Justin Gaethje has another shot at UFC gold, and he thinks the current champ is less of a threat than the previous one.
Gaethje challenges Charles Oliveira for the lightweight championship at UFC 274, which takes place Saturday at Footprint Center in Phoenix. It’s Gaethje’s second attempt to become undisputed champion after a loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 254 in October 2020. Nurmagomedov, widely considered to be the greatest lightweight in MMA history, needed less than one and a half rounds to submit Gaethje.
In comparing that fight with his matchup with Oliveira, Gaethje framed Nurmagomedov as a completely different animal than his upcoming opponent.
“They’re definitely not the same athlete,” Gaethje said. “And Charles certainly is not more dangerous than Khabib. His ability to take damage is not the same, proven through the times we’ve seen him fight. All my criticism of Charles is from a kid that we were talking about, that we all watched grow, and now we’re talking about a man with confidence. It’s a different person, but ultimately the same Charles is still there.
“The same Charles that fought Cub Swanson. The same Charles that fought Donald Cerrone. The same Charles that fought [Anthony] Pettis. Choices were made in that by him and the choice to quit was made, and I’m going to give him that choice on Saturday night, I guarantee that.”
The book on Oliveira used to be that he was an exceptional talent who couldn’t beat top competition and who also struggled to make weight when he was competing at 145 pounds. However, following a 10-8 (1 NC) start to his career, Oliveira has rattled off 10 straight wins at lightweight, becoming UFC champion and knocking off contenders like Dustin Poirier, Michael Chandler, Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee.
So has Oliveira done enough to overcome that past narrative?
“I think that’s true, however, once a coward always a coward,” Gaethje said. “I’m not calling him a coward, but I’m saying that’s — you can’t just take that away. It’s there. Khabib never showed you that, and that’s why you can’t compare those two.”
Gaethje also spoke about the regrets he had from the Nurmagomedov fight, namely that he fought defensively as opposed to employing his usual aggressive style. The 33-year-old is known as one of the most exciting fighters in the history of MMA and plans to show that side of himself when he steps into the cage with Oliveira.
“My tactic was gonna be to evade [against Nurmagomedov], and that’s the first and only time I’ve had that mindset, and it won’t happen on Saturday,” Gaethje said. “If he marches through me, then good for him, but I won’t be moving backward.”
Oliveira won the vacant UFC lightweight title following Nurmagomedov’s retirement; he finished Chandler via strikes at UFC 262 and then defended the belt by submitting Poirier at UFC 260. In both bouts, the Brazilian champ showed he could overcome adversity before finding a stoppage.
That wounded animal aspect of Oliveira’s game is one that Gaethje is well aware of and prepared for.
“That is normal for a fighter,” Gaethje said. “When you choose fight over flight, that’s the only way. Yeah, he has done a great job. I think his opponents really made some mistakes. Chandler, I think Chandler whooped his ass first round, got too overconfident, and that’s why the shot was so effective. He forgot how much danger he was in.
“If they’re awake, they’re dangerous. Someone on the brink of dying is the most dangerous, especially when they choose fight. You can never take your foot off the gas and you can never be overconfident in that arena because anything, anytime, that’s why I’m such a fan of this sport. One shot.”
Gaethje has held interim gold before, defeating Ferguson at UFC 249 by fifth-round TKO. He sees some similar traits in Oliveira and promises to meet the champion head-on.
“I create car crashes, and I am the object with the most force,” Gaethje said. “Same mass. If he wants to play the game, I’m more than happy. He won’t. He will have to.
“This will be just like Tony Ferguson. He will try to get this to the ground, and he will be stuck fighting my fight. That’s the name of the game.”