“It is international fight week,” announcer Todd Grisham said moments before the headlining fight started at The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale, “and there are some very big fights this weekend. But few if any are expected to be better than the one we’re about to witness.” That turned out to be a prescient comment. Not only was the main event between Michael Johnson and Justin Gaethje the best fight of International Fight Week, it surpassed every other fight from 2017.
There was, indeed, a lot of hype leading up to the fight. It was Gaethje’s Ultimate Fighting Championship debut after going on a TKO tour in the World Series of Fighting, where he was the 5 time defending lightweight champion. He didn’t just bring his championship experience with him; “The Highlight” brought his undefeated, 17-0 record into the promotion, and only two of those fights had gone the distance. Gaethje had a hard-earned reputation for being one of the most violent, exciting, leave-it-all-in-the-cage kind of warriors in the entire sport.
Yet he was the underdog going into his Octagon debut, and for good reason. Gaethje was impressive on paper, but he was relatively untested. Johnson was not a showcase opponent brought in to lose. He was a top five lightweight who had hovered around title contention for years. Johnson was coming off a tough 2016 where he knocked out streaking contender Dustin Poirer and then got pummeled by Khabib Nurmagomedov in Sherdog’s 2016 Beatdown of the Year. Still, at 31 years old, Johnson remained a factor in the UFC’s most talented division. His hand speed, athleticism, and diverse skillset were all tools that Gaethje had never dealt with in the WSOF. “The Menace” entered the bout a slight, -155 favorite when the cage doors closed.
They didn’t touch gloves before the fight. As soon as the bell rang, they met each other in the middle of the cage and started throwing bombs. Johnson connected with the first meaningful shot in the first 15 seconds, stunning Gaethje with a lightning fast straight left. Gaethje, seemingly empowered by punishment, continued to press forward and throw heavy leather. Johnson darted in and out of range while tagging his plodding opponent, but Gaethje just kept pushing forward, through anything and everything Johnson threw at him. Gaethje put Johnson’s back to the fence and uncorked a berserker combination of power shots: right uppercut, left hook, right hook, left knee.
This all happened in the first minute of the fight.
Johnson tried to stay elusive by circling out along the edge of the Octagon, but Gaethje walked him down and stung him with leg kicks, happily eating Johnson’s punches in exchange. Slowly and steadily Gaethje sucked his opponent into his pace. If you’ve ever watched a simulation of how galaxies collide, you’ll recognize the choreography of this fight: from the onset of that first connection, the two bodies in the cage seemed inseparably entangled, rushing in at each other until the impact of the collision created brief separation, only to return to the collision path immediately after. Johnson tried to create distance, but whenever Gaethje cut through the space between them, Johnson willingly obliged.
Gaethje started finding a home for his shots and jawed away accordingly. He wobbled Johnson with a left hook; now they were even. Both men landed thudding shots thrown with knockout intentions, and the fight took place almost exclusively in the pocket. Rarely did seconds go by without someone firing an ill-intended strike at the other.
This was no sloppy barroom brawl, though. It was tactical and technical. Gaethje punctuated his combinations with leg kicks, never devolving into single-shot headhunting. Johnson mostly stuck to his hands, but balanced his target between the body and head. Both fighters deployed high-octane offense, but were by no means swinging wildly. They were both looking to drag the other into later rounds and pour it on when the other tired. It never got that far, however.
With less than 30 seconds left in the first round, Johnson landed a clean right hand that visibly rocked Gaethje, who backed up for the first time in the fight. Johnson capitalized by taking Gaethje down. The former WSOF champion, back to the fence, pushed himself upright again, where Johnson met him with knees to the body and uppercuts from the floor. Gaethje survived the onslaught as Johnson ended the round emphatically.
“What else could you ask for?” Grisham asked listeners between rounds. Unless you’re a grappling purist, the answer was “nothing.”
They both picked up right where they left off in the second round. Johnson launched blitzing punches, Gaethje threw leg kicks like he was trying to cut through bone. Johnson landed a hard straight left flush on Gaethje’s chin. He rushed in to find the finish, again with knees and uppercuts against the fence, but Gaethje tied up. Johnson chewed him up with elbows and short punches, but Gaethje broke the clinch with a stiff knee to the midsection. Back to the center of the cage, back to the pocket.
Both men grew visibly more exhausted, but they both continued to throw with full force and snap to their strikes. Less than 90 seconds away from the end of the round, Johnson dipped right into a short uppercut and stumbled back grimacing. It was the beginning of the end. Gaethje walked him down and landed big uppercuts against the fence. Gaethje ripped off a few more leg kicks and Johnson crumbled to the floor. He got up, ate a few more shots, leaned over for a takedown and was stuffed to the mat again. Johnson struggled back to his feet, and Gaethje pushed him back to the fence where a flying knee and some follow-up knees sealed the fight.
Immediately after the ref stopped the action, Gaethje tried to mount the Octagon to flip off of it. He failed to get on the fence not once, but twice due to exhaustion, then finally wrangled his way up and executed a textbook backflip. It was a perfect metaphor for the fight, where Johnson nearly finished him twice before Gaethje closed it out with a beautiful finish.
In less than 10 minutes of fighting, Johnson and Gaethje landed a combined 195 significant strikes on each other. The fight took place midway through the year, but the nonstop action, the technical display of skill, and the absolute hardnosed courage it took to sit in the pocket and sling leather until one of them fell for good made this an instant classic.
“A fight of the year contender for sure,” Grisham beamed through the microphone after the dust had settled. This, too, turned out to be a prescient comment.
Sherdog’s year-end awards were voted upon by a panel of Sherdog.com staff members and contributors: Jordan Breen, Tristen Critchfield, Chris Nelson, Mike Fridley, Brian Knapp, Eric Stinton, Todd Martin, Jordan Colbert, Josh Stillman, Jesse Denis, Edward Carbajal and Anthony Walker.