Justin Gaethje wanted to make an immediate splash in his Octagon debut. He did precisely that by returning from the brink of defeat to take out Michael Johnson at The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale on Friday in Las Vegas.
Gaethje entered the Octagon wanting to prove his worth as the undefeated former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion, while Johnson wanted to spoil his welcoming party and get back on track after losing three of his four most recent bouts.
While both men gave it everything they had and then some, it was Gaethje that achieved his goal and showed that he deserves to be an immediate contender for the lightweight title currently wrapped around Conor McGregor’s waist.
Gaethje and Johnson went at it from the opening bell, meeting in the center of the Octagon and unloading on each other.
They’re respective strategies quickly became apparent. Johnson was trying to take the fight to Gaethje with his punches, attacking with frequent combinations to the head and the body. Gaethje used a more varied attack. The former WSOF champ attacked Johnson’s legs through the entire fight, setting up numerous power punches.
Just as the leg kicks appeared to be taking the steam out of Johnson late in the first round, Johnson landed a right hook followed by a left hand that staggered Gaethje. Johnson swarmed, unloading with punches.
They went briefly to the canvas, but quickly returned to their feet. Johnson pressed Gaethje to the cage, unloading until time ran out in the round.
Johnson, however, caught Gaethje early with another right hand that again staggered him. Johnson kept pressing with punches and knees, forcing Gaethje’s back to the cage. As he appeared to be wavering on the precipice of defeat, Gaethje answered with an elbow and knee of his own. He was still rocked, but kept moving forward.
The pace finally slowed for a moment, but then Gaethje landed an uppercut that wobbled Johnson. He kept plowing forward, unloading with several more uppercuts, backing Johnson to the fence, where he landed leg kicks and elbows at will, sending Johnson to the canvas.
Instead of following him down, Gaethje forced Johnson to return to his feet. Johnson was wobbled; his legs giving out from all of the leg kicks and his head floating around somewhere above the Octagon. Gaethje kept the pressure on, unloading with punches and kicks, again dropping Johnson and forcing him to stand.
The end came when Gaethje drove a knee into Johnson’s solar plexus, driving him backward. Gaethje followed with more knees until referee Big John McCarthy stepped in to stop the fight.
If you’ve ever watched any of Gaethje’s other fights, this was nothing new. He’s known to bring excitement, and he’s known for fighting back from the brink.
Now at 18-0, the UFC is going to be hard pressed to deny him immediately jumping into the deep end of the division.
“Who’s next? Who’s next? Where is my equal at? I want to meet him right now,” Gaethje yelled into the microphone in his post-fight interview with Brian Stann.
“You cannot break me, I promise you. Drop me all you want. You better to put me to sleep or else I’m coming for your head, I’m coming for your legs, I’m coming for your body. Who is next?
“Where’s my equal at? I’m 18-0 with 15 knockouts. Where is my equal? That’s what I want. Where is he?”