In the octagon, seventh-ranked UFC lightweight Justin Gaethje knows only one direction: forward.
The 29-year-old is often questioned for his high-output, back-and-forth fighting style that involves him absorbing more punches than he lands.
Despite a 1-2 record in the UFC following a 17-0 start to his professional mixed martial arts career, there is a reason why Gaethje is ranked higher than James Vick, his opponent at UFC Fight Night in Lincoln, Neb., who holds a 9-1 UFC record.
“I faced No. 5, No. 4 and No. 3 [ranked opponents] in my UFC tenure. Michael Johnson isn't ranked No. 5 anymore. He's not even in the lightweight division anymore, but when I fought him he was No. 5, I think, and he had just knocked out Dustin Poirier,” Gaethje told The TSN MMA Show when asked why he is ranked higher than Vick.
“So I have faced the best competition, the best opposition that the UFC has to offer me. So I have to go in there and I have to win. Winning is the name of the game. Being exciting is one thing – being exciting gets you paid – but winning is the name of the game and that's how you progress in this sport."
Facing a high level of competition like Poirier and former lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez has undoubtedly taken a toll on Gaethje, who absorbed a combined 329 significant strikes over the roughly seven rounds of cage time in those two fights.
Gaethje understands that he is not going to be a grizzled veteran who fights into his 40s.
"This is a young man's game, who stays in here for a long time? If you've never done this, I wouldn't expect you to understand,” he said. “You have to look at it in a certain way. Of course I'm not going to be here forever. I've had 20 fights already. Do I want to have more than 30 fights? No, I don't – not even if I was to win them all, I wouldn't want to have that many fights. This game isn't built to stay in for a long time.
“Obviously you have your exceptions, like Randy Couture who was in forever, but I have a human services degree in college. I want to do social work. I want to make some good money in the UFC, but I'm not looking to stay here forever and go past my prime. The day I don't think I can be the best in the world is the day that I won't do this anymore"
Gaethje’s goal continues to be winning UFC gold and he has no intention of being a gatekeeper for other lightweights moving their way up the ranks.
“We fight for money and we are prize fighters. I do not possess any other skill set where I can go out and make this kind of money on any given night and that's fact,” said Gaethje. “I never planned on doing this as an adult. It's just something I kind of came into because of my mental fortitude and how tough I have become because of wrestling. I wrestled for 18 years and I'm a prize fighter now, but I'm not looking to do this forever."
At the UFC’s recent 25th anniversary press conference, Vick referred to Gaethje as “the Homer Simpson of MMA,” referencing his penchant for absorbing strikes during his fights. Gaethje takes exception to those comments.
"I'm the Homer Simpson of MMA? Is that a statistic? That's not a real statistic. I'm sorry, that's just him being foolish,” Gaethje said. “He's also said that his volume is more than me. Unless he's counting every backwards step that he takes as a punch thrown or a kick thrown, then maybe, but the guy doesn't get it.
“The guy doesn't understand why I'm headlining my third out of four cards. He doesn't understand why I'm getting the opposition that I'm getting. I'm not the one that needs to teach him, he's supposed to have people around him that do. Obviously what you're saying or doing isn't working. If you want tough opposition, you go out there and you earn it. He has a good opportunity here. Let's see if he goes out there and capitalizes on it.”
Gaethje acknowledges that it takes a certain type of opponent to defeat him and he doesn’t feel that Vick fits the description.
"You sign up or sign out and the last two guys, all of the respect in the world, they signed up. Those men signed up. They knew what they had to do and they went out there and they did it and I give them so much props. I have no regrets in the way that I fought those fights,” said Gaethje.
“A couple of mistakes here or there that are learning experiences in the UFC, I can't wait to tell my kids that I fought the best of the best. This is James Vick's first main event and that's because of me. If he lasts longer than seven minutes then he'll get a second bonus and that's what we fight for. I'm looking forward to Aug. 25 and I'm looking forward to knocking James Vick out."
This fight will be the third main event of Gaethje’s four-fight tenure, which started last July. One thing is certain: Gaethje’s fights bring consistent entertainment value to the table. He’s earned four performance bonuses over his previous three UFC bouts.