PHOENIX – Justin Gaethje has been here before, but it didn’t go his way.
Not every title challenger gets a second chance, but Gaethje (23-3 MMA, 6-3 UFC) has that opportunity Saturday at UFC 274 against lightweight champion Charles Oliveira (32-8 MMA, 20-8 UFC).
While many fans, and even some critics, believe Oliveira’s run has shown he’s shaken his old reputation as a fighter who would break mentally, Gaethje isn’t convinced a full-on evolution has occurred.
“We’re talking about a man with confidence, a different person, but ultimately the same Charles is still there,” Gaethje told reporters, including MMA Junkie, at media day on Wednesday. “The same Charles that fought Cub Swanson, the same Charles that fought Donald Cerrone, the same Charles that fought RDA, Pettis – choices were made in that by him, and the choice to quit was made. I’m going to give him that choice on Saturday night. I guarantee that. … I think (he has changed). However, once a coward, always a coward. I’m not calling him a coward, but you can’t just take that away. It’s there. Khabib never showed you that. That’s why you can’t compare those two.”
When Gaethje compares the opposition he faced in his first promotional title challenge in October 2020, Khabib Nurmagomedov, to Oliveira, there is no real comparison. It’s night and day.
“They are definitely not the same athlete,” Gaethje said. “Charles certainly is not more dangerous than Khabib. His ability to take damage is not the same, proven through the times we’ve seen him fight. All my criticism of Charles is from a kid that we were talking about that we all watched grow.”
No two fighters are the same challenge, and that includes Nurmagomedov and Oliveira. For Gaethje, he enters UFC 274 with the approach of being the classic version of himself that fans have known to love.
“Our tactic (in 2020) was going to be to evade. That’s the first and only time I’ve ever had that mindset, and it won’t happen on Saturday,” Gaethje said. “If he marches through me, then good for him. But I won’t be moving backward.”
If Gaethje wins, he’ll have championship gold wrapped around his waist in front of a slew of local fans cheering his name. He estimated approximately 4,000 people from his hometown of Safford, Ariz., a city 165 miles east of Phoenix, will attend. Maybe title gold doesn’t mean a lot to some fighters, but it’ll mean the world to Gaethje.
“It’s huge, especially (with) who we’re talking about,” Gaethje said. “Charles, that’s a man with confidence. It’s by far going to be my biggest accomplishment in this game, in this sport. These are the good old days. I cannot wait, but one day I’ll get to look back, and all of this will be special.”
UFC 274 takes place Saturday at Footprint Center, with the main card airing on ESPN+ pay-per-view after prelims on ESPN/ESPN+.
Justin Gaethje plans to give Charles Oliveira chance to quit at UFC 274: ‘The same Charles is still there’