Justin Gaethje feels outmaneuvered, but he's ready to stand and fight

Justin Gaethje didn't get to go toe-to-toe with Al Iaquinta, as planned, and hopes he someday gets that fight. Steven Branscombe/USA Today Sports

Truth be told, Justin Gaethje is pretty unhappy going into 2019. He feels like the system played him, and there's nothing he can do about it now.

Rewind five months, Gaethje was supposed to fight Al Iaquinta in a UFC Fight Night main event -- but Iaquinta withdrew from the bout because he wanted to renegotiate his contract. Gaethje went on to fight the lower-ranked James Vick and won via first-round knockout.

Meanwhile, Iaquinta managed to restructure his deal and agreed to fight Kevin Lee in December. He won by decision and catapulted ahead of Gaethje in the rankings.

So the way Gaethje sees it, not only did Iaquinta leave him at the altar back in August, he actually benefited from doing so. Gaethje wants nothing more than to re-book the Iaquinta fight for March, but he knows the chances of Iaquinta agreeing to it are slim.

"I'm f---ing pissed, man," Gaethje told ESPN. "I'm pissed about a lot of things. I've been involved in Fight of the Year the last two years, and that's all f---ing cool and it sounds good to fans, but I don't get a damn thing for that.

"It's bulls---. NFL players get bonuses for sacks, completions, rushing yards, whatever. I go out and put it on the line like I do, and I pretty much get s--- on."

All that said, Gaethje (19-2) knows if he sits around and waits for the UFC or other lightweights to feel sorry for him, he'll be waiting a long time. The 30-year-old says he's ready to get back to work, and says his next opponent will probably be Edson Barboza.

"Barboza is up there," Gaethje said. "He's a scary fight, but I like being scared. And that's a fight that me, as a fan, would want to see. I know how much fans would love something like that. So I'll go out there and try to finish that dude with leg kicks.

"I'm trying to create a legacy, and you don't create a legacy by bitching. I'll fight the next in line. Whoever they send me a contract for, I'll fight him."

In addition to his frustration with the rankings, Gaethje says he spoke to the UFC following his latest win against Vick and asked to modify his contract to receive his entire purse up front. His current deal consists of a show purse and a win bonus.

Because of his reputation as one of the most entertaining fighters in the world, Gaethje believes he should receive his entire purse, regardless of whether he wins or loses. He said the UFC did not grant the request, but the conversation still went well.

"They should say, 'Yes, you deserve it, congratulations,' and put it all over the media," Gaethje said. "Let everyone know there is a way to achieve that. They should use me as an example for that -- but I'm pretty biased when it comes to myself.

"The conversation was good. They respect what I do and they pay me a lot of money. That's the truth. But I've also earned every bit of it."

All frustrations aside, Gaethje is ready to step back in the Octagon by March. And one way or another, he intends to right the wrongs he saw in the Iaquinta situation.

"If I have to go out and f--- up Barboza, I'll do it," Gaethje said. "And one day, I'm either going to make Al quit or he's going to have to fight me. That m-----f----- has to fight me at some point."