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Justin Gaethje has had no shortage of career highlights. But it is hard to deny that his fight Saturday at UFC 286 won’t forever be part of his highlight reel.
A sellout crowd at London’s O2 Arena and a pay-per-view audience were treated to a vintage Gaethje performance, one where he overcame the extremely dangerous Rafael Fiziev by majority decision.
“I’m made for this. It’s what I do,” says Gaethje. “I’m a matchmaker’s dream. I also have the best coaching. I’m proud of my performance against someone so young and so hungry, and now we’re onto the next one.”
Four years his junior, and possessing a blend of speed and knockout power, Fiziev (12–2) fell short against Gaethje despite a convincing first round.
Fiziev’s six-fight win streak was effectively snapped in the second and third rounds, when Gaethje executed a measured, patient approach—one that started with his hook, then finished with his uppercut—that left Fiziev bruised, bloodied and beaten.
“The plan was to control his feet for the whole fight, and I think I did a great job with that,” says Gaethje (24–4). “I started landing in the second round and I landed a big one. That’s when he started to fade.
“I’m a huge fan of Rafael. I thought he did a great job of controlling his emotions on this stage. He’ll be back, and he’ll be dangerous. He’ll be f------ people up for years to come.”
At the end of the fight, Gaethje climbed to the top of the cage and performed a backflip, putting an exclamation point on his dominant showing.
“It’s been so long since I’ve done one, and I’m getting older, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to do one again,” says Gaethje. “I knew I won. At least I was 99% sure.”
For an instant, it appeared that Gaethje may have lost the fight on the judges’ scorecards. That did not prove to be the case, although he was expecting it to be unanimous instead of a majority decision.
“I definitely didn’t lose two rounds,” says Gaethje. “I thought the first round was close, then I won the second and I won the third round. And it was weird how it was announced. [Bruce Buffer] said, ‘29-28, Gaethje,’ then another ‘29-28,’ but didn’t say a name, so it really threw me off.”
Gaethje won the fight, as well as the $50,000 Fight of the Night bonus, and he reinserted himself into title contention with the victory. Along with Dustin Poirier and the winner of the upcoming Charles Oliveira–Beneil Dariush bout, Gaethje is right in the mix for a shot at lightweight champ Islam Makhachev.
“I did my due diligence,” says Gaethje. “I fought someone ranked below me. Now I’m going to fight someone ahead of me. However long that takes, I’ll wait.”
Colby Covington returning for third title shot in last five fights
Like it or not, we’re about to get a healthy dose of Covington back in our lives.
But has time already passed by “Donald Trump’s fighter favorite”?
Covington successfully breathed life into his career with a Trump-supporting gimmick. It paired well with his skill set; Covington is an elite wrestler, but he grinds and wears down opponents through his world-class cardio, which is not a recipe for exciting fights. So he capitalized on one of the most surprising, unforeseen story lines in U.S. politics–the improbable journey of Trump to the White House. It didn’t matter if you loved or hated Trump, you certainly weren’t indifferent about him.
Covington built his persona around Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra—and it seized hold of people’s attention. If you liked Trump, you probably liked it. If you didn’t like Trump, you likely found it distasteful. But it brought relevancy to Covington’s career, who has few peers in MMA, especially in the welterweight division.
Now Covington is back, and he played an integral role at UFC 286. He was shown sitting near the cage, specifically mentioned in Leon Edwards’s post-fight interview in the Octagon, and even interviewed backstage after the main event while the pay-per-view was still live. During his 286 press conference, Dana White confirmed that Covington is next in line for a title shot.
Evolution is critical in life. It’s a backbone of the UFC’s ongoing success, and its fighters need to constantly do so to remain the best in the cage. While Covington remains an elite fighter, it will be fascinating to see whether fans tire of his act—or whether he can still capture their attention. This is his third title shot in his last five fights, which is remarkable, so he needs to do something other than repeat the same stale message that was highly controversial before his two fights against Kamaru Usman in 2019 and ’21.
This would be a nice addition to the International Week fight card in July, but it is not big enough to draw a pay-per-view at $79.99. One benefit for Edwards is that story lines are always stronger with an easily definable good guy and bad guy.
There is no doubt he will be the protagonist against the antagonist Covington. To draw the attention that the UFC desires, however, Covington is going to need to evolve his act.
Belal Muhammad overlooked for title shot
Muhammad does not move the needle. At least that must be the prevailing viewpoint in the UFC. It was cemented at UFC 286 when Covington was announced the new No. 1 contender for Edwards’s welterweight title instead of Muhammad.
For those keeping score, Covington (17–3) fought once in 2022, a unanimous decision victory against Jorge Masvidal. It took place over a year ago last March, and his fight before that was a unanimous decision loss in November at Madison Square Garden against Usman. That marked Covington’s second failed attempt to defeat Usman. While he did follow up the loss with a victory against Masvidal, he has largely been quiet since amid a legal battle with Masvidal over a physical altercation that took place last year outside a restaurant in Miami.
In that same time frame, Muhammad (22–3, 1 NC) has been active. He defeated Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson by unanimous decision in December 2021, then followed that up with another unanimous decision victory against Vicente Luque last April. Muhammad then produced a TKO in October against Sean Brady, breaking his undefeated streak, which had been at 15. Thompson (seventh), Brady (ninth), and Luque (11th) are all ranked ahead of Masvidal.
Muhammad has won his last eight fights, but there is a no-contest in the middle.
That took place against, conveniently, against Edwards, who poked Muhammad in the eye during the second round of their bout in 2021. This would be a perfect time to run that fight back, especially with the title on the line. But Muhammad does not draw headlines like Covington, and he is paying the price for it. Even though interest in Covington has waned, he is still considered a better draw than Muhammad.
Instead of a title shot, Muhammad’s next opponent is tentatively scheduled to be the undefeated Shavkat Rakhmonov. It will be nearly impossible to deny Muhammad a title shot if he wins that bout, but it is no certainty—Edwards could be in line for an immediate rematch if he loses to Covington, or Edwards, if he wins, could finally have his showdown against Masvidal. Unfortunately for Muhammad, his time is now—but he is not getting his shot.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.