Justin Gaethje thinks about fighting the way you think a guy who fights the way he does would, which is to say he thinks about it as a fundamental element to life.
“It wasn’t that many centuries ago, the most natural things to us were eating, sleeping, drinking, f**king and fighting,” Gaethje told UFC.com.
“Not that long ago, you had to fight to f**k, eat, sleep or drink comfortably, so I think fighting is the most natural thing to me. From now until November 6, I’m going to convince myself and fully believe that my life is in danger so that I can allow the primal instincts to come to fruition and ultimately just sign up for fight-or-flight, life-or-death.”
For more than a year, now, Gaethje hasn’t been able to access that innate part of himself. His last fight came at UFC 254 when he attempted to unify the lightweight title and came up short against Khabib Nurmagomedov. The fight ended up being the last for “The Eagle,” kicking off a mad dash for the undisputed belt at 155 pounds.
Nurmagomedov’s retirement and a pair of high-profile grudge matches between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor put the title picture in a peculiar spot, and at UFC 262, Charles Oliveira beat out Michael Chandler for the belt.
Gaethje took some umbrage with Chandler’s ascendence to that opportunity just one knockout win over Dan Hooker into his UFC career, but Gaethje gets his moment to rectify that to a degree when he faces Chandler at UFC 268.
“You had two guys fighting to be the best in the world when neither one of those guys necessarily deserved it,” Gaethje said.
“They weren’t the best two. Dustin Poirier should’ve been there, and I was ranked number two, the last guy to hold the interim belt, the last guy to challenge the champion. He retired. It should’ve been me and Poirier, but they put a stain on the division. They had to move on. Business is business, and now we’re sitting here, and now I’ll get my chance to right that wrong. It’s my job to be ready and be prepared and go in there and create some damage in November.”
From a fan’s point of view, Gaethje-Chandler seems like a prime candidate for one of the most entertaining fights of the year for as long as it lasts. Granted, that’s every fight when it comes to Gaethje, who has earned nine performance bonuses in eight UFC fights.
The fight isn’t necessarily personal for Gaethje, but animosity is there. Maybe it’s just the nature of the beast when two competitive and entertaining fighters are set to do battle, but even Gaethje is a little confused as to why he just doesn’t like Chandler.
“I don’t know the guy, so my mom never told me to judge people,” Gaethje said. “From what I can see, he’s a great dude. He adopted a kid. Seems like he has a healthy, happy family. Good for him. Outside of that, I don’t like him. As an athlete, as a competitor, I don’t know. He just rubs me the wrong way.”
Chandler has made plenty of noise about not wanting to take a single step backward, which is a hard precedent to set against Gaethje. The pair have prestigious wrestling backgrounds and yet both opt for action-packed striking in their fights. Combined, the two boast 37 finishes (19 knockouts) on their records, and on a fight night as stacked as UFC 268, it’s hard to argue against this fight as the clubhouse leader for Fight of the Night.
Gaethje has been candid about how he views his career. He believes he has five good wars left in him, but he hasn’t been brought to that place since fighting Poirier in 2018. A more patient and technical approach has benefitted him greatly, making the most of his sharp kickboxing, and particularly those devastating leg kicks.
In tandem with longtime coach Trevor Wittman, Gaethje seems to be in the prime of his fighting life. A win over Chandler almost certainly sets him up to face the winner of Oliveira and Poirier for a chance at the undisputed belt. The title probably won’t change how most fight fans see Gaethje because he has already earned a high approval rating, but it is the ultimate prize, and Wittman understands as much.
“I’m content where we are, but I’m not satisfied in that sense,” Wittman said. “(Gaethje) is not satisfied, so seeing him win (the belt) is just another notch to keep his focus on in life so we don’t get – I use the world ‘flatline.’ If you don’t chase something that scares you, you’re flatlining, and whether it’s just another fight or a championship belt, we’re going to chase at full speed, so it’ll be great to see it. It’s another goal, but I’m happy every time he gets his hand raised.”
This fight will be Gaethje’s first in the World’s Most Famous Arena under the UFC banner, and it seems like everything is coming together for another iconic fight. Safely assumed as an expert in the art of a fighter’s mentality, Gaethje expects to be zoned out and locked in once the Octagon door closes.
After a year of waiting and training, all the thinking will be done. All that’s left is to do what comes most natural to him: fight.
“You think nothing,” Gaethje said. “Any thought is a pause in reaction, and you have to just be fighting off peripherals and reactions the whole time. Less-than-seconds and less-than-inches is the timeframe and distances that we’re working with in there, so you can’t think.”