The motivation behind Justin Gaethje’s ‘we riot’ mantra at UFC 268

The motivation behind Justin Gaethje’s ‘we riot’ mantra at
UFC 268 1

This isn’t Justin Gaethje’s first time fighting in New York. It’s not even technically his first time fighting at Madison Square Garden.

That first time was at The Theater at Madison Square Garden, though, nearly five years ago. On Saturday at the Garden proper, the former interim UFC lightweight champion will face Michael Chandler to kick off the pay-per-view portion of UFC 268 with what most expect to be a massively violent affair.

Virtually everything is different now for Gaethje (22-3, 20 finishes). When he was last in town, he was still the unbeaten champion of B-level promotion World Series of Fighting (now known as Professional Fighters League after a change in format). A TKO via doctor stoppage of 155-pound challenger Luiz Firmino after the third round on Dec. 31, 2016, was his last before signing with the UFC. Even his hotel digs were different back then.

“I got a suite in New York, and even that’s a little bigger than I thought it would be,” Gaethje told The Post on Wednesday via Zoom regarding his pre-fight setup this week. “Last time I fought here in [2016], I stayed in a room that was about as big as my pantry at home. So, yeah, it’s a little different.”

The man known as “The Highlight” for his devastating striking power and penchant for must-see cagefighting action has had a memorable UFC run. He made a huge splash in his debut with a second-round TKO of Michael Johnson, dropped a pair of fights to two of the best lightweights of the past 10 years, rattled off a four-fight (T)KO streak on his way to the interim belt last May, then became the final victim in the career of undefeated former lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov, who retired in the octagon after their fight just over one year ago.

Earning the interim crown in May 2020 with perhaps the finest performance of his career against Tony Ferguson, whom Gaethje stopped in the final frame after four-plus rounds of constant kicks and punches with punishing pop behind them, was not enough. He immediately tossed his gold-plated belt on the canvas, yearning only for the real deal.

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“It was second place,” Gaethje said. “It’s still second place. I got all the way to No. 2 in the world. That’s a really great achievement, but it’s not what I’m shooting for.”

Now, at least, Gaethje has a new appreciation for the interim belt. He’s “proud of it” and what it means to his family and his coach, who will put it in a box to hang in Gaethje’s house along with his World Series of Fighting strap.

But getting so close to the undisputed, be-all, end-all UFC lightweight title only has him even more focused on bringing that one home as well. After UFC president Dana White abandoned his quixotic, months-long campaign to lure Nurmagomedov back to the cage, a fight to determine the new champion was put together. It did not include top-ranked lightweight Dustin Poirier — himself a former interim champ who, like Gaethje, was tapped out by the retired legend — nor second-ranked Gaethje.

Justin Gaethje (left) and Michael Chandler at their UFC 268 weigh-in on Nov. 5, 2021.
Zuffa LLC

Instead, the Nos. 3 and 4 contenders at 155 pounds, Charles Oliveira and Chandler, respectively, duked it out for the vacant title in May. Oliveira rallied after a disastrous first round for a TKO finish early in the second, and he makes his first title defense against Poirier next month.

“[Oliveira] didn’t fight the No. 1 guy in the world,” Gaethje says. “He still has not fought the No. 1 guy in the world, whether that’s Poirier or whether that’s me. You didn’t fight the No. 1 guy in the world, at the time.”

The lightweight division is perpetually backed up with a host of worthy title contenders — remnants, perhaps, of the days when Conor McGregor failed to defend the title he won at the Garden just about five years ago. Still, Gaethje refuses to accept being passed over for a shot at the Oliveira-Poirier winner. His mantra at Wednesday’s media day was “we riot” if he’s not next in line with a victory over Chandler.

The 33-year-old suggested he’d be ready for a title fight anywhere between May and August next year, but he’s not picky if it’s sooner. To hear him, it doesn’t sound as if much would get in the way of him taking whatever opportunity is brought to him as long as the title is up for grabs, even a short-notice chance.

“If they come and say, ‘We’ll pay you $100,000 to make weight for that December fight,’” Gaethje says, “I’m making weight.”

Not that Gaethje is looking past 35-year-old Chandler (22-6, 17 finishes), a veteran whose reputation for white-knuckle wars in the cage approaches his own. As much as the headlining rematch between welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington holds plenty of intrigue, this pivotal three-round bout at 155 pounds likely serves as the star attraction for more than a few fight fans who anticipate a sure-fire Fight of the Night contender.

Gaethje knows a “riot” is not even an option if he doesn’t take care of business Saturday. 

“He is super dangerous,” Gaethje said of Chandler. “You can’t let him go out there and start hitting you in the face and that not be an issue. He’s super athletic, super dangerous, and I’m looking forward to this challenge.”

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