UFC 249: Justin Gaethje Dreams of Proving He’s the Best in Khabib Fight

When Justin Gaethje enters the octagon at UFC 249, it will be under very different circumstances than normal. A Fight Week that is sparsely populated, with a private sauna. An empty arena, without fans to cheer on the man known as “The Highlight,” one of the most violent UFC athletes of all time.

Gaethje, in the past year, was a fighter who lacked control. Not in the octagon, but of his destiny. The UFC favored the long-brewing bout between lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. And after that, it seemed like a rematch between Khabib and Conor McGregor was waiting in the wings.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic struck. The fight between Ferguson and Khabib, set to headline UFC 249, fell through for the fifth time. The champ was at home in Russia. McGregor at home in Ireland. While the pandemic was creeping across the globe, Gaethje actually managed to find an advantage of sorts.

“All I asked for was for a say in my destiny,” Gaethje told media outlets at the UFC 249 media day. “That’s what I have here. I’m going to go out there and take advantage of that.”

His future lies with Ferguson, in the main event on Saturday night. “My life does not exist past May 9 right now,” was Gaethje’s stock answer, when asked about Khabib. It’s a line he rolls out whenever asked to look past an opponent. But pressed about the importance of the fight again later, he admitted that “that’s all I dream about. The opportunity to prove I’m the best.”

“They’ve got some very personal issues, I’ve got nothing to do with that,” he said of Ferguson and Khabib. Gaethje’s opponent Saturday has been dismissive of the UFC’s 155lb champ all week. “We’re fighting for the right to represent the United States of America against Russia’s best. I believe it’s hard for the United States to get behind one fighter, because we’re such a melting pot and we’re from so many places. But I believe I can possibly bring us together and go to war with the United States behind me. And that’s huge.”

They’re also fighting for interim gold, of course. In a fan-friendly bout that has the makings of a classic.

In the meantime, Gaethje was happy to downplay the notion that winning Saturday would mean proving his critics wrong. “I’ve already done that. It’s really not a concern anymore. I’ve gone in there and competed with the best. I lost to some of the best, I beat some of the best. No one’s ever put Edson [Barboza] to sleep like I put him to sleep. That was all from uneducated views.”

That said, one has to wonder whether the newfound discipline Gaethje has displayed of late will dissipate against a whirlwind like Tony Ferguson. Might he revert back to his old, brawling, caution to the wind style? The one that raised critic’s ire in the first place?

“I don’t know,” Gaethje admitted. “He fights a very particular style. I fight a very particular style. There’s a lot of things that happen very early on in a fight. And that’s who is going to find the distance they want to fight at? Who’s going to find the pace they want?”

“He’s going to fight at his pace, but when I touch him, he’s either going to go for a takedown, or he’s going to give me space,” he suggested. “And then I’ll be able to control everything.”

“It’s very unpredictable, and I’m looking forward to the challenge,” he added. “At this level, you can’t make a mistake. First one to make a mistake is going to pay.”

Justin Gaethje squares off with Tony Ferguson in the UFC 249 main event on May 9 at the Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. The event airs live on PPV following televised and online prelims on ESPN/ESPN+ (TSN in Canada).