LAS VEGAS—The thing nobody tells you about watching fights live is how quiet the arena can get.
When Hawaiian middleweight Brad Tavares took to the octagon to fight Canadian pretty boy Elias Theodorou during Friday night’s UFC event, the arena rumbled with Bruce Buffer’s sonorous yelps and the fighters’ respective walkup songs. Once the fight started, you could have heard a mouse fart. The fight card supporting the finale event of The Ultimate Fighter’s 25th season was stuffed with even matchups, oodles of prospects, and a few long-teased fights from a reality show that lost its luster years ago. The arena roared to life at times, most notably when Marc Diakiese turned a leg kick dodge into a highlight, but the top never came off the place until Justin Gaethje stepped up to fight Michael Johnson. From the moment the prospect looked at the gatekeeper in front of him, everyone in attendance more or less lost their shit—with good reason, because we were treated to the fight of the year.
It’s rare for a UFC debutante to get a main event, much less a main event against a top-five ranked contender who most recently went three rounds with perhaps the best fighter in his weight class. It doesn’t make sense, but not much about Gaethje does.
Compared to the chiseled demigods fighting that weekend, Gaethje almost looks normal. His individual abs are not defined, his arms aren’t notably long, and aside from a pair of cauliflower ears, his plain face betrays no signs of the fights he’s been in. As his pre-fight jawing session with Johnson showed, he’s not much for shit talking, even when he’s being called essentially an inbred mongrel.
He comes from a German-Mexican copper mining family near the Arizona-New Mexico border, and even worked in the mines for a summer. It’s unforgiving country, the sort of out-of-the-way humble beginnings Johnson pointedly mocked. Gaethje wrestled in college and started training mixed martial arts in Colorado. Since he started fighting professionally, he hasn’t lost. Since he started winning, he has only had to wait for the judges twice. He may not look it until he enters the octagon, but Justin Gaethje is a terrifyingly violent man.
Perhaps the most foundational tenet of fighting is that you should avoid getting hit by your opponent while hitting them as much as you can. Gaethje is a fervent zealot of the second axis of this truth and ignores the first. Simply put, it’s a minor miracle that Gaethje is 18-0, even against non-UFC competition, while getting hit as much as he does. He’s a pressure fighter, but unlike, say, Stipe Miocic, Gaethje seems to love eating half a dozen punches in order to land a few of his own. It’s a seemingly self-defeating strategy that is a recipe for disaster against all but the least capable strikers. Thing is, though, if you’re close enough to hit Gaethje, Gaethje gets to hit you back, and there can be no victory once that starts.
Even before he had seen the first second of UFC action, the Vegas crowd was chanting his name. What had once been a quiet arena was now filled with screams of “GAETH-JE! GAETH-JE!” as thousands yearned for a chance to see Justin Gaethje destroy and be destroyed.
It started quick. Within 10 seconds of the fight starting, Johnson had already staggered Gaethje. A body kick and a snapping left to Gaethje’s head sent the newcomer stumbling backwards. As the first round wore on, Johnson kept Gaethje on the business end of his 3.5-inch reach advantage. Gaethje’s solution was the only one he knows: more violence.
It seems redundant, but at its heart, MMA fighting is violence. There are gorgeous technical achievements to laud, intricate tactical considerations to ponder, and stylistic problems to tease out, but boiled down to its base elements, a fight involves two people hell-bent on physically harming their opponent until they can’t fight any longer. While fans want personalities and spectacle, the UFC is a temple to the violent arts, and the unavoidable humiliation of someone getting their ass kicked is what makes this brutal sport so engrossing. Nothing beats the raw thrill of winning a fight, even if nobody gets out unharmed.
Least of all Gaethje. Getting in range to throw leg kicks (which he does with abandon, hips unlocked, with all his power behind them) and shots to Johnson’s head meant passing a threshold and stepping in range of Johnson’s hands. Exchanges would end and Gaethje wouldn’t even take a second to breathe before lumbering back into the pocket for more, making an audible wshh-ing like Sunny’s Mac with each strike. He took punches over and over again but he walked right through them to smack Johnson’s head with a pair of brutal hooks. It became a war.
Despite forcing Johnson into fighting the exact type of fight he said he wanted to avoid, Gaethje nearly got knocked out in the first round. Johnson caught him in the head, and Gaethje wobbled to the fence, giving up his back and eating a huge punch straight to the face without even rising to defend himself. There were 101 strikes in the first round and Gaethje took the worst of it. He looked like dead meat.
Even if the fight didn’t end there, it felt as if Gaethje had been found out. A man can only take so much punishing before he can’t fight anymore and Gaethje had been brutalized. And yet, somehow, Gaethje pushed his face straight into Johnson’s hands as soon as the second round started. It was clear that the judges would not be necessary.
The best UFC fights are the ones that push both fighters to their limits, past which they keep fighting after both are depleted and nearly broken. Nothing is as brutal or as heart-rending as two fighters shaking off the debilitating effects of getting beaten up to keep going at it. There are no happy endings in MMA, because the process of fighting grinds you down to a nub. It can be hard to watch, but it’s also tremendous spectacle. Johnson and Gaethje reached that level in two minutes and stayed there for seven more.
Gaethje’s sense of spatial reasoning got knocked out of him again and he stayed in the fight to throw some more combinations at Johnson. Johnson seemed to be in control of the fight, and he was, until finally a dazed Gaethje waded into another exchange and destroyed Johnson with a uppercut. The fight was over shortly afterwards, with Gaethje claiming yet another knockout win.
Gaethje had never faced a harder hitter than Johnson, or taken as many serious shots, and yet he continued to walk into the danger zone for the chance to hit back. This may well be a foolish long-term strategy, but Gaethje proved its value against an elite fighter, and provided one of the most thrilling action fights in UFC history. They stopped selling beer in the arena before the fight and nobody seemed to give a shit after getting treated to a pure brawl. You can see the entire UFC on Fox crew fighting through goosebumps as they start the post-fight show.
Nobody gleefully accepts this many strikes without eventually losing something, but for right now, Gaethje is a terrifying opponent for anyone in the lightweight division and perhaps the most violent fighter in any weight class. Johnson is strong, smart, and bigger than Gaethje, and he was swept away in an unholy maelstrom of ferocity. Gaethje has only fought one time in the UFC, yet he is already in the mix to fight the very best in the lightweight division. After all, Johnson was ranked fifth and he knocked him out.
Conor McGregor is the lightweight champ, a boisterous globetrotter with ambitions that have already surpassed the UFC, but Justin Gaethje is the lightweight division’s purest fighter. Dana White mentioned that Gaethje is a possible opponent for Tony Ferguson if Khabib Nurmagomedov is unable to make weight again. Ferguson is a spectacular fighter, and an especially violent striker in his own right. Gaethje wouldn’t be favored, although he’d surely pressure Ferguson and smash his face more than a few times, which would be the case for anyone he could possible face right now. Sometimes, that’s enough to win a fight. No matter who fights Gaethje, nobody will escape the violence.