Justin Gaethje didn’t win Saturday at UFC 254, but his battle isn’t over yet.
Happy and relatively healthy afterward, Gaethje (22-3 MMA, 5-3 UFC) reflected on his second-round submission loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov through an optimistic lens. Gaethje has suffered losses before, so as hard as the feeling is, it’s nothing new. He doesn’t see one as a defining moment.
“I posted earlier that I would never let my nephew down,” Gaethje said. “Just because you lose, it’s not over. I lost twice and look at me. I was just fighting for a belt. There are not a lot of people in the sport – not experts, not non-experts, not the (expletives) at home – that would’ve ever thought I’d be here after I lost to (Dustin) Poirier that night (in 2018). My coaches believe it. I believed it, because I love competing so much. Why not? Let’s go.”
The sting of losing always exists. Despite the defeat, however, Gaethje had fun inside the cage – and embraced an emotional Nurmagomedov in the moments after the finish. Gaethje said he’s proud of the successes he had, even if they’re small consolation prizes.
“I’m happy to have had that billing,” Gaethje said. “When the bell rings, it’s a special feeling. I love it. I don’t think there’s anybody that loves that more than I do. I knew that if I was going to lose that I’m not scared of getting choked out. Getting knocked out does suck because there is consequences – health-wise to that. Getting choked out, you get a nice little dream, and it’s on to the next one. It sucks. I’m hurt.”
As for what’s next, Gaethje is interested in whichever opportunity comes his way. Nurmagomedov (29-0 MMA, 13-0 UFC) announced his retirement after the fight, likely opening the door to a vacant title fight.
“With him retiring, I’m No. 1,” Gaethje said. “Poirier and (Conor) McGregor are going to fight (Jan. 23). They haven’t made it official, so if McGregor wants to bounce out and get the belt, then I’m right here. If they want to give it to someone else, then so be it. But I’ll be ready. I’m ready to fight again. This is my job. This is my life. I love it so much.”
UFC 254 took place Saturday at Flash Forum on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. The main card streamed on pay-per-view after prelims on ESPN 2/ESPN+/UFC Fight Pass.