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Life moves fast in professional sports. One minute an athlete is at the highest heights one can achieve. The next, the glory is all gone, the world has moved on, and only battered body, memories and highlight reels remain. This is even more urgent in combat sports. Not only do fighters typically have a smaller window at the top of their game, they also are enduring much more physical trauma and, save for the Floyd Mayweathers and Conor McGregors of the world, make a lot less money than their counterparts in other sports. The trade-off of high profile fight opportunities which come with big paydays, entertaining the bloodthirsty masses and throwing caution to the wind by taking further risks with health and safety is a very delicate balancing act. Styles not only make fights, they also potentially make money. Those same styles can also significantly reduce the already small segment of time a fighter has to maximize his or her earning potential.
Justin Gaethje, who is scheduled to face James Vick this weekend at UFC Fight Night 135, is very familiar with this Russian Roulette-style game. He has made quite a name for himself out of biting down on his mouthpiece and meeting a willing participant in wild striking exchanges in the middle of the cage. It worked very well for the first 18 fights of his career. In that time, he took out Ultimate Fighting Championship vet Drew Fickett while his building his skills in the regional circuit. He soon found himself signed to World Series of Fighting, whose broadcast contract with NBC Sports guaranteed more onlookers than his previous promotional homes, and became a respected name outside of the UFC while earning the WSOF lightweight championship. His ten fights under the WSOF banner resulted in nine knockout wins, with notable names like Nick Newell and Brian Foster added to the list of victims. Through all of those bouts, Gaethje tore through most of his opposition with a highly aggressive and risky style.
When Gaethje was finally brought into the UFC, expectations were high. An exciting, undefeated fighter with multiple title defenses in a major promotion is a rare find on the free agent market. When the Arizona native made his debut versus Michael Johnson at last summer's UFC International Fight Week, he carried his high-level brawler mentality to the Octagon to the tune of another knockout win and dual bonuses for Performance and Fight of the Night. Dispatching Johnson was far from easy and Gaethje ultimately took more damage than he had throughout most of his career. However, an extra $100,000 added to his fight purse, the doors opening for him in the everlasting talent pool of the UFC’s 155-pound weight class, and more eyeballs on him than ever before made it worthwhile.
His next outing, a back-and forth-affair with Eddie Alvarez, was nearly identical. Both fighters had their moments and did significant damage to one another. An extra check found its way into Gaethje’s bank account. However, Gaethje found himself on the other side of the knockout and only one bonus was added to his purse this time. His first professional loss and taking a step back in the division were obviously not the outcome he had hoped for, but there was still some upside. He proved he could hang in there with a former UFC champion and reaffirmed his commitment to entertaining performances. After all, Alvarez is one of the greatest lightweights of all-time and there’s no shame in losing to him, especially when you were just a hair away from victory.
Gaethje had similar results against Dustin Poirier in his third UFC bout. A nail biter slugfest earned him another Fight of the Night bonus. But once again, he suffered a stoppage loss and fell a bit further down the division’s pecking order. Of course, Poirier is a surging contender who has looked nothing short of spectacular since returning to lightweight and Gaethje had been so close to getting his hand raised. Notice a pattern beginning to develop?
Granted, Gaethje is still very relevant to the hierarchy at 155 pounds and is in yet another main event. Vick is a criminally underrated fighter who was long overdue for his chance at a top-10 opponent. But the truth remains that Gaethje’s progression from fighting a recently dethroned champ, to a high ranked contender looking for his first title shot, and then a prospect freshly added to the Top 10, is a downward trajectory.
This is a pivotal moment for the University of Northern Colorado alum. Continue with the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots approach that resulted in respect and a belt outside of the UFC and has endeared him to fans all over the world, or adapt to the increase in competitive difficulty and the flaws in his style. Keep riding the fast horse that got you there -- even if it’s leading you off of a cliff -- hoping it changes course, or ditch it for a mule that is easier to control but lacks the speed.
This conflict may not be lost on Gaethje. A recent interview with MMANytt revealed that he wants to “be the best in the world.” This could be in a direct conflict from a recent quote from Sportingnews.com regarding his preferred in-cage strategy “I go out there and fight how I want. People live their own lives and I make my own decisions.”
What makes this exceptionally interesting is that Gaethje is more than capable of mixing up his game. His status as a former NCAA Division II All-American wrestler is not apparent from how he fights in the Octagon. Even within his comfort zone of wild exchanges and haymakers, he is sneaky good at placing leg kicks on unsuspecting opponents. The abilities to the change things up are there whether he chooses to do so or not.
There’s a fork in the road for Gaethje. A win against Vick gets him back on track. A loss pushes him further away from his goal of winning the top prize a lightweight in MMA can achieve. One side of that fork leads to potential title contention, the other leads to being a gatekeeper. He can look no further than the example set by Leonard Garcia. Garcia earned seven bonuses between his stints in the UFC and WEC. However, his record is a mixed bag of losses and controversial wins that prevented him from ever re-entering the title picture after his quick submission loss to Mike Thomas Brown at WEC 39. The constant barrage of wild strikes betrays Garcia’s brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and limited his ceiling as a world-class fighter. That’s just the stakes for his time as a mixed martial artist.
Chuck Liddell is another example for Gaethje to look at. Liddell is without a doubt one of the greatest fighters to ever step foot in the Octagon. However, his style was dependent on taking shots on his way to knock out his opponents. Once his chin was compromised, it was a rapid decline as the legend found himself being repeatedly knocked unconscious. By the time he finally decided that it was time to rely more on his prowess as a grappler, it was too late. After looking renewed and in top form in the opening round against Rich Franklin at UFC 115, a short punch that the Iceman would’ve previously walked through ended up sleeping him in the closing moments of that same round.
It’s easy to point the finger at Gaethje and wonder why he has chosen to fight the way that he has. But there is plenty of blame to go around. A system that incentivizes fighters to add further risk to an inherently dangerous sport is a culprit. The insatiable need to praise the bloody back-and-forth battles while shunning the technical mastery of less viscerally violent bouts by fans is another. Either way you’d prefer to slice the blame pie, the fact remains that the clock is ticking on Gaethje and his career, as it is for all fighters. His willingness to jump headfirst into the type of contests that win Fight of the Night only speeds up that clock as the mileage piles up. While the reported $420,000 (not including the $200,000 worth of bonuses and $11,000 from Reebok) Gaethje has earned in his short time with the UFC are nothing to sneeze at, there is a clear distance between the life-changing money available to high-level professional athletes and what he has earned. Risk and reward, short-term glory or long-term preservation, are ideas that will likely be floating in his mind ahead of Saturday night. Before Gaethje decides to swing for the fences in hopes of another bonus and the cheers of the crowd, he may want to consider the balance it takes to maximize his career and body.