No shortage of options for Justin Gaethje’s future in UFC

WSOF Lightweight Champion Justin Gaethje is seen at the WSOF 34 Open workouts on Wednesday, December 28, 2016 in New York. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
(AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Justin Gaethje lived up to the hype.

At long last, Gaethje finally forced the UFC-viewing world to understand just exactly why he’s nicknamed “The Highlight.” His journey to the UFC took a great deal of time, coming nearly a full six years after the day he opted to take his talents to the professional level. His debut inside the cage, however, didn’t last quite as long.

Gaethje defeated Michael Johnson in the main event at The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale in Las Vegas, stopping the perennial lightweight contender via TKO just 12 seconds before the two were scheduled to enter the third round. Gaethje’s debut proved to be as wild an affair as expected, featuring several near-finishes, and a number of overly entertaining exchanges that satisfied virtually every fight fan with a penchant for violence.

The former first and only champion that will ever exist under the World Series of Fighting banner, Gaethje takes his career to a perfect 18-0 (1-0 UFC). Only two of his total victories have gone the distance, with the remaining 16 contests divided between 15 T/KO stoppages and one submission. Just 28 years of age, Gaethje is nothing if not a talented, entertaining competitor; a “fighter’s fighter” as he put it during his media conference following the win.

The victory, serving as one of the more impressive victories in a highly anticipated debut, catapulted the lightweight contender into the top 10 of the UFC’s 155-pound rankings. He’s just one spot shy of cracking the top five after taking out Johnson, with only elite fighters like Nate Diaz, Edson Barboza, Eddie Alvarez, Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov standing in between Gaethje and the highly coveted strap of gold that’s currently collecting dust on Conor McGregor’s waist.

Gaethje has made no secrets as to what his goals are inside the UFC: he wants the crown.

As noted, however, McGregor is currently on hiatus from the sport of mixed martial arts, venturing into the squared circle for what appears to be a one-time go-round in professional boxing. Famously so, McGregor faces Floyd Mayweather Jr. in what is expected to be one of the biggest money-making boxing matches in the sport’s history. With that fight taking place in late August, and McGregor’s potential UFC return eyed for December of this year, there’s plenty of time for lightweights like Gaethje to make some more noise.

Fighting McGregor for the title is the eventual goal, though it doesn’t sound as though the necessary steps in between now and then bother Gaethje the least bit.

“Whoever gets me closer to an interim title fight. McGregor is not here,” he said during the post-fight media conference. “I want to get an interim title around my waist. When he comes back, I’ll pressure him. I pressure people. He has a fantastic left hand. If he touches me with it, I’ll go (to) sleep. If not, you saw what happens tonight.”

A bout between McGregor and Gaethje immediately became somewhat of a dream matchup just moments after the latter saw his hand raised Saturday night. As Gaethje touched on, McGregor’s left hand has been one of the more dangerous weapons any fighter south of 170 pounds has to offer. Gaethje’s chin, and grit, however, seem a perfect foil.

For now, however, the Gaethje and the UFC must plan for the time being.

The promotion has reportedly discussed the idea of having him face former lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, first having the two coach opposite teams on the 26th season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” per Ariel Helwani of MMA Fighting. Though the reality series is no longer the marketing machine it once was, but any sort of televised exposure could help the promotion further Gaethje’s star. Not only for its own purposes, but to also potentially convince McGregor that this relative newcomer is worthy of sharing the cage with the champion.

Of course, there wouldn’t be any shortage of options in the event that a possible bout with Alvarez falls through.

With Diaz out for the foreseeable future, and Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson still the apple of Dana White’s eye, the UFC still has Barboza, Kevin Lee, Dustin Poirier or even Michael Chiesa as potential opponents to help elevate Gaethje’s status as not only a true player at 155 pounds, but a true candidate worthy of the public’s time.

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