LAS VEGAS -- There were two questions surrounding Justin Gaethje going into his UFC debut.
Would the wildly entertaining lightweight play it any safer now that he'd be facing high-level UFC opposition? And if not, would his high-risk style still translate to victories against the best of the best?
The answers could not have been more clear.
A former WSOF champion, Gaethje (18-0) finished UFC veteran Michael Johnson (17-12) in spectacular fashion at The Ultimate Fighter Finale at T-Mobile Arena on Friday. Referee John McCarthy stopped the bout at 4 minutes, 48 seconds of the second round, after Johnson knelt and covered up near the fence from a barrage of strikes.
The back-and-forth brawl is an instant candidate for Fight of the Year. Both Gaethje and Johnson were hurt multiple times, but it was Gaethje who found a way to dig deep and put Johnson away when he had him rocked.
"I love this," said Gaethje, who trains out of Denver. "You cannot break me, I promise you. You better put me to sleep or I'm coming for your head, your leg, your body.
"I'm 18-0 with 15 knockouts. Where is my equal? Where is he?"
The action began seconds after the opening bell and never really stopped. Gaethje hit Johnson hard with a right uppercut early on, and he kept a steady pressure on him with leg kicks and right hands.
At one point in the opening minutes, Johnson landed a left hand, which Gaethje smiled at. He began waving his hands in a forward motion at Johnson, even though the two were never all that far from each other. Later in the round, however, Johnson staggered Gaethje with an uppercut of his own and closed out the final 10 seconds with a flurry near the fence.
Gaethje found himself in trouble again early in the second round. He was badly off-balance from punches in the opening exchange and started to look fatigued. Just when it seemed as though Johnson had stolen all momentum, Gaethje roared back with an uppercut that Johnson eventually fell over from. After Johnson went down, Gaethje calmly walked back to the center of the cage and motioned for him to get up.
It was a fantastic debut for the 28-year-old, who asked the UFC to give him its best in his debut. A former collegiate wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado, Gaethje is now 18-0, plus a 7-0 amateur record.
The performance earned Gaethje two of the UFC's four Fight Night bonuses. He netted $50,000 apiece for "Fight of the Night" and "Performance of the Night."
Current UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor was apparently watching the fight, as the Irishman shared on Twitter, "That was a good contest. Two fighters, fighting."
At the postfight news conference, Gaethje elaborated on what he wants next.
"Whoever gets me closer to an interim title fight. McGregor is not here," he said. "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 sleep. If not, you saw what happens tonight."