Those who follow mixed martial arts closely know Justin Gaethje. Perhaps the top lightweight operating outside the auspices of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he has become one of the big fish in the World Series of Fighting pond.
Gaethje will put his perfect 16-0 record on the line when he defends his lightweight championship against the seasoned and well-traveled Luiz Firmino in the WSOF 34 headliner on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York. A late change in opponent -- Firmino stepped in for the injured Joao Zeferino on short notice -- has done nothing to curb the champion’s enthusiasm. Gaethje maintains a steely focus on final approach.
“I was definitely disappointed, but I was mainly concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to fight on the card at all,” he told Sherdog.com. “I didn’t know if someone would be willing to take the fight on short notice or if he would have been able to get all his medicals in on time; it can be difficult. It was supposed to be Zeferino, but I’m actually now even more excited to be fighting Firmino because he’s been very disrespectful and bad for our sport. Hopefully I’ll get to break him.”
Connected to the powerhouse Blackzilians camp, Firmino saw his six-fight winning streak snapped on Oct. 7, when he submitted to a first-round guillotine choke from Brian Foster at WSOF 33. The 34-year-old Dream, Shooto and Pride Fighting Championships alum captured Championship Fighting Alliance gold in 2012 and later competed on Season 21 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Victories over former two-division Deep champion Masakazu Imanari, onetime Olympian Kazuyuki Miyata and UFC veterans Jacob Volkmann, Tyson Griffin and Caros Fodor anchor the Firmino resume.
Gaethje has spent the past few weeks getting to know the Brazilian while the two have traded verbal barbs in the media. He has enjoyed the process but sounds decidedly unimpressed with Firmino’s skills. More than half (11) of the challenger’s 19 pro victories have come by decision.
“He has about 19 wins, which is good, but he only has one knockout or TKO, so that’s pretty pathetic,” Gaethje said with a laugh. “However, he’s also never been knocked out. That’s good for him, but he’s boring. He gets you down and lays on top of you and never tries to go for anything. Nobody wants to watch that, and that’s probably why he’s not getting paid a lot of money. He’s lucky to get this opportunity right here.”
Gaethje has finished 14 of his first 16 opponents, six of them in the first round. The 28-year-old last fought at WSOF 29 on March 12, when he cut down the aforementioned Foster with leg kicks in less than two minutes at the Bank of Colorado Arena in Greeley, Colorado. Though Gaethje has earned a reputation as a knockout artist since arriving on the MMA scene in 2011, the Arizona native was an NCAA All-American wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado. Many believe Gaethje and his considerable talents belong in the UFC, but he has thus far held off on changing his address.
“I like where I am right now,” he said. “I always take it one fight at a time, and I’ve never looked past [an opponent] to the next fight or my current contract. I never get caught up in the numbers. I just can’t start looking at that stuff or worrying about it. I actually love reading all the comments on stuff written about me. It’s entertaining. People can say whatever they want and feel any way they want, but the fact is they don’t know what’s going into my bank account. I’m doing just fine.”