If you wind the clock back to the end of 2019, Justin Gaethje was the odd man out in the UFC lightweight title picture. Riding a streak of three consecutive knockouts, Gaethje seemed an obvious choice at the end of the year to be lined up as the next challenger for the winner of the originally-scheduled UFC 249 title fight between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and challenger Tony Ferguson.
But UFC president Dana White had other plans. Plans that revolved around a certain returning Irish superstar. Things can change quickly in the UFC, especially in the age of COVID-19, and Gaethje will now meet Ferguson for the interim championship in the main event of Saturday's UFC 249 card.
When Conor McGregor made his long-awaited return to the Octagon at UFC 246 in January to face Donald Cerrone in a welterweight fight, White declared a win would make McGregor the next challenger for the lightweight title. That McGregor had only fought once in the UFC since 2016 -- a lopsided loss to Nurmagomedov that ran McGregor's UFC lightweight record to 1-1 -- coupled with the fact that the fight was in a different weight class did not matter to White.
As criticism over the McGregor situation mounted, White went on the offensive -- and against Gaethje. White told ESPN, "We've offered Gaethje a lot of fights that Gaethje hasn't taken either. So Conor is in line next for this fight if he beats Cowboy."
The quote left Gaethje perplexed.
"I've been trying to figure out what he's been talking about," Gaethje told Sirius XM's MMA Tonight. "I know when he did that interview not too long ago, he kept saying, 'Justin Gaethje knows what I'm talking about, what's going on; he knows what's happening.' I literally had no idea what he was talking about, so it's pretty crazy."
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Gaethje said he assumed the fight in question was an offer to fight Ferguson on short notice in mid-2019, which he turned down due to the lack of time to prepare but did offer to take the fight with proper time to train. Ultimately, it did not matter because McGregor ran through Cerrone in 40 seconds and Gaethje was moved to the back of the line. Gaethje was not happy with the situation.
"I think I put myself in a great position to fight for a world title, to try to be the best in the world," Gaethje said at a media event in March. "If Conor wants to go past me, he has to go through me. I think that's the only way to legitimize the process and make it right. I think that's the fight."
At that point, the fight between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov was still planned as a massive main event in Brooklyn on April 18. But the world began to change, and quickly. As the coronavirus pandemic began to spread, Brooklyn's Barclays Center was out as the UFC 249 venue with gathering restrictions limited. White continued to push the idea that the event would take place on April 18, but as the days ticked by without a venue announced, Nurmagomedov returned to his home country of Russia to be with his family and await word of where he would have to travel for the fight.
A short time later, Nurmagomedov was out. While in Russia, travel restrictions tightened and there was no logical manner for him to meet Ferguson. Suddenly, Gaethje didn't seem like the worst option to White and the UFC, and on April 6, it was made official that he would step in to face Ferguson with the interim championship on the line. This time, accepting a fight with Ferguson -- who is riding his own 12-fight winning streak -- on short notice made sense for Gaethje. He accepted that an interim belt "won't mean I'm a world champion in the UFC," but came with its own benefits.
"What an interim title means to me and every other fighter, when you are a champion, you get a piece of pay-per-view," Gaethje told ESPN. "When I attain this belt, that makes me a champion on paper, and that gets me pay-per-view points. I fight for money, and this opportunity is huge for me in that regard. Same with Tony. I think that's why he's taking it."
But the journey to a title shot was not yet over for Gaethje. The April 18 event fell apart when White's plan to hold the card at an "undisclosed location" was quickly revealed to be Tachi Palace Casino Resort in California, a Native American casino that would allow the UFC to skirt federal regulations related to the ongoing pandemic. Political pressure on Disney and ESPN, the UFC's exclusive pay-per-view distributor, led to the UFC being asked to back down.
The event was revived for May 9 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. The state had become attractive when the governor declared entertainment workers "essential employees." Seeing WWE take advantage of this situation by continuing to hold events in its Orlando performance center, the state seemed a likely destination for any the UFC.
Once again, UFC 249 was on and Gaethje was still in the main event against Ferguson, but with extra time to prepare for the biggest fight of his life.
"No matter what, this is not perfect circumstances, but a fight is a fight," Gaethje told BT Sport. "When it was on 14-day's notice, that was much different than now, or 20-day's notice. Now I've had five weeks to train. It's not what I've asked for or wanted, but I do believe that before this I was in better shape."
The opportunity is now at hand. Gaethje did his part to earn a title shot with three consecutive first-round knockouts. And when it seemed the UFC didn't want to give him the opportunity he felt had been earned, instead wanting to hand a shot to the big-money star, a global pandemic opened the door. Now it's do-or-die for Gaethje, but that's nothing new. He has only seen the judges' scorecards twice in 23 career fights.
"My fights, either I get finished or they get finished inside three rounds," Gaethje told ESPN. "A matchup like this, with me and Tony Ferguson, one of us is going to finish the other inside three rounds."