Justin Gaethje is not in the business of playing mind games.
Less than a week remains until Gaethje challenges Charles Oliveira for the lightweight title in the main event of UFC 274. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Gaethje responded to Oliveira's comments to MMA Clips Brazil, where the reigning champ stated, "I think that's what (Gaethje is) trying to do, to win the mind games."
Gaethje's true intent has nothing to do with mind games, but rather causing enough damage to Oliveira in the cage to have his hand raised.
"I'm going to knock a hole right in his face," Gaethje (23-3 MMA, 6-3 UFC) said. "I'm not here to play mind games or talk s---."
Oliveira (32-8 MMA, 20-8 UFC) is riding a career-defining 10-fight win streak. Prior to that, he had dropped three of four and his future in the UFC looked bleak. A lot has changed since his last defeat, suffered at the hands of the now-retired Paul Felder in December of 2017. Oliveira's last three wins have been especially significant, bludgeoning Tony Ferguson in 2020 before a TKO win against Michael Chandler to win the vacant title last May and then a submission victory against Dustin Poirier in December. Yet for all Oliveira's talent, Gaethje believes he found a fatal flaw.
"Luckily for me, Charles is growing a big head right now," Gaethje said. "He's going to say some crazy things at the press conference. Hopefully he thinks he's infallible. That would be great for me."
One of the most elite wrestlers in the UFC, Gaethje is a former interim lightweight titleholder. He was defeated by Khabib Nurmagomedov in their October 2020 title unification bout, and his driving force remains a reign as undisputed champ.
"Khabib was amazing that night, larger than life," Gaethje said. "That won't be the case on May 7. I'm going to break (Oliveira) mentally and physically. I want it more.
"History will say that I was a champion. But I want to do it in a different way. And I get that chance against Oliveira."
Wrestling defines Gaethje as a competitor. While he is also known as a ferocious striker, which was on clear display in his last fight against Chandler at UFC 268 in November, it is his wrestling that will likely play a critical role on Saturday.
Fifty percent of wrestling is stopping your opponent from taking you down, and Gaethje needs to exert his will to dictate the pace and force Oliveira out of his comfort zone as an elite jiu-jitsu artist.
"A wrestler, that's what I am," Gaethje said. "The work that it takes to accomplish anything in wrestling is unlike anything else I've ever taken part of. After thousands of hours on the mat, wrestling helped me gain that mental fortitude, a belief in myself, and the confidence to push through whenever I feel like I can't go on."
Gaethje earned this title shot by defeating Chandler by unanimous decision. It was the Fight of the Night at Madison Square Garden, with both men landing haymakers on one another. Similar to Gaethje's 2020 victory against Ferguson, it was a relentless string of constant strikes that led to the win. That will be a difficult strategy against Oliveira, who also possesses a frightening amount of power in his fists, but Gaethje is willing to engage in a fistfight.
"I was more at peace in that fight against Michael Chandler than I've been in my entire life," Gaethje said. "I was completely calm. It's exactly where I wanted to be. And I knew what was at stake, which was this title shot."
This summer will mark Gaethje's fifth year in the UFC. He believes his time has come to win a world title.
"No matter how much you have going in your favor, it takes one shot to change the tide," Gaethje said. "I knew Chandler was dangerous, and that's the way I approached the fight. I would not have been satisfied had I not got that win.
"Now it's time for me to crown myself world champion in the UFC. That's what I am going to do on May 7."
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.