The UFC's lightweight division could experience a number of shake-ups in the second half of 2019, and one of its most entertaining contenders is eager to know where he fits in.
Justin Gaethje (20-2) has resumed sparring and wrestling practice after taking a short break following a first-round knockout of Edson Barboza in March. The Colorado native is looking to book a fight in late summer, although no opponent has been agreed on.
The UFC paired off some of the top names in the 155-pound division last week. Former interim champion Tony Ferguson will face Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone at UFC 238 on June 8 in Chicago. Nate Diaz and Anthony Pettis have agreed to fight at UFC 240 on Aug. 17 in Anaheim, California.
Where does that leave Gaethje? ESPN got the former World Series of Fighting champion's thoughts on that and much more.
ESPN: You said you're back in the gym. In your mind, what are you preparing for?
Gaethje: S---, man, the peak of my career. I'm ranked No. 5 right now. There are four guys and the champion in front of me. I'm looking for one of those guys, and I'm looking for a big fight this summer. I don't want to fight guys ranked behind me. I've got two knockouts in a row. James Vick was ranked behind me. I feel I deserve someone in front of me.
Looking at the landscape, Conor McGregor [who last fought against Nurmagomedov in October] is No. 3 right now. If it's not him, there's not an open fight right now. So, that's the fight I want. He's No. 3. If he's not going to fight, take him out of the rankings. I'd be cool with that, too, and we can move on from there.
"There are four guys and the champion in front of me. I'm looking for one of those guys, and I'm looking for a big fight this summer." Justin Gaethje
ESPN: McGregor has mentioned you on social media after several of your fights, including the last one. How likely do you think it is he'll accept a fight with you?
Gaethje: I don't know, but as far as I'm concerned, he's in the rankings so he should be available. I'm just sitting in my house in Colorado. I have no idea what the hell is going on with him. But he's No. 3. He's the only guy ranked ahead of me that doesn't have a fight. He needs a fight to get back to the title shot. That's me.
I don't know what else to say about it. Unless he just does not want to fight me, if he wants to be that picky about it. I can't control that. I'll worry about things I can control. But I would definitely love to f--- him up. Every time I get a chance to f--- someone up who talks a lot of s---, it makes it more fun for me.
ESPN: What do you think about him being ranked No. 3?
Gaethje: He was the champion and he lost one fight since, so I've got no crap against that. But the UFC needs to handle their business and put him in the cage, so I can f--- him up.
ESPN: Did the UFC offer you the Ferguson fight on June 8, before booking him against Cerrone?
Gaethje: Yeah, that's not how I do things, man. They called me and wanted me to do it in four weeks. My coach [Trevor Wittman] was going to be out of town for two of those weeks. The way that I fight, man, I'd be a fool to work as hard as I have my whole life to get here, and compromise myself taking a fight like that.
I said, 'Let's do July 6 instead,' and obviously we know what happened. I told them that was too fast, but I feel like things are going to move pretty fast in this division now. We'll see how things play out.
ESPN: How do you see the expected title fight between Nurmagomedov and Poirier going?
Gaethje: I don't give Poirier much of a shot. Maybe a 16 percent shot. I think Khabib is going to take him down immediately, or create some kind of scramble immediately. I don't think Poirier stops his takedowns.
ESPN: How do you see Ferguson vs. Cerrone going?
Gaethje: Tony beats him up. Tony's better. Tony is just better than Cowboy.
ESPN: How do you see Diaz vs. Pettis going?
Gaethje: Probably Pettis winning. It's been a long time since Nate fought; that doesn't help. Pettis has a lot of confidence right now off that last win [against Stephen Thompson]. He's probably training hard every day now that he's got this roll going.
Gaethje: No. I'm more surprised that everyone was so surprised by it. She's already vulnerable, and then put her into that situation, she's more vulnerable. She just went through a traumatic experience. Most humans would be like, 'I don't want to do that again,' if it just happened to them. It's hard to take anything a fighter says seriously on fight night, because you're either fired up or you're just really emotional. You're not thinking clearly. You're not analyzing all the options.
She's the best female fighter in the world, so ... I want her to enjoy being the best female fighter in the world. If she's gonna do it, I mean, it's hard. I don't know. I think there are a lot of things she could be great at. But I don't think she's done fighting.