Justin Gaethje has arrived. Every athlete hopes to get here, but very few actually do. No, it’s not the moment a young pup makes their debut, and it’s certainly not the time they win their first fight. It’s the rare moment when an athlete owns the show, in undeniable and spectacular fashion, with the whole world watching.
While the whole world may not have been watching last Saturday night, most of the MMA world sure was, already knowing this was going to be appointment TV. All of Gaethje’s previous four fights in the Ultimate Fighting Championship had been must-watch stuff, and he’s had some showstoppers well before that; check out either of his fights against Luis Palomino, but absolutely watch the first. What fewer expected -- Gaethje entered as a +155 underdog and three of our very own top four Sherdog prognosticators went with Barboza -- was that not only would “The Highlight” put on a great fight, he’d show his style of fighting can be both entertaining and legitimately dominating. His knockout of James Vick was nice, but Vick is no Edson Barboza. Barboza hadn’t been stopped in the first round in five years, and in 27 professional fights had only been stopped twice in the opening frame.
What Gaethje did was more than put on a good fight, and he did more than just win. He arrived. He stole the show trading ridiculously violent leg-cracking kicks with the most ridiculously violent leg cracker on the planet, before knocking Barboza into orbit with a devastating right hook. And while it would be one thing if he had simply dominated a la his most recent fight against Vick, what makes Gaethje so compelling is his predilection for ending up in deep water, taking shots -- some would say unnecessary shots --and getting pushed to the brink. It’s at that moment he somehow recovers and eventually overwhelms his opponents with his unsurpassed level of aggression. He’s Nigel Tufnel in “Spinal Tap,” always turning the damn thing to 11. Joe Rogan last week labeled him “the most violent man in the sport of MMA” for a reason. Even in his two losses against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, Gaethje brought the pain, to the tune of back-to-back “Fight of the Night” bonuses, bringing his total to four, plus two “Performance of the Night” awards. Not too shabby a collection for five fights’ worth of work.
At this rate, he’s a human bonus machine, and he’s about to start reaping its benefits. In every lightweight conversation, his name has to be mentioned. Whether it’s taking on the winner of the Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway fight, or just waiting for Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson or Conor McGregor to figure out what in the heck they’re doing, Gaethje needs to be considered. In honesty, it’s probably roughly 20 percent because he’s earned it, 30 percent because the lightweight contender picture is a total mess, and 50 percent because it’s now impossible to imagine a Gaethje fight fans wouldn’t want to see. Seriously, name me a fighter you could more reliably count on to give you a fight of the night performance over this guy. The only dude who comes close is Ferguson, but I’d still take Gaethje. Come to think of it, if those guys ever meet, there better be a full team of paramedics in the ring, standing there right next to the ref.
You can almost guarantee the next time Gaethje fights, it will be on pay-per-view and front and center on the main card. That’s what happens when one arrives, not just as a fighter but as must-see TV. At this point, no fighter in UFC history has been as much of a sure bet for pure entertainment purposes than Gaethje. Win or lose, he’s going to put on a show, people are going to watch and his opponent is going to need more time on the massage table than Robert Kraft. It’s really just truth in advertising, when your nickname is “The Highlight.”
How long can the chaos go? That’s anyone’s guess. Putting on showstopper after showstopper comes with a price, mainly because the human skull wasn’t designed to take this kind of punishment. The most violent fighter I’ve ever watched, Robbie Lawler -- my personal favorite fighter of all-time -- went through an insane two-year gauntlet featuring the most murderous murderer’s row of all time. Two five-round slugfests with Johny Hendricks, an unbelievably brutal four-round war against Rory MacDonald, and another five-rounder versus the human Swiss Army knife, Carlos Condit, all in their respective primes. Has anyone ever run through that level of violence over such a short period of time? I’d honestly rather get sucker-punched by the Incredible Hulk than spend 19 rounds in the Octagon with those guys. And what after that? Lawler got knocked out cold in the first round against Tyron Woodley, rallied to win a unanimous decision against Donald Cerrone -- who appeared to be fading as well at that time, losing four out of five fights during that stretch -- and then got trucked by former lightweight Rafael dos Anjos in a lopsided unanimous decision. None of these were pretty, and we’re still not sure what the “Ruthless” one has left in the tank following his weird early stoppage against Ben Askren.
All of that is to try and project the most likely path where Gaethje’s hurricane path of destruction will lead. The crazy thing is, if he simply relied on his NCAA All-American wrestling skills, he’d be even more effective. The type of fighter who could challenge Nurmagomedov is going to have to possess an effective power stand up game -- check -- and enough wrestling to avoid the takedowns or at least get back to his feet quickly. Gaethje fits the bill, if he chooses to take advantage of his entire skill set. He’ll need to refine his style, come back to his wrestling and practice at least a smidge of defense. Of course, if he does all those things, he might not be the insanely entertaining fighter he is now. The flip side is he might actually fight for more than a few more years before getting his head caved in. Either way, I’m all in on the Gaethje train, and whether he makes it to the promised land or derails in spectacular fashion, it’s going to be an incredible ride.