In less than 10 very violent minutes, Justin Gaethje made himself into one of mixed martial arts’ must-see stars.
If the truth be told, he was must-see TV long before he knocked out Michael Johnson Friday in the second round in the main event of the The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale at T-Mobile Arena in his UFC debut in Las Vegas.
Gaethje was the World Series of Fighting lightweight champion and was in a slew of unbelievable fights before signing with the UFC. None of them, though, were the equal of his fight with Johnson on Friday, considering the pressure, the quality of opponent and the ebb and flow of the high-throttle battle.
Immediately, the Gaethje-Johnson fight jumped to the forefront of Fight of the Year contention and onto the list of the greatest UFC fights ever.
Yes, it was that good.
“You cannot break me, I promise you,” said Gaethje, who was in serious trouble twice in the fight after being on the wrong end of Johnson’s power shots. “Drop me all you want, but you better put me to sleep [if you want to beat me]. I’ll be coming for your head, coming for you leg, coming for your body. Who is next?”
Gaethje, who entered the fight 17-0 with 14 finishes, had never faced anyone remotely as talented or as complete as Johnson. When the first bell sounded, Gaethje moved inexorably forward, walking Johnson down from the finish.
It was far from easy, as the speedy, hard-hitting Johnson was landing some powerful shots of his own, and dumped Gaethje with an uppercut in the final 30 seconds of the first round.
Gaethje is known for his recuperative powers and he was fine when the second round began, again moving confidently forward.
He took his share of abuse from Johnson in the second as well, but hurt Johnson with a knee to the midsection. From there, it was a clinic in finishing a fight. An All-American wrestler, Gaethje dumped Johnson onto the canvas with a punch, but backed off and forced Johnson to stand.
He went at him patiently, and with precision, firing fists, elbows and knees while occasionally chopping Johnson in the legs with kicks. After one final knee dropped Johnson, referee John McCarthy jumped in to stop it at 4:48 of the second.
Twelve years after Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar may quite literally have saved the UFC with an incredible battle in the first TUF Finale, Gaethje and Johnson may have gone out and topped it in the show’s 25th finale.
Gaethje earned an additional $100,000 for Fight of the Night ($50,000) and Performance of the Night ($50,000).
“Who wants it? Where is my equal at,” Gaethje said when asked who he wants to fight next. “I’m 18-0 with 15 knockouts. Where is my equal? That’s who I want. Where is he?