Justin Gaethje’s UFC tenure prior to Saturday night, and before that as the top homegrown star of the World Series of Fighting, leads to immediate thoughts of some of the best fights in recent years.
Gaethje’s first three UFC fights were all bonafide match of the year candidates, a win over Michael Johnson and losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. He already had similar fights in WSOF, seen by far fewer, with Luiz Firmino.
Based on those UFC performances, he was put in the main event position on Saturday night at the UFC’s debut in Lincoln, Neb., with James Vick. This will be his first fight that isn’t going to be thought of strongly in the match of the year awards. It’s not that the fight wasn’t exciting, but it was over in 87 seconds. In the end, it was still must-see because of his devastating knockout win. So he’ll have to settle for being in the discussion for knockout of the year, in picking up his fifth performance bonus in four fights.
Still, Vick’s claims in the pre-fight build that Gaethje’s exciting style that has led to classic wars has taken its toll can’t be dismissed based on the result. The question is very much there. The fight was too short to get a read of much other than he landed a great punch, deserves a top name opponent next and is certainly a viable main eventer for a promotion that runs so many shows.
Gaethje admitted the punch wasn’t something game planned out, and was just there. It’s another reason why his fights should be considered can’t miss, and such a punch would likely finish almost anyone.
Gaethje’s record of 19-2 looks impressive, but at this point he comes still needs a few more wins to be talked about as a championship contender in what is UFC’s deepest division. The big issue is that his two losses are to fighters who are also leading contenders and are losses he’s not likely to get a chance to avenge any time soon.
Let’s look at how fortunes changed for five stars of Saturday’s show:
JUSTIN GAETHJE - There are three different names that pop up as to who Gaethje could go with next. Edson Barboza (19-6) has the style that Gaethje would look on paper to have a fight of the year with. Barboza is also high enough ranked that it’s a fight where the winner would bounce back into being thought of as in the mix with the top contenders.
Kevin Lee (17-3) is an even stronger contender, given that he’s just beaten Barboza. Alexander Hernandez (10-1) would also be a good opponent for a very different reason. Hernandez has looked impressive in recent wins over Olivier Aubin-Mercier and Beneil Dariush, meaning, for a fighter trying to make his name to the public, a Gaethje fight looks like his potential golden ticket to building his name.
Gaethje himself threw out the names of Lee and Al Iaquinta (14-4-1), saying that they should fight him before they fight each other. Lee looks to be behind next contender Conor McGregor as well as Poirier and Tony Ferguson in the title picture. Gaethje also made notes about wanting some time off first, noting he’s had four big name fights in just over 13 months.
JAMES VICK - Vick (13-2) could go next with Aubin-Mercier (11-3), a fight that would really just have him tread water with a win, or be put in a position to redeem himself following the snapping of his four-fight win streak against Islam Makhachev (16-1), a fight where either way it goes, the winner would benefit significantly from it.
MICHAEL JOHNSON - Johnson (19-13) has one of the weirdest records in the company. A record like that would make the average fan think mid-level fighter at best, but Johnson has a list of victims that includes Ferguson, Barboza and Poirier, all at lightweight. He’s dropped to featherweight and struggled. He lost to Darren Elkins via second-round choke in his Jan 14 fight, and then won a split decision over Andre Fili in a decision that could have gone either way. The fans booed the decision, and 65 percent of media scores on MMADecisions.com had it going to Fili.
ERYK ANDERS - Anders (11-1) remains an intriguing middleweight, as his only loss was a close fight to the far more experienced Lyoto Machida. As a former college football star, a starting linebacker for the national champion University of Alabama in 2009, one can see the natural power and explosiveness for someone who is still learning this sport with only three years of MMA fighting experience.
Anders called out Elias Theodorou (15-2) after the fight. The chance this fight happens increased this past week when Antonio Carlos Junior, who was to face Theodorou on Sept. 22 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, pulled out of the fight. Another name that would be a good to face at this stage of his career is Uriah Hall (13-9).
DEIVESON FIGUEIREDO - With a 15-0 record, and coming off Saturday’s second-round stoppage of former title contender John Moraga, Figueiredo immediately challenged the flyweight division’s two top stars, champion Henry Cejudo (13-2) and the future Hall of Famer Demetrious Johnson (27-3-1).
Realistically, Cejudo vs. Johnson in a third meeting should be the biggest fight in flyweight history and no other fight should come next for either of them. Figueiredo should be looking at the winner of either the Oct. 6 Las Vegas fight between Jussier Formiga (21-5) vs. Sergio Pettis (17-3) or the Nov. 10 Denver fight with Joseph Benavidez (25-5) vs Ray Borg (11-3). Who he faces should really depend on the timing, between how soon Johnson is ready for his title fight, and how the schedule falls for the Formiga vs. Pettis winner, who in theory should get the next shot.