UFC 286 is built around its main event, but the co-main also holds significance.

Justin Gaethje returns to the cage for the first time since losing a lightweight title bout last May, and his first obstacle in an ongoing pursuit of the belt is Rafael Fiziev.

Fiziev (12-1) has been bulldozing opponents amid a six-fight win streak, winning by knockout in three of his last four bouts. Yet he has never faced anyone in the upper echelon of the division, particularly with the skill set—or blazing power—of Gaethje.

“It’s only a three-round, so I can go a little harder,” says Gaethje (23-4). “This is his biggest stage to date. The pressure is on me, but I think it will be more of a factor for him.”

Gaethje last fought a three-round bout in November of 2021, when he obliterated Michael Chandler at Madison Square Garden. If he can hit Fiziev with a similar barrage of shots, then it will be hard to imagine Gaethje not returning to the victory column.

“I fought almost as perfect a fight as I could fight at Madison Square Garden against Chandler,” says Gaethje. “I was so internally focused. That’s the plan to repeat this Saturday.”

Gaethje remains extremely critical of his performance in the title bout against then-champ Charles Oliveira from last May. Less than four minutes into the first round, Gaethje tapped to a rear-naked choke.

“You should never let anything out of the cage affect you, but I did,” says Gaethje. “I was back home in Phoenix, singing a song in the cage I didn’t even know the words to, pounding my chest. Looking back, I wasn’t recognizable to myself that night. Being so emotional that night, that was detrimental to my performance.”

A win tonight is a necessity if Gaethje wants to reinsert himself in the title picture. Reigning champ Islam Makhachev does not have a clear-cut next opponent, but Dustin Poirier, Charles Oliveira, and Beneil Dariush are all leading the charge for that spot. Alexander Volkanovski, who lost to Makhachev last month, also wants a rematch.

“Volkanovski was extremely impressive,” says Gaethje. “I need to do what I’ve got to do to get in a position to get back to their spot.

“At this level, any win is a big win. There’s Dustin, there’s Beneil and there’s Charles, and I have to go through one of those guys, I will. I’m right there. There’s nowhere to go but forward from this fight.”

When asked if there could be an upcoming bout against Conor McGregor, Gaethje quickly dismissed the idea.

“He’s choosing to fight Chandler,” says Gaethje. “That is what it is. He’s earned his spot, he gets to pick who he fights. He’s made the most money of any fighter that’s ever stepped in there. But Chandler is a pretty dangerous guy. We’ll see how that works out.”

In addition to the Kamaru Usman-Leon Edwards main event, the 286 card also features Gunnar Nelson against Bryan Barberena, Jennifer Maia against Casey O’Neill, and a very interesting test for Marvin Vettori against Roman Dolidze.
And Gaethje-Fiziev stands as a must-see fight on the card, with real stakes in the lightweight division on the line.

“No injuries, and I’ve had time to recover,” says Gaethje. “I’m ready.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.