UFC 286: Justin Gaethje plans to 'blow the roof off' O2 Arena with performance against Rafael Fiziev
For nearly 12 minutes on Wednesday, Justin Gaethje answered questions in a low monotone. He praised Rafael Fiziev, his opponent Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 286 at The O2 Arena in London, England, as one of the sport's elite strikers. Gaethje referred to himself as the most exciting fighter in UFC history and said he's worked hard to learn to deal with the pressure that comes with being high up on a hotly anticipated pay-per-view card.
He wasn't annoyed when asked about comments Fiziev made about taking his heart.
Everything he said was to the point and made a lot of sense.
He spoke of turning things around after losing two of his last three, though it should be noted that those losses were to two of the greatest lightweights in MMA history, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Charles Oliveira.
There haven't been many fighters who have as eagerly sought out a bout with Gaethje the way Fiziev has, but Gaethje understands the business. He's a big name and at No. 3, he's three slots above No. 6 Fiziev at lightweight in the UFC rankings.
With a win, Gaethje believes he'll be right back in the mix for either a title shot or a match against someone, likely No. 2 Dustin Poirier, who is ranked ahead of him.
"I think it's the natural progression of this sport," Gaethje said of fighting someone ranked below him who's on the biggest stage for the first time. "I'm coming off of a loss and I've fought for the title in two of my last three fights. Number 6 isn't that far down, so I think at this point that I've got to get a win and it doesn't matter who it is [against].
"I think I'm sitting at No. 3 right now and I'm going to fight down in the rankings, as I should. And then after that, there's Poirier in front of me. Oliveira is in front of me, who is going to fight [Beneil] Dariush. The winner of that fight is going to fight for the title. So I either fight Poirier next or if that's not the case, I'll fight for the title."
What happens next remains to be seen, particularly since he's yet again facing another significant challenge. Gaethje has faced some of the toughest opposition anyone has in his nearly six years on the UFC roster. Since joining the UFC in 2017, he's had five fights against men who have held an interim or full UFC title. He's gone 1-2 in those bouts, defeating Tony Ferguson to win an interim lightweight title and losing to Eddie Alvarez, Poirier, Nurmagomedov and Oliveira. He was 17-0 prior to joining the UFC and 6-4 in his 10 bouts since.
That's good work considering the opposition he's faced, but for a guy in a stacked division who is aspiring to fight for the championship again, it's not enough. He needs to string together some wins to force the hands of the UFC brass of Dana White, Hunter Campbell, Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby, who make the bouts.
That's why Fiziev is such a great bout for him. Fiziev is 6-1 in the UFC and 12-1 overall, having won his last six bouts. He capped that with a dominant win over former champion Rafael dos Anjos.
He's not as well known as Gaethje, Oliveira or Nurmagomedov, perhaps, but he's extremely dangerous and getting better. He's a tremendous striker with fast, powerful kicks.
To Gaethje, the fight may be a test of wills. And while he showed little emotion while talking about this fight and his career, he made two points that no one could disagree with.
"I'm going to blow the roof off this arena," Gaethje said in response to a question about how excited the British fans are to see him in person. "I'm the most exciting fighter who has ever stepped into the Octagon in the history of this sport. Of course, I pride myself in that."
It's why he's nicknamed "The Highlight," and also why most fans would be clamoring to see him if he'd lost 10 in a row. If ever there was a fighter who gave the public, both ticket buyers and PPV buyers, their money's worth, it's Gaethje.
In his 10 UFC bouts, he's won Fight of the Night six times and earned four Performance of the Night bonuses. He's also probably won an unofficial mark of making the most MMA fans shriek, "Oh, my God!" during his fights.
There is something inside of him that pushes him beyond what he feels he's capable of doing. His belief about himself as the sport's most exciting fighters has developed over time and with each successive fight.
"I don't just believe it," Gaethje said of his status as the UFC's most exciting fighter ever. "You believe it. You all believe it. You know it to be true. It's not on purpose. It's just who I am. It's how I compete. I'm cut from this cloth, as they say."
Gaethje said Fiziev could join him in that stratosphere of exciting fighters if he continues on the path he's currently walking. When White instituted the post-fight bonus program, it was essentially designed to get fighters to take risks to put on entertaining fights.
Gaethje, though, never consciously made a decision to fight like that.
"It's not on purpose," Gaethje said. "It's just who I am. It's who I've been in wrestling. You know, wrestling can be boring. My wrestling matches were never boring. It's just the way it is. I don't know why. I can't turn it off."
And for that, a legion of MMA fans are eternally grateful.