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A history of violence: UFC star Justin Gaethje poised to join lightweight elite

A history of violence: UFC star Justin Gaethje poised to join lightweight elite
Justin Gaethje stands on the verge of joining the elite fighters at 155lbs, with high-profile fights against the likes of Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov on the menu. But first he has to get past Donald Cerrone in Canada.

Gaethje represents something of a rare breed in mixed martial arts nowadays, in that he seems deeply aware of his own mortality. His pre-fight ponderances often state that he expects that either he or his opponent will get knocked out within 15 (or 25) minutes of the cage door slamming shut, and in 22 professional fights, his Rasputin-like prophecies have come true 19 times – with 17 of those being knockouts in his favor.

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It is a style of fighting which has brought the 30-year-old to within touching distance of a title opportunity in the UFC's talent-rich lightweight division currently ruled by Khabib Nurmagomedov. But in order for match-ups like that to become a possibility, Gaethje must first pass the 'Cowboy' Cerrone test this weekend in the main attraction at UFC Vancouver.

Cerrone, 36, holds the most wins of any fighter in UFC history and a victory over a fighter of his caliber has been shown to immediately raise the stock of those who manage to pull it off, as Brits Darren Till and Leon Edwards both discovered when they secured high profile wins over the American in recent years. 

Gaethje's potential prize? The aforementioned title shot is a possibility (after Tony Ferguson, of course), but perhaps more interesting is a potential matchup against Conor McGregor ahead of the Irishman's UFC return, likely early next year.

Both Gaethje and McGregor were on course to fight this summer, but a hand injury suffered by the Irishman in training has delayed his comeback, forcing the UFC to look elsewhere.

Interestingly, both Cerrone and Gaethje were the two prime candidates to be McGregor's foil for his first fight since losing to Nurmagomedov 11 months ago so, if you squint your eyes just right, this could be seen as an eliminator bout.

Beyond that, there is an undercurrent in mixed martial arts today which says that Gaethje might actually present the most difficult stylistic challenge to the Russian champion. He placed 10th in the 2010 NCAA Division I championship and was awarded All-American honors, but while his wrestling credentials are in the upper echelon of those in his weight class, Gaethje's game has always been predicated on an "if you hit me once, I'll hit you twice" strategy.

This wild style has seen his fanbase swell enormously since making his UFC debut in July 2017, even through ridiculously exciting defeats at the hands of Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier - both of which were awarded 'Fight of the Night' honors. 

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All of that said, this Saturday represents perhaps the biggest opportunity of Gaethje's career. A win this weekend opens up a bonanza of potential opportunities.

From there, the sky is the limit for the man known as "The Highlight".

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