“I just love this way too much”. When these words came out of Justin Gaethje’s mouth after he knocked Edson Barboza out cold, he showed the epitome of “The Highlight”.
Gaethje serves as the ethical question facing every MMA fan in one body. He is probably the most violent and entertaining fighter in the sport, eschewing his wrestling background to give the world what it wants in all out aggression and power. However, he also knows the damage this will cause his body, and almost actively embraces it at times, which must make fans pause.
Before his entrance to the UFC in 2017, Gaethje said it was a matter of time before he got knocked out in the Championship. That time came only in his second and third fights in the organisation, by Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, the latter was what many called the fight of the year. Even in wins in smaller organisations, you could almost guarantee that Gaethje would get hit hard and stunned at some point, the same being true in the UFC, other than against James Vick.
His promotional debut against Michael Johnson exemplified “The Highlight” to his new fans, becoming the first man to stop Johnson. Despite being stunned himself, Gaethje came back through targeting his opponent at every level and finally finishing things with clinch knees. It seems like the reckless aggression might have been dialled back slightly in his last two fights, with more cautious pressure against Vick and Barboza. Yet he still retained the trademark thudding leg kicks, hard punches and knees from collar ties and tight punches at range.
This style, combined with Gaethje having said that he only has a limited number of fights left, means that we are left trying to find a route to big paydays for him to make up for the damage he has taken for our entertainment. The top of the UFC lightweight division is horribly knotted up unfortunately, with Conor McGregor having legal issues, champion Khabib Nurmagomedov potentially sitting out until late in the year and Tony Ferguson having his own personal issues.
“It’s hard to get fighters to agree to step in with Gaethje”
The closest to the payday we all want for Gaethje will be the winner of the upcoming Poirier-Max Holloway fight for an interim belt. The fight that would be pure entertainment, the highest paying and, unfortunately, is off the table, would be McGregor. It’s hard to get fighters to agree to step in there with Gaethje, no matter how confident they are, as even if you win, it takes something fundamentally out of you.
Alvarez and Poirier were both in serious trouble in their victories, before having to forcibly separate him from consciousness. McGregor wouldn’t take this risk, at least not without an inconceivable pay rise. If he couldn’t put “The Highlight” away early, the leg kicks, cardio and pressure would take him into deep waters and most probably break him as pace and volume has in the past.
“He embraces the destruction of the cage”
Gaethje’s disarming honesty lays bear all our ethical conundrums being fans of this violent entertainment. When he says “I love this way too much”, when he beckons Dustin Poirier for the finishing blow and when he tells Paul Felder that “you don’t want that to happen to you” regarding a potential fight between the two, it reminds us all that he embraces the destruction of the cage for better, and worse.
How are we supposed to enjoy his battles with Luis Palomino, Poirier and Alvarez without also thinking about the potential battles to come after his retirement? He knows why we are there and his openness about that makes us question our choices.
With the economics of prize fighting in MMA being so poor, most make the ethical bargain of wanting their favourites to get in, get paid, and get out at the right time. This same impulse is why fans are perfectly willing to see matchmaking norms get thrown out of the window for the payday a Brock Lesnar fight would bring for Daniel Cormier.
“The damage is done before we can see it”
But how can we know what the ‘right time’ is? The term “dementia pugilistica” dates back to the 1920’s, but with the research now being done, we know that the damage is done before we can see it. It’s not just the knockout losses when fighters are past their primes that can damage their brains, it’s all the punches they take from the very start of their career.
Gaethje is so violent and chaotic and is up front about the fact he embraces this all for our entertainment. He is also up front about his knowledge of the costs. This leaves us asking ourselves whether we have the right to encourage these men and women to trade brain damage for our entertainment and if we can do anything about it.