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Sports Illustrated Notebook: Justin Gaethje resting up to reassert himself in new-look lightweight division

Taking time away to recover from a freak bicycle accident, Gaethje knows he's 'two impressive wins’ away from a title shot.
justin-gaethje

Sitting cageside at UFC 281 last Saturday, Justin Gaethje watched Michael Chandler drip in blood and fight valiantly before submitting to Dustin Poirier. Only a year removed from his own iconic performance at Madison Square Garden, Gaethje can still hear the thunderous roar of the crowd as he defeated Chandler by unanimous decision, winning one of the most violent, explosive bouts in UFC history.

"That was something special," Gaethje says. "Nothing out-tops that.

"The easy part was when I was in the battle. In the moment, there was no time to think. You are either are or you're not."

For a second straight November, Chandler was unsuccessful in his quest to win at MSG. It appeared Chandler was on the cusp of a first-round finish against Poirier, but he lost by submission in the third round, concluding a wildly entertaining, physical encounter at 281.

"Poirier’s technique can out-class anyone," Gaethje says. "The first round is so dangerous with Michael Chandler. The second round is almost as dangerous, and the third round, not as much."

Following his win at MSG, Gaethje (23-4 MMA, 6-4 UFC) lost this past May to Charles Oliveira in a lightweight title bout. Eighteen days before that fight, while riding his bicycle to the gas station on a nicotine patch run, one of the pedals malfunctioned and Gaethje suffered a vicious fall from his bike.

"I smoked my head on the road, and had road rash all down my back," Gaethje says. "It f-cked my vision for a couple seconds when it happened. Then I took damage in the fight. That's why I’m taking so much time off. That was such a hurdle.

"I need this time off. When you get a concussion, you should take time off, and that's what I'm doing."

The landscape in the lightweight division has been altered while Gaethje has been away. Islam Makhachev is the new champion, proving to be too much for Oliveira. There is also a new No. 1 contender, with reigning featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski moving up a weight class to challenge for the belt.

"I think it's fun," says Gaethje on Volkanovski’s arrival to the division. "Maybe if I’m Beneil Dariush, I'm a little upset."

Gaethje is not currently in the mix for a title shot. After losing to Oliveira, he understands that he will need to string together a couple of impressive victories before he emerges as a top contender again.

"I need two impressive wins to get back in the picture," Gaethje says. "I'll be right back there with two finishes. The title is my focus. When it's not, that's when I need to get the f-ck out of here."

The safe bet is that Gaethje returns to action in March ("I really want to be on the card that Kamaru (Usman) is on," he said). There are a number of exciting options for his return bout, including Dariush, Rafael Fiziev, and even Rafael Dos Anjos.

"Life’s crazy, but I’m excited," Gaethje says. "And I’m ready to do it again."

Derrick Lewis remains a feared heavyweight

Derrick Lewis headlines Saturday's UFC Fight Night 215 in a heavyweight bout against Serghei Spivac.

Lewis (26-10 MMA, 17-8 UFC) has lost two in a row and three of his past four. The 37-year-old is either mired in a difficult stretch or in the midst of his descent. While it is likely the former and not the latter, it is imperative that Lewis win this fight. In order to do that, he will need to finish Spivak early.

"The first minute of the fight is going to be crazy," Lewis says. "I can already picture what I’m going to do."

Never known for his stamina, Lewis is going to have his hands full with Spivac if this bout extends beyond the first five rounds. Spivac (15-3 MMA, 6-3 UFC) has won his last two, as well as five of last six, and a victory against Lewis would be significant as he works to elevate himself into the top 10 of the division.

Currently ranked seventh, Lewis is coming off a disappointing 55-second loss to Sergei Pavlovich in July. It ended by TKO, which was called extremely quickly, and it appeared Lewis was more than able to continue fighting when the fight was stopped.

"That really, really bothered me," Lewis says. "I didn’t want to end my year like that, so I’m back. That was a crazy finish. It left a bad taste in my mouth."

Lewis stated that he is prepared to fight through multiple rounds to beat Spivac, but this is a bout with an opening-round KO written all over it.

"I’m ready to go into the second or third round to win this fight," Lewis says. "But I’m looking for the first-round finish."

Anderson Seeks to Have His Way vs. Nemkov

Bellator 288 is headlined by a rematch pitting light heavyweight champion Vadim Nemkov against Corey Anderson.

This is the world grand prix final for the light heavyweight title, and a $1 million prize is also at stake. It is a peculiar rematch, as Anderson completely controlled their first fight last November. But three seconds before the end of the third round, an accidental clash of heads caused the fight to end in a no contest.

"There is unfinished business here," says Anderson (16-5). "I've got to go out and prove that wasn't a fluke and that this is my belt. He wants to do everything possible to keep that title. There's going to be fireworks."

Anderson has suffered only one loss in his last nine fights. He just signed a new six-fight contract with Bellator, and it certainly appears that some of those fights will be spent defending the light heavyweight championship. Nemkov (15-2), who had won nine in a row entering their fight, was thoroughly outclassed by Anderson, struggling in takedown defense, wrestling, and even cardio. But Anderson is anticipating an entirely different opponent in the cage.

"I've completely forgotten about that fight," explains Anderson. "The way I look at it, I’m fighting a whole new person. I know he wants to stay champ, so I'm expecting him to come back a completely different fighter. The first fight is hogwash. I'm fighting a completely different guy this time. That's the way I’ve been preparing."

After winning 10 of his 15 bouts in the UFC, Anderson now finds himself on the precipice of accomplishing a goal in Bellator that he has been chasing during his nine-year career.

"I came into this sport to be champion," Anderson says. "My goal is to be the best. Here we are, right there knocking on the door to prove it."

Nurmagomedov eyes lightweight gold at Bellator 288

The Bellator 288 co-main event is also must-see viewing, as Usman Nurmagomedov looks to extend his dominance by winning his first championship.

Nurmagomedov (15-0) challenges Patricky "Pitbull" Freire for the lightweight title. For all of his success – he is tied for the most knockout wins in Bellator history and most wins in the division – Freire (24-10) remains overlooked in discussions regarding the top lightweights in the world. Neither Patricky nor his brother Patrício feel they receive a level of respect that equates to their multiple conquests in the sport, which is an interesting subplot as the highly-touted Nurmagomedov – who will be cornered by his cousin Khabib Nurmagomedov – has received plenty of attention despite limited accolades.

"I very much respect what both the brothers have done," says the 24-year-old Nurmagomedov, who was speaking through a translator. "It's very hard to get where they are. I pay the Pitbull brothers big respect for what they’ve achieved. It's like Frankie Edgar said, 'Once you're a champion, you're always a champion.’ Patricky is a champion. I will always respect that."

The Nurmagomedov name is synonymous with victory. Even though he is the challenger and yet to be tested by a ranked opponent, he enters this title bout as the overwhelming favorite.

"Undefeated or not, my goal is to step in the cage and win," Nurmagomedov says. "The belt motivates me. In this sport, it’s what you want. That's my goal: win."

Bellator 288 takes place at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Illinois. The city is known worldwide for its famed deep-dish pizza, a delicacy Nurmagomedov has yet to taste.

"I prefer food from my home," says Nurmagomedov, who grew up in Dagestan, Russia. "But maybe I will try a slice of cheese pizza."

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.