With Nurmagomedov relinquishing the title on Saturday in Fight Island, Gaethje looked forward to a quick return and eyed a fight for the vacant belt against Conor McGregor.
“With [Nurmagomedov] retiring, I’m No. 1,” Gaethje told UFC broadcaster Megan Olivi moments after his defeat. “[Dustin] Poirier and McGregor are going to fight. They haven’t made it official, so if McGregor wants to bounce out and get the belt, I’m right here.”
Poirer, who defeated Gaethje in April 2018, has agreed to fight McGregor at a UFC event on Jan. 23. But like Gaethje said, the fight has not been confirmed. UFC President Dana White earlier this week said he’s working on finalizing the fight; Poirier and McGregor’s reps did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of the matchup.
Much of Gaethje’s optimism on a quick turnaround stemmed from his relative lack of injury on Saturday night. Rather than suffering a concussion or other serious injury that might have delayed his comeback, he went to sleep courtesy of Nurmagomedov’s triangle choke.
“Being choked out is a nice little dream, and then it’s on to the next one,” he said.
“I took probably two or three shots, big shots to the head,” he later added. “When you get choked out, I’m not a doctor, but I believe there’s not any serious consequences to that, and I love it. And there’s a belt on the line now.”
There were also small victories to take home for Gaethje even though the official win went to Nurmagomedov, who extended his unbeaten streak to 29-0 and drew immediate declarations of pound-for-pound No. 1 status among his colleagues.
“I had him in trouble,” Gaethje said. “I wasn’t very many kicks away from him not being able to walk. He’s going to be limping for at least three weeks. It’s nothing to be proud of, because I lost. But I felt alive and I felt great.”
Nurmagomedov’s sudden exit leaves a huge void in the 155-pound division, which is widely considered to be among the UFC’s toughest. Nurmagomedov’s win came after Gaethje defeated Tony Ferguson, the rival many believed would be his strongest. Ferguson was penciled in for a fight with former interim champ Poirier before both sides clashed with the UFC over compensation. Poirier and McGregor’s rematch only came about after the Irish champ waged a public war of words with White, and his negotiations with the UFC often lead to sudden shifts.
Gaethje may be the best candidate at the moment to take advantage of the situation, but only time will tell.
“I hope that’s something that he really thought about,” Gaethje said of the champ’s retirement. “I don’t believe anybody should be making decisions like that right in the cage after a fight. It’s such an emotional time, win or lose. Him especially, with the loss of his father. I can’t begin to imagine, and I don’t want to imagine, what he was going through. But as soon as the fight was over, I went over to him and said he made his father proud, and he did.”
Gaethje said the loss “sucks” and is “emotional.” But he’s lost twice before, and he’s already a lot further along than his critics expected.
“If they want to give it to someone else, so be it,” he said of another title shot. “But I’m ready. I’m ready to fight again. This is my job. This is my life, and I love it so much.”