good chin and it’s really not short notice.
“It’s one week [earlier] compared to when he was fighting, the week after, and he doesn’t have to cut all the weight, so he’s going to have an easier cut to 170 because he was probably already coming down pretty decently close to that already. And it’s only one week earlier than when he was already going to fight anyways, so he basically had a full camp. So, honestly, I think Paul Felder has a great chance in this fight.”
In the eyes of the layman, Felder and Gaethje do not at all seem to be similar opponents for Vick. One is a forward-pressure machine who earns his stripes by breaking other fighters but has struggled of late, while one is a defensively-sound technician who has ripped off a trio of consecutive knockouts.
However, Vick believes the two are more alike than they seem.
“They’re very similar,” Vick said. “They’re both orthodox fighters. They both were going to try to low kick me a lot and use Muay Thai, and they’re both kind of flat-footed fighters, flat-footed Muay Thai fighters. Justin Gaethje throws more caution to the wind, he’s going to come harder with more pressure, and Paul Felder has better defense, which basically means Justin Gaethje is just going to get hit more. He’s going to get hit more, so this fight ain’t going five rounds.
“The way he fights, it’s either, he’s going to break me — which is definitely not going to happen, I have more will than he does — or I’m going to catch him. A lot of these guys I fight, I hit them and they stay on the outside, then they try to figure out a way to come back in. Gaethje is just going to come straight and just take damage, and I’m going to land something big and I’m going to knock him out.”
In fact, Vick is so unimpressed with Gaethje’s abilities that he went so far as to proclaim that the former WSOF champion isn’t even one of the best three opponents he has faced in the UFC.
“Honestly, I don’t think Justin Gaethje is a world-class fighter. I don’t,” Vick said. “I think he has world-class heart, he’s a dog, he’s a warrior, but this dude’s skill set ain’t world-class. He’s seeing that when he’s coming to the UFC. He padded his record against B-level competition outside of the organization, and then he comes in and now he’s 1-2 in the UFC. I mean, I think I’ve fought several people [who are better than him]. I think Joe Duffy was better than him. I think (Francisco) Trinaldo was a tougher fighter than Gaethje is. I think, one of my tougher fights was actually my second fight against a dude who kinda got, I felt like, screwed over by the UFC — Valmir Lazaro, if you remember that fight.
“That guy was a dog, he was a warrior, and he lost to me, then won one, then he lost to [Michel Prazeres]. He lost a split decision to him and he stuffed like 13 or 14 of that guy’s takedowns. I think he was a tougher fight. The guy, he basically only lost to us two. So I think I fought at least three guys who are tougher than Gaethje, or better fighters. I definitely have fought several who are more skilled. He has a lot of heart, I’ll give him that, but there are a lot of people in the UFC who have a lot of heart. They just don’t have to fight like that because they have more attributes than he does.”