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Justin Gaethje explains initial rejection of interim title at UFC 249: ‘I can’t become complacent’

Justin Gaethje earned his first UFC title on Saturday, but it isn’t the one he’s had his sights on.

“The Highlight” picked up the biggest win of his career at UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Fla., stopping Tony Ferguson in the fifth round of the evening’s main event and putting an end to Ferguson’s 12-fight win streak. In doing so, Gaethje also earned himself an interim lightweight championship.

That belt was wrapped around Gaethje’s waist following the official announcement of his win, but he quickly discarded it and told in-cage interviewer Joe Rogan, “I’ll wait for the real one.”

Gaethje’s fight with Ferguson came about after undisputed lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov was left stranded in Russia due to coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions that knocked him out of yet another booking opposite Ferguson, and Gaethje explained at the UFC 249 post-fight presser why he declined to wear the interim title at first.

“That’s the competitor in me,” Gaethje said. “That’s the mindset I have to have to face the challenge that is Khabib. I can’t think of myself as the champion because for one, I’m not and for two, Khabib’s still there. So again, I can’t become complacent.

“It’s always the first fight. People think they’re infallible. That’s what will kill you in this sport. My lights can turn off, I’m human. I have a brain. As soon as you shake it, I will go to sleep. I almost did at the end of the second. But the good thing is I’m fighting humans and so I just perform.”

Though Gaethje put on a dominant performance against Ferguson, the fight was not without its challenges. Ferguson’s iron chin refused to crumble despite Gaethje consistently landing punches for the entirety of the fight and Gaethje was in major trouble himself at the end of the second after being rocked by a Ferguson uppercut.

Gaethje recovered in the third and continued to put the pressure on Ferguson before finally managing to put him away with less than two minutes remaining in the fight. The Ferguson-Gaethje replacement main event was originally scheduled for April 18, but the UFC 249 card was postponed because of COVID-19 concerns and moved to May 9.

Gaethje says the extra preparation time was essential.

“It was extremely important not only for my cardiovascular system, but for my mental preparation,” Gaethje said. “I go in there and I go to a special place. Not many people can go to my special place with me. But it takes time to prepare for that mentally. So yeah, it was critical.”

With Ferguson vanquished, the obvious match to make is Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje. It’s unclear when Nurmagomedov will be available to compete again (Nurmagomedov has said a July return is a possibility), but Gaethje is just glad that he has made himself an undeniable part of the lightweight championship conversation.

“You get what you ask for,” Gaethje said. “All I asked was for a say in my destiny. It would have hurt so bad to get passed up because of politics. That’s all I was arguing against. I have to go to war for myself and thankfully, I put myself in a position to be here and I capitalized on it.”

As for when he thinks a fight with Nurmagomedov could happen, Gaethje isn’t offering a prediction. For now, he’s basking in the glory of a massive win and his latest pair of fight night bonuses.

“I’m not sure,” Gaethje said. “I’m gonna enjoy tonight. Go home to Safford, Arizona, enjoy my family. Enjoy my double bonus. That’s nine [bonuses] in seven [fights]. No one’s f*cking with that.”

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