Justin Gaethje enters his Octagon debut at “The Ultimate Fighter 25” finale as an undefeated fighter with a championship pedigree from another promotion, which is essentially the same as having a giant target on his back.
The former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion is aware of the perils that await him as he faces the elite competition that the UFC can provide, beginning with Michael Johnson on Friday night at the T-Mobile Arena. Gaethje already saw a heavily hyped ex-WSOF titlist come up short in his debut, as Marlon Moraes dropped a split verdict against Raphael Assuncao at UFC 212.
While many observers, including 16 of the 17 media members tracked by MMADecisions.com, thought Moraes did enough to edge Assuncao, it wasn’t a vintage performance from the Ricardo Almeida Jiu-Jitsu representative. Gaethje, for one, thought Moraes could have performed better regardless of the questionable judging. The Grudge Training Center product doesn’t plan on struggling to pull the trigger when he squares off against Johnson.
“Marlon Moraes, he fought this thing against Raphael. I think he could have given more effort. One thing I do is I go out there and I go for the finish, the whole fight,” Gaethje said during a recent conference call. “If I lose I’m going to get knocked out. I won’t get outworked and lose a decision. I might get caught in a submission but most likely when I lose it will be a knockout and that’s because I fight the way that I fight, I’m successful because of the way I fight, my timing and attitude I believe is a definition of what MMA is and I will not change it.
“Something special about when I fight is once the bell rings, I feel like I’m not even there. I’m there but I’m not there. I’ve never had to stop the process in a fight, I’ve never seen the guys eyes in a fight. I can’t recall one moment from a fight,” he continued. “I know when the bell rings I’m going to go into the life or death situation and adrenaline is a hell of a drug. Nothing hurts in there. I’m not scared to get knocked out. I’m not scared to lose, I’m scared to not perform. So, one thing I will do is perform.”
Thus far, that philosophy has paid dividends for Gaethje, who has finished all but two of his 17 career triumphs inside the distance. However, Johnson questions whether his opponent should be so willing to go out on his shield in a fight.
“He sounds like a guy that’s trying to talk himself up and hype himself up to get ready to make his UFC debut,” Johnson said. “He’s the only dude in the world that I’ve ever heard say he’s going to get knocked out. What kind of fighter are you to admit that you’re going to get knocked out sooner or later?”
While Gaethje does own notable wins over the likes of Brian Foster, Luis Palomino (twice), Melvin Guillard and Gesias Cavalcante, among others, Johnson fits the cliché of being his most difficult test to date. While “The Menace” has lost three of his last four, those defeats came to Khabib Nurmagomedov, Nate Diaz and Beneil Dariush. And his lone victory during that time was a first-round knockout of the streaking Dustin Poirier. Johnson has also beaten the likes of Edson Barboza, Gleison Tibau, Joe Lauzon and Tony Ferguson during his promotional tenure.
Gaethje knows that this will be his opportunity to put on a show for an audience who has never seen him in action.
“I think for a lot of fans, this will be the first time they’ve seen me fight so personally I feel established in this sport with 17 professional fights, but Michael Johnson is the next level and I’m excited to put my skills on this platform and let this many people see how hard I’ve been working my whole life.”