UFC 300 loser appreciation: You can’t have a Max Holloway without a Justin Gaethje

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 13: Justin Gaethje and Max Holloway congratulate each other in the BMF championship fight during the UFC 300 event at T-Mobile Arena on April 13, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Justin Gaethje and Max Holloway hug it out after their BMF title fight at UFC 300 ended with an epic KO. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Imagine you’re Justin Gaethje for just a moment. Put yourself there in the cage at UFC 300 in the final round against Max Holloway. Imagine looking over and seeing him standing there in his flower print shorts, politely requesting your presence in the center of the cage so that the two of you might end your BMF title fight with a slugfest in the final seconds.

We all know what comes next. But at the time, Gaethje didn’t. What he saw was one last chance to win this fight. So into the fire he went, grateful for the opportunity his opponent was giving him.

But the other part you have to consider is what Gaethje had already been through by that point. When Holloway caught him ducking into that kick at the very end of Round 1, there was an audible crack heard cageside, like someone stepping on a dry twig. That was the sound of Gaethje’s nose breaking, we realized as we watched him reaching to put it back in place on his way to his corner.

Have you ever had your nose broken? Because I have, and I definitely needed more than 60 seconds of recovery time before I felt like getting up and marching off toward more objects flying violently at my face. Gaethje not only got off the stool when called, he went out in that second round and promptly got poked in both eyes within a couple minutes.

All of which is to say, most of the humans walking this planet right now? There’s no way they’re still there in the waning moments of Round 5, eager to wade into a last-second firefight with Holloway after all that. Beyond just the toll of the physical pain and exhaustion, most of us would have simply been too discouraged by then to go charging in there, fists a-flying, still hoping to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.

Fighters have to be optimists, as the famed coach Greg Jackson once said. This doesn’t just mean that you can’t be the type who’s easily plunged into defeatist thinking. It means that you have to be so far on the opposite end of the spectrum that you’re borderline delusional.

I had found myself thinking about this earlier the same evening, while watching Jiří Procházka in his UFC 300 undercard fight against Aleksandar Rakić. Almost right away, things seemed to be going badly for Procházka. Rakić was tagging him up in that first round, easily avoiding his attacks. But watching Procházka’s face, you never saw anything resembling doubt or even concern. He fought like it never occurred to him that he could lose.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 13: Jiri Prochazka of the Czech Republic punches Aleksandar Rakic of Austria  during their light heavyweight fight at T-Mobile Arena on April 13, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Jiří Procházka, embracing the samurai ethos as his source of inspiration, never showed any doubt during his UFC 300 fight against Aleksandar Rakić. Procházka won by TKO in Round 2. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

After he’d stopped Rakić with an avalanche of unanswered strikes in the second, Procházka insisted on responding to Rakić’s claim that he was a “fake samurai.”

“That’s true, I’m not a samurai,” Procházka said in his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan. “I’m a guy from Czech Republic. But we all need to live and be inspired by something. And these samurai ideas, it’s something that’s inside me.”

This brings to mind another Jackson pearl of MMA wisdom: most of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves aren’t true. Whether you think you’re descended from old world nobility or an ancient warrior race, the facts are probably murkier and less romantic.

But if all these stories are invented anyway, you might as well invent one that’s going to help you somehow. For Procházka, the light heavyweight with the top knot and the stoic stare, the most helpful story is the way of the samurai. And if that feeds the fire inside him, why should it stop him just because he happened to be born centuries later on the other side of the world?

It’s easy to appreciate winners, especially in this sport. The visuals are so stark and obvious. Those post-fight pictures of Holloway celebrating in the foreground while behind him Gaethje is slumped on his face, drifting through the shadow realm? You don’t have to know a single thing about fight sports to know who won and who lost.

It’s a little tougher sometimes to remember to appreciate the losers. It’s also essential, because without Gaethje’s stubborn belief in himself you don’t get legendary moments like the one that happened Saturday. While it’s fair and right for us to celebrate Holloway’s incredible win, we should also spare some thoughts for Gaethje’s role in it.

As Holloway reminded us afterward, it takes two BMFs to give us a great BMF title fight. And both men knew when they accepted the fight that, in this sport, sooner or later it’ll be your turn to wake up on the floor.

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