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Justin Gaethje needed only 87 seconds to turn the he-may-be-washed-up narrative on its head, knock a criminally overlooked James Vick back to the lightweight netherworld and reassert himself as a contender in the deepest, most dramatic and most dangerous weight class in all of MMA.
One minute and a half -- plus a few more seconds to accommodate his trademark backflip, off the wall his back was just up against. He was staring down the barrel of a third consecutive loss in a professional career that was unadulterated barely nine months ago. This fight was nothing short of a referendum on Gaethje’s future amongst the 155-pound elite. In defeat, his title aspirations and a Top-10 ranking would have vanished; in victory, we’re all champing at the bit for a quick turnaround against another top contender. He’s now 2-2 in the UFC, with three “Fight of the Year” contenders and a highlight-reel knockout. Despite only being four fights into to his UFC career, his journey with the promotion feels somehow like an odyssey.
The talk leading into this bout was that Vick -- the favorite -- was going to expose him. Gaethje’s performance makes such a proposition seem almost blasphemous in retrospect. That smirk plastered across the face of “The Texecutioner” all week was removed courtesy of all kinds of egg, all 6-foot-3 of him melted on the Octagon floor.
Gaethje is back, and there’s a new wrinkle to his story.
Debuting with the organization in July 2017 as the undefeated World Series of Fighting lightweight champion with five title victories under his belt and 15 stoppages in 17 fights, “The Highlight” made it his mission to share the Octagon with the scariest men in the division. His fights in the WSOF underscored his fighting style as the antithesis of evasive, his only currency being blood and brain cells. When he drew the fifth-ranked Michael Johnson -- he took Gaethje’s main event status in his inaugural performance as a personal slight -- we were all kinds of pumped to bear witness.
Gaethje beat the animus out of “The Menace” in two of the most arduous rounds in UFC history, overcoming early brushes with unconsciousness to out-heart Johnson and earn $100,000 for the privilege. Fans and media who were reluctant to jump on the bandwagon had no choice but to join Gaethje in his quest to find his equal -- a pursuit the Ultimate Fighting Championship also got behind by matching him opposite former lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez at UFC 218.
That fight, billed by Alvarez as for the title of “UFC’s most violent man,” somehow lived up to expectations, as Gaethje and “The Underground King” traded leg kicks and body blows for a full 14 minutes before the former ate a flush knee that took his legs out from under him. Four months later, Gaethje met a similar fate in an equally exciting contest opposite Dustin Poirier and for a minute it looked like the UFC’s hottest new commodity would transform into a cautionary tale.
Vick was of this school of thought, and he talked a big game leading into the first main event of his 10-fight UFC career. He dubbed Gaethje the “Homer Simpson of MMA” -- durable but unintelligent -- and despite never having faced a fighter of Gaethje’s caliber before, the odds makers appeared to agree with Vick’s assessment and gave him the shorter odds.
We thought we knew what to expect from Gaethje when he confronted Vick in the cage. Bite down, feet flat, shuffling forward. His M.O. is to stuff takedowns and trade leather. He’s all about that reciprocal head trauma; the “just bleed guy” approves. Yet we suspected Vick’s height might be too much, the range too difficult to overcome. We feared Gaethje had absorbed too much punishment -- he took 492 significant strikes in his last three fights alone -- and that Vick’s job might be made easier by a compromised chin. This performance was the shortest of Gaethje’s UFC career and marked his first one-punch knockout against elite competition.
“The Highlight” ate kicks from the outside while Vick circumvented most of his offense, until he found an opening and landed a left hook and a follow-up overhand right that folded Vick like a lawn chair. He hit Vick so hard that a full two minutes later, when Gaethje crossed the floor to check on him, Vick attempted to take him down; he thought the fight was still going.
Gaethje talked afterwards about learning to be more patient and waiting for the right opportunity rather than constantly flooding distance to exchange punches at close range. It’s possible that moving forward we can expect more performances like this from the former copper miner. That is a good thing, too. Afterward, he affirmed he only has five more “wars” left before he hangs up the gloves, but the scrap with Vick didn’t qualify. For now, a sit-down with UFC brass to revise his contract is his next aspiration: “The way I put it all on the line, I need all my money up front, and that’s how it should work for people like me.”
For most other .500 fighters, such a request would probably fall on deaf ears, but Gaethje isn’t like most other .500 fighters. At 29 years old and vocal about hanging up the gloves sooner than later, he has become must-see TV among fight fans and has the nearly unprecedented claim to more bonuses (five) than he has fights (four).
Even the notoriously short-sighted UFC -- in the past, it has sought to disregard fighter pay complaints from “inconsistent” performers -- should concede the necessity of rewarding Gaethje’s fighting style with more guaranteed cash, if for no other reason than that the famously earnest Gaethje seems genuinely uninterested in an Octagon return until these issues are ironed out.
That is perhaps the biggest storyline emerging from UFC Fight Night 135: The undergrad studying human services who takes a detour from helping the underprivileged to go punch guys on MMA’s biggest stage, the mama’s boy who plied his trade as a standout wrestler emerging as one of the sport’s most lethal strikes, the 2-2 fighter who’s somehow calling all the shots.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.