Justin Gaethje UFC
Justin Gaethje, pictured at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 31, 2016 in New York City, will fight Eddie Alvarez at UFC 218. Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

When trying to figure out who might become the UFC’s next big star, Justin Gaethje’s name has to be near the top of the list. The 155-pound fighter began his UFC career with a bang by knocking out Michael Johnson in July, and he’s got a chance to make an even bigger statement when he fights Eddie Alvarez at UFC 218 on Dec. 2.

“I wouldn’t be here putting my health on the line if I didn’t think I had a chance to be the best in the world, “ Gaethje told International Business Times.

Few athletes have joined the world’s No.1 MMA promotion with higher expectations than Gaethje. He won his first 17 professional fights before making his UFC debut, gaining recognition as he dominated the World Series of Fighting.

Gaethje, 28, faced Johnson, the then-No.5 ranked lightweight in the UFC, in the main event of The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale. He needed less than two rounds to score a knockout, proving that he could also excel on MMA’s biggest stage.

It was arguably the best fight of 2017. The two lightweights went to war for just under 10 minutes, exchanging 195 combined strikes. Gaethje absorbed 91 of those strikes, including one late in the first round that appeared to put him in trouble. He survived the final 30 seconds, and the ref was forced to stop the bout in the second round when Gaethje delivered a number of punishing blows.

“I lost 30 seconds of the first round. I beat his ass for the first four minutes and 30 seconds of that round,” said Gaethje, who’ll be the honorary pace car driver at Phoenix Raceway's Can-Am 500 Sunday afternoon.

“He did catch me in the last 30 seconds with one good punch, and then he caught me again in the second with one good punch. I think I took two clean shots...but the rest of the time I was outclassing him and whooping his ass.”

Gaethje’s win over Johnson exemplifies why he could become one of the most popular UFC fighters. He isn't simply a potential star because he always wins: it’s the way that he wins fights that truly makes him one of a kind.

Gaethje is constantly on the attack, putting pressure on his opponents and ensuring action in the cage. It's resulted in only two of his 18 career fights being decided by the judges.

UFC fans who were first introduced to Gaethje in his fight with Michael Johnson might be surprised to learn that the former WSOF champion got his start as an All-American collegiate wrestler. Some of the UFC’s best competitors are often considered to be boring because they spend a lot of time fighting on the ground.

That’s not Gaethje’s style. He was on his feet for the entirety of his fight with Johnson, and he’ll try to beat Alvarez standing up, as well.

“I was a wrestler my whole life, but you can never expect me to go in there and try to be a wrestler,” Gaethje told IBT. “I want the big fights, and they don’t come to boring wrestlers, that’s for damn sure. That’s not me.”

Of course, Gaethje isn’t simply trying to entertain. He won’t climb to the top of the UFC by losing exciting fights. He’s aiming for a championship fight with Conor McGregor, and he’ll have to beat the promotion’s best lightweights to earn one.

Wrestling is tiring, Gaethje explained, especially in a fight that could last 25 minutes. He’s in there to knock out his opponent and get the victory as quickly as possible.

It’s the way Gaethje knows how to beat the best. He takes a calculated risk by inviting a brawl and doing what he can to avoid any strikes that might send him to the ground.

“It’s a technique,” Gaethje said. “The punches you’re gonna get knocked out by are the punches you don’t see. I’m definitely trying to see every punch. I’m rolling with the punches. I’m not taking the full absorption of the punch.”

If Gaethje wants to eventually earn a title fight, he’ll have to go through Alvarez first. Alvarez is the man that held the UFC lightweight championship before McGregor, currently ranking as UFC’s No.4 155-pound fighter.

Alvarez and Gaethje are both coaches on the 26th season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which will culminate with their fight at UFC 218. No.2 lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov is scheduled to face No.3 lightweight Edson Barboza at UFC 219. Gaethje believes the most impressive fighter of the four could get a title shot in 2018.

“I’ve been a fan of Alvarez for a long time. Now, I’ll try to go in there and knock him out and take his No.4 spot that he has in the world and move my way up to fight for the championship belt,” Gaethje said.

“I expect to use my wrestling a lot this fight in the sense that I’m gonna have to be stopping a lot of takedowns because after he feels my power and pressure, his goal will be to take me down.”

The current UFC lightweight championship picture is surrounded by uncertainty. Tony Ferguson won the interim title at UFC 216, putting him first in line for a fight with McGregor. Nobody seems to know what the future holds for McGregor, who hasn’t stepped inside the octagon since he beat Alvarez a year ago.

After reportedly earning close to $100 million for his boxing match with Floyd Mayweather in August, McGregor might not have many, if any, UFC fights left in his career. UFC president Dana White insists Ferguson vs. McGregor will happen, though a third bout between McGregor and Nate Diaz would draw the most money.

All Gaethje can control is what’s in front of him. Beat Alvarez and move on to the next fight.

Gaethje would prefer to get his opportunity to win the belt as soon as possible. Nothing is promised in combat sports, and almost every great fighter suffers an upset at some point.

Maintaining a perfect record in the UFC is just about impossible. Look at UFC 217 when the seemingly unbeatable Joanna Jedrzejczyk tapped out to Rose Namajunas, suffering her first loss after five successful UFC women’s strawweight championship defenses. Jedrzejczyk was the most dominant women’s champion since Ronda Rousey, who was knocked out twice to likely end her MMA career.

McGregor was defeated last year as a heavy favorite over Nate Diaz. Jose Aldo, the greatest featherweight champion in UFC history, has lost twice in the last two years.

“I’m a realist in this sport. I will lose. I will get knocked out. It will hurt if I win or lose. Those are all facts,” Gaethje said. “I just have to go in there and control the things I can control. I control my preparation. I control my effort, and I can control the way I carry myself, win or lose. That’s all I care about.”

If Gaethje keeps fighting at this level, that first loss might not come anytime soon.