Justin Gaethje (Phil Lambert/Combat Press)

Who Should Be First For Justin Gaethje in the UFC?

Justin Gaethje has signed with the UFC. Now, we can finally get an answer to the question of just how good Gaethje really is.

Since his signing, Gaethje has wasted no time taking to social media and putting his new division on notice. He was name dropped by Al Iaquinta as a possible opponent and has touted himself as a guaranteed “Fight of the Night” performance bonus. So, where does this leave the undefeated, former World Series of Fighting lightweight champ? Let’s take a look at some possible opponents and figure out who makes the most sense.

Al Iaquinta

Let’s start here, because Iaquinta threw his name into the ring. Although, in fairness, what hasn’t he thrown out there lately?


This isn’t a bad fight. Both guys are very willing to engage in high stakes stand-up and are much more interested in throwing punches than avoiding them.

With all due respect to Iaquinta, who’s a hell of a fighter, he just has too much stuff going on right now. He is inevitably going to say something in the pre-fight about the UFC that Gaethje, being a new fighter, will be asked to address. Also, if Gaethje wins, then how much closer is he to a title shot? How close is Iaquinta?

Conor McGregor

Here’s another one we should get out of the way.

Gaethje matches up OK with McGregor. However, the Irishman most likely will not step back into an Octagon until he fights and then rematches Floyd Mayweather, Jr. There is too much money to be made in the boxing ring, McGregor is too young and the time is now for him and Mayweather. That will probably tie up the next year or so of the lightweight champ’s fighting life.

We have seen a fighter walk into the UFC as a champion from another league and get a title shot, but that was a long time coming and the champ wasn’t McGregor.

Gilbert Melendez

Speaking of a champ working out of one organization and getting a title shot in the UFC, here’s the guy who did it at lightweight.

This isn’t a bad fight, stylistically speaking. Both men are content to move forward with very little regard for self preservation. It would be a “Fight of the Night” candidate for sure, but the UFC has to be careful here. Gaethje is a young stud fighter who is undefeated.

The company has to nurture him and bring him along. If he gets knocked out by the No. 14 lightweight, then it halts the train. Eddie Alvarez lost his first fight and rebounded to the title, but any fighter will lose some marketability in the process.

Dustin Poirier, Michael Chiesa and Michael Johnson

Again, this comes down to what result helps the promotion out the most. The UFC needs to decide if it is trying to have someone make a name off of Gaethje or have Gaethje make a name off of someone else.

If Gaethje is the one the UFC is pushing — and that would be the thought, based on his resume, background and the fact he is newly signed — then he needs a much bigger name or higher-ranked fighter than borderline guys like Poirier, Chiesa or Johnson. These fighters are all probably close to Gaethje in terms of skill, but none of them have the same star potential.

Again, too much risk and not enough reward. At least with Melendez, Gaethje would get a big name for the resume.

Nate Diaz and Donald Cerrone

Diaz and Cerrone certainly check off the name-recognition requirement, but neither fight is great for Gaethje.

Cerrone is calling himself a welterweight these days, but he’s really a moneyweight fighter. Same with Diaz. However, there is no real money for them here. Gaethje could maybe draw a co-headliner or main-event slot in a Fight Night card, but he would be further down the card of a pay-per-view.

Stylistically, both guys are savvy enough to keep Gaethje on the outside and jab and kick him all night long.

Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson

These would be interesting fights for Gaethje.

Nurmagomedov is someone who might finally test Gaethje’s wrestling. Ferguson, meanwhile, would be content to bang it out with him. These fights makes sense stylistically, and they certainly raises Gaethje’s profile. However, it makes no sense for Nurmagomedov or Ferguson. They are going to fight each other or take on McGregor and Diaz. That’s really what’s best for their careers and it would be silly to diverge from that path.

Eddie Alvarez and Edson Barboza

These fights make the most sense for all parties involved.

In Alvarez, Gaethje finds a former champion who likes to fight inside and swing for the fences, just like him. A win would give him a victory over a common opponent of McGregor and put him high up in the rankings. This would be the fast track for Gaethje. If he beats Alvarez, the next fight is Nurmagomedov or Ferguson and then the champ.

If he were to fight Barboza, then he could jump over a lot of fighters in the division with a win. Barboza is also a guy who is looking to stand up and can be pulled into a close fight, despite his proficiency as a kicker and a jabber. Furthermore, there is upside for Barboza if he beats a yet to be exposed, undefeated, former champ.