Michael Johnson has heard all about the hype surrounding former World Series of Fighting champion Justin Gaethje ahead of their main event showdown at “The Ultimate Fighter” Finale on Friday in Las Vegas.
Gaethje makes his debut in the UFC with a perfect 17-0 record that includes 15 finishes, which makes him a very exciting addition to an already deep lightweight roster.
Johnson appreciates what Gaethje brings into their fight from his aggressive style to the kind of non-stop action he provides every time he steps into the cage, but he also knows all of those accolades were racked up outside the UFC. Add to that, Gaethje will be making his first appearance in a main event against a top 10 ranked lightweight and he wouldn’t be the first person to wilt under the bright lights that the UFC provides.
Of course, Gaethje has shown no signs of cracking under the pressure of his first UFC bout, but Johnson knows he’d be a fool not to acknowledge that he’s about to participate in the biggest test of his entire career.
“He’s not used to the big bright lights and the level of competition is so much different. He thinks otherwise and I hope otherwise. I hope none of that affects him. I want the best Justin to come there and perform, but for somebody to say those aren’t going to be factors, that’s just kind of idiotic if you ask me,” Johnson told the Fight Society podcast.
“Because the matter of fact is he hasn’t been at this level, he hasn’t been with the bright lights, he’s great at what he does, but he might be out of his league on this one. I hope that’s not the case.”
Ahead of their fight, Johnson came face to face with Gaethje at the UFC’s summer kickoff press conference in May, where he got into a verbal sparring match with the former lightweight champion.
The two fighters engaged in a bitter war of words on stage, but when it was over, Johnson admits that he wasn’t all that impressed with Gaethje’s demeanor or attitude as he participated in his first major event as part of the UFC roster.
“My first [impression] was he’s somebody who looks confused,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that’s whether he has a goofy look on his face all the time or what, but he looks confused. He doesn’t really know what he’s getting himself into. He’s talking a big game, but like I said, you can do all the talking you want but it’s just about the guy that shows up in the cage.
“I definitely see he’s trying to psych himself into it. I hope it works. He says he’s the most violent lightweight in the world, so we’ll see.”
As loud as Gaethje may have been on stage, Johnson won’t begrudge the fact that he’s put on some thrilling performances during his career. Gaethje always seems to fight with the ‘go big or go home’ type of attitude and Johnson appreciates that he’ll be facing off against someone willing to come after him when they clash.
That being said, Johnson can’t ignore that the majority of Gaethje’s wins haven’t come against the best fighters in the world and there’s no shortage of those now that he’s fighting in the UFC.
“That’s obvious, that’s what everybody’s going to look at. The level of competition, he’s fought guys that are previous world champs, he’s fought guys that have fought all over the world, but they just happen to be way past their primes and not the best they were,” Johnson said. “The thing is I haven’t fought Justin Gaethje yet. I’ve fought all these other great guys, but I haven’t fought him. You’re going to see the same dangerous Michael Johnson you see in every fight.
“One thing for sure, he hasn’t faced an opponent like me. I think that’s clear to everybody.”
The other knock on Gaethje’s style is that he tends to get drawn into slugfests in many of his fights, but he’s always managed to get the better of his opponents each and every time while biting down on his mouthpiece and swinging for the fences.
That style might be nice for a highlight reel, but Johnson knows there’s no place for recklessness when competing against the top lightweights in the UFC and that’s why he’s expecting to hand Gaethje his first loss on Friday night.
“It’s all about neatness in this game. You can’t be sloppy,” Johnson said. “You can’t go in here and wing punches just for the sake of putting on a good show. That’s not going to get you far in this game. He’s been in a lot of wars. He gets hit a lot. Plus he’s expecting to get knocked out.
“He may not be expecting to get knocked out in this fight, but in the next 10 fights he does. Guess what? This fight is within the next 10 fights, so he’s already expecting himself to get put to sleep. I’m not sure that’s a good thought for him. I’m going to see my holes in this fight and I’m going to be the same guy I always am.”