It was just another night in the career of World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje on Saturday in Colorado. He stormed out with seemingly reckless aggression, electrifying the live audience, and quickly had his opponent, a tough but beatable Brian Foster, in trouble in the WSOF 29 main event. A series of leg kicks caused Foster to collapse. Gaethje was the winner once more via technical knockout, and he celebrated with his trademark backflip off the top of the cage to the cheers of the crowd.
This has become a common scene for those following the career of the undefeated lightweight. Including his amateur career, Gaethje is now 23-0 with 20 stoppages. That’s an incredibly difficult feat to accomplish in the sport of MMA, where the gloves are small and methods to win plentiful. It’s even more difficult for a fighter like Gaethje with an attacking style that frequently puts him in dangerous predicaments. Gaethje is not a cautious, defensive fighter. He fights to finish, and that leaves him open for counterattacks. No opponent has been able to capitalize yet.
To be fair, Gaethje to this point has not fought the highest level of opposition. However, he has consistently been matched with quality opponents, the best available for him to fight. With the deep lightweight division one of the best weight classes in the sport, there are plenty of exciting matchups for Gaethje in the years to come, and it will be fascinating to see how he does when tested against stiffer competition. Gaethje should already have a real buzz beyond the hardest of the hardcore fans.
Unfortunately for Gaethje, there remains a major obstacle to accomplishing the level of notoriety and recognition a fighter of his caliber deserves: He fights for the World Series of Fighting, perhaps the worst-run major MMA organization in the history of the sport. Throughout MMA history, smaller organizations have sought to carve out their own niches to make up for not having the best talent. EliteXC focused on stars, and the International Fight League was built around teams. Strikeforce first built around notable fighters from around the Bay Area before expanding nationally. Bellator MMA first utilized tournaments and now is built around freak shows. There is almost always an overarching strategy, even if it is a flawed one.
The WSOF, on the other hand, has no apparent promotional strategy. There is nothing that makes it unique. Its promotional packages are sparse and unimaginative, its figurehead president has neither the charisma nor the speaking ability to build interest in his fighters and the matchmaking has little in the way of direction. The WSOF has missed in its signings, picking the wrong prospects and veterans who rarely have much marketability or gas left in the tank. The end result of all these shortcomings is that fighters are basically on their own in trying to become stars. They will go as far as the quality of their performances take them, because those performances on national TV are all they have.
This is a big problem for most of the fighters on the WSOF roster. Luckily for Gaethje, his performances have been so consistently impressive that he is one of the few fighters to have raised his profile to any real degree while fighting for the WSOF, now over three and a half years in existence. Gaethje, David Branch, Marlon Moraes and Nick Newell pretty much constitute that list in its entirety. Gaethje is likely the most successful of the bunch.
Gaethje’s success in the WSOF wasn’t planned out from the start. He was brought in on the second show as an opponent for Gesias Cavalcante, who still had some name value from his time in K-1 Hero’s, Dream and Strikeforce. When Gaethje defeated Cavalcante via a doctor stoppage, he became a regular on WSOF main cards. He wasn’t yet a star, as the WSOF’s promotional efforts had concentrated more on another lightweight: the inspirational Newell.
This set up the biggest fight of Gaethje’s career, a showdown with Newell on NBC in July 2014. The show drew 781,000 viewers, nearly tripling the viewership of every other event the WSOF had run before and after. Newell to that point had been able to outgrapple all his opponents, but he could not outgrapple Gaethje. Newell took a beating in his first MMA loss. Gaethje was clearly now one of the WSOF’s top stars.
That status was only cemented when Gaethje took on Luis Palomino in one of the best fights in recent years. Gaethje was becoming a regular presence in the WSOF’s most memorable moments and the promotion even attempted to capitalize on that momentum with an immediate rematch, which the Safford, Arizona, native also won. Now 9-0 in the WSOF, with eight stoppages, Gaethje has thrived inside the World Series of Fighting cage. However, the promotion still hasn’t found a way to sell Gaethje to the larger public. He’s arguably the WSOF’s showcase fighter, yet he lacks a Wikipedia page, trails Dhafir Harris in Twitter followers and is basically an unknown to anyone who doesn’t watch every WSOF event. It’s time for him to start getting the recognition he deserves, and it would seem exceedingly improbable that will ever happen while fighting for the WSOF.
With only two fights left on his WSOF contract, there’s a good chance he’ll move to a promotion more capable of taking advantage of his talents in the relatively near future. Gaethje has made it clear he’s not interested in taking a pay cut to fight for a higher-profile organization. However, there should be demand for an exciting young fighter of Gaethje’s caliber, just like there was for Eddie Alvarez years back before he became better known to American audiences with his Bellator run. Gaethje deserves better given his talent and style, while fans deserve to find out how he’ll do against upper echelon 155-pound fighters.