When Dana White was asked if Justin Gaethje was in line for the winner of next month’s lightweight title fight between Dustin Poirier and Charles Oliveira, he turned into Dr. Seuss. “I don’t make fights on the night of the fight.”

Not exactly a commitment. 

Gaethje was already at the hospital when Dana said it. He and Michael Chandler had gone to war under the bright lights and famous concave ceiling of Madison Square Garden, sagging under the weight of so many expectations. They had brutalized each other for 15 minutes. The first round was like a massacre that couldn’t make up its mind. Both guys slammed kicks and fists into each other’s sides and features and the blood started flowing early. 

The later rounds turned into a kind of religious experience for fight fans. It was all heart and guts through unsustainable human conditions. There were times when Chandler got wobbled, only to recover and come forward. There were times Gaethje had his molecules scattered, only to cling to consciousness like sleep was death itself. There was a sacrificial vibe to the action, but it was of self-sacrifice — it was a test each was giving the other to see how far he was willing to go.

Small feats of human resolve? No man! Chandler versus Gaethje was an orgy at the slaughterhouse. Its beauty was borderline tragic, and any caring spectator split time between the two sides. This one shot to the heart of whatever cruel psychology compels us to the fight game. Some said it was a conversion fight, the kind of thing you show a newb to get them hooked on MMA — and that might be true. 

What Gaethje and Chandler communicated was that while ordinary people might have it in them to dig deep, they can dig deeper. Way deeper. Deep into the spiritual reserves in the darkest recesses of their being.

Whatever it was they were doing, it delivered. They drug each other towards the light, and each time one seemed to slip into it he’d come rushing back with his bloody tongue out, smiling as if to say “Sorry, but you’re gonna have to fucking kill me.” Marauders. Madmen. Mayhemists. Gaethje said afterward that he and Chandler were born into the wrong times, that they were gladiators who were meant to battle to the death at the Colosseum. Given what we just watched, that sentiment didn’t seem all that silly. 

Gaethje persevered for the victory, and if ever there was a statement made for a title shot, he had made it. Within minutes he and Chandler were in ambulances on their way to the hospital to get checked out. Back in the day, Dana White would give inspirational speeches to the fighters on a big card about leaving it all in the Octagon, not in the hands of the judges. Gaethje could have served as Exhibit A of what he meant. In this case he both left it all out there and in the hands of the judges, but the latter was only because Chandler is maniac like himself. 

It’s true that there’s a healthy problem at the top of the lightweight division currently. Islam Makhachev made a claim for a title shot last week by blowing right through Dan Hooker out in Abu Dhabi. His nine-fight win streak in the division is impressive, and he has every right to believe he should be next for a title shot. His run for a title is inevitable. 

Yet it’s hard to deny Gaethje after that fight with Chandler. Gaethje has made a career of being a buzz saw on command. Even with the expectations to deliver some kind of jaw-dropping performance every time out, he never fails to deliver it. Better yet, he brings the best out of his opponents. He makes an encounter with him into a kind of test to see what you’re made of. You know you are going to have to fight your way out of hell if you fight Justin Gaethje. 

Let’s face it — that man is not normal. He is wired differently. There’s this impulse to obliterate the guy in front of him, if only to hear the roar of the crowd. To gain the approval of those gathered, whether it’s at the Colosseum or at today’s closest equivalent of MSG. 

What Justin Gaethje is is a pleaser, and what he does isn’t built to last long. Give the man his title shot while he’s still berserking with such abandon. His sole purpose is to generate a collective sense of awe on fight night. Give him the winner of Poirier-Oliveira and leave Makhachev to face Beneil Dariush. Reward Gaethje for being the kind of gratuitous violence merchant that the UFC has always coveted, because…well, as Gaethje himself warned beforehand, otherwise we riot. 

Remember when? Check out my piece from 2014 when Gaethje was still “green” (according to Trevor Wittman):
“Justin Gaethje: From the copper mines to the smiling fields of gold”

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