Gaethje (22-2) is set to challenge undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) at UFC 254 on Oct. 24 at "Fight Island" -- Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Immediately after Gaethje beat Tony Ferguson for the interim title in May, McGregor ripped Gaethje on social media and promised he would be his next opponent. Gaethje declined the offer -- and says he would do so again.
"I think it was there," said Gaethje, of a fight against McGregor. "If there was any kind of interest, [the UFC] would have tried to make it. Financially, it's a big gamble, it's a lot more risky. But this is the goal ... not just wealth: legacy. That's what I'm most excited for about this opportunity.
"I've watched this sport a long time, since Tito Ortiz was champion in the early 2000s. Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, all those guys. I truly think, if I can beat Khabib and Conor McGregor [after that], I will have cemented something that is almost unmatched."
Since May, Gaethje has said his goal is to beat Nurmagomedov for the UFC's lightweight championship and then defend it against McGregor in what would be a lucrative first defense.
Others in Gaethje's position might not have made the same choice. A McGregor bout is usually associated with a higher paycheck, and if Gaethje becomes the 29th consecutive man to lose to Nurmagomedov, there's no guarantee McGregor would still be interested in fighting him.
On the flip side, if Gaethje defeats Nurmagomedov and fights McGregor as a champion, he'd hold a lot of cards. The 31-year-old acknowledged he has thought more about the financial implications of this upcoming fight than perhaps any other in his career.
"I'm more aware now, than I was when I fought Tony, of what would transpire if I won," Gaethje said. "When I won that fight, it was huge, and this would be 10-fold."
Regardless of what happens because of the choice he made, Gaethje's fight against Nurmagomedov will be lucrative, enough so that Gaethje says he will give part of his paycheck from UFC 254 to his mother, Carolina, allowing her to retire from the United States Postal Service.
"Whether I win or lose, I'm going to have my mom call her boss and say she's retired," Gaethje said. "Whether I win or lose I get to do that, and I'm very happy and proud of that."