As a University of Northern Colorado sophomore on a break from wrestling season, Justin Gaethje, a long-time MMA fan, accepted an amateur fight with no real MMA training.
The night seemed ominous when one of Gaethje’s college teammates, who was also fighting on the card, was knocked out. That increased the stress.
So Gaethje decided he would do whatever he could to use his wrestling skills and end the fight quickly. By accident, he started using what could be considered his signature move.
“I got a knockout in 26 seconds,” Gaethje told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “I saw my buddy try to box the guy, but I knew I would wrestle my guy. I lifted him up and he tried to use a triangle choke on me, but I had him in a good position for me.
“I just slammed him down right there, and the fight was over.”
Gaethje hasn’t lost since. Transitioning to MMA following an All-American college career, the 24-year-old Denver resident takes a 7-0 professional record (following a 7-0 amateur career) into his lightweight fight against big-show vet Gesias Cavalcante (17-6-1) on Saturday at World Series of Fighting 2 in Atlantic City, N.J. Their bout kicks off NBC Sports Network’s main-card broadcast.
The product of a small Arizona mining town, Gaethje has used his now-favorite move, the slam, in almost every fight and even won a few with the finish. But in committing to the sport since finishing the 2011 NCAA national wrestling tournament at 157 pounds, he has grown his training resume as well as his fighting resume.
Heading into what he considers his biggest fight yet, Gaethje is also passionate about trying to provide a good show to those who paid for the tickets. That’s one of the reasons he has continued to incorporate some wrestling moves into his fights, especially those that can cause knockouts.
“Even if I haven’t knocked the guy out, every fight has had some good throws,” he said. “I know fans love to see that, and I want to make sure it’s a good fight to watch.”
Gaethje is a native of Safford, Ariz., a small town in the southeastern part of the state. Aside from its passionate wrestling community, the town is mostly known for its copper mine.
It’s an industry that supports many of the town’s families, including Gaethje’s.
“My dad has been working in the mines for 27 years, my grandpa did it for about 30 years, my uncle works there, and my twin brother is in the mine,” he said. “I worked there one summer before college, and it’s really hard work.”
The work ethic translates into the town’s sporting passion: wrestling. Gaethje started when he was about 4 years old, and he was part of a large youth program that fed a high school team that would win seven consecutive team state championships beginning with Gaethje’s sophomore season.
He traveled throughout the region for tournaments, and by high school, he never finished lower than second in the state championships, and won titles as a junior and a senior. That turned into an opportunity to wrestle at Northern Colorado.
While there, Gaethje became the school’s first All-American since it joined Division I, and he finished seventh in the NCAA championships as a junior. Meanwhile, he fed an interest in MMA as his coach regularly invited fighters to train with the team, including Shane Carwin and Georges St.-Pierre.
That was even more motivation to try the sport, even though he could only do so in the wrestling offseason and without any real training.
“My manager was an assistant coach at Northern Colorado, and he told me if I got my grades up he would get me a fight,” Gaethje said. “That’s what I really wanted to do.”
After taking part in that first amateur fight and slamming his opponent for a knockout, Gaethje knew MMA was something he wanted to pursue both during and after his wrestling career.
He still needed to finish his career, which he did impressively in the 2011 NCAA tournament. But meanwhile, he completed five amateur fights while at Northern Colorado, which increased his desire to get more involved when he finished his eligibility.
“I wrestled in front of 20,000 people,” he said, “but that was nothing like fighting in front of 1,000 people.”
Once done with the final NCAA tournament, he found a gym in Denver, Grudge Training Center. It was an eye-opening experience about how complicated and intense MMA could be when done full time.
“It’s just a different kind of cardio with needing to keep your hands up the whole time, then throw punches, kicks, all the things you have to do,” he said. “The coaches pushed me. They didn’t want to take away from my wrestling; they wanted me to add on to it.”
That’s what he did. After his amateur career, he made his professional debut in August 2011 and won by knockout when he slammed his opponent. Of his seven pro victories, five have come by knockout. That includes one, against Drew Fickett at Rage in the Cage 163, that concluded just 12 seconds into the fight.
Next up for Gaethje is his WSOF debut. He knows most people consider him the underdog in this fight, which he where he likes to be. He’s not a fancy fighter, after all. He’s a miner’s son who likes to slam people.
“I’ve lost before (in wrestling), and I know how that feels, and I know how bad it feels,” he said. “But I’m not going out there trying not to lose. I’m trying to win, and I want to put on a good show.”
For more on WSOF 2, stay tuned to the MMA Rumors section of the site.
Award-winning newspaper reporter Kyle Nagel pens “Fight Path” each week. The column focuses on the circumstances that led fighters to a profession in MMA. Know a fighter with an interesting story? Email us at news [at] mmajunkie.com.