Justin Gaethje was answering an innocuous question at UFC 268 media day when he nearly misspoke.
"You got to be perfect for fif—," said Gaethje, pausing briefly to confirm his brain was giving his mouth the correct information. "This one is 15 minutes, usually it’s 25."
Had he slipped, it would have been understandable. While Gaethje (22-3, 5-3 UFC) is scheduled for a three-round bout against Michael Chandler (22-6, 1-1 UFC) on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, five-round fights have been the standard for much of Gaethje’s career. The former UFC interim lightweight champion has been scheduled for 25 minutes in all but one of his eight UFC bouts, the last time nearly four years ago.
A matchup of former World Series of Fighting and Bellator MMA champions, the Gaethje-Chandler bout was expected to be the lead-in for Saturday’s title fights. On Wednesday, a UFC official said it now will kick off the pay-per-view portion of the card to accommodate Gaethje’s coach, Trevor Wittman, who also is cornering Rose Namajunas and Kamaru Usman in their championship defenses later that night.
Gaethje has fought in main events in 11 of his last 12 fights dating to 2015. Of his previous 14 fights, only two were scheduled for the shorter distance. One of those originally was a five-round WSOF title fight but was shortened to a three-rounder when his opponent missed weight.
Despite that history, Gaethje said taking this fight was a natural fit for him and his camp.
"Especially on a card of this magnitude here at Madison Square Garden, my two teammates, it makes perfect sense for all of us," Gaethje told Newsday on Wednesday.
A three-rounder may sound like less of a workload, but the shorter length adds its own complications. Gaethje said he’ll need a different mentality against Chandler to ensure a positive result in the limited time.
"In five-round fights, you don’t have any rounds to waste, but if you happen to lose a round early, you always have another round to come back and get it back," Gaethje said. "In a three-round fight, that is not the case."
That dynamic led him and his team to adjust his training ahead of this matchup, focusing more on quick bursts over long hauls.
"Shorter workouts and higher intensity workouts," Gaethje said about his adjustments. "Trying to sprint for 15 minutes as opposed to being able to, not necessarily a sprint for 25 minutes, but in a 25-minute fight you've really got to pick your battles when it comes to conserving and wasting energy. Three-round fight, each round is so important, so you have to be able to sprint through it."
One reason Gaethje isn’t worried about the shorter distance? His fights rarely last that long anyway.
The 32-year-old has yet to have a fight go to the judges in the UFC, and his seven five-round fights have reached the extra frames on just two occasions — a fourth-round TKO loss to Dustin Poirier in 2018 and a fifth-round TKO win over Tony Ferguson in May 2020.
"It’s absolutely chaos when I fight," Gaethje said. "It’s the same as wrestling — the easiest way to get off the mat was to pin him. Now, the easiest way to get out of a fight is to knock them out, so that’s going to be first and foremost goal every single time."