Justin Gaethje is not going to last terribly long as a top-level UFC fighter, though you really only need to see the relentless lightweight fight just one time to grasp how special he is. In his 20 professional fights, Gaethje has only twice left things up to the judges, and while he’s 1-2 in the UFC, to focus on his record at the expense of how he fights and what he brings out from his elite opponents would be to miss the point entirely of why Justin Gaethje fights.
Gaethje lost another banger against Dustin Poirier this weekend, lasting until the fourth round before Poirier punched his head off. Like Gaethje’s first two UFC fights, this one is an easy Fight of the Year contender, and the only scenario in which it’s not the winner is one where Gaethje somehow tops it. I mean, look at this madness. Poirier cut Gaethje’s eye 30 seconds into the fight, and that only seemed to make him stronger. Fighters often talk about needing to get hit a few times to get into a rhythm, but Gaethje takes that notion to its logical extreme, as it seems he needs to take shots that would knock out plenty of fighters before he starts to really get going.
Gaethje’s plan is sort of simple: eat away at his opponent’s lead leg with vicious kicks (Daniel Cormier called him one of the UFC’s greatest-ever leg kickers), then get in his face and punch away until someone gets knocked out. The first minute of this fight featured more action than plenty of fights you’ll see this year, and it only got crazier. Poirier’s leg got wobbly fairly early into the fight, which made it harder to keep Gaethje at the distance he wanted him. Poirier punched in beautiful combinations and seemed as prepared as he could for Gaethje to run at him and dare him to open up at his head. Gaethje happily took the necessary damage to get in Poirier’s face, where he mashed him as opportunities came up. His near-compulsive need to get hit and step into the pocket seems like it would lead to disaster, but Gaethje can take an ungodly amount of punishment, and he thrives on chaotic exchanges. Watch him fuck Poirier’s eye up here.
Also, he did this.
Gaethje lost a point for repeated eye pokes, and those stoppages were the fight’s only reprieves. Fighting someone as unflappable as Gaethje must be sort of terrifying even if you’re the better fighter (which very few are), since he doesn’t care about getting hit. You can establish distance and tag him, but he doesn’t care. He’ll wade through anything to get back to where he wants the fight, and once he gets there, he’ll go for your head at the expense of his.
That’s what makes Gaethje special. There’s no fighting him and getting out clean. Even if you beat him, like Poirier and Eddie Alvarez both have now, he’ll take something from you. He’s like the octopus that gets eaten by a dolphin only to choke the dolphin to death from the inside. Poirier asked for a title shot after the fight, and it’s hard to argue that he’s not near the top of the short list now. He’s only lost twice in the last five years, once to Conor McGregor and once on a perfect punch from Michael Johnson. And still, Gaethje landed more shots on Poirier than maybe any opponent before. Dude is a maniac. Look at Poirier’s messed up leg.
In the end, it took Poirier wobbling Gaethje like he never had before, then staying on him until he was so woozy that Herb Dean had to call the fight. Still, watch how Gaethje beckons Poirier on after he lands the left hand that sealed it for Gaethje.
Gaethje said after the fight that he’s primarily here to put on a show, and that even he knows he may not be able to do so for too much longer:
“I didn’t come into this sport to win or lose. It is the entertainment factor for me,” he said. “I will be known and remembered as one of the most entertaining fighters that ever did it. I’m content with what just happened, as stupid and crazy as that sounds. I felt so comfortable in there, best I ever felt.”
“I got about five fights,” he said. “I want the biggest fights possible. Coming off two losses, that’s hard to say, but you want to see me fight. If you don’t see me fight live, you will regret it when I’m done. And it’s not going to be very long, I’ve got five left.
That’s brutally honest stuff, though not terribly surprising, given the heavy damage Gaethje’s brain and body take every time he steps into the octagon. Gaethje will burn out, sooner or later, but he won’t fade away.