A violent mind: Justin Gaethje channels inner 'mad man' for Michael Chandler clash

·Combat columnist
·4 min read

When welterweight champion Kamaru Usman was asked to describe teammate Justin Gaethje, the first words he could come up with were “mad man.”

Gaethje fights as if he’s mad and raging at the world, but it’s a process to get an otherwise polite, thoughtful 32-year-old into the headspace he needs to be in to compete as he does.

It’s an eight- or 12-week process of building rage against his opponent for Gaethje to fight as if he’s the angriest man in the world.

On Saturday in the opening bout of the UFC 268 pay-per-view card at Madison Square Garden in New York, he’ll face Michael Chandler, an opponent with a similarly aggressive style.

Away from the Octagon, they’re humble, easy-going men, both remarkably similar in manner and attitude.

Gaethje’s nickname, “The Highlight,” speaks well to the legacy he’s built in the UFC. He’s a somewhat pedestrian 5-3, though that’s misleading because he’s fought the best of the best the lightweight division has to offer. Already, he’s faced the legendary ex-champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, as well as former champions Dustin Poirier (interim), Tony Ferguson (interim) and Eddie Alvarez.

It’s not easy for Gaethje to get to where he needs to be to fight as ruthlessly and recklessly, with so little regard for his own body or the safety of his opponent.

If you listen to Gaethje speak about Chandler, it might sound as if they’re long-time enemies, but it’s hardly the case.

“It’s the natural competitiveness plus the fact that he’s trying to take everything from me,” Gaethje said. “He’s super dangerous. I’ve got to make this as real as possible. The danger has to be real so I can go to the primal state I need to go to to fight somebody, to hurt somebody with no regard for their safety, or mine.

“It takes a special … It’s a process and the danger has to be real. The danger has to be as real as someone having a gun in your face. Our bodies do this crazy thing where, naturally, we release chemicals, toxins, all kinds of s*** and we are able to sustain pain and perform under that pressure.”

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 30:  Justin Gaethje reacts after knocking out Edson Barboza of Brazil in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Wells Fargo Center on March 30, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
In his eight fights in the UFC, Justin Gaethje has been awarded nine post-fight bonuses. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

All that being said, the Gaethje that was really wild and out-of-control is mostly a relic of the past. He was 17-0 before he got to the UFC and won his first UFC bout by defeating Michael Johnson.

But then he lost back-to-back fights to Alvarez and Poirier and did an evaluation of himself. Clearly, he was one of the best lightweight fighters in the world, but going 1-2 isn’t going to do too much to further one’s title dreams.

Gaethje did what he needed to do and he’s won four of the next five, losing only to Nurmagomedov.

“At that time [after the Johnson fight], I was 18-0 going into that fight with Eddie Alvarez and if it’s not broke, you don’t fix it,” Gaethje said. "At that time, my mindset was, ‘Who will quit first?’ Trade blow for blow and see who can outlast the other person. That was my method. I would say I wasn’t using the skills I possessed at the time.

“With that, I had to go back to the drawing board and I had to understand the skills that my coach had been developing over the years. So now I’m utilizing those skills more than I’m utilizing my toughness or my heart. Those are big factors, but at this level, we all have big hearts. Call it small brains or whatever you want to call it, we’re willing to go out there and give everything.”

He was miffed a bit that he didn’t get the title shot after the UFC accepted Nurmagomedov’s retirement in the spring. Charles Oliveira then stopped Chandler to win the belt.

Oliveira will fight Poirier next month for the belt, and Chandler believes that he should be next if he defeats Chandler. He’d have a good argument, too. A win over Chandler would mean he’s 5-1 in his last six with wins over Chandler, Ferguson, Donald Cerrone, Edson Barboza and James Vick in that time span.

He’s ranked No. 3 now and it seems logical that would be enough. At media day, when asked how he’d react if he didn’t get the next shot with a win, he answered simply, “We riot.”

Anyone who has watched him fight might think of the word riot to describe what they’re seeing in the cage. It’s a process to get there and one that few can ever reach.

Gaethje is there, and that means that when the bell rings on Saturday, holy hell will be unleashed.

Yeah, it’s going to get the pay-per-view card off to a very nice start.

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