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Justin Gaethje did more than just win in Philadelphia; he lived up to absurd expectations

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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Philadelphia-Barboza v Gaethje
Justin Gaethje goes on the offensive against Edson Barboza in their lightweight main event bout at UFC on ESPN 2 in Philadelphia on Saturday
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Before Justin Gaethje walked out for his fight with Edson Barboza in Philadelphia, Daniel Cormier was squealing on the telecast like there was a helium leak. What the hell is it that makes people so giddy about Gaethje’s style of fighting? It’s akin to the kind of traumatic excitement one might get when sitting down to watch somebody drive a car into a wall at 70 m.p.h. There’s a dangerous, even foolish edge to the proceedings, because Gaethje seems to be primetime proof that man is destructive by nature.

And somehow, despite all vaunted expectations to deliver on his own ridiculous standard of violence, Gaethje keeps giving us exactly what we want. He met Barboza right in the middle of the cage and traded leg kicks with his closest sadistic equal, and then slammed him accordingly with punches. Was he going to wrestle? Fat chance! The lead legs were already in jeopardy just a minute into the action; had the fight made it to the second round, it would have been two limping war veterans trying to hack away at whatever was left of each other.

As it happened, Gaethje didn’t need a second round. He starched Barboza with a right hand midway through the first, and the next thing anybody knew he was doing a backflip off the top of the Octagon. It was the kind of pandemonium that only the fight game can deliver. MMA Twitter timelines were reduced to religious exclamations of “Jesus!” and “Holy Shit!” Gaethje came through.

Cut it anyway you want, but that’s one hell of a public service. The only thing that the UFC asks of a Gaethje fight — and the only reason he was headlining a big ESPN card, with nary a title shot in sight — is that he inspires a sense of awe. Well, he did that. Again. Not only did he go toe-to-toe with a buzz saw like Barboza, for the second straight time he emerged as the victor. He spliced just enough craft into the chaos (in the strictest tactical sense) to let us know there was a “plan.” And he executed it.

A couple of the shots, including the coup de grâce, were measured strikes from a man who has found it in him to practice restraint. When he stunned Barboza a little earlier, he didn’t pounce like a berserker so much as zero in for the kill. Things slowed down. He made sure that Barboza couldn’t piece himself back together. He made sure that every shot counted, without exposing his own chin for a Hail Mary from a wounded animal. It was somewhat methodical, and for the second straight fight, he didn’t take much damage.

But it was exactly what everybody hopes for when Gaethje’s name appears on the marquee — that is, him spinning the tempest around by the tail.

Now Justin Gaethje, the UFC’s most celebrated roulette player, is back among the top lightweights, perhaps a fight away from really entering the space of contention. That’s some interesting window dressing. The UFC could plug him into a fight with somebody like Anthony Pettis — who is coming off a wild victory over Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson at welterweight — and have an instant main event. Gaethje could fight anybody, really — from Nate Diaz to Paul Felder, who was lobbying for a chance at Gaethje during the ESPN+ post-show — and the fight game’s imagination would come to life. Gaethje is that kind of gold.

Not that titles really matter when it comes to the man who calls himself “The Highlight”. Perhaps the single greatest trick that he has turned since debuting in the UFC back in 2017 is to… what, submerge? diminish? rethink? ... the idea of wins and losses. He has won six fight night bonuses in five fights, two of which he lost. All of his fights were similar, and the outcomes only mattered because outcomes have a function in sports.

Gaethje is not typical sports.

Really what matters is that he shows up, unnerved by his own calm, ready to go out on his proverbial shield, even after cautioning media that he wants to fight smarter. The adjustments he made after his losses were simply to add an eye to the storm. To find that center even while the limbs are raging around him, and the punches are zooming by (and sometimes through) his face. In other words, Gaethje didn’t compromise any of the kamikaze attitude when tweaking his approach; he only dialed back the impulses by two degrees.

It worked. Gaethje lived up to billing yet again, and his cult is alive and well in the UFC. He’s still a shark, still the same beautiful disaster. Nobody thrashes back and forth between adventure and danger as well as the blue-eyed devil from the copper mines of Arizona. And nobody thrives as well in what appears to be an unsustainable situation, with a fan base that won’t accept anything less.