Justin Gaethje turns UFC's stacked lightweight division upside down

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

Ever since they first locked Justin Gaethje inside of a cage with another human, he’s always gone 120 in a 35, as if he couldn’t wait to get out of there. 

He reveled in the violence of mixed martial arts, even if he was the one taking the kicks, punches, elbows, knees and chokes. He couldn’t get enough of it, he told us, and he swarmed his opponent with a frenetic energy like a hungry lion who just happened upon a gazelle.

It seemed that nothing could change his style; certainly not the threat of a broken nose or, God forbid, the onset of traumatic brain injury later in the life. 

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But his coach, Trevor Whitman, finally found the way to do it. After 18 consecutive wins, which were primarily one-sided executions rather than competitive sporting events, he lost back-to-back fights to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier.

It wasn’t, Whitman told him, that either Alvarez or Poirier were more physically gifted or better fighters. No, the losses were his failure to realize that often, MMA is a thinking man’s game and you can’t think clearly enough when you have the pedal pushed to the floor while you’re zooming along a curvy, ice-slicked road.

At UFC 249 on Saturday against Tony Ferguson, by far the most dangerous opponent he’d faced, Gaethje showed that Whitman’s words had not been in vain. Against this guy in this fight for the interim lightweight championship, Gaethje showed that he understood that on occasion, less could be more.

Going 120 at times would be OK. But there were times when maybe it would be best to go 90 or 60 or, horrors, to even follow the speed limit.

He listened to Whitman and in the process, turned the UFC’s greatest division upside down. He throttled Ferguson, beating him as comprehensively as anyone had ever done, until referee Herb Dean stepped in late in the fifth round and called a halt to the carnage at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.

Justin Gaethje punches Tony Ferguson in their Interim lightweight title fight during UFC 249 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 9, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Justin Gaethje punches Tony Ferguson in their Interim lightweight title fight during UFC 249 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 9, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

It scuttled the UFC’s plan to once again try to put together a fight between Ferguson and regular champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, a bout which has been made five times and still has yet to occur. Gaethje’s demolition of Ferguson might be considered the sixth time a Nurmagomedov-Ferguson bout was scrapped, so thorough was Gaethje’s dominance.

If you’re honest, you probably saw what Gaethje did to Ferguson and said to yourself, “Yeah, but he couldn’t do that to Khabib.”

But you also probably thought he couldn’t do that to Ferguson, either. Ferguson had won 12 in a row, mostly by connecting with so many elbows, punches and kicks that he turned the faces of some of the toughest men in the world into mush.

Nurmagomedov is the apex predator of the UFC, 28-0 and largely unchallenged. He does to elite lightweights what that praying mantis did to the so-called murder hornet.

But if Gaethje did that to Ferguson, why couldn’t he deal with Nurmagomedov? Nurmagomedov is by far the sport’s best grappler, though featherweight Bryce Mitchell, who repeatedly turned Charles Rosa into a pretzel on Saturday’s undercard in an amazing display of dominance, is moving up that list in a hurry.

Nurmagomedov, though, is human and Gaethje hits like a sledgehammer. He’s also a former All-American wrestler who could be able to keep the fight standing long enough to give himself a shot at outslugging the unbeaten Russian champion.

What’s next for Ferguson, McGregor?

But while the champions circle each other, the rest of a deep division will begin to get into line. The UFC usually doesn’t like to match a fighter who won his most recent bout against one who lost it, but who would complain if they made an exception and put together a bout between Ferguson and the man he derisively refers to as “McNuggets,” ex-champion Conor McGregor.

Then there could be Poirier against Dan Hooker and perhaps Charles Oliveira against Paul Felder or even Anthony Pettis.

The possibilities all carry with them the promise of jaw-dropping violence. The fights that could be made could create an entirely new generation of fans if UFC could find a way to get those who haven’t sampled the product previously to watch a few of these matches.

Ferguson is going to need a lengthy vacation given the beating he took, and we have to consider at least the possibility that he’ll never be the same. According to UFC president Dana White, he suffered an orbital fracture.

But he’s healed quickly in the past from some brutal bouts, though admittedly nothing close to what Gaethje delivered Saturday. That’s because Ferguson himself is usually doling out so much punishment that the return fire slows early.

There are so many alpha males in this division they could have filled one of the empty sections that were so visible during Saturday’s broadcast. No division has more talented or entertaining fighters.

Justin Gaethje flipped the script on us but the next six months to a year will be no less exciting.

The lightweights rule this sport for the time being, and there’s no such thing as seeing too much of them.

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