No one would ever suggest to a beginning fighter that he or she copy Justin Gaethje’s style, even though Gaethje is ranked eighth in the UFC’s loaded lightweight division.
It’s too risky, both in the short term, where the immediate goal is to win, and in the long term, where the goal is to exit the sport with one’s health fully intact.
Gaethje is almost like a video game character come to life, always finding some way to inflict more and more damage on his opponent.
But watching him, you have to admit it: You cringe. You see him wade fearlessly into the fire, firing punches, throwing kicks and knees and elbows, and you worry. How, you think, is this guy going to make it out with all of his faculties.
And yet, when he fights, you’re on the end of your seat, roaring at the head kicks, marveling at his capacity to take a shot and keep moving forward, always moving forward.
His fight with Edson Barboza on Saturday on ESPN in Philadelphia is appointment television. You clear the decks to see this one, and then you feel guilty for a week after for wanting to see these guys endure what they must in order to win.
Gaethje is aware of what some think, that he’s going to suffer long-term consequences for all of the award-winning battles he’s been in. Yet, he remains cool, almost matter-of-fact as he discusses it.
It’s not that he’s unconcerned about his health; he is, very much so. It’s that he is proactive and gets checked out regularly, and all the scans indicate no changes in his brain. He’s fully healthy and that assures him he can do his job without concern.
He knows he can look forward to a life of aches and pains. That’s what happens to someone who begins wrestling at age 4 and transitions from college wrestling directly to MMA.
He’s going to have to deal with that, and he knows it. But in what really matters, his cognitive function, he is confident things are as they should be.
“I feel great,” Gaethje said. “You’d think I’m taking damage, but every neurological test I’ve taken matches up exactly with the test I took before I ever started fighting. I’ve been wrestling since I was 4, so I know that when I’m 40, 45, I’m going to be hurting no matter what. I’m healthy and those tests are all good, no changes, so I don’t see myself in any kind of greater danger.”
Fighting Barboza puts anyone in danger, even the best fighters in the world. His leg kicks are brutal and have chopped down many an opponent. Getting kicked for five rounds by Barboza is sort of like allowing Mike Trout to take full cuts at your legs 10 or 12 times every five minutes for 25 minutes.
To throw those kicks, though, Barboza needs room to get torque on them and land. And so Gaethje, who is the epitome of a pressure fighter, will make certain to close the distance to take Barboza’s favorite weapon away from him.
“Every time Edson has lost, it’s been because people have been putting pressure on him,” Gaethje said. “I’m the best at that. And here’s the thing: I feel like, as long as I close the distance, he can’t get his leg kicks off. The one big deterrent [of getting in close] would be knees coming up the middle. The knees would be more of a concern than kicks with putting pressure on him.”
Gaethje said he knows the crowd will be into the fight and said his expectations for the match are not that much different than the public’s.
Gaethje said the hunger he got growing up is what drives him.
“I can’t think of a fighter who came from a privileged background or from money,” Gaethje said. “If they did, they wouldn’t be fighting. I come from a small town and a family of people who worked in the copper mines. It was three generations of copper miners, on both sides of the family.
“When you come from a less privileged background, you learn to fight to survive. You have to fight to provide and that’s kind of what I’m doing. I’m trying to give a better life to my family and the recognition that even if you do come from a small town or from poverty, you can still rise above and accomplish things that people who do come from those privileged lives can never imagine.”
More from Yahoo Sports: