'I Have to Punch a Hole in His Face': Justin Gaethje Eyes Redemption at UFC 274

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2022

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Justin Gaethje celebrates after defeating Donald Cerrone in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Rogers Arena on September 14, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

It's not exactly Justin Gaethje's go-to memory.

The outspoken 155-pounder was pressured, mounted and put to sleep by Khabib Nurmagomedov in less than seven minutes in his first bid for a UFC championship belt 18 months ago.

But if you think those images are at all troubling him as he prepares for another turn in the spotlight—this time against Nurmagomedov's post-retirement title successor, Charles Oliveira—think again.

He'll face Oliveira in the main event at UFC 274, atop a two-title card that'll take place at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, about three hours northwest of his hometown of Safford, Arizona.

And not only is the perpetually self-assured 33-year-old looking optimistically forward to a second bite at the lightweight apple on Saturday night, he somehow seems even more confident this time—initial results and hometown expectations notwithstanding.

In fact, they almost make it more comfortable.

"The best thing about me is I love the pressure," he told Bleacher Report.

"The more pressure, the better. I'm a showoff. I'm an entertainer. So this big fight, being in my home state, being in the main event, is the sugar on top, a cherry on the cake for me. I love the pressure. I love the pressure that it adds. It's similar to the pressure I felt coming off two losses—when I had two losses in a row [in 2017-18]. So absolutely I know how special this one is.

"It's been two years since the last one. These don't come often. But I put myself in a position where once Khabib retired, I was right back in the mix. With him retiring, it really just takes every bit of normalcy out of it. It was a whole different circumstance when that happened."

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 25: In this handout image provided by UFC, (R-L) Justin Gaethje kicks Khabib Nurmagomedov of Russia in their lightweight title bout during the UFC 254 event on October 25, 2020 on UFC Fight Island, Abu Dhabi, Unit
Handout/Getty Images

Gaethje has been a big-game player since his arrival to the UFC in 2017, earning a performance bonus in a defeat of Michael Johnson on The Ultimate Fighter. He also bounced back from the aforementioned losses—to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier—with the four straight wins that landed the first title fight.

He earned additional bonuses in each of those victories and had his moments early on against the Hall of Fame-bound Nurmagomedov, landing 64 percent of his strikes across the first round and into the second before the takedown that led to the decisive triangle choke that left him unconscious.

Nurmagomedov peeled off his gloves and announced his exit in the cage following the match, creating the vacuum at the top of the division that Oliveira filled with a second-round TKO of Michael Chandler.

Oliveira defended his title seven months later against Poirier; meanwhile, Gaethje got back on the winning side with a decision over Chandler at UFC 268 that yielded Fight of the Year acclaim and yet another bonus, in addition to securing the No. 1 contender position and the shot against Oliveira.

Nine UFC fights. Eight bonuses. Six wins.

Zero nerves, he said.

It's all in a day's work for a guy who's been wrestling since kindergarten, won a pair of state high school championships and was a D-1 All-American at the University of Northern Colorado—all while forging a steely focus he plans to tap into when the door is locked behind him this weekend.

"Growing up wrestling, those one-on-one situations that I was constantly in year after year, hundreds and thousands of times, hundreds and probably thousands of times I walked into that situation," he said. "And once you learn that it's you against you, then you understand that it's just whether your preparation is there and now it's your performance and effort, your max effort.

"I don't know what gets to some guys. This is my job, so I better love it."

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 11: Charles Oliveira (top) of Brazil grapples with Dustin Poirier in their lightweight title fight during the UFC 269 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 11, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

In Oliveira, he'll face a third-degree black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu who's set company records for both finishes (18) and submissions (15) but was labeled a weak-willed front-runner by some critics until the most recent fights of a 10-fight win streak that stretches back four years.

He won nearly every minute of every round against Tony Ferguson in December 2020, rebounded from the brink of defeat to stop Chandler in May 2021, and submitted Poirier with a rear-naked choke in Round 3 six months later. Overall, he's 32-8 with one no-contest as a pro and 20-8 in the UFC since 2010.

"I was watching this dude when I was college [and he was] fighting in the UFC," Gaethje said. "It's a cool story, and as a fan of the sport it's amazing to see someone overcome adversity so many times and then make it to the top. He is a different fighter than he was two years ago. I think that's absolutely true.

"I think he's mature. I think he's confident, and those are big factors when we step in the cage."

Indeed, the 32-year-old was an underdog in the Ferguson, Chandler and Poirier fights but arrives to the Gaethje match as a -165 favorite (bet $165 to win $100), according to the oddsmakers at DraftKings. The challenger is a +145 underdog (bet $100 to win $145).

Still, Gaethje believes the hype won't last once he's the one landing shots.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 06: (R-L) Justin Gaethje punches Michael Chandler in their lightweight fight during the UFC 268 event at Madison Square Garden on November 06, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

He's recorded 19 KOs in 23 pro wins and had earned stoppages in all five wins in the Octagon before Chandler lasted the distance—Gaethje earned 29-28 verdicts on two scorecards and a 30-27 on the third—after absorbing 103 significant strikes in three violent rounds.

Oliveira, he said, won't relish the questions he'll have to ask himself when it gets rough.

"If he can walk through the fire and he can take the shots that Khabib did and still be that effective in his grappling, then good for him. But I know for a fact that won't happen," Gaethje said.

"I'm betting that he's not gonna want to fight through it. The last two guys he got in the first three rounds. If he doesn't do that, where does he go? I can't say that he will melt, but I'm planning on putting a pace and some damage on him that will make him contemplate it.

"That's the plan. I'm planning on shutting his lights off, so he doesn't have a choice to fight through it or not fight through it. I have to punch a hole in his face."


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