At 29 years old, Justin Gaethje is still a young man, yet the buzz around him often focuses on how much longer he can continue doing this, putting his body and brain at risk almost via invitation. He marches forward, puts his gloves up, all but requests his opponents to get the damn party started. Even he knows that this isn’t a tactic meant for longevity, but it’s what he does, who he is. There is chaos in his interpretation of martial arts, and in the path toward the top.
So far, there have been bumps along the way. Knees and elbows, too. Losses to Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez blemished a formerly spotless record, and many analyses of Gaethje have been reviewed and revised. He’s too aggressive, too wild to win consistently at the highest level, the critics say, and perhaps they are right. Time will tell for sure, but at least we’ll have a hell of a time finding out. Because for all of his flaws, Gaethje has been and continues to be perhaps the most entertaining fighter in MMA, it’s most reliable Mr. Excitement.
Last night in UFC Lincoln, Gaethje didn’t need to escape a shootout by the skin of his teeth. For the first time in his brief Octagon tenure, it was a blowout. Competing as a slight underdog, he needed just 87 seconds to starch James Vick with an overhand right, then maybe another 87 seconds to do a back flip off the cage, followed by a front flip off the cage, the after-show ensuring that the fans got their money’s worth and then some. There’s a reason, after all, that he has more UFC bonuses (five) than fights (four). There’s a reason he was cast in the main event from his first day in the Octagon.
To be clear, being among MMA’s best showmen isn’t Gaethje’s main intention; he is still focused on navigating his way toward the UFC lightweight belt. Ranked seventh in the division, he’s not so far removed from the title picture that it’s an impossibility. In fact, if anything, his wars with Alvarez and Poirier illustrated that on his best day, Gaethje is capable of competing with anyone on the UFC roster. Both Alvarez and Poirier are among the division’s very best, and Gaethje offered some bright moments in both fights before falling short.
On the other hand, the bottleneck at the top of the lightweight class remains stifling. Champ Khabib Nurmagomedov is set to tangle with Conor McGregor on Oct. 6, and Tony Ferguson remains a viable next challenger if he can get past Anthony Pettis on the same night — and stay healthy afterward. Even Georges St-Pierre has emerged as a potential player at 155 pounds.
In other words, there are obstacles in the way of him meeting his goal.
In defeating Vick, he moved one barrier from his path, but plenty more remain, putting the odds against him. He should certainly continue to chase that dream, and he should also take tremendous pride in his style and the reputation he’s cultivated. While such abstractions can’t compete with the cold, hard cash generated by the top UFC champs, they often bring something with longer lasting value: legacy.
Even if Gaethje never wins a UFC title, he is building himself a reputation that is part Arturo Gatti and part Diego Sanchez. On his best days, he is a marauding sacker of souls. On the others, he is a handful of hell. No one walks into a cage with Gaethje anticipating anything other than total carnage.
It was a funny thing the UFC did with the Gaethje-Vick event poster. On it, between the two fighters, they included the text “18 Combined KOs.” It was technically correct, but seemed a little disingenuous, given that 15 of them were authored by Gaethje. This wasn’t a matchup of knockout kings; it was really a test to see how Gaethje could deal with length and reach and patience. It was a test he passed, perhaps resetting expectations yet again.
For hardcore MMA fans, Gaethje was must-see TV from his first days in World Series of Fighting. His leg kicks, his signature chin tuck and cover-up, his tenacious pace and violent power. It all promised and portended the future. Counting Saturday night, Gaethje has only been to a decision once in his last 17 fights. Yet even though he’s been spotlighted, he’s still not the major name he should be. The promotion drew just 6,409 to the Pinnacle Bank Arena (capacity: 15,500), and the ratings likely won’t open any eyes either. Because of the UFC’s obsession with title fights and interim title fights, they have made it harder for themselves to convince fans when “other” fights and fighters matter.
Gaethje matters. Despite his young age, he acknowledges that his time is limited. Enjoy it while it’s here. Follow the journey he’s taking because while we don’t know if it concludes in a championship, we do know it will make some stops at thrills and awe.