Though the end result wasn’t what he’d hoped for, Justin Gaethje believes that he did inflict some damage on Khabib Nurmagomedov before being choked unconscious in the UFC 254 headliner.
“It sucks. I’m hurt. It’s emotional. But ultimately, it’s the name of the game,” Gaethje said in a post-fight interview on ESPN. “I had him in trouble. I wasn’t very many kicks away from him not being able to walk. He’s gonna be limping for the next three weeks. It’s nothing to be proud of because I lost.”
Indeed, 15 of the 29 significant strikes Gaethje landed were leg kicks, and as the bout progressed it appeared that they were beginning to take their toll on the champion. However, Nurmagomedov was absolutely dominant when the fight hit the ground, slicing through his opponent’s guard and transitioning to submission attempts with ease. Gaethje, an NCAA All-American wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado, had no answers there.
“I knew he was gonna try to get me to the ground. I was very focused and I believe I did a great job of keeping the distance, threatening and causing damage,” Gaethje said. “I caused damage in there. That was a five-round fight.
“I have to be better on the bottom. I love striking so much. I love fighting so much. To be the best in the world you have to be great everywhere. He is better than me in grappling right now. I have to go back and obviously that’s where my focus needs to be right now.”
Gaethje admits that it is preferable to lose by submission than knockout, if only because it bodes well for his longevity in the sport.
I knew that if I was gonna lose … I’m not scared to get choked out,” he said. “Getting knocked out does suck because there is consequences health-wise to that. Getting choked out, you get a nice little dream and it’s on to the next one.”
Gaethje, who shares management with Nurmagomedov, was surprised that the Dagestani star announced his retirement in the Octagon.
“I hope that’s something he really thought about,” Gaethje said. “I don’t believe anybody should be making decisions in the cage after a fight. We’re so emotional. It’s such an emotional time. Win or lose, you have no idea how many emotions we go through or what we go through internally.
“Him especially after the loss of his father. I can’t begin to imagine – I don’t want to imagine – what he was going through. As soon as the fight was over, I went up and told him he made his father so proud. And he did.”
If Nurmagomedov truly is retired, Gaethje believes he has as good a claim as anyone to the vacant lightweight belt. In fact, “The Highlight” already has a proposal for crowning a new 155-pound champion.
“With him retiring, I’m No. 1,” Gaethje said. “Poirier and McGregor are gonna fight, [but] it’s not official. If McGregor wants to bounce out and get the belt, then I’m right here. If they want to give it to someone, then so be it. But I’ll be ready.”
For Gaethje, there is always joy in fighting – even in defeat. That’s why he’s ready to get right back on the horse after what might seem like a disheartening loss.
“I’m happy to have that feeling,” he said. “When that bell rings, it’s a special feeling. I love it. I don’t think there’s anybody that loves it more than I do.”
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