One could say that 2020 represented the rise and fall of Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje. The 155lb elite fighter stepped in on short notice to fight the near-unstoppable Tony Ferguson, defeating him in a manner that had never before been seen in the octagon.
Facing ‘The Eagle’
This secured Gathje the interim lightweight title, setting him up for a unification bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov. The fight took place on the UFC’s much publicised Fight Island. However, Nurmagomedov ultimately had too much for Gaethje to deal with, submitting him in the second round. Speaking with Raptors MMA, Gaethje discussed the experience of being in the octagon with the greatest lightweight of all time:
“I would say at the beginning of the second round, I definitely had an understanding that not only could I feel how strong and how good, and how experienced he was. But I also felt the fact that he was fighting with the death of his father. I just know what that does to a competitor. And I felt that. I would say that was the most convincing thing that I felt. It wasn’t his skill or his strength. It was his mental fortitude.”
Justin Gaethje has since been somewhat stuck in limbo, as the rest of the lightweight division has been in constant movement around him. An emphatic victory for Charles Olivera over Tony Ferguson has placed him in the running for a title shot. Dustin Poirier’s win over Conor McGregor would have guaranteed ‘The Diamond’ a shot at gold, however, he is now looking at completing the trilogy with the Irishman. Michael Chandler made a successful UFC debut after KOing Dan Hooker placing him right in the top 5.
Reports were circulating around a potential matchup between Gaethje and Chandler. However, following Khabib Nurmagomdeov’s official retirement, Chandler has been booked to fight for the belt against Charles Olivera. This leaves Gaethje as the only fighter in the top five without an opponent.
He is unsurprisingly frustrated, and in a recent interview on Full Reptile he had the following to say about his immediate future in the UFC:
“Who knows, man. I can’t talk about it a lot right now. I’m sure me talking about it is the reason I’m here in the past. Who knows? Maybe I p*ssed someone off, I don’t know. All I know is since I was 12, 13 years old, I listened to Dana White do his interviews and explain what he wanted in a fighter, and I’m that motherf*cker.”
“If I get disrespected, it’s gonna be hurtful because I really bought into what that man (Dana White) talked about. So yeah, it’ll hurt because I feel like I’m a company man from Day 1. I don’t ever wanna go anywhere else, I don’t ever want to fight anywhere else. But my principles are the most important thing to me, so we’ll see what happens” (H/T MMA Mania).
Gaethje’s options do seem limited. Rafael Dos Anjos is currently ranked at 6th, and at the time of writing does not have a fight booked. So that could be an option for Justin Gaethje in the coming months. Islam Makhachev, who is ranked at 11th has also called for a fight with Gaethje, although he may need to break into the top 10 first.