As fans of mixed martial arts, most of us are frequently bombarded by brutality. Whether we’re watching tape to analyze upcoming fights or just brainlessly scrolling through our Twitter feeds while waiting for the bus, we’re going to see a professional getting paid to try and maim another inside of a cage. To many folks, ingestion of this much mayhem may seem deleterious to our mental health.
And maybe it is.
Who’s to say what hours of pouring over bone-breaking clashes does to the psyche? Of course, most of us don’t see ourselves in this way. We’re fans of martial arts. Of the Budo spirit. Of competition. Of expertise. And for those of us a bit further detached from the realities of such a vulgar display; of sport. We’re the failed ninja from our youth reliving Van Damme’s Bloodsport in real time with every uppercut or crescent kick is landed.
We’re not the shirtless man with “Just Bleed” scrawled across his chest pining for chaos.
Or so we think.
As fulfilling as it is to watch Demian Maia gently outclass another man and make them quit in a minute with his otherworldly grappling, there is another side to us. Even the most astute technical analyst, who prides himself on being the only guy in the bar who understands the way Israel Adesanya masterfully feints to set up his calculated kicks, has the bloodlust lurking within him.
While we love to marvel at and break down these proficient masters, there’s something to a good old-fashioned free-for-all. The type that pushes fans to their feet in uproarious applause and leaves one of the participants lying face down as the other celebrates separating him from the corporeal plane.
We’ve seen this act played out more times than we can count at this point. Almost always the combatant on the ground will live to war another day. We know this now. On some rare occasions, the in-cage violence shocks even the most hardened of fans. Generally though, watching on a screen or cageside offers enough of a disconnect for us to absolve ourselves from the ostentatious performances we have not only witnessed, but also encouraged. It makes the whole ordeal unreal to a degree. After the loser is carted out on a stretcher, we send out our armchair analysis in 280 characters or less and await the next sacrifice.
Yet, when Justin Gaethje steps under the bright lights something extraordinary happens. The 30-year-old pulverizer brings us fully into his world and makes the whole affair more intimate. The lead up to his bouts gives fans an anxious and uneasy feeling. A feeling of excitement, sure, but also of tension. A worry, almost.
Gathje’s style can be described in many ways but the simplest way to sum him up is as irresponsible. “The Highlight” dishes out a ton of punishment on whoever steps in front of him but also absorbs an absurd 10.54 significant strikes per minute. This isn’t because he’s a bad fighter or doesn’t understand what his opponents are going to do to him. It’s because Gaethje embraces the kill or be killed mentality in a way that most of us could never understand.
“I’m ready to go. If I was to somehow die in the cage, it’d be much more honorable than crashing my car or doing something stupid. So I go in there 100% to give everything that I have to try and be victorious. I do pray that me or my opponent don’t suffer any injuries in the fight but I’m in there and I’m willing and ready.”
It’s this mindset that leads to him abandoning his Division-1 wrestling to wildly brawl with whoever is unlucky enough to be across the cage from him. While many would see doom on the horizon and run for cover, Gaethje puts his head down, his guard high, and marches into calamity. He brings pressure seldom seen in mixed martial arts. Preferring to fight in a phone booth, Gaethje sucks his opponents into a whirlwind of fists, knees, and legkicks (oh God, the leg kicks) and gives them little choice but to load up and fire back.
Joining the UFC at 17-0, Gaethje is now 2-2 in the promotion. His only losses have come against Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez: two men who are also known for their penchants for savagery. Even though they may have bested him in the Octagon, they limped away and sported some temporary facial reconstruction for their efforts.
Gaethje is often asked by media if he’s concerned for his well-being. Fighting with such a reckless style at the highest level just isn’t sustainable. Gaethje knows this. If we’re to believe the native Arizonian, he only has four fights left in him. He also claims he didn’t come into MMA to “win or lose.” He came to perform. He came to entertain.
And are you not entertained?
Gaethje has given us three “Fight of the Year” contenders and one “Knockout of the Year” contender in his four outings in the UFC. If you go back and watch his matches in the World Series of Fighting, you’ll see some of the most ridiculous beatdowns in MMA history.
It’s this style, this willingness to risk life and limb that serves up the dramatic, that simultaneously leaves us with great anticipation while also satisfying something primal within us.
So as we nervously wait with bated breath for this Saturday’s main event, let us realize what we have before us for the short time it’s here.
Brandon is a long-time fan of combat sports who has covered them for various outlets since 2017.