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Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those
of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of
Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company,
Evolve Media.

* * *


Life moves fast in professional sports. One minute an athlete is at
the highest heights one can achieve. The next, the glory is all
gone, the world has moved on, and only battered body, memories and
highlight reels remain. This is even more urgent in combat sports.
Not only do fighters typically have a smaller window at the top of
their game, they also are enduring much more physical trauma and,
save for the Floyd Mayweathers and Conor McGregors of the world,
make a lot less money than their counterparts in other sports. The
trade-off of high profile fight opportunities which come with big
paydays, entertaining the bloodthirsty masses and throwing caution
to the wind by taking further risks with health and safety is a
very delicate balancing act. Styles not only make fights, they also
potentially make money. Those same styles can also significantly
reduce the already small segment of time a fighter has to maximize
his or her earning potential.

Justin
Gaethje
, who is scheduled to face James Vick
this weekend at UFC Fight Night 135, is very familiar with this
Russian Roulette-style game. He has made quite a name for himself
out of biting down on his mouthpiece and meeting a willing
participant in wild striking exchanges in the middle of the cage.
It worked very well for the first 18 fights of his career. In that
time, he took out
Ultimate Fighting Championship
vet Drew Fickett
while his building his skills in the regional circuit. He soon
found himself signed to
World Series of Fighting
, whose broadcast contract with NBC
Sports guaranteed more onlookers than his previous promotional
homes, and became a respected name outside of the UFC while earning
the WSOF lightweight championship. His ten fights under the WSOF
banner resulted in nine knockout wins, with notable names like
Nick
Newell
and Brian
Foster
added to the list of victims. Through all of those
bouts, Gaethje tore through most of his opposition with a highly
aggressive and risky style.

When Gaethje was finally brought into the UFC, expectations were
high. An exciting, undefeated fighter with multiple title defenses
in a major promotion is a rare find on the free agent market. When
the Arizona native made his debut versus Michael
Johnson
at last summer’s UFC International Fight Week, he
carried his high-level brawler mentality to the Octagon to the tune
of another knockout win and dual bonuses for Performance and Fight
of the Night. Dispatching Johnson was far from easy and Gaethje
ultimately took more damage than he had throughout most of his
career. However, an extra $100,000 added to his fight purse, the
doors opening for him in the everlasting talent pool of the UFC’s
155-pound weight class, and more eyeballs on him than ever before
made it worthwhile.

His next outing, a back-and forth-affair with Eddie
Alvarez
, was nearly identical. Both fighters had their moments
and did significant damage to one another. An extra check found its
way into Gaethje’s bank account. However, Gaethje found himself on
the other side of the knockout and only one bonus was added to his
purse this time. His first professional loss and taking a step back
in the division were obviously not the outcome he had hoped for,
but there was still some upside. He proved he could hang in there
with a former UFC champion and reaffirmed his commitment to
entertaining performances. After all, Alvarez is one of the
greatest lightweights of all-time and there’s no shame in losing to
him, especially when you were just a hair away from victory.

Gaethje had similar results against Dustin
Poirier
in his third UFC bout. A nail biter slugfest earned him
another Fight of the Night bonus. But once again, he suffered a
stoppage loss and fell a bit further down the division’s pecking
order. Of course, Poirier is a surging contender who has looked
nothing short of spectacular since returning to lightweight and
Gaethje had been so close to getting his hand raised. Notice a
pattern beginning to develop?

Granted, Gaethje is still very relevant to the hierarchy at 155
pounds and is in yet another main event. Vick is a criminally
underrated fighter who was long overdue for his chance at a top-10
opponent. But the truth remains that Gaethje’s progression from
fighting a recently dethroned champ, to a high ranked contender
looking for his first title shot, and then a prospect freshly added
to the Top 10, is a downward trajectory.

This is a pivotal moment for the University of Northern Colorado
alum. Continue with the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots approach that
resulted in respect and a belt outside of the UFC and has endeared
him to fans all over the world, or adapt to the increase in
competitive difficulty and the flaws in his style. Keep riding the
fast horse that got you there — even if it’s leading you off of a
cliff — hoping it changes course, or ditch it for a mule that is
easier to control but lacks the speed.

This conflict may not be lost on Gaethje. A recent interview with
MMANytt revealed that he wants to “be the best in the world.” This
could be in a direct conflict from a recent quote from
Sportingnews.com regarding his preferred in-cage strategy “I go out
there and fight how I want. People live their own lives and I make
my own decisions.”

What makes this exceptionally interesting is that Gaethje is more
than capable of mixing up his game. His status as a former NCAA
Division II All-American wrestler is not apparent from how he
fights in the Octagon. Even within his comfort zone of wild
exchanges and haymakers, he is sneaky good at placing leg kicks on
unsuspecting opponents. The abilities to the change things up are
there whether he chooses to do so or not.

There’s a fork in the road for Gaethje. A win against Vick gets him
back on track. A loss pushes him further away from his goal of
winning the top prize a lightweight in MMA can achieve. One side of
that fork leads to potential title contention, the other leads to
being a gatekeeper. He can look no further than the example set by
Leonard
Garcia
. Garcia earned seven bonuses between his stints in the
UFC and WEC. However, his record is a mixed bag of losses and
controversial wins that prevented him from ever re-entering the
title picture after his quick submission loss to Mike Thomas
Brown
at WEC 39. The constant barrage of wild strikes betrays
Garcia’s brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and limited his ceiling
as a world-class fighter. That’s just the stakes for his time as a
mixed martial artist.

Chuck
Liddell
is another example for Gaethje to look at. Liddell is
without a doubt one of the greatest fighters to ever step foot in
the Octagon. However, his style was dependent on taking shots on
his way to knock out his opponents. Once his chin was compromised,
it was a rapid decline as the legend found himself being repeatedly
knocked unconscious. By the time he finally decided that it was
time to rely more on his prowess as a grappler, it was too late.
After looking renewed and in top form in the opening round against
Rich
Franklin
at UFC 115, a short punch that the Iceman would’ve
previously walked through ended up sleeping him in the closing
moments of that same round.

It’s easy to point the finger at Gaethje and wonder why he has
chosen to fight the way that he has. But there is plenty of blame
to go around. A system that incentivizes fighters to add further
risk to an inherently dangerous sport is a culprit. The insatiable
need to praise the bloody back-and-forth battles while shunning the
technical mastery of less viscerally violent bouts by fans is
another. Either way you’d prefer to slice the blame pie, the fact
remains that the clock is ticking on Gaethje and his career, as it
is for all fighters. His willingness to jump headfirst into the
type of contests that win Fight of the Night only speeds up that
clock as the mileage piles up. While the reported $420,000 (not
including the $200,000 worth of bonuses and $11,000 from Reebok)
Gaethje has earned in his short time with the UFC are nothing to
sneeze at, there is a clear distance between the life-changing
money available to high-level professional athletes and what he has
earned. Risk and reward, short-term glory or long-term
preservation, are ideas that will likely be floating in his mind
ahead of Saturday night. Before Gaethje decides to swing for the
fences in hopes of another bonus and the cheers of the crowd, he
may want to consider the balance it takes to maximize his career
and body.


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