UFC lightweight Justin Gaethje has said the only reason he accepted a fight against Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 is because it's for an interim 155-pound championship. And yet he also says he won't feel like a UFC champion if he wins that belt.
Gaethje (21-2) is scheduled to face Ferguson (25-3) on May 9, at a location to be disclosed. The bout came together in late March, when the UFC realized Ferguson's original opponent, undisputed lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, was likely stuck in his native Dagestan due to travel restrictions linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
Gaethje, 31, is notorious for not accepting fights on short notice, but said the opportunity to fight for an interim title was too much to pass up. That said, Gaethje will consider himself a true UFC titleholder only if he ends up defeating Nurmagomedov (28-0) at a later date.
"When they wrap that belt around me, it won't be the destination," Gaethje told ESPN on Wednesday. "It will be a map to the top. That's who I'm looking at. It'll be nice to have a belt wrapped around, but for me, it won't mean the same. It won't mean I'm a world champion in the UFC.
"When I beat Tony, I'm fighting Khabib next. That's what I'm here for, to be the best in the world. And when I fight him, I want him to try and kill me, because I won't respect him if he doesn't."
The buildup to this fight has been anything but smooth. Gaethje originally agreed to fight Ferguson on April 18, which was the original date of UFC 249. The UFC was forced to pull the plug on that event on April 9, however, after broadcast partner ESPN asked the company to stand down. By April 14, UFC president Dana White had already announced the May 9 event.
Gaethje said he found out about both developments on the internet, and immediately threw his diet out the window when the fight was canceled on April 9. He is since back on track, and said that although he still didn't have a full camp, he is confident in his ability to win the fight.
When asked if he has any concern the event could get pulled out from underneath him again, Gaethje said he couldn't afford to think that way.
"I have to be 100 percent confident," Gaethje said. "I was 100 percent confident it was going to happen on April 18, because if I'm not, I pull my foot off the gas."