Born Name: Justin Ray Gaethje
Date of Birth: November 14, 1988
Place of Birth: Safford, Arizona, United States
Nickname(s): The Highlight
Height: 5 ft 11 in (1.80 m)
Weight: 155 lb (70 kg; 11.1 st)
Reach: 70 in (178 cm)
Fighting out of: Arvada, Colorado, United States
Team: Genesis Training Center, Elevation Fight Team
Trainer Trevor Wittman: head coach
Ben Cherrington: wrestling
Wrestling: NCAA Division I Wrestling
Justin Ray Gaethje (born November 14, 1988) is an American professional mixed martial artist who currently competes in the lightweight division of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). As of October 5, 2020, he is #7 in the UFC men's pound-for-pound rankings and is the current interim UFC Lightweight Champion.
Born in Safford, Arizona, Gaethje began wrestling when he was four years old. He was a two-time Arizona state champion as a wrestler at Safford High School, and an NCAA Division I All-American during his time at the University of Northern Colorado. He began his amateur MMA career while in college, turned professional in 2011 and joined the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) in 2013, where he became Lightweight Champion. He defended his WSOF belt five times before vacating it to join the UFC in 2017.
Despite his wrestling background, Gaethje rarely looks for takedowns and is known for his aggressive stand-up fighting style. He has finished 19 of his 22 wins by knockout or technical knockout and has received five Fight of the Night and four Performance of the Night awards in his seven fights in the UFC.
Justin Ray Gaethje was born on November 14, 1988, in Safford, Arizona. His mother, Carolina (née Espinoza), is of Mexican descent, and his father, John Ray Gaethje, is of German descent. His mother was a postmaster while his father was a copper miner, as were both of his grandfathers. His paternal grandfather boxed while serving in the United States Army. Gaethje's father Ray retired as a copper miner in September 2019, after 36 years working at the Morenci mine.
Gaethje has two sisters. He also has a twin brother, Marcus John Gaethje, who worked at the Morenci mine for almost 10 years. When he was 18, Gaethje spent a summer himself at the Morenci mine. He said to Brett Okamoto of ESPN in 2020, "I worked seven days a week, 12 hours every day. I did it for three months straight and took one sick day, because I had to sleep. I did 96 hours one week." Gaethje recalled that as he was about to leave the mine to attend university, two of his co-workers told him, "You'll be right back, you ain't gonna make it in college. You'll be right back here." This motivated Gaethje to make a success of himself.
Gaethje began wrestling at the age of four, and attended Safford High School, where he was a four-time finalist and two-time state champion (AIA) and still holds the seventh most near falls (218) and the ninth most team points scored (1057,5) in the history of the state as a wrestler. He also played football and baseball in high school.
Gaethje graduated from Safford High School with a 191-9 record. He initially applied to a small college in Arizona as he wanted to stay close to his family, but instead accepted an offer from the NCAA Division I program at the University of Northern Colorado. As a freshman, Gaethje had a 18-9 record, including a third-place finish at the Oregon Wrestling Classic. In his sophomore season, he qualified for the 2009 NCAA Division I 157 lb Championship, where he had a 0-2 record. He finished the season with a 14-4 record, and was named to the Western Wrestling All-Conference First Team.
As a junior, Gaethje went 5-2 at the 2010 NCAA Division I 157 lb Championship to earn 7th place and All-American status. This made him the first Northern Colorado wrestler to attain Division I All-American status since Larry Wagner in 1970. Gaethje dropped down to the 149 lb division for his senior year, but had struggles with weight cutting. He won true-second at the NCAA Western Regional Championships and so qualified for the 2011 NCAA Division I 149 lb Championship, where he posted a 1-2 record to end his senior season with a 17-8 record. In June 2020, it was announced that Gaethje would be inducted into the University of Northern Colorado Athletics Hall of Fame for his achievements in wrestling.
Gaethje also wrestled with a number of mixed martial artists such as Georges St-Pierre during his collegiate years.
Mixed martial arts career
Gaethje began his amateur MMA career during his studies at the University of Northern Colorado. He amassed a 7–0 amateur record before making his professional debut on August 20, 2011, against Kevin Croom. Gaethje won the fight in the first round via KO due to a slam after his opponent attempted a submission.
On the regional circuit in Colorado and Arizona, Gaethje compiled an undefeated 7-0 professional record, with 6 stoppage wins. One of his early victories was over UFC veteran Drew Fickett. Gaethje won by knockout 12 seconds into the first round.
World Series of Fighting
Gaethje was signed by the World Series of Fighting on December 2, 2012, and made his debut on March 23, 2013 at WSOF 2 against Gesias Cavalcante, finishing the fight in the first round through TKO (doctor stoppage) after opening a cut above Cavalcante's left eye.
On June 14, 2013, he fought Brian Cobb at WSOF 3, eventually winning via TKO from leg kicks in the third round.
Afterwards, Gaethje fought Dan Lauzon at WSOF 6 on October 26, 2013, finishing Lauzon by knockout with a right uppercut in the second round.
The three stoppage victories secured Gaethje a shot at the inaugural WSOF Lightweight Championship, in the headline bout of WSOF 8 against Richard Patishnock on January 18, 2014. Gaethje dispatched Patishnock in the first round via TKO to become the WSOF Lightweight Champion.
His first title defense was at WSOF 11 against Nick Newell on July 5, 2014. Gaethje won the fight with a right hook TKO in the second round.
On November 15, 2014, Gaethje faced UFC veteran and former training partner Melvin Guillard at WSOF 15. The fight was ruled a non-title contest after Guillard missed weight. He scaled at 158.8 lbs, nearly 4 lbs over the 155 lb limit, and 50% of his purse went to Gaethje. Gaethje won the bout via split decision (28–29, 29–28, and 30–27).
He then went on to fight Luis Palomino at WSOF 19 on March 28, 2015. Gaethje defended his title by stopping Palomino via TKO in the third round after a combination of leg kicks and punches. The Los Angeles Times named this fight as the best fight of 2015.
Gaethje had a rematch against Palomino on September 18, 2015 at WSOF 23 and defended his belt again, finishing Palomino in the second round by TKO.
At WSOF 29 on March 12, 2016, he defended his belt against Brian Foster via TKO due to leg kicks at 1:43 of the first round. Three days later, Gaethje was suspended indefinitely by the Colorado State Athletic Commission for "unsportsmanlike conduct" after he performed his signature celebration, a backflip off the top of the cage, in the aftermath of his victory at WSOF 29. The suspension was lifted a day later.
Gaethje was expected to defend the WSOF Lightweight Championship against Ozzy Dugulubgov at WSOF 33 on October 7, 2016. However, the bout was cancelled on the day of the event as Dugulubgov was stricken with illness.
On October 17, 2016, it was announced that Gaethje would defend the WSOF Lightweight Championship against João Zeferino on December 31, 2016, at WSOF 34 in the main event. However, an injury forced Zeferino to withdraw from the bout and he was replaced by Luiz Firmino. Gaethje won the bout by TKO via doctor stoppage due to Firmino's right eye being swollen after round three.
Ultimate Fighting Championship
On May 4, 2017, Gaethje announced he had vacated his WSOF title and signed with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It was announced on May 12 that he would make his debut against Michael Johnson on July 7, at The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption Finale. Gaethje won the back-and-forth fight via TKO in the second round through a combination of punches and knees. The win earned Gaethje the Fight of the Night and Performance of the Night awards. Sherdog named this fight as the best fight of 2017, and round 2 of the fight as the best round of the year.
On July 13, 2017, the UFC announced that Gaethje would coach The Ultimate Fighter 26 along with Eddie Alvarez, with the duo expected to face each other at the conclusion of the season. The bout with Alvarez took place on December 2, 2017, at UFC 218. Gaethje lost the competitive fight by KO in the third round, the first loss of his MMA career. The fight also earned him his second consecutive Fight of the Night bonus award. At the World MMA Awards, it was named the fight of the year. Gaethje said after the loss, "It was the time of my life. Honestly, being in front of that many people, being able to put my skills on the line at the highest level on a pay-per-view, all of those things, it was a dream come true for me. I said it before, I said it many times, that I was going to lose (eventually). If I lost, I hoped that I would get knocked out. All of those things came true."
Gaethje lost a back-and-forth fight via TKO in the fourth round to Dustin Poirier on April 14, 2018, at UFC on Fox 29. The fight earned Gaethje his third consecutive Fight of the Night bonus award. Sherdog named Gaethje vs. Poirier as the best fight of 2018. It was revealed after the fight that Gaethje's leg kicks had caused a partial tear of Poirier's quadriceps femoris muscle. Poirier said, "I didn't know it in the fight, but I knew it the night of and the next morning. He tore my quad. I'm trying to think of another time I've been seriously damaged with kicks. Jim Miller hurt my calf really good, but nothing like that."
Gaethje was scheduled to fight Al Iaquinta on August 25, 2018, at UFC Fight Night 135. However, on June 28, 2018, Iaquinta withdrew from the bout and he was replaced by James Vick. Gaethje rebounded from his two losses in emphatic fashion, winning the fight by knockout in the first round. He was also awarded a Performance of Night award, which meant he had earned five bonus awards in his four fights in UFC.
Gaethje faced Edson Barboza on March 30, 2019, at UFC on ESPN 2. He won the fight via knockout in the first round. This fight earned him the Fight of the Night award.
Gaethje next faced Donald Cerrone on September 14, 2019 in the main event at UFC on ESPN+ 16. He won the fight via TKO in the first round. The win also earned Gaethje his third Performance of the Night bonus award.
Interim Lightweight Championship
On April 6, it was announced that Gaethje would step in on short notice to face Tony Ferguson for the interim UFC Lightweight Championship on April 18, at UFC 249. However, on April 9, UFC president Dana White announced that this event had been postponed, and the bout instead took place for May 9, 2020. Gaethje dominated the fight, stopping Ferguson via TKO in the fifth round, and thus ending Ferguson's record of 12 wins in a row. He also continued his bonus award streak, earning the Fight of the Night and Performance of the Night awards. This made Gaethje the only fighter in UFC history to win at least one fight night bonus in each of his first seven appearances.
Gaethje is now scheduled to compete in a unification bout for the UFC Lightweight Championship against Khabib Nurmagomedov on October 24, 2020 at UFC 254.
As a two-time Arizona State high school champion and an NCAA Division I All-American, Gaethje has some of the best wrestling credentials in the UFC's lightweight division. Despite his elite wrestling pedigree, he rarely looks for takedowns, instead preferring an entertaining stand-up fighting style. He is well known for the knockout power in his punches, and his debilitating leg kicks. When asked after his loss to Poirier in 2018 why he did not use his wrestling in the bout, Gaethje said, "I’ve been wrestling my whole life. I should’ve and could’ve took him down a couple of times, especially when I had him rocked just to steal a round or two. For some reason, my mind will not let me do it. I think I sold myself so hard on the fact that this is not wrestling. It gets you tired. If I’m going to get tired, I’d rather it be from fighting and not from wrestling. That’s the reason why I never wanted to wrestle. But I did so much cardio this camp that it would not have been a problem for me to turn it into a wrestling match, but I just can’t do it, it would not be fun for me."
In a 2020 ESPN interview, Gaethje stated he realized after transitioning from wrestling to mixed martial arts that, while winning was still important, entertaining the fans could earn him more money. He said, "There can be guys out there who are 13-0 with 13 decisions, and they're not [even] getting paid $5,000 to fight because nobody is watching. I've gotten opportunities on the biggest stages because of the way I fight. I've never not wanted to win a belt, but I wanted to make money, and the surest way to make money in this sport was to be exciting." According to Gaethje's coach Trevor Wittman, the back-to-back losses against Alvarez and Poirier caused Gaethje to change his mentality. Although he is still a pressure fighter, Wittman said that Gaethje now takes fewer risks and is more selective about when to trade punches. Wittman stated, "I asked him after those two losses, 'Is your purpose still to be the most exciting fighter in the world?' And he said, 'Not really, Coach. I want to be a UFC champion.'"
When asked about his strategy for a potential fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, Gaethje said he would force Nurmagomedov to strike with him. "Nothing will happen on the cage. We will fight in the center of the octagon. As much as he’s going to want to fight on the edge of the octagon, we’re going to fight in the center. I only wrestle folkstyle. I very rarely wrestle freestyle. In folkstyle, I think the biggest factor is, you’re allowed to expose your back without giving up points, which means you scramble. What he’s done his whole life, these guys could never expose their backs to get out of a takedown because they were giving up points, and that’s the first thing you learn in freestyle is don’t expose your back. They also never have to get up. They just lay there for 15 seconds, then they stand them up automatically. In folkstyle wrestling, you get rewarded for getting up and escaping. You cannot hold me down. I will get up, and I will scramble in a different way than he’s ever known."
Gaethje holds a bachelor's degree in Human Services from the University of Northern Colorado. He has stated his intention to do social work with at-risk youth. Gaethje's surname is of German origin due to his German-American father.
Gaethje underwent a photorefractive keratectomy in 2016 to correct his eyesight. He said, "I used to be blind. I had horrible vision. I was 20/60 in one eye and 20/200 in another eye. And I was far sighted in one eye and nearsighted in another eye." Dan Hardy stated on Inside the Octagon that before the surgery Gaethje's "eyesight was so bad that he actually had to physically be in contact with his opponent to know what he was hitting."