Currently riding a three-fight win streak—his best stretch of success since joining the UFC two years ago—Gaethje is in prime position to challenge titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov. However, the unbeaten lightweight champion is reportedly in talks to fight Tony Ferguson next April, leaving the rest of the 155-pound elite like Gaethje, McGregor, Dustin Poirier, and Donald Cerrone to sort out themselves.
Both Poirier and Gaethje have angled for a fight with McGregor and while a bout with the Irish superstar is appealing from a publicity and financial standpoint, for Gaethje he is simply a means to an end.
“I’m trying to get to Khabib,” Gaethje said during an appearance on Michael Bisping’s Believe You Me podcast. “Khabib has publicly stated he does not have very many fights left, so I have to fight him before he goes away. I can’t let him go undefeated without at least being able to test him myself. I consider myself one of the most dangerous lightweights in the world. I bring different things that Khabib hasn’t had to deal with necessarily. I have crazy power in my legs and my arms and my hands and I’m really good at wrestling. Super athletic, I’ve been wrestling as long as he has. Nobody has wrestled as long as he has except for me.
“So I’m trying to ultimately get that fight. I’m No. 4. I just beat No. 4, that put me at No. 4. Conor’s No. 3. When I fought I was under the impression that he was retired because that’s what he was saying, he wasn’t fighting no more. And then right after that he said he was coming back and so, of course, he’s No. 3, I figure the quickest, most surest way to Khabib is through Conor right now. He starts saying he’s fighting Jan. 18 and then he starts calling out Donald Cerrone, so that’s where we’re at right now. As far as I’ve heard, nothing’s been signed. Cowboy’s texting Dana asking if it’s true. I’m just sitting over here training and I’m gonna give them a couple more weeks, if they call me—Usually, I like eight to 10 weeks to train, so I’m not gonna let them try to call me three or four weeks out and try to do some s*it like that.”
Gaethje is weighing his options should the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson and McGregor-Cerrone bouts become official. He’s ready to step in on short notice to fight Nurmagomedov should Ferguson once again be snakebitten (injuries have forced Ferguson out of two previously scheduled meetings with Nurmagomedov), within reason.
If he has to wait for that fight to shake out, he’s targeting a bout with McGregor, not only because of what it would do for his career, but his personal disdain for the controversial star.
“That’s more just kind of like the cherry on top for me,” Gaethje said when asked if a dislike of McGregor adds any extra motivation. “The sundae is the belt. Ultimately, you want to get the belt and then fight Conor, that’s where I cash in. I’m here to cash in, I fight for money, so that’s ultimately what I’m trying to do. … It doesn’t take even a very decent person to hate somebody that goes around carrying himself the way he does, walking with his chest in the air, acting like the world owes him something.
“We’ve all been there maybe once or twice in our lives, but he’s doing it at the highest level and he’s doing it with ill regard for others. Punching an old man in the face, that speaks for itself.”
Gaethje reiterated that the end goal is to get into the cage with Nurmagomedov, a man he feels he is well-equipped to defeat even knowing that 28 previous opponents fail to accomplish that task. Though Gaethje is known for his thrilling standup wars, he’s also recognized for the wrestling acumen that has allowed him to keep his fights on the feet.
Rarely taking the action to the mat himself, Gaethje explained that he’s actually utilizing his wrestling more than people notice on the surface.
“I’m relying on my wrestling so much when I’m in there,” Gaethje said. “I was never a great offensive wrestler, I was always a great defensive wrestler, you could not score on me. If you wanted to score on me you had to work your ass off. You had to break me to score on me. For me, I go out there, for one, it gets you tired. A college wrestling match is seven minutes long. My last 15 fights other than the Eddie Alvarez fight have been scheduled for five five-minute rounds. If I was to go out there and wrestle the first seven minutes, I couldn’t ever even walk after the match.
“I know that people are going to say, ‘Oh, he’s saying that he can’t wrestle with Khabib because he’s saying it gets him tired.’ That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying offensive wrestling consistently will drain you. I’m very good at stopping takedowns, so that’s how I conserve my energy while I’m wrestling. I wrestled Jordan Burroughs two times. Jordan Burroughs had a hell of a time taking me down. I stopped his double leg numerous times and he also probably fractured my sternum from me trying to stop it.”
Another aspect of Gaethje’s game plan that sets him apart is that he would refuse to give up ground to Nurmagomedov, instead choosing to engage with him right in the center of the Octagon. It’s that mind set and his one-punch finishing power that have him believing he could pull off an upset.
“I’m a huge fan of MMA and the only reason that this game is so intriguing is because of those moments that are absolutely so shocking that you could have never predicted that it could have happened,” Gaethje said. “Luckily, I possess a few of the things that make that opportunity possible, and that’s the power that I possess in my hands and my kicks and my ability to stop takedowns. I would refuse to fight on the fence. Everybody backs up to the fence and fights Khabib with their back against the fence and I would refuse to do that.
“If he was gonna beat me, he would have to wrestle me in the middle of the Octagon and I would be trying to chop his leg off the whole time.”
Asked if he was worried that a sequence of events could unfold that would lead to McGregor rematching Nurmagomedov instead, Gaethje stood his ground.
“If Conor McGregor can fight Donald Cerrone and jump over me to fight Khabib, then I get it’s all about money, but I’m sitting right here, I’m f*cking ready to go,” Gaethje said. “I’m training. Donald Cerrone just got finished two times in a row. I get that Conor’s coming off a loss, but he’s calling for a title fight.
“If you want a title fight, you have to go through me, you cannot go through anybody else. You can go through Poirier, s*it, me and Poirier, that’s the honest truth.”