Hands up who likes to see a grudge match in sport. Ok, so that’s pretty much everyone then.
Of course we do. And when that grudge is being played out in the nowhere-to-hide, cauldron of pain, we call the Octagon, it just adds a huge dash of hot spice to an already explosive feast.
Welcome to The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption Finale, Michael Johnson v Justin Gaethje. Mark Sylvester explains why this will be a lightweight scrap to savour.
Seat edges will be packed at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for Johnson v Gaethje, with fight fans beguiled by the prospect of a clash in the cage where simply anything might happen.
By the time the pair stare into each other’s eyes in the octagon, like hunters about to take down a wild beast they really don’t like, there’ll have been enough trash talk between then to put a landfill site out of business.
After a spotless career in MMA, including a 10-fight winning streak and five successful title defences on the bounce under the WSOF banner, Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje makes his UFC debut.
The hype surrounding Gaethje can probably be seen from space.
He’s the self-styled ‘greatest lightweight on the planet.’
Standing between him, an 18-0-0 career record – and a relentless march towards Conor McGregor’s glittering belt – is a seething mass of supercharged bone, muscle and raw power called Michael ‘The menace’ Johnson.
Johnson’s a classic UFC enigma, with a patchy 17-11-0 record that can fool the unwary into thinking he’s just a journeyman fighter who can do a shift in the trenches when he needs to.
The reality for anyone brave enough, or foolish enough, to climb into the cage with him, is that Johnson’s a deadly assassin lurking in the UFC shadows, with enough explosive power to stun the most iron-clad jaws.
He has eight KO’s under his belt including the short, straight left that exploded like a cluster bomb on Danny Castillo’s chin back in 2012, and, more recently, a hellish right that dropped Dustin Poirier last September.
He even managed to wobble undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedev before submitting to the star-on-the-rise at UFC 205 in November. Despite claiming he won’t go toe-to-toe with Gaethje, you just know he’ll be looking to unleash some shock and awe on the UFC newcomer.
And what of ‘The Highlight’?
He may have lost out in the battle of the intimidating nicknames, but he enters the octagon unbeaten in MMA, with 15 of his 17 wins ending in opponents chewing the canvas.
He bludgeoned his way through the WSOF ranks like a wood chipper in a forest of saplings.
He may be a skilled striker and possess some decent grappling skills, but at heart he’s a brawler, who loves to set out his stall right in his opponent’s face.
He’s claimed Johnson’s a quitter when he’s on he back foot, and there’s little doubt he’ll go for the jugular at every opportunity. Johnson’s never been knocked out, but if Gaethje fails to glaze him it won’t be through lack of effort. A Gaethje stoppage may be worth a pop.
Although on paper you wouldn’t immediately see this one going to the ground too often, Gaethje was a college wresting champion, while Johnson’s recently been brushing up on how to make body parts bend in a way they really don’t want to.
‘The Menace’ has been training with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu champs, and may just have a few sneaky new grappling moves in his box of tricks. If those hours being turned into human origami in the training ring pay off, you can expect Johnson to submit Gaethje.
The clash of unknowns is one of the reasons this is such a hot prospect of a fight.
Will Gaethje live up to the hype? Will the UFC be his new romper room? Will the brilliant and brutal version of Johnson turn up at the office?
When you throw all the factors into the blender, the one that may just count most is Johnson’s six-year stint at the UFC coalface. It’s the best MMA theatre in t he world, where the lights are brightest, money biggest and opponents always out of the top draw.
Gaethje may well go on to be one of the brightest stars in the UFC sky, but I have a sneaking suspicion his debut could be the kind of wake-up call that makes putting your pants on in the morning a painful experience.
Johnson will edge it. Maybe a knockdown. But my money’ll be on some savvy new footwork and grappling skills keeping him out of trouble, while drizzling Gaethje with enough strikes to bag a points decision.
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