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SportsMixed Martial Arts

Gaethje stops Johnson in 2nd round of spectacular UFC debut

LAS VEGAS - Justin Gaethje finished battering Michael Johnson and ran off to climb the cage in celebration of his debut UFC victory. He briefly stood atop the fence, but slipped, hitting his head while falling 6 feet back to the canvas.

He fell again on his second attempt, but Gaethje found his balance on his third try. He returned to Earth with a joyous, graceful backflip .

"I'm not a quitter. I proved it," the lightweight said with a grin. "Hey, it was really slippery up there. I was tired. But I can nail (the backflip) 10 out of 10 times once I get up there and plant my feet. I only (do it) when I get a sweet knockout, and that was sweet."

Gaethje has spent years working to reach the biggest stage in mixed martial arts. When the former college wrestler finally hit the big-time Friday night, he showed why he could be the UFC's next big thing.

Gaethje (18-0) stopped Johnson in the second round of a savage fight that encapsulated his entire style. From the opening minute to the final flurry, he lived up to his reputation as a fighter with punishing skills, athletic brilliance and a reckless disregard for his own safety.

"I've got the biggest heart, and I'm the most violent guy in the division," Gaethje said. "I'll prove it time and time again. I'll take the most boring fighter and have Fight of the Year. That's what I do. I'm an entertainer."

The UFC agrees: Dana White awarded Gaethje two bonuses totaling $100,000 after the bout.

Gaethje got wobbled and hurt by Johnson during a frenetic first round and again in the second, but the UFC newcomer took control of the fight after staggering Johnson midway through the round with a knee to the body. Gaethje finished the veteran Johnson (18-12) with primal punches and knees that elicited gasps from the T-Mobile Arena crowd.

After two aborted backflips and one beauty, Gaethje went to work on the microphone to make sure everyone knows he can sell a fight as well.

"Who's next?" Gaethje asked the crowd. "Where is my equal? Where is he?"

That might be lightweight powerhouses Tony Ferguson or Khabib Nurmagomedov, although Gaethje doesn't have their pedigree just yet. It might even be lightweight champion Conor McGregor, who took time out during his training for Floyd Mayweather to catch Gaethje's performance.

"That was a good contest," McGregor tweeted . "Two fighters, fighting."

"I'm in his weight class, (so) he'd better be watching," Gaethje replied. "He has a big target on his back, and I'm aiming for it. Real recognizes real. That dude is a warrior. I'm a warrior. If I get the interim belt around my waist ... I'm not going to ask for the money fight. I'm going to be the money fight."

Despite his wrestling background, Gaethje gained his fame as a willing brawler with potent fists and a reckless approach to the sport. He has stopped 16 of his first 18 MMA opponents after finishing Johnson, a respected veteran who infuriated Gaethje with pre-fight trash talk.

Earlier, welterweight Jesse Taylor stopped Dhiego Lima with a second-round choke to win the finale of "The Ultimate Fighter," the UFC's long-running reality competition show.

In the culmination of a remarkable redemption story, the 34-year-old Taylor earned a spot back in the UFC nine years after he was dropped from the promotion. White removed Taylor from the finale of the seventh season of "The Ultimate Fighter" in 2008 after his erratic behavior.

Taylor embarked on an MMA odyssey encompassing 36 pro fights in a dozen countries before he earned another spot on the reality show.

"It's been a crazy, long journey, and this is the goal at the end," Taylor said. "But this chapter is closed, and I want to make a run for (the title). I want to see how far I can take this ride."

Taylor dominated the first round against Lima with superior wrestling, but was knocked down by a punch early in the second. Taylor turned it to his advantage, clamping down on Lima from the ground and eventually working into position for the finishing choke.

With his victory, Taylor earned $290,000 and a second chance.

"This goes out to all the people that have messed up in life and never given up," an emotional Taylor said in the cage. "Just keep going. Keep going. Don't stop."

New York Sports