Justin Gaethje was the most highly touted free agent entering the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2017, and with an undefeated 17-0 record that included 15 finishes, fans anxiously awaited his Octagon debut. His first UFC test would come against “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 12 finalist Michael Johnson, who made no bones about being a Gaethje skeptic ahead of their confrontation. Johnson saw him as just another wide-eyed star from the regional circuit that would lose his way when the light shined brightest.
Gaethje remained steadfast in his beliefs as they related to how his career would play out in the UFC. He could not promise to stay unbeaten -- especially when considering his all-out-assault style -- but he vowed to bring unbridled violence to the cage. Throughout the buildup to his showdown with Johnson in “The Ultimate Fighter 25” Finale main event on July 7 in Las Vegas, Gaethje clung to his claim that his only goal was to give fans a show they would remember. He lived up to his promises and then some, as he put away Johnson with second-round punches in Sherdog’s “Round of the Year” in 2017.
Round 2 began with Gaethje dusting off some serious cobwebs. Johnson rocked “The Highlight” late in the first round, as Gaethje absorbed a flurry of punches against the fence. He staggered to his corner once time expired, ready to begin anew following a one-minute respite. Gaethje turned back to his signature leg kicks early and often in the second round, chopping at “The Menace” as the pace understandably slowed.
Johnson stunned Gaethje with a right hand that had him visibly hurt. The Trevor Wittman protégé stumbled all over the cage with Johnson looking to attack in close quarters and moving in for the kill. Gaethje recovered quickly and looked to trade shots inside the pocket as Johnson ripped a heavy combination to the body. Gaethje answered, landed a straight right and then a hook behind it that snapped back Johnson’s head and put him on his back foot. “The Menace” responded with a volley to the body before returning to the head with a lightning-quick 1-2; Gaethje was unfazed. He cut loose with a devastating uppercut that landed on Johnson’s chin, the tide slowly beginning to turn. Gaethje remained calm, walked down Johnson with the cold calculation of a trained killer and teed off with uppercuts as the St. Louis native backed up to the cage.
Both fighters were exhausted, but Gaethje stayed composed with the finish in sight. He landed another signature leg kick with his opponent pinned to the fence. Struggling to stand, Johnson retreated to the floor, only to have Gaethje wave him to his feet. Johnson rose slowly, defeat written across his face. Gaethje then charged in with a flying knee that had the Hard Knocks 365 representative shelled up against the cage once again. With Johnson no longer defending himself, Gaethje punished him with a barrage of uppercuts before unleashing two crushing knees that put his counterpart on the mat for the last time. Referee John McCarthy called it off 4:48 into Round 2, awarding Gaethje the technical knockout in his sensational promotional debut. “The Highlight” punctuated the victory with his signature backflip off the cage, the crowd erupting in a chorus of cheers.
Afterward, UFC commentator Brian Stann moved in to address Gaethje. However, the triumphant former World Series of Fighting champion took the opportunity to bask in the limelight and shouted into the microphone: “Who’s next? Who’s next? Where is my equal at? I want to meet him. Where is my equal?”
Gaethje then exited the cage an instant fan favorite, having vanquished a credible and respected opponent in the year’s best round.
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.