Should the UFC build former WSOF champ Justin Gaethje up slowly, or should he immediately fight one of the best fighters lightweight has to offer? And who?
Justin Gaethje is finally a UFC fighter.
The lightweight slugger has long been on the radar of hardcore fans. In a division so stacked, it’s difficult to stand out. But Gaethje has succeeded in doing so without even being part of the UFC roster. His ferocity, finishing ability and demeanor inside the cage has made him one of the most appealing and entertaining 155-pound fighters on the planet.
He recently became one of the hottest free agents on the market after the conclusion of his contract with WSOF, where he was the longtime lightweight champion and a face of the company. And the news the entire mixed martial arts community has been waiting so long for finally arrived: Gaethje signed the dotted line and is now signed with the UFC.
The first step — getting Gaethje to the UFC — is over. Now it’s time to schedule his debut fight. With the lightweight division being the deepest division the UFC has ever seen, it won’t be easy for UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby to single out an ideal opponent for the undefeated fighter’s long-awaited debut.
Because Gaethje is praised and thought to be an elite lightweight by most, it seems likely the organization will waste no time in lining the 28-year-old up against a top tier fighter and, ideally, getting him into the official rankings.
But sometimes the UFC goes a different route and chooses to build its blockbuster signees up slowly. What if they do that with Gaethje? Would that be their best option?
Usually, I’d probably say yes. It gives fans more time to familiarize themselves with the fighter, it allows the fighter to shake off any Octagon jitters he or her may have when the stakes aren’t too high, and it gives its matchmakers an idea of where the fighter sits in his or her respective division. More often than not, it seems, when the UFC rushes a new fighter into a big fight, it doesn’t work out. The fighter falls short and never reaches his or her expectations — or, at the very least, has a long ladder to climb from there.
But Gaethje is different. He has already proved he deserves a noteworthy fight immediately. He shouldn’t have to “sell himself” to the UFC. He has a perfect professional record at 17-0, charisma, a thrilling and scrappy style. What more can you ask for? Also, as WSOF lightweight champion, he drew quite well. He headlined the organization’s two big NBC cards, both of which were its two most-watched cards — its debut in New York City’s Madison Square Garden this past December (951,000 viewers) and 2014’s WSOF 11 (741,000 viewers).
There is the problem of fans who only follow the UFC not knowing who Gaethje is, of course. But that’s a problem that can be solved very quickly. It won’t be difficult to familiarize casual fans with Gaethje; it’ll take one fight and that’s it. They will remember him, guaranteed. And he’ll gain fans instantly.
Also, pitting Gaethje against an unranked lightweight is actually a big risk. Gaethje puts on back-and-forth wars, but sometimes he leaves himself open and takes a considerable amount of damage. Though Gaethje has successfully relied on his chin in some situations, that chin won’t hold up forever. If Gaethje fights a somewhat unknown fighter and gets clocked, the UFC’s plans to build Gaethje up into a future star could be ruined in a heart beat (Note: I can’t say for sure the UFC expects Gaethje to be a future contender and star, but I suspect they do). It’d be a loss on Gaethje’s pro record, but also a failure on the UFC’s behalf. The UFC needs to take advantage by giving Gaethje a big fight right off the bat before something goes wrong, and before it’s too late. Gaethje won’t be around forever.
Now, the fun part: who should have the honor of welcoming “The Highlight” to the Octagon?
That’s a tough question to answer, because there are so many options at 155 pounds. From Eddie Alvarez, to Dustin Poirier, to Al Iaquinta, Shelby can pair Gaethje up with just about anyone listed in the official 155-pound standings and I’d be more than happy. Let me make this clear: there are only a few bad choices for Gaethje’s debut. Gaethje vs. the majority of ranked UFC lightweights is an exciting matchup sure to deliver fireworks. But just like in most scenarios, there is indeed a best choice for Gaethje’s debut opponent.
And that best choice is Edson Barboza. I don’t think that’s an unpopular opinion, but nonetheless, let me tell you why.
Firstly, Barboza vs. Gaethje is probably the most exciting matchup involving Gaethje on paper the UFC can make. It would be an all-out war on the feet. Gaethje, of course, excels in the striking department. Barboza also does. Both fighters would be willing to engage and walk forward, both would throw everything they have, and both would leave everything inside the cage.
Barboza, who has a lengthy list of highlight-reel finishes, is arguably the best technical striker in the lightweight division, while Gaethje is a brawler. It would be extremely interesting to see how the two different types of standup fighters fare against each other.
A grappler — say, Michael Chiesa or Beneil Dariush — is not who the UFC wants to match Gaethje up against first. That could — and possibly would — derail his hype so, so quick. Barboza is certainly not known for his submissions. There would be absolutely no threat of a takedown from the Brazilian, who, again, would be more than willing to stand and trade with the newcomer. That’s exactly the type of fighter the UFC should match Gaethje up against (for obvious reasons).
Barboza is a tough fighter to top — few manage to do it — but in order to do so, it takes a solid pressure game. Barboza has been mostly perfect in recent memory, only falling to Tony Ferguson in the past two years, but a fighter needs to press the action when facing him if they want to come out victorious. A prime example of this is Michael Johnson’s February 2015 win over Barboza. In what was entirely a kickboxing battle, Johnson walked nowhere but forward, while Barboza struggled to inflict offense through three rounds and was on the back pedal for the majority of the bout. If Gaethje does what Gaethje does — throw hands and pressure his opponent — Barboza is a winnable fight, and arguably a favorable matchup, for him.
Finally, Gaethje has already publicly stated he wants to fight Barboza in his debut, which he seems to not believe is the smartest choice. In an interview with MMAjunkie.com, he called himself an “idiot” for wanting to fight “the most dangerous motherf-cker on the planet.” He’s sticking to his word, though; Barboza’s his first choice.
At this point, Gaethje vs. Barboza seems almost inevitable. I can’t see Barboza turning that fight down, and Gaethje’s already in. Gaethje’s immediate future is in the hands of matchmaker Shelby — book the fight, Sean, and everyone’s happy.
All of that said, even if it doesn’t happen immediately, or at all, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Though Gaethje vs. Barboza is stylistically fantastic, I have no doubt Gaethje vs. literally any lightweight in the UFC would be thrilling. I wouldn’t necessarily 100-percent agree with a different matchup or path the UFC takes with Gaethje, but I’d still support it. I’m just glad to see Gaethje finally in the UFC.
The mixed martial arts gods don’t always get things right, from particular superfights not happening to landmark cards falling apart. But they sure got this one right, big fight or not, Barboza or not. A notable, elite action-fighter joining the UFC roster. Whether we admit it or not, we all love violence, and that’s what we’re going to get when Gaethje steps into the Octagon for the first time. You can’t get much better than that.