Justin Gaethje didn’t sound like a fighter who had lost the biggest match of his career on Saturday.
The lightweight from Phoenix competed in a memorable main event on network television with an adoring throng of fans cheering him on in his backyard at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona.
He and opponent Dustin Poirier tore down the house at UFC on Fox 29, brawling tooth-and-nail for 15-plus minutes before Poirier finished him 33 seconds into the fourth round via technical knockout.
So the fact Gaethje lost his second consecutive fight wasn’t a big concern for the unconventional warrior.
“I didn’t get in this sport to win or lose,” Gaethje told reporters after the fight. “It’s the entertainment factor for me. And I will be remembered as one of the most entertaining fighters to ever do this. I’m content with what just happened, as stupid and as crazy as that sounds.”
And why shouldn’t he feel good? Gaethje did what he does best: Throw down with reckless abandon and give the fans something to remember, regardless who gets their hand raised at the end. The consensus among the mixed martial arts intelligentsia coming out of Saturday night’s bout is that Poirier vs. Gaethje is the early frontrunner for Fight of the Year.
That makes Gaethje, who is a former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion, 3-for-3 on producing Fight of the Year contenders since signing with the UFC last year. His July 7 second-round TKO of Michael Johnson in Las Vegas was named the 2017 Fight of the Year by Yahoo Sports and MMAFighting.com; and his third-round KO loss to Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden was also a contender.
“You tell me, was that entertaining?” Gaethje asked. “Every single fight I plan on doing that.”
The problem with this plan, of course, is that one can only deliver Fight of the Year-caliber brawls for so long before the body gives out. And if you fight at Gaethje’s speed, that day is going to come sooner or later.
Gaethje’s game is predicated on his ability to absorb an otherworldly level of punishment as he dishes out low kicks that add up over the course of the bout. That played out on Saturday night, as Gaethje took a beating over the first two rounds, then turned the fight in his favor in the third, as Poirier slowed due to the accumulated damage in the fourth.
Only this time, it wasn’t enough to finish the job. Poirier found a second wind in the fourth, turned up the heat where others had crumbled, and finished Gaethje with an anarchic flurry of violence.
At age 29, the door’s still open to Gaethje making adjustments to his game. Gaethje was an All-American wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado, so it’s not as if he lacks the tools to become a well-rounded competitor.
Perhaps if Gaethje had implemented his wrestling game, he might have stalled or reversed what turned into Poirier’s finishing flurry. But he wasn’t having any talk about second guesses.
“It’s pretty evident I fight the way I fight,” Gaethje said. “I don’t go in there to not wrestle. I was kicking his ass on the fight. My game plan was go in there and break his legs, break his body, and, I did that. I was in the process of doing that, and he took it. It’s stupid of me to try to get on top of him there when I’m landing leg kicks.”
If Gaethje is making it clear he’s going to sink or swim with his style, then he best be prepared for the end to come sooner rather than later. According to FightMetric, he absorbed 302 significant strikes to the head in his three Fight of the Year-caliber bouts. Even the most granite chin can’t hold up forever.
And the downside comes in the blink of an eye. He doesn’t have to look far to find examples. In Saturday night’s co-feature bout, another fighter long admired for his go-for-broke style, Carlos Condit, went toe-to-toe with Alex Oliveira.
Five years ago, Condit was Gaethje’s current age, 29, and he was riding high as UFC interim welterweight champion. He had a record of 28-5, had won 13 of his previous 14 bouts, and earned postfight bonuses in three of his previous four bouts.
Since then? Condit is 2-7, with last night’s second-round submission loss to Oliveira marking his fourth straight defeat.
Or you could go back another week, and look at Joe Lauzon, whose corner threw in the towel on his fight against Chris Gruetzemacher at UFC 223. Lauzon has also long been popular as an all-action fighter, to which his 15 career postfight bonuses (tied with Nate Diaz for the UFC record) attest. But Lauzon also had a precipitous dropoff around age 30, as he’s gone 3-6 in his past nine and lost three in a row.
Both Condit and Lauzon were more well-rounded fighters than Gaethje, but even that hasn’t been enough to slow their declines after choosing the all-action approach to main events and bonus money.
Gaethje, at least at this stage of the game, appears content to embrace a similar fate.
“If you don’t see me fight live, you will regret it when I’m done,” Gaethje said. “It’s not going to be very long. I’ve got five [fights] left. When I’m 60, I have a human services degree, I want to do social work, and hopefully I can buy a lot of houses and make money that way.”
Until then, he’s going to brawl for every last dollar the only way he knows how.
“I can’t change the way I fight,” Gaethje said. “It’s impossible. It’s who I am, and that’s how I’m going to fight every single time I go in there. If that was a three-round fight, I won that, and it wasn’t. I just love to fight.”
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