James Vick and Justin Gaethje set to clash at a career crossroads

Justin Gaethje, right, has taken a beating in his last two fights, but he questions whether James Vick has what it takes to beat him in "a war of attrition" on Saturday. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Mixed martial arts is known as a sport in which everything can change in an instant -- but don't tell that to UFC lightweight James Vick.

For Vick (13-1), who faces Justin Gaethje at a UFC Fight Night this Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska, the journey from "UFC newcomer" to "title contender and event headliner" has been a long one. Five years, to be exact.

The Texas native is an impressive 9-1 since signing with the UFC in 2013, but he's struggled to book a fight against the top of the division. Now that he's finally hooked a high-profile opponent in Gaethje (18-2), he says he understands the expectations that come with that. This is an opportunity he cannot waste.

"I don't feel like I have anything to prove, but I do feel I have to win," Vick told ESPN. "This is either one of many main events for me or it's the only main event for me. I have to beat this guy.

"Every day, I look at myself in the mirror and tell myself, 'August 25th I'm going to change my life.' I really believe I'm going to win this fight and go on to superstardom."

While this is unfamiliar territory for Vick, Gaethje, 29, has grown quite accustomed to the spotlight. All three of his UFC appearances have been in a main event, and his back-and-forth battles with Michael Johnson, Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier have all won Fight of the Night bonuses.

Like Vick, however, Gaethje might be at a crossroads of sorts. There is no denying he is one of the most entertaining fighters on the planet, but close losses to Alvarez and Poirier in his past two fights have significantly hurt his title aspirations.

According to Gaethje, the quest to win a title is still the reason he's in this sport. So, even though his losses have been competitive affairs with some of the division's best, he understands that moving forward he has to be on the winning side of them. He's openly stated in the buildup to this fight that he doesn't think Vick is on his level and that this fight will get him back in the win column.

"Is James Vick on the same level as Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier? Absolutely not," Gaethje said. "I don't like the guy, and I don't like the way he represents our sport. I don't like the way he tries to get an advantage by cutting down to 155 pounds when he's 6-foot-3. I don't like the people he represents. I don't like the team he fights for.

"He will never have my respect. He can't beat me in a real fight. He can't beat me in a war of attrition. Does he have a chance to land a big shot just like anybody else? Sure. But he is not prepared for what I'm bringing. It's not personal, but I have no respect for the guy. Has he fought the No. 5, No. 3, No. 4 guy? No. That's what I've went through. And the fact he wants to take away from my achievements proves this guy doesn't get what we do."