After his loss at UFC on FOX 29, Justin Gaethje swore that he knew what he was doing and what he was in for with his risky fighting style, and he’s perfectly at peace with that. In this week’s Trading Shots, MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes and retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes discuss that uncommon outlook on a dangerous game.
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Fowlkes: Just in case you were wondering whether or not Justin Gaethje would retain his enthusiasm for spectacular violence after a second-consecutive TKO loss, he showed up backstage after the loss to Dustin Poirier on Saturday night and asked reporters: “What’s up guys? Why all the sad faces?”
Gaethje keeps telling us that he knows what he’s doing out there, Danny. He keeps telling us that he’s not here to play it safe in search of victory, but rather to entertain the masses with a style that gives no consideration to the outcome. He also tells us that he knows he’s not going to have a long career this way (he estimates he has five fights left), and he’s fine with that.
“I didn’t get into this sport to win or lose,” Gaethje said. “It’s an entertainment factor for me. I will be known and remembered as one of the most entertaining fighters that ever did it. I’m content with what just happened, as stupid and crazy as that sounds.”
This is uncommon, to say the least. We don’t often hear a fighter talk like this. We encounter even fewer fighters who really seem to mean it. So what are we supposed to make of Gaethje now? Has he accurately assessed this sport and its landscape for what it really is, and constructed a plan that fits with the realities?
Or is he going to ruin himself too soon playing to our love of a slugfest? And what if that’s not the glorious end he thinks it will be?
Downes: Why can’t all of those things be true? People fight for a lot of different reasons. You’ve interviewed enough fighters who come from a variety of distinctive backgrounds to know this to be true.
What’s unique about Gaethje is that he’s one of the few fighters out there who doesn’t look at MMA as a sport. He sees it as entertainment. He’s more of a prize fighter than a mixed martial artist. When you listen to him talk, you realize that he views MMA as a means to an end.
I think it’s that attitude that perplexes fans and media. See Ben, some people need titles like champion or president to feed their ego and feel like they have worth. Gaethje doesn’t need those things. It’s not that he views the UFC lightweight championship as a fairy tale, like Nate Diaz does. It’s that he just doesn’t care. He knows that he can make a lot of money being someone that fans want to watch regardless of his position in the rankings.
So far his plan appears to be working, but I do worry about how sustainable it is. Five more fights doesn’t sound like a lot, but a lot can change in that amount of time.
Let’s say that Gaethje (18-2 MMA, 1-2 UFC) really does only step into the cage five more times after his loss to Poirier (23-5 MMA, 15-4 UFC). What should we make of his career? Even if he gets his wish to be known as one of the most entertaining fighters ever, can you have a real legacy if there isn’t more substance to it? It’s like a fast food burger. There’s enough salt and fat to be satisfying, but not exactly memorable. We’ll enjoy it for the moment and move on to something else.
Fowlkes: That’s where I think you’re wrong. If Gaethje gives us five more fights in the UFC that are anything like the three he’s already provided (to say nothing of his memorable stay in WSOF before that), then retires right on schedule in his early 30s, I don’t think we’ll just forget him and move on. Something like that would be special and uncommon enough for us to talk about it basically forever, like a magnificent but now extinct species that was ultimately too beautiful for this world.
I understand Gaethje’s thought process here. People love his ability and willingness to absorb and deliver punishment. Because people love it so much, he’s become a fighter who’s in demand. And because he’s in demand, he gets paid better than if he tried to carefully step along the thorny path to the title, which is itself usually just another way to try to get paid, and one where so much go wrong through no fault of your own.
So I get it. There’s a logic to Gaethje’s plan, and I love how open and honest he is about it. You have to be a special kind of person for this approach to even be an option for you, and I’m not going to sit here and act like I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed all his fights.
When he says that we’re going to miss him when he’s gone, and regret it if we don’t make damn sure we capitalize on every chance to see him fight? Yeah, he’s totally right. Every one of his fights is an intense, unforgettable experience. I also can’t help but wonder if he didn’t get this way by internalizing the messages sent by fans and media and promoters.
Would Gaethje approach his career this way if MMA worked the way other sports do? If winning was everything, and if one kind of win was as good as another, would he feel the need to sacrifice himself so willingly on the altar of the stand-and-bang? If skill paid, would he have to sell so much of his own blood in search of a decent price?
In other words, did we create this monster by making the sport this way? And if so, are we pleased with what we’ve done?
Downes: Did it ever enter your mind that past performances are not indicative of future results? Sure, Gaethje is capable of doing it, but the way you casually assume someone will go on an unprecedented streak of eight straight Fight of the Year performances is a little disconcerting. You must be a blast at casinos. “Honey, all I have to do is guess the right roulette number eight times in a row and I can buy us a beach house!”
To answer your question, no he would not approach his career the same way if MMA worked like other sports. Other sports value results. While MMA does take that into account to a certain extent, the importance of your record has steadily diminished over the years.
Conor McGregor fought Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match, and people ate it up. Ben Askren has an undefeated record, and the UFC took a hard pass on him. Why has Bob Sapp earned so much money throughout his career? Spectacle can be profitable for fighters and promoters alike.
As far as this “monster” you speak of, I think you’re giving fans a little too much agency in its creation. If I could borrow some language from my theology classes, the monster you’re talking about was “begotten, not made.” If I could borrow some language from Billy Joel, we didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.
Whether it’s UFC 1 or Bonnar vs. Griffin, bloodsport has always been at the core of MMA. Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson was a chess match in which one slight mistake would have brought disaster. It also wasn’t viewer-friendly at all.
There’s no guarantee Gaethje will keep this train rolling. If we have learned anything through the years, it’s that fans and media are fickle creatures who can turn on you in an instant.
I don’t know what I’ll think about Gaethje five fights from now. All I know is that I’m definitely watching the next one.
Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.
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Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie
Read the full article here: Trading Shots: Has Justin Gaethje figured out what sells, or is he following a risky plan to a bitter end?