Sports

Could Justin Gaethje Have Made a Better UFC Debut?

Last Friday's brawl with Michael Johnson jumped off the screen and brought violence inches from your face.
July 10, 2017, 4:20pm
Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Watch enough fights from your couch and the experience can deaden the true, literal impact of what's happening. Punches lose their sting. Black eyes and cuts become harmless pixels on a screen. Concussions become the problems of others. But then you see what Justin Gaethje did to Michael Johnson on Friday night—and, also, what Johnson did to Gaethje—and the nature of trained professionals fighting each other roars back in full volume and bright colors. The malice, pain, and brain-scrambling violence leap off the screen, inches from your face.

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The Gaethje-Johnson headliner at The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale on Friday night was easily the best fight of the UFC's two-event weekend in Las Vegas. It was (without looking at the record too deeply) the best fight of the year so far. If it wasn't one of the best MMA fights period, it was at least one of the most visceral: a heart-and-balls brawl as subtle as getting a cinder block dropped on your head, and a fight that reestablished how close entertainment and brutality often are.

And it was about the best UFC debut a fighter like Gaethje—a Colorado copper miner's son with no instinct for self-preservation, and the reigning World Series of Fighting lightweight champion before the UFC signed him in May—could have imagined. Of course, it was a two-man effort: Johnson, the UFC's fifth-ranked 155-pounder, looked great. He clipped Gaethje with an uppercut that made him drop into a squat, swarmed him and took him down, and Johnson could have convinced referee John McCarthy to stop the bout with another 30 seconds at the end of the first round.

This is exactly the high-heart-rate scenario Gaethje has often found himself in, willingly and eagerly. In the second round, he pressured Johnson, threw hard hooks and crushing leg kicks, dropped Johnson, let him up, dropped him, let him up again, and pulverized him against the fence until a knee strike crumpled Johnson—the first time he's ever been TKO'd. Then, after a couple tries, Gaethje landed a backflip off the cage where you definitely thought he'd be paralyzed.

How many other fighters migrating to the UFC made this great an impression? Not Cro Cop, not Condit, not Alvarez, not Cormier. Gaethje's promotional debut put into perspective the 17 victories (and no losses) that preceded it. Judging by the crowd reaction to his black-eyed face cageside at UFC 213, he belongs somewhere on a pay-per-view—particularly while Conor McGregor leaves the lightweight division in a holding pattern before his August engagement with Floyd Mayweather. I would pay to watch Justin Gaethje fight ED-209, but I'd also settle for Tony Ferguson, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Nate Diaz, or another top lightweight—or, really, anyone. Justin Gaethje is the coconut-scented car air freshener: throw him in a sedan that smells like a farm animal rotting in the sun, and everything is cool.

"I'll fight again and [the Johnson fight] won't be considered fight of the year," Gaethje said at the post-fight press conference. "I can take the most boring fighter and put him in that fight right there. That's what I do. I'm an entertainer."

Now, to dispense with the obvious: taking lots and lots of hits (Gaethje absorbed 91 significant strikes) to land lots and lots of hits (Gaethje landed 104) doesn't scale to a long-term career. Gaethje is unusually aware of this. He talks about getting knocked out like it's inevitable, on the one hand, but also like articulating that inevitability out loud will forestall it a little longer. "I'm not infallible. Never will be," he said at the post-fight press conference. "I will lose, like I said. I'm not scared to get knocked out, [I'm] not scared to lose: I'm scared to not perform."

Maybe this is what made Justin Gaethje's performance Friday night feel so urgent. The wheels are going to fall off someday, everyone including Gaethje knows it, and we watched uppercuts chip away. That also made the fight all the more compelling: Gaethje absorbed damage that makes other fighters wince or circle away, he doubled down and returned fire, and he never looked like he might stop and reconsider. We can dress fighting in artistry, strategy, and subtlety. But we'll always watch a fighter willing to hand over a piece of himself for the sake of our collective amusement without a second thought, even if he's thinking about it the whole time.