Justin Gaethje has compiled a 10-0 record in pursuit of his first major MMA title. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Justin Gaethje started wrestling competitively when he was 4 years old. Yes, 4, an age when most of us are doing well if we can correctly identify a square and avoid relieving ourselves in our pants on a regular basis.
Gaethje will take on Richard Patishnock for the inaugural World Series of Fighting lightweight championship in the WSOF 8 main event on Saturday at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla. The NBC Sports Network will carry the main card at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT, with Sherdog.com providing a free stream for the prelims immediately prior.
Unbeaten in 10 professional appearances, Gaethje speaks fondly of his hometown of Safford, Ariz., and the secure future it provides for most of its residents. However, he set upon a different path in life.
“It’s a small town and it’s hard to get out of because there’s a good job waiting for us at the copper mine starting at 20 dollars an hour,” Gaethje told Sherdog.com. “It’s hard to get away from but I’m glad I took that risk, and it’s working out so far.”
It was not uncommon to start wrestling at such a young age in Safford. Many young fathers signed up their kids for a sport that promised a possible alternate future to the one waiting for them at the local copper mine.
“I have a twin brother and it’s just something my dad got us involved in,” Gaethje said. “He wrestled his last couple of years in high school, and he really liked the sport and got us involved.”
The young wrestlers of Safford started competing with and against each other in those formative years and continued to do so all the way through elementary, middle and high school. It was a recipe for success for the Safford Bulldogs, who took second in the state tournament during Gaethje’s freshman year of high school and then won championships for the next seven years straight. The identity of the town and its blue-collar ways rubbed off.
“We’re all more hard-nosed,” Gaethje said. “Wrestling was just what worked for us.”
So did the fact that Safford sits a two-hour drive from the nearest metropolis and boasts a four-digit population.
“That’s all we did, when we wrestled,” Gaethje said. “We went into the wrestling room and we put 120 percent into every practice. We beat each other up because we knew we had the opportunity to go to Phoenix or Tucson and take on some of these guys who never heard of us or thought we weren’t very good. I think it’s a small-town thing.”
Gaethje has yet to stop dishing out the beatings. From high school, he moved on to the University of Northern Colorado, where he became the school’s first Div. I All-American. It was also where he got his first taste of MMA.
“One of the assistant coaches brought in some guys who had fought in the UFC, like Shane Carwin, Donald Cerrone, Clay Guida, Georges St. Pierre and Brendan Schaub,” Gaethje said.
Duly inspired, Gaethje later asked that same assistant coach to help him secure a few amateur MMA fights of his own. Since turning professional in the summer of 2011, he has won all 10 of his bouts, with eight knockouts and one submission.
The Grudge Training Center standout made his World Series of Fighting debut in March, defeating Gesias Cavalcante by first-round technical knockout; Gaethje returned at WSOF 3, where he stopped Brian Cobb with leg kicks in the third round; and he capped a memorable 2013 campaign in October, when he finished Dan Lauzon with punches in round two.
“I definitely want to knock people out,” said Gaethje, who believes the lessons he learned as a wrestler made him the fighter he is today. “When I wrestled, the reason why I wasn’t maybe so successful is that I was too aggressive a lot of the time. It’s a sport where aggressiveness can get you into trouble. If you make little mistakes at a division one college level, those are guys who take advantage of that. If I had gotten to punch all those guys that beat me, I think I would’ve been able to win those matches.”
Gaethje has become known for putting on the kind of exciting fights that are not always associated with someone who draws from such a deep wrestling background.
“Wrestling is very technical,” he said. “I’m not saying MMA is less technical, but you can punch someone. I do like it a lot more, I must say.”
The long hours he spent devoting himself to wrestling have given Gaethje a depth of competitive experience that belies the fact the he is only 25 years old and entering his 11th professional MMA bout.
“No one that I fight will have more experience in a one-on-one competitive setting than me, and that’s something I pride myself in,” he said. “I’ve quit on myself more than any opponent I will fight. I’ve beat myself ... all those things you have to do to be successful one day, I’ve done. I’ve pushed myself. I’ve skipped out on practices and lost because of it. I’ve learned the lessons in my life that I’m using right now.”
That maturity has helped Gaethje navigate two opponent changes ahead of WSOF 8. He was originally booked for a rematch with Cavalcante, but “JZ” withdrew one day after the fight announcement. Cavalcante’s replacement, Lewis Gonzales, was then injured during training, opening the door for Patishnock -- a once-beaten Team Chamber MMA product who will enter the cage on the strength of back-to-back wins over Igor Gracie and Gregor Gracie.
“Rich throws a lot of punches and has a great takedown defense,” Gaethje said during a pre-fight media call. “This is a great matchup skill-wise for both of us. It’s going to be an exciting fight, and what I really try to do is give the fans an exciting fight. That’s all I can really control.”