Gaethje returns to the cage for the first time since losing a lightweight title fight last May.
UFC 286 is based on its main event, but the co-main has significance as well.
Justin Gaethje returns to the cage for the first time since losing a lightweight title fight last May, and his first hurdle in his continued belt quest is Rafael Fiziev.
Fiziev (12-1) has been crushing opponents in the midst of a six-fight winning streak, winning by knockout in three of his last four fights. However, he has never faced anyone in the upper echelon of the division, particularly with Gaethje’s skill set, or fiery power.
“It’s just a round three so I can go a little bit stronger,” says Gaethje (23-4). “This is his biggest stage to date. The pressure is on me, but I think it will be more of a factor for him.”
Gaethje last fought a three round bout in November 2021 when he destroyed Michael Chandler at Madison Square Garden. If he can hit Fiziev with a similar barrage of shots, then it will be hard to imagine Gaethje not returning to the win column.
“I fought almost as perfect a fight as I could fight at Madison Square Garden against Chandler,” says Gaethje. “He was so inwardly focused. That is the plan to repeat this Saturday.”
Gaethje remains extremely critical of his performance in the title fight against then-champion Charles Oliveira last May. Less than four minutes into the first round, Gaethje struck with a rear-naked choke.
“You should never let anything outside the cage get to you, but I did,” says Gaethje. “I was back home in Phoenix, singing a song in the cage that I didn’t even know the words to, pounding on my chest. Looking back, he was not recognizable to me that night. Being so excited that night was detrimental to my performance.”
A win tonight is a must if Gaethje is to re-insert himself into the title picture. Reigning champion Islam Makhachev has no clear next opponent, but Dustin Poirier, Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush are leading the charge for that spot. Alexander Volkanovski, who lost to Makhachev last month, also wants a rematch.
“Volkanovski was extremely impressive,” says Gaethje. “I need to do what I have to do to be in a position to return to his place.
“At this level, any victory is a great victory. There’s Dustin, there’s Beneil, and there’s Charles, and I have to go through one of those guys, I’ll do it. I’m right there. There’s nowhere to go but to move forward in this fight.”
When asked if there might be an upcoming fight against Conor McGregor, Gaethje quickly dismissed the idea.
“He’s choosing to fight Chandler,” says Gaethje. “That’s what it is. He’s earned his place, he gets to pick and choose who he fights. He’s made the most money of any fighter that’s ever been there. But Chandler’s a pretty dangerous guy. We’ll see how that plays out.”
In addition to the Kamaru Usman-Leon Edwards main event, the 286 card also features Gunnar Nelson vs. Bryan Barberena, Jennifer Maia vs. Casey O’Neill, and a very interesting test for Marvin Vettori vs. Roman Dolidze.
And Gaethje-Fiziev stands as a must-see fight on the card, with real stakes in the lightweight division on the line.
“I had no injuries and had time to recover,” says Gaethje. “I’m ready.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @justinbarrasso.