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UFC President Dana White loves him some Justin Gaethje, and it’s not hard to see why.
Justin Gaethje has been marked as a future mixed martial arts star since he became the inaugural World Series of Fighting lightweight champion in January 2014. He quickly became the WSOF’s most popular fighter, heading six of its 35 events before the promotion rebranded. After only two appearances in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, his brand is bigger than ever. He’s currently ranked sixth in his division and set to headline his second event against fifth-ranked Dustin Poirier at UFC on Fox 29 this Saturday in Glendale, Arizona.
There’s a lot to like about Gaethje from a promotional standpoint. He’s young and marketable, with an inspiring backstory as the son of a copper miner who lifted himself out of poverty through MMA. He’s also a finisher, with only two of his 19 fights having gone the distance. To top it off, he happens to be the ultimate “Just Bleed” fighter, having delivered Sherdog’s 2017 “Fight of the Year” in his memorable encounter with Michael Johnson. What was that fight’s biggest rival for the honor? Gaethje’s battle with Eddie Alvarez at UFC 218.
To move Gaethje more into the mainstream, though, he needs to become more than an action fighter. He needs to start contending for the title, where fights take on a heavier meaning. Then, he can graduate from headlining UFC Fight Nights to headlining pay-per-views and becoming a featured attraction. At that level, the promotion, the fights, the opponents, all of it becomes a bigger spectacle. It’s a guarantee that Gathje against any of the top fighters in the division -- Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson or Conor McGregor, for instance -- could become instant classics.
The UFC needs to accelerate its promotional plans for Gaethje because his star will not burn for long. He is destined to become a victim of his “I can take one on the chin better than you” attitude. His style of fighting is only fun as long as he keeps winning. Once his chin cracks, he’s done as a fighter. Much like other “cracked” fighters like Antonio Silva and late-career versions of Chuck Liddell and Rich Franklin, it will become sad to watch him fight.
While it would seem a bit early to have these worries in regards to a 28-year-old with just two UFC appearances under his belt, Gaethje has been in some absolute wars already. He also just suffered his first loss by knockout. He may be nearing the punch limit on his chin already. For the UFC to maximize Gaethje’s potential and get him in the championship picture, it needs to work as quickly as possible to get him into contention. That requires some effort, as his best -- and only -- UFC win so far came against Johnson.
That’s where Dustin Poirier comes in. If White were to go into his laboratory and try to build a perfect opponent for Gaethje, it would look a lot like Poirier. White would try to create a striker who gets in brawls against his better judgment and can be chinny at times. That’s Poirier, who has a habit of getting in wild exchanges and coming out the worse for it. There’s a set of reasons why Poirier was chosen for Gaethje. It’s not for a lack of available lightweights, but Poirier is the perfect guy to face Gaethje. Edson Barboza, with his crisp counterstriking at range, might have the perfect style to beat him, and Gaethje has never been tested by a wrestler of Kevin Lee’s caliber. Alvarez has proven he can take Gaethje’s best shots and still beat him. A loss to any of these fighters would not be significantly harmful to the Gaethje brand, but it certainly would slow down his title hunt.
With a clean decision or finish over Poirier, Gaethje figures to enter the title conversation. Currently ranked sixth in the official UFC lightweight rankings, he’d leapfrog Poirier at No. 5. That would put him up there with McGregor, Ferguson, Nurmagomedov and Barboza. Yes, a Gaethje win would make White a happy man, and after the shenanigans surrounding UFC 223, he could certainly use some good news.
Pressley Nietering is a third-year student at Clemson University.