Inside Justin Gaethje’s journey from a mining town to MMA stardom

MMA

Editor’s word: This story was initially printed forward of UFC 249. He’ll face Charles Oliveira at UFC 274 on Might 8. The story has been up to date to replicate his upcoming struggle.

JUSTIN GAETHJE WAS 18 years previous when he spent a summer time working on the Morenci copper mine, positioned about an hour’s drive from his hometown of Safford, Arizona.

Safford is a small city of roughly 10,000 within the southeast portion of the state. Considered one of its largest employers is FreePort-McMoRan, a Phoenix-based firm that owns Morenci, one of many largest copper reserves within the U.S.

Gaethje’s father, Ray, retired from the mining enterprise in September after working at Morenci for 36 years. His mom, Carolina, labored there briefly after highschool. Each of Gaethje’s grandfathers have been miners, as was his twin brother, Marcus, for almost 10 years. Marcus now works for a corporation that sells gear to the mine.

And for 3 summer time months, proper after he graduated from highschool in 2007, Morenci was Justin’s dwelling, too.

“I labored seven days every week, 12 hours day-after-day,” Justin says. “I did it for 3 months straight and took one sick day, as a result of I needed to sleep. I did 96 hours one week, and I acquired all of the s— work.”

13 years in the past, Justin Gaethje did not know the place life would take him. He could not have foreseen {that a} child from a mining household would find yourself as an elite blended martial artist. But that child from Safford will struggle Charles Oliveira on Saturday in the primary occasion of UFC 274 (6 p.m. on ESPN+ PPV) with the light-weight championship on the road.

As a lot as Justin did not love working the mine — he used to come back dwelling coated in a thick, sticky oil known as crater — it ran in his household’s historical past, and the cash was tempting. By the point he and his brother have been of their early 20s, Marcus had already purchased a house and was financially steady. It could be years earlier than Justin might say the identical as he labored his approach up the MMA ranks.

There was just one time, and it occurred throughout that summer time job, when Justin remembers feeling adamantly against a future within the mine — when it was instructed to him that he would don’t have any different alternative, just because he was born in Safford.

“There have been two guys I labored with who instructed me, ‘You will be proper again, you ain’t gonna make it in faculty. You will be proper again right here,'” Justin remembers. “That caught with me for a very long time. I stated, ‘Completely not. That is not gonna occur. If I come again, it is as a result of will probably be my alternative. I am not gonna have to come back again right here as a result of I failed.'”


THE SAFFORD HIGH Bulldogs held a cushty lead within the second quarter of 1 explicit soccer sport in 2006. With only some seconds remaining earlier than halftime and the Bulldogs pinned deep in their very own finish, the coach instructed Justin Gaethje, the senior quarterback, to take a knee within the backfield and run out the clock.

“So he hikes the ball and takes off operating to the aspect,” Marcus remembers. “And I do not know if he noticed a gap or what, however he decides to attempt to run for a landing.”

“He broke exterior, however he would have needed to go about 80 yards to attain,” Ray Gaethje says. “It was apparent it wasn’t going to occur. A pair guys began to get round his legs and as an alternative of simply happening, he stored making an attempt to struggle them off. As he was preventing, he turned, and right here comes a man with a free shot at him. Simply knocked the heck out of him.”

“[Justin] was nearly out chilly,” Marcus says. “He did not know what was occurring. Nothing. We get him within the locker room, and when the third quarter begins, he runs again onto the sector. The coach needed to actually drag him off the sector as he was making an attempt to say, ‘I am effective.'”

Each member of Justin’s inside circle believes the No. 1 purpose he’s a win away from the UFC’s interim light-weight belt, and never following a extra conventional profession path in Safford, is his competitiveness. He has to compete.

“He is a man who appears to be like for these alternatives,” says Trevor Wittman, Gaethje’s longtime MMA head coach. “He is presently conscious and at all times in search of them. He is a ‘sure man’ to them.”

Typically these alternatives are much less about competitors and extra reflective of Justin’s fearless and quirky nature. Ray remembers how Justin used to leap off the roof of his home, onto a trampoline and right into a backflip. Justin has carried that backflip behavior into the Octagon. Carolina remembers a 2-year-old Justin chasing down a pet who bit him and biting the canine again.

However his family and friends say it’s Gaethje’s want for competitors that has dictated his life. It is what made him stand out in wrestling at a younger age and resulted in two state wrestling titles in highschool. It is what satisfied him to simply accept a proposal from Division I College of Northern Colorado, despite the fact that he initially stuffed out varieties to attend a smaller faculty in Arizona to stay near his household. And it is what led him to transition into blended martial arts when his wrestling profession ended with an NCAA All-America season in 2010.

And it explains his determination to not merely take a knee again in 2006.

“There’s just one technique to do it,” Justin says, “and that is to win and attempt to rating each time.”


GAETHJE’S FIRST MMA contest was an beginner bout in August 2008, in an outside boxing ring in Denver.

The debut lasted all of 27 seconds. With no hanging background, Justin instantly went for a takedown and knocked out his opponent with a slam. It was a dominant and entertaining outcome for somebody with zero MMA expertise, and it was an indication of issues to come back.

As much as that time, Gaethje had targeted solely on competing — and successful. From the age of 4, he was a wrestler, which required a singular focus: Beat your opponent. That is to not indicate he was a boring wrestler, as a result of he at all times felt he wanted to dominate.

However as he began to transition after his collegiate wrestling profession into MMA, the place leisure can imply bonuses that exceed struggle purses, he knew what he needed to do. Profitable was nonetheless necessary, however type factors affected the checking account.

“After I first requested Justin, ‘Do you consider you is usually a champion?’ he answered, ‘A hundred percent, I feel I is usually a champion,'” Wittman says. “However his goal was at all times to be essentially the most entertaining fighter on this planet. I’ve by no means had anybody else say that to me. Not one.”

Gaethje understood the economics of the scenario.

“I am getting paid what I receives a commission now as a result of folks love the best way I struggle,” he says. “There may be guys on the market who’re 13-0 with 13 selections, they usually’re not [even] getting paid $5,000 to struggle as a result of no one is watching. I’ve gotten alternatives on the most important phases due to the best way I struggle.”

Gaethje gained his first 17 skilled MMA fights, and solely two of them have been by determination. He was brawling and successful.

So when he grew to become a free agent from the World Collection of Combating in 2017, the UFC got here calling. Gaethje delivered in his debut with the promotion on July 7, 2017, with a knockout of Michael Johnson. Gaethje reportedly took dwelling $300,000, together with $100,000 to indicate, $100,000 to win and two $50,000 bonuses for efficiency and struggle of the evening.

Gaethje then suffered back-to-back TKO losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier in his subsequent two bouts. Each have been fan-friendly slugfests — which meant the $50,000 bonuses stored rolling in — however these consecutive, violent losses made an influence. The bonuses have been good, however they have been not sufficient.

“I requested him after these two losses, ‘Is your goal nonetheless to be essentially the most thrilling fighter on this planet?'” Wittman says. “And he stated, ‘Probably not, Coach. I wish to be a UFC champion.'”


IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE Poirier loss on April 14, 2018, the main focus began to show.

“My first three fights within the UFC, I learn someplace they have been three of the highest 5 most fun fights within the UFC throughout that point,” Gaethje says. “However two of these occasions, as a result of I misplaced, I solely acquired paid half my cash, as a result of that is the way it works on this sport. You get half to indicate and half to win. That wasn’t cool with me.”

The purpose grew to become clear.

“I felt I had legitimized myself as one of the vital thrilling fighters to ever step within the Octagon, and now to solidify that, I must win a belt,” Gaethje says. “That is what is necessary now. I’ve by no means not needed to win a belt, however I needed to earn cash, and the surest technique to earn cash on this sport was to be thrilling.”

Based on Wittman, Gaethje has began taking fewer dangers within the Octagon and altering the best way he spars. He is nonetheless a stress fighter, however he has grow to be extra selective about when to remain within the pocket.

The outcomes have been spectacular. Gaethje has gained his previous three fights, all by first-round knockout. And the bonuses have not stopped. Justin has gained a Combat of the Night time bonus 4 occasions in simply six UFC appearances, and he has gained seven efficiency bonuses total. Nicknamed “The Spotlight,” Gaethje is one in every of solely 5 fighters in UFC historical past to earn a bonus in six consecutive bouts.

And lots of are predicting Saturday’s foremost occasion to be a robust contender for Combat of the Night time, particularly contemplating Ferguson has 10 bonuses of his personal.

However bonuses are not the precedence for Gaethje. A victory over Ferguson would lead him to undefeated light-weight king Khabib Nurmagomedov — which is precisely the type of problem that excites Gaethje essentially the most.

“After I beat Tony, I’m preventing Khabib subsequent, as a result of that is what I am right here for,” Gaethje says. “I am right here to attempt to be the very best on this planet.”


MARCUS FOLLOWED THE household mining custom, however he additionally works Justin’s nook throughout fights, and he’ll be there in Jacksonville. Ray and Carolina will probably be watching from Safford, because of the closed-arena coverage in Jacksonville to fight the unfold of the coronavirus. It’s going to mark the primary time in Justin’s skilled profession that Ray is not going to be in attendance.

“I do not understand how it’ll be sitting on the sofa and watching him struggle,” Ray says. “I’ll be a nervous wreck.”

It is unlikely Ray would be the just one in Safford watching the struggle. The small city in Arizona identified for producing copper miners, cattle ranchers and cotton farmers can be conscious that it produced maybe essentially the most entertaining fighter on this planet.

Justin is conscious of the influence he can have on those that have been in his sneakers. Perhaps there will probably be a child who spent all week cleansing crater in Morenci who will catch the struggle and see the previous Safford boy who broadened his horizons regardless of the predictions of these coworkers again in 2007.

“I am from a really, very small place,” Justin says. “Bother is straightforward to get into, and it is very easy to assume that is all there’s, particularly when you have not seen how massive the world is. So I actually wish to encourage youth to go and take a look at the world.

“I feel all of us have very explicit abilities, and it is arduous to grasp yours should you do not take possibilities and face your fears. So, that is what I am doing. And I am telling them they’ll try this, too.”

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