Whoever said wrestlers are boring fighters hasn’t seen Justin Gaethje compete. The former NCAA Division I All-American has the skills to dump anyone on their head, but he also has an addiction for knockouts.
Ironically enough, this addiction was unveiled to Gaethje through his wrestling. His very first amateur MMA fight ended in 26 seconds, as he lifted his opponent high into the air and slammed him on his head Quinton “Rampage” Jackson style. The drunken feel of power as the cheers of screaming fans flooded his ears set the wheels in motion for a championship run few saw coming.
Gaethje has come a long way since the small, dim-lit arenas in the amateur fight circuit. The undefeated Arizona native is the current World Series of Fighting lightweight champion and widely considered one of the baddest dudes on the planet at 155 pounds. He makes it a point to be a bully inside the cage, stalking opponents into a corner and singing them a lullaby with his fists. Only two fighters have ever survived Gaethje’s fury and made it to a decision.
As I kicked back in my office chair and took a swig of coffee, I prepared myself for a very serious interview with a serial knockout artist. I took a deep breath, picked up the phone and dialed Gaethje’s phone number.
“‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play. And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. I shake it off, I shake it off,” Gaethje’s ringtone played.
Taylor Swift. The WSOF lightweight champion — a guy known for knocking out the best fighters in the world — was rocking out to Taylor Swift:
“I would change it man, I have no idea,” Gaethje laughed. “But people like it, so I’m just going to leave it.”
If anything, the whimsical choice of ringtone shows how personable Gaethje is outside of the cage. Fighting is a job that he thoroughly enjoys doing, but it doesn’t necessarily define him as a person.
Luis Palomino, Gaethje’s opponent on Friday night, told Today’s Knockout on Monday that he fought his entire life growing up in the streets of a rough neighborhood. However, the road to the cage isn’t the same for every fighter. Gaethje never learned to throw a punch until he stepped into an MMA gym. Until then, he was simply your typical all-around athlete:
“I started three or four years ago fighting. Before that, I’ve never been in a street fight, never sparred, never thrown a punch, never kicked anything except a ball. So it’s all new to me in every fight. I have great coaching — Trevor Wittman and Jake Ramos — at the Grudge Training Center. I’ve wrestled since I was 4 years old. I have a twin brother, so I was just always competing. I never was not playing a sport whether it be soccer, baseball, football, wrestling, swim team — it didn’t matter. No matter what, I give it 100 percent.”
Fighting was certainly the right career choice for Gaethje, who currently serves as the poster-child for WSOF. On Friday, he is slated to meet Palomino in a rematch of their epic fight from earlier this year. If there was ever a time for the professional wrestling term “slobberknocker” to be used in MMA, the lightweight title fight between Gaethje and Palomino would have been that moment.
Biting down on his mouthpiece, Gaethje went to work on Palomino swinging punches like a man wielding an axe. The bout appeared to be a lopsided affair initially, as Palomino swayed back and forth like a damaged tree breaking at the trunk.
And then something amazing happened.
Palomino found his second wind and began swinging back. After what seemed like a surefire victory, Gaethje suddenly found himself stuck in a slugfest, exchanging stinging punches with another heavy-handed lightweight.
It was a spectacle measured in heart. Technical nuances pertaining to footwork and head movement were thrown out the window. It was a game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots with both fighters willingly swinging in the fire until someone fell:
“It was awesome. That’s what I fight for, you know? I have no other way to fight but to be exciting. I don’t go in there and try to do that. That’s my style, and every fight will be just like that. I go forward until I finish them. I was [surprised he hung in there as long as he did]. I dropped him three times in the first round, and I didn’t even start kicking him until the middle to the end of the second round. I was feeling really confident with my hands, and I was surprised he took some of those shots and got back up.”
Palomino was the one who fell near the end of the third round after finally having his trunk snapped by Gaethje’s leg kicks. The whipping kicks thrown by Gaethje were the deciding factor in the fight as the referee stepped in and called a halt to the action. Palomino’s leg was so bruised and battered he could hardly stand on his own two feet.
It was a tremendous display of heart and resilience shown by both men in a fight that is already being deemed as an early fight of the year candidate. Given the success of the bout, we all knew we’d some see a rematch.
But no one could have predicted it would come so soon.
Immediate rematches are often handed down in combat sports to a challenger in the aftermath of controversy — a draw, wacky decision or a fluke injury. They are rarely ever doled out without some logical reason. Palomino felt he had logic on his side when he phoned into the WSOF brass and asked for an immediate rematch the following Monday.
Who else was in line for Gaethje to fight?
Even coming off a loss, Palomino felt he was the only sensible title contender and WSOF wholeheartedly agreed. The rematch was inked for Friday, Sept. 18 in the same venue of the first fight — the Comerica Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. While Palomino might not necessarily deserve an immediate rematch, Gaethje believes it’s still the right move given the circumstances:
“I was [surprised he got the immediate rematch], but he is the second toughest guy in my weight division in World Series of Fighting, hands down. I don’t think there was anyone else raising their hand saying they wanted to fight me. He did and he got it. It’s a brand new fight for me. I’ve got to go out there and look at this like I’ve never fought him before. He fought me once, but he’s not going to get used to the pressure that I put on during a fight. So he’s going to be backing up just the same.”
You won’t hear a single complaint coming from fans when these two step into the cage again. As for Palomino, Gaethje suggests the confident contender be careful what he wishes for because he doesn’t see the fight being so even-keeled this time around.
“I don’t see it being as high-paced. I think it’s going be more of him picking his shots and me picking my shots, but once I get my hands on him, I’m not going to be able to hold back,” said Gaethje. “It could just be the exact same fight. I really don’t know. I’m not going to get hit as much. I’ll guarantee that.”