GLENDALE, Ariz. – It’s safe to say that Justin Gaethje did quite well for himself as an MMA fighter.
After all, it took Gaethje 17 pro fights before Eddie Alvarez brought on his first loss. There were five WSOF title defenses during that lengthy winning streak, as well as two insane UFC barnburners with perennial lightweight contender Michael Johnson and, more recently, a former Bellator and UFC champion in Alvarez.
In Saturday’s FOX-televised main event, Gaethje (18-1 MMA, 1-1 UFC) gets to meet another member of the UFC’s 155-pound elite squad in Dustin Poirier(22-5 MMA, 14-4 UFC). He’ll get to do that in what he expects will be a loud Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., filled with his home fans.
Gaethje can say he was “born and bred” for this. But, as he looks back on what was by no means a textbook start in MMA, he advises others to be careful what they ask for.
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“I had never planned on being a fighter in my career,” Gaethje said on Thursday. “I have a human services degree. I wanted to do social work. That’s what I’m going to do when I’m done with. When I was done wrestling, I was like, ‘I should try to fight professionally and make some money.’
“Then I won 17 in a row, and I was fighting Eddie Alvarez on a pay-per-view. It’s like that. It’s how it happened. I was never in a street fight. I had no idea I could fight when I started fighting. I never got punched in the face. Never punched a face. Other than me and my twin brother, always going at it.
“My first amateur fights, I never had a coach. And then I almost got knocked out. Never hit a pad. Never sparred. Never hit a bag. Never even really put boxing gloves on up until after my fifth fight. And then I almost got knocked out, and I was like, ‘If I’m going to try this, I better find a coach. Thank God, I ran into Trevor Wittman.’”
It was an unlikely road, but one that has led Gaethje to a pretty sweet place. On Saturday, the slugger meets Poirier in what will be his third fight for the UFC and certainly a key matchup for the promotion’s lightweight division. Gaethje, of course, is planning on winning that one. And he’s got an idea of which tool might help him get there.
“Leg kicks,” Gaethje said. “I love fighting southpaws. It’s like we’re both staring down the barrel of a gun. He’s got his power side, ready and loaded, and I’ve got my power side, heavy and loaded. It’s a 50/50 game that I really enjoy playing.”
While both Gaethje and Poirier are prepared for the scenario most MMA fans are expecting from the two – a hell of a war – their relationship outside the cage has been amicable. Gaethje respects Poirier, who he knows has fought “the who’s who” of the division and had no problem being in the same room with him earlier in the week.
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They agree on some things, too. Like Poirier, Gaethje thinks that the events from this past Saturday’s UFC 223 event brought some clarity to the UFC’s lightweight division, with Conor McGregor being stripped of the title he never defended and Khabib Nurmagomedov emerging as the new champ.
Unlike the unconvinved Poirier, though, Gaethje “absolutely” believes the Dagestani is a legitimate titleholder.
“At 26-0, he’s No. 1 in the world,” Gaethje said. “(He is) on paper, and he’s proven it over and over. I will fight and claw my way until that matchup.”
But there is one thing Gaethje takes issue with when it comes to Nurmagomedov’s early lightweight reign: the fact he asked for a meeting with former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre after beating replacement opponent Al Iaquinta to earn UFC gold.
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“He always talks (expletive) about Conor not defending his belt, and if he wants to fight GSP, it will not be at lightweight,” Gaethje said. “So he, therefore, will not be defending his belt. This is the same exact thing he’s talking sh-t about.”
Nurmagomedov’s invitation was, actually, for the 155-pound division. But regardless, there doesn’t seem to be much to worry about there. Not only did the champ himself later downplay the request, St-Pierre also didn’t seem too interested in crashing the lightweight scene.
And, in any case, Gaethje is fine making his way to the top the hard way.
“It doesn’t matter,” Gaethje said. “Tony (Ferguson). The winner of Khabib and now (Edson) Barboza, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve got to get past Poirier, who’s a very dangerous opponent. And I’ll be a fool to look past him.”
Of course, there’s another moving part there: McGregor, who caused a ruckus on fight week with the whole dolly-throwing incident. While McGregor will still have to answer criminally for his apparent role in the attack that injured fighters Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg, the ex-champ’s manager said the Irishman is looking to return shortly.
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Gaethje’s thoughts on the whole situation?
“Conor is going to get punished by paying millions of dollars to people,” he said. “So that’s plenty of punishment. I don’t want him to go anywhere, because like I said, I’m going to fight and claw my way to the championship. Either he’s there or Khabib is there. It doesn’t matter.”