That’s the word Justin Gaethje used to describe his fighting style. Anyone who has watched the newest addition to the UFC lightweight ranks will tell you it’s a pretty accurate choice. It’s also one of the reasons his promotional debut against Michael Johnson was stationed atop this week’s Ultimate Fighter: Redemption Finale in Las Vegas.
Not only do Gaethje’s fights often look like a demolition derby has broken out inside the Octagon, but the always exciting affairs almost always end inside the distance. In his 17 professional fights, the 28-year-old Trevor Wittman pupil has only been to the scorecards twice.
He’s also never lost, though given his style, Gaethje knows that day will come eventually. Just don’t expect him to let off the gas and take that setback without putting up a serious fight.
“You’ve got two choices when the bell rings: either you curl up in a ball or you fight for your life and I choose to fight for my life,” said Gaethje, who signed with the UFC following a two-year championship reign with World Series of Fighting. “I bring intensity, carnage, all that, but what I’m good at is timing. My timing and attitude are what sets me apart from people; they think I throw caution to the wind, but there are definitely calculated risks.
“It’s been working,” he added in regards to his suffocating offensive approach, “but with my style, I will get beat. I just really give people no time to rest. They want to rest and I give them no time. My pressure is what people don’t understand until they fight me.”
As Gaethje started making the media rounds after his signing was made official, he lobbied for his Octagon debut to come against the best available fighter in the division. Rather than dipping his toe in the lightweight waters to gauge the temperature, he wanted to jump right into the deep end, headfirst. Sink or swim.
Gaethje suggested a matchup with Edson Barboza, the surging Muay Thai specialist who built on his strong 2016 with a devastating second-round victory over Beneil Dariush in February that remains one of the frontrunners for Knockout of the Year. Instead of facing Barboza, however, Gaethje will have to make due with one of the four men to get the better of the Brazilian.
“He doesn’t seem as dangerous, but he’s got some quick hands and he’s beaten Edson Barboza,” Gaethje said, declaring Johnson a suitably dangerous opponent for his initial foray into the UFC cage. “He’s beaten Tony Ferguson, so it’s a great fight for me.”
Gaethje’s desire to test himself against the best, regardless of the possibility of defeat, isn’t anything new.
When he was a sophomore in high school, a mid-season victory in a dual match over the defending state champion in his weight class prompted him to seek out a great challenge. One division up, there was an unbeaten senior no one wanted to wrestle; no one except Gaethje.
“I was like, ‘Well, that’s the guy I want to wrestle,’” he said. “I went up and I got beat, so I’m glad I did it and I guess I haven’t learned my lesson. But this is fighting and the best part of this is I get to punch him. I didn’t get to punch anybody I wrestled and luckily, I punch hard.”
Don’t get it twisted, though: Gaethje’s not just walking in there and throwing caution to the wind, slinging leather with reckless abandon and no regard for his own well-being.
He and Wittman have worked together for years to hone his approach, building off his natural tendencies and tenacity to emphasis his strengths while sharpening the defensive skills he can best deploy when he strides forward into the fire.
“Trevor is a very advanced coach,” Gaethje said of the affable veteran coach with the “I know something you don’t know” smile. “He understands there is a method to my style. We get hit in the face for a living – that’s what we do. People say they wish they didn’t get hit as much, but it’s a fight and that’s what I’m there to do.”
Or as Wittman put it to him following one particular sparring session where Gaethje wondered if he took a couple many too shots, “That’s what you do! You break m*****f******! They hit you and then you look at them like they didn’t touch you and then they can’t control their heart rate, they can’t control their thoughts and then you break them.’”
That’s what he’s done 17 times in 17 attempts thus far and it’s what he intends to do against Johnson because while debuting in the UFC in a main event pairing against an opponent who has been a permanent fixture in the Top 10 for the last two years may give some fighters cause for concern, it doesn’t bother Gaethje.
He’s been wanting this for quite some time and come Friday, July 7, he’ll be prepared for whatever comes his way.
“It really is something special, especially for the people who have believed in me the whole time; proving them right is what I’m here for,” Gaethje said. “This is scary stuff and I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody, but I’ve known I was going to be in this position one way or another for a really long time now.
“I had 12 weeks, 24 hours a day – hundreds of hours, thousands of minutes – to get ready for these 25 minutes, so I will be ready.”