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When the dust settled from UFC on Fox 29 and the crowds vacated the Gila River Arena on Saturday in Glendale, Arizona, the main event between Justin Gaethje and Dustin Poirer was easy to mythologize. It was the type of fight that warranted clichés without any facetiousness or eye rolling. They left everything in the cage; they were fighting in a phone booth; and they were warriors. It was the type of fight that made the lyrics to “Face the Pain” feel like a Homeric poem.
The fight was undeniably epic. It was Gaethje’s third appearance in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, each of which has been shortlisted for “Fight of the Year.” His promotional debut against Michael Johnson in July was the consensus pick across every major MMA web site, and his December bout against Eddie Alvarez was close behind. Although there’s plenty more fights to be fought in 2018, expect to see this one popping up at the end of the year.
Yet in an alternate dimension, we may have never had the chance to see any of these fights. There have always been exceptional talents floating around the periphery of the UFC, many of whom never end up hearing their name called by Bruce Buffer. Fighters like Fedor Emelianenko, Shinya Aoki, Megumi Fujii and Ben Askren were among the very best in their divisions for years without ever competing in the premier MMA organization. In fairness, the argument can certainly be made that Fujii and Emelianenko did compete against the best competition available, at least for a certain period of time. Gaethje could have easily and understandably been among the ranks of the best fighters outside the UFC, racking up exciting wins against solid opponents en route to extending his undefeated streak. Yet instead, he made the jump into the sport’s most ferocious shark tank. Bless his heart for that.
The myth of Achilles comes to mind. If you’re not familiar with Achilles, here are the CliffsNotes. Achilles was the greatest warrior in Greece, known for single-handedly sacking cities. The son of a goddess, Achilles was invincible except for his heel. When Greece went to war with Troy, he was initially reluctant to go. In “The Iliad,” Achilles explains his dilemma: “… if I abide here and play my part in the Siege of Troy, then lost is my home-return, but my renown shall be imperishable; but if I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall my life long endure.” It’s a decision so timelessly human that it remains relevant thousands of years after it was written: Chase glory at your own peril and be remembered long after your death or live a long happy life that will be forgotten.
Achilles, of course, chose glory, which is why we still know his name today. This is the choice Gaethje has made. A fitting contrast would be Askren, who chose the safer path of beating tough yet overmatched opponents in Bellator MMA and One Championship.
If that sounds like an unfair description to you, take it from Askren himself. He chose to retire to avoid taking unnecessary punishment and to dedicate himself as a parent and coach. This mindset manifested itself in his style of fighting, which was not exactly fun to watch but was dominant and efficient in order to mitigate risk. To be sure, those are all admirable traits; there is no shame in winning without taking damage or choosing a long happy life in exchange for professional glory, especially when it is centered around family and community. Yet that is exactly the decision that Achilles -- and Gaethje -- turned down, and that is why we’re fascinated with them.
When Gaethje fought in the World Series of Fighting, he was making six figures every fight against tough but generally overmatched opponents, not unlike Askren in One Championship. Though his pay has increased by a not-insignificant amount in the UFC, that was not the reason why he chose to sign with the promotion. In a 2016 interview before his contract with WSOF ended, he said: “I keep saying I’m the best in the world and I’m a coward because I’m not putting myself in position to fight the best in the world. If you want to be the best, you have to fight the best, and they’re not in Bellator, they’re not in World Series.” Simply put, he joined the UFC to pursue glory. His style of fighting -- relentless forward pressure, internecine aggression, willingness to absorb punishment in order to dish it out -- embodies this ethos.
The most striking similarity between Gaethje and Achilles, however, is their knowing resignation to fate. Achilles was well-aware of his vulnerability and was assured that he would have to forfeit his life in order to attain everlasting glory. It’s what made his story both tragic and inspirational. Gaethje, too, has never harbored any delusions about the consequences of how he fights. Prior to making his UFC debut, Gaethje, then 17-0, was certain that he would eventually get knocked out. His last two fights validated this prediction. Yet in doing so, he has solidified his reputation not only as one of the best fighters in the world but also as the most reliably exciting fighter in the sport -- perhaps ever.
In less than a year, Gaethje went from a 17-0 champion to dropping two of his last three fights. On paper, the 0 in the loss column certainly looks more appealing, but as rare and impressive as an undefeated record is, there is something more resonant about the willingness to put it on the line for a chance at something greater. It’s equal parts tragic and mythopoetic. Though he may not be remembered as a UFC champion, there is no doubt that Gaethje will be remembered as one of the most spectacularly can’t-miss fighters to ever step into a cage or a ring. It’s an epic legacy to leave behind.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.