The best performance of Justin Gaethje’s career wasn’t all wine and roses.
When Gaethje and his team look back on his win over Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 on Saturday, they’ll have a lot to be proud of, but there was one scary moment for Gaethje at the end of the second round when Ferguson hurt him with an uppercut right down the middle. Gaethje recovered and proceeded to dominate the rest of the fight en route to a fifth-round finish, earning an interim lightweight for his efforts.
At the evening’s post-fight press conference, Gaethje was asked if he heard Ferguson allegedly shout after round two that Gaethje was “sucking air,” a comment that would be more audible than usual given the near-empty arena they were fighting in due to coronavirus precautions.
Gaethje wasn’t aware of the remark until it was brought up to him by a reporter, but he quickly dismissed it as Ferguson hyping himself up more than anything else.
“I didn’t hear it, but it sounds like false confidence,” Gaethje said. “False confidence ain’t going to get you anywhere in there. I believe in my hard work, I believe in my coaches, I believe in myself. That wasn’t gonna deter me. I control my thoughts and emotions. Nobody has control of that, nobody gets to control that.
“He’s trying to psyche himself up. He knew he was in trouble. He’d just caught me with a good one, so maybe he thought I would quit. But he found out really fast that there’s no quit in me. He’d be a fool to think that I would.”
The win was Gaethje’s fourth straight and he also picked up a Fight of the Night and a Performance of the Night bonus, bringing his fight night awards total to nine in just seven UFC appearances. He also added a UFC belt to his list of accolades that includes a three-year run as the World Series of Fighting lightweight champion.
No stranger to big fights, Gaethje felt fine competing in an atmosphere with zero crowd noise.
“There was nothing different about that,” Gaethje said. “I only concentrate on what I can control and that’s not the crowd. I would have loved if they were there, I can’t imagine how loud they would have been. It was an amazing fight from what I’ve seen. But it was just pure reactions, working on peripherals. My feet are incredible.
“I have a great coach, Trevor (Wittman), we’ve been working together for nine years or probably longer than that. We’re honing my skills and you know, I’m pretty damn good.”
Gaethje wasn’t surprised by Ferguson’s toughness either. “El Cucuy” entered Saturday’s bout on a 12-fight winning streak dating back to October 2013 and he’d never been finished inside the octagon. Even as Gaethje landed haymaker after haymaker, it didn’t look as though he’d be able to put Ferguson down.
When the bout was waved off with less than two minutes remaining in the fifth round, Gaethje didn’t expect it.
“When they stopped it I was really surprised,” Gaethje said. “Once it starts it’s a blur for me. I’m a competitor, I’ve been competing since I was four years old. I’m a showoff, I know how many people were watching. It makes me happy.
“I know how good I just made so many people feel. That feels great. Just pure exhilaration, just screaming. Not just in this country, but all over the world, I get messages from all over the world saying how they’re my fans or whatever, but humans recognize effort. I give max effort every single time and it feels good to share this feeling with as many people as I know I just did.”
Whatever Ferguson had to say to Gaethje during the fight—if anything—it was unlikely to have much of an effect on “The Highlight,” given his own self-appraisal heading into his fights. Gaethje was viewed as an underdog both due to Ferguson’s record and the fact that he was stepping in on short notice to replace undisputed UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was unavailable to fight Ferguson due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
That made it easy for Gaethje to slip into the world-beater role that he has worn so comfortably in the past.
“I don’t go in there with any expectations,” Gaethje said. “I had none. I thought he was gonna be faster, I thought he’d be stronger, I thought he’d hit a lot harder. I always tell myself they’re better than me and it makes me push myself to be the best that I can be, to perform at the best level.
“It feels damn good to be recognized as almost the best ever—Well, not best ever, but the best in the world at this current time. I can’t wait to face the challenge that is Khabib.”