Can Justin Gaethje keep weaponizing his own will? The search for an answer is a thrilling one

Yep, that’s what a Justin Gaethje fight looks like. It looks like constant pressure, wide-open offense, hurting and being hurt, and never taking a backward step unless it’s a forced, stumbling one. Even then, what would be the prelude to defeat for most fighters is just the very temporary cessation of hostilities for Gaethje.

More than anything, that’s what seemed to get to Michael Johnson in the main event of The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale in Las Vegas on Friday night.

He hurt Gaethje (18-0 MMA, 1-0 UFC) plenty but couldn’t escape him. When his legs couldn’t hold him up anymore, Gaethje motioned for him to stand. When he retreated under duress, Gaethje flooded the distance that Johnson (17-12 MMA, 9-8 UFC) sought to create.

It was like you could feel him sucking up all the air in the room, just so Johnson would have none left to breathe in the FS1-televised headliner at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

The result was a thrilling second-round TKO victory for Gaethje, and it was one he paid for in blood and brain cells. That’s how it happens when you fight the way Gaethje does, using the force of your own will as a weapon. It’s an effective weapon if you’ve got it, and it’s also one that works two ways.

The first is that it provides you with opportunities. Gaethje spent most of the first round exploiting those opportunities as he walked Johnson into the fence, daring him to plant his feet and throw back, hammering him every time he stood still long enough to do so.

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It was a pressure game, one that smothers the opponent with offense and forces him to think only about reacting and defending – not about whatever it was he told himself he was going to do here tonight.

But to apply that kind of pressure you’ve got to be willing to withstand some pain, which is where Gaethje’s will comes in. His constant offense provided Johnson with openings to counter, which he did well and with great force at times. Then Gaethje would grab a hold of him, take a breath, and recover.

If he was a cartoon character, here’s where he would have swatted at the little birdies circling his head, chasing them away until his mind had cleared enough for a fresh assault. Somehow, this entire process only took a few seconds.

That’s the other way will can win a fight. Because Johnson? He sees the same things we do. He sees Gaethje taking hard counters on the chin and then shaking off the effects. He sees Gaethje, visibly exhausted with his hands on his knees, yet motioning for Johnson to get up and fight rather than agreeing to get in his guard for a little mutual rest time.

At some point, how could he not wonder what it’s going to take to make a guy like that stop? How could he not at least consider the possibility that he’s not up to it? And that’s how you start to give up. Your hope, your belief in yourself, they begin to crumple around the edges. It’s not a collapse that happens all at once. Maybe it’s not even one you’re capable of doing anything about.

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But then, there is that price to pay. Watching Gaethje wallop and wobble his way to victory evokes two primary feelings for the experienced fight fan. They are, in order: 1) an excitement at the overwhelming and enthusiastic brutality of it all, and 2) a knowing dread for where it all leads.

You can’t fight like that for 15 years. You shouldn’t, anyway. The human body and brain just aren’t built for it, which is one of the things that makes it so incredible to watch in the first place.

To watch a fighter like Gaethje in action is to witness a man flinging himself face first into the limitations of the body without regard for consequences. It’s rare, which in turn makes it special. How long can this guy keep this up? How far can he go with it? Is there anyone out there who can withstand and overwhelm the force of his will, or at least hit him hard enough to make him start caring about it?

These are the questions we’ll keep waiting for answers to. The longer we go without getting them, the more exciting the Gaethje journey becomes.

For complete coverage of The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale, check out the UFC Events section of the site.

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