Can Justin Gaethje gatecrash the lightweight title picture at UFC 249?
Two fan favourites are set to go to war in one of the most mouthwatering matchups in lightweight history as the self-styled human highlight reel Gaethje takes on Tony Ferguson for the interim 155lb belt at UFC 249 this weekend.
Justin Gaethje has his eyes firmly fixed on the interim lightweight title at UFC 249 this weekend
Back in January, Justin Gaethje looked to be facing an uncertain future in the lightweight division.
A hat-trick of first-round stoppage wins against James Vick, Edson Barboza and Cowboy Cerrone had pocketed the 31-year-old three successive post-fight bonuses, all the while moving Gaethje to the cusp of title contention.
Yet despite his red-hot win streak, Gaethje appeared no closer to landing the marquee match-up he desired and deserved.
"Just recently, I believe he [Dana White] offered me Charles Oliveira in Brazil or Dan Hooker in New Zealand, all while the champion did not have a fight and [Conor] McGregor was coming back and still looking for a fight," a bemused Gaethje told SiriusXM's Fight Nation at the time.
- Born 14 November 1988 in Safford, Arizona, US
- Two-time Arizona state wrestling champion and NCAA Division I All-American
- Former World Series of Fighting champion
- Won 18 of 21 wins by knockout
- Four Fight of the Night and three Performance of the Night awards in six UFC fights
- Professional record 21-2
Describing Gaethje's situation in The Athletic, MMA scribe Ben Fowles lamented the Arizona man's luck, writing: "Gaethje has been, in many ways, exactly what the UFC claims to want. He showed up in the UFC with an undefeated record and then fought like he cared not at all about maintaining it.
"His first (and, at times, only) priority was putting on exciting fights. Even when it might have been a bad idea for his health and career longevity, Gaethje built his name on a willingness to give us violent delights with violent ends — one way or another."
Apparently frozen out of the title picture for the foreseeable future, Gaethje was destined to watch on from afar as undefeated champion Khabib Nurmagomedov signed his fifth contract to face Tony Ferguson at UFC 249, the spectre of a rejuvenated McGregor lingering unsubtly in the foreground.
Would the Irishman skip the queue to face the winner? It's hard to imagine this was not the plan when McGregor billy-strutted back into the UFC - and straight through Cowboy Cerrone - after another lengthy hiatus from competition.
But after the UFC's most cursed match-up was struck down for a fifth time when the Covid-19 pandemic left Khabib marooned in Dagestan under a near-global lockdown on travel, the door creaked slightly ajar for Gaethje to re-enter the fold.
By his own admission, the former World Series of Fighting champion had previously turned down the opportunity to face Tony Ferguson on short notice last year but this time around - and with the interim 155lb belt on the line - Gaethje didn't hesitate.
"When it was on 20 days' notice, that was much different to now. Now I've had five weeks to train, it's not what I've asked for or what I wanted but I do believe before this [fight was agreed], I was in better shape than normal," Gaethje told BT Sport's Dan Hardy in an exclusive interview last weekend.
"I don't think I would have taken the fight against Khabib on short notice.
"Match up wise, I think I have a much better chance of touching Tony's chin than Khabib's in the first two or three rounds. In order to get taken down once or twice and work back up and still be able to fight, I really do need at least 10 weeks [camp]."
Nobody could have foreseen the chaotic circumstances that paved the path for Gaethje to face Ferguson this weekend but there are few fighters better equipped to thrive in such situations than those sharing the limelight in Jacksonville.
"It's set up perfectly for something absolutely mental to happen," Nick Peet, co-host of the Fight Disciples podcast and former Fighter's Only editor, told BT Sport's Open Mat this week.
"For me, that mental thing is Justin Gaethje getting a knockout against Tony Ferguson. The world is not black and white, crazy things happen inside that Octagon and for that reason, I'm going with Justin Gaethje.
"If these guys fought 10 times, I actually think Ferguson would win seven maybe even eight out of the ten. That's how big an advantage I give Ferguson because I think truly on his day he is the best 155'er on the planet.
"But this is not going to be his day. This is going to be that one or two times out of ten where Justin Gaethje just gets it right. The stars have aligned."
But to suggest Gaethje's chances of success lie merely in the hands of fate do a disservice to his ever-improving skills as a martial artist.
The man christened a "monster" by UFC colour commentator Joe Rogan is renowned for his violent exhibitionism, pocketing bonuses in all six of his Octagon appearances to date.
But after back-to-back losses against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier in late 2017 and into 2018, Gaethje went back to the drawing board to recalibrate his attitude towards fighting.
He is a terrifying individual. In a sport that is violent, he stands out as the most violent.
- Joe Rogan
"I really made the same mistakes in those fights," the former NCAA Division I wrestler explained. I think I was winning but whether I was winning or not is irrelevant because someone is getting finished in my fights and I thought I was well on the way to finishing Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez.
"I became too relaxed. I starting having too much fun and... it only takes one second to take one of those shots from one of the guys in the top five. Fifty-five pounders, we've got the speed and the power to put peoples lights out.
"I told myself 'if you don't get hit, you conserve your energy and pick your shots...' I was never trying to pick my shots. I was always trying to knock your head off from minute one to minute 25. I figured one of them would land and one of them would knock them out. But I was really able to just start picking my shots.
"I had eye surgery in late 2016 and it's really taken me two-and-a-half, three years, to use my eyesight. I've never seen a thing in the cage. I still fight off my peripheral [vision], I really never saw anything.
"I've poked people in the eye but my only way to find them was to put my hands on them. That's how I found my range and was able to punch people. Outside of that I had very poor vision but now I have 20/20 vision and I really believe that over time I've been able to take advantage of that and use it as an asset."
Having added the ability to actually see to an already-fearsome arsenal of weaponry, Gaethje's record has gone unblemished, laying waste to a trio of top contenders in the very first round.
The Elevation Fight Team protégé now stands on the cusp of securing UFC gold on his maiden attempt - a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for a man frozen out of the frame four months ago.
Can the king of violence tame 'El Cucuy' at UFC 249? BT Sport is the only place to find out.
Watch the build-up on Saturday night with a special live broadcast of Open Mat with Dan Hardy from midnight, taking you through until the live prelims begin at 1am.
From 3am, we'll be showing the main card followed by a special live post-fight show back with the Open Mat crew who will be digesting the evening's fights in the immediate aftermath of the action.
Viewers can tune in to watch UFC 249 on BT Sport 1 HD or using our revolutionary enhanced video player available on both the award-winning BT Sport app and right here on the newly-revamped BTSport.com website.