James Vick on facing Justin Gaethje: 'After this fight, I’m going to be a superstar'

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
James Vick celebrates after his unanimous decision victory over Francisco Trinaldo of Brazil in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Frank Erwin Center on February 18, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Getty Images)

It doesn’t make sense under normal circumstances that after five years in the UFC, a fighter who has won 13 of his 14 pro bouts and finished 10 of them would still be struggling for name recognition.

It doesn’t seem possible that a guy who has put on some of the most dynamic bouts in recent years and is a clear championship contender would have zero main event appearances in his first five years under contract to the UFC.

And it’s strange that said fighter still is struggling to get his message out.

But if James Vick were to defeat Justin Gaethje on Saturday at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the main event of UFC Fight Night 135, things would be dramatically different.

For starters, Vick would skyrocket up the UFC’s rankings were he to defeat Gaethje, MMA’s human highlight film. Vick enters Saturday’s bout ranked 10th at lightweight, notably one spot ahead of Nate Diaz.

More importantly, Vick’s name may suddenly appear on the tongues of other elite lightweights. Now, it doesn’t make much sense for the best fighters to call Vick out. He’s unusually tall for the division at 6-foot-3, and his 76-inch reach makes him proportionally the same at lightweight as ex-champion Jon Jones is at light heavyweight.

Vick is good and dangerous and not so well known, which makes other fighters, especially those above him in the rankings, want to steer clear.

“They look at me and they see a guy they realize is high-risk, low-reward in their opinion and so they go in a different direction,” Vick said. “I’ve worked so hard for so long to get into this position, and it’s tough to be still sitting here and not having it happen.”

But beat Gaethje, who has won Fight of the Night in all three of his UFC appearances, and that will change. Then, challenging Vick would be worth it because a win over him would carry a lot more significance

It’s why Vick has been so laser focused these last few weeks. Ever since he decided to become a fighter, Saturday is the kind of night he’s dreamed about.

“I’ve never been in a main event in the UFC and I’ve worked so hard for all these years to get to this point,” he said. “I’m not going to go through so much and get this close and then let it slip through my fingers. I believe after this fight, I’m going to be a superstar.”

Justin Gaethje (L) and James Vick face off during the UFC press conference inside the Orpheum Theater on Aug. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)

Vick re-signed with the UFC last year, eschewing potential free agency and the chance that he’d become a bigger fish in someone else’s pond. Still, he’s not thrilled with the way the UFC has handled him.

He believes he should be bigger than he is given that 13-1 record and 10 finishes. He hasn’t been able to corner UFC president Dana White and plead his case, and so he feels he’s on the outside looking in.

“I just haven’t been promoted well,” Vick said. “ … I haven’t been able to have meetings or talks [with upper UFC management] to be honest with you. I talked with Dana once for about five minutes and basically he said he’d work on some stuff. But then he made me go through [matchmaker] Sean Shelby when I wanted to go through him the entire time.”

The best way to plead his case, though, is always in the cage, and that’s Vick’s plan for Saturday.

He’s had some sharp words for Gaethje and mocked him at an Aug. 3 news conference, but said it’s nothing personal. He’s just trying to hype the fight and bring eyeballs to what he said will be a memorable performance.

Vick has been looking to face Gaethje for more than a year, ever since Gaethje said, “Who is my equal?” after beating Michael Johnson in his UFC debut last year. Vick called him out then and has kept Gaethje in his radar ever since. He knows Gaethje will come full throttle and that will leave him openings.

“You know the way he fights, he’s going to give you opportunities [to land], but you have to be ready in case he’s able to take that damage,” Vick said. “If he is, you have to be ready for a long fight, a war, and I most definitely am. I have trained like I never have and I am ready for however it goes. If he runs into something, it’ll be a short night, but if not, it’s going to be a war.”

And if it is, nobody will be asking “Who’s James Vick?” any more. And while he’s always going to be high-risk, a win over Gaethje would make him high-reward, as well.

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