Photo: Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC [Getty Images]
Justin Gaethje embodies the warrior spirit mixed martial arts fans look for but rarely find in their modern-day gladiators.
The former World Series of Fighting champion will attempt to steady himself in the cutthroat Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight division when he meets James Vick in the UFC Fight Night 135 headliner on Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska. Gaethje enters their five-round battle on a two-fight losing streak, having been stopped by former Bellator MMA titleholder Eddie Alvarez and American Top Team’s Dustin Poirier in consecutive outings. The 29-year-old rarely buys into the discretion-being-the-better-part-of-valor idea: Only two of his 20 fights have gone the distance.
As Gaethje prepares for his showdown with Vick, here are five things you need to know about him:
1. His roots are in wrestling.
Despite Gaethje’s penchant for engaging in unforgettable standup wars, wrestling provided his first taste of combat sports. He was a three-time state champion at Safford High School in Safford, Arizona, and finished his prep career with a remarkable 191-9 record. Gaethje went on to wrestle collegiately at the University of Northern Colorado, where he became the first wrestler in school history to earn NCAA Division I All-America honors.
2. He was a promotional pillar.
Gaethje arrived in the World Series of Fighting in March 2013 and captured the organization’s lightweight crown less than a year later. He holds WSOF records for most wins in title fights (six), most consecutive title defenses (five), most knockouts (nine) and longest winning streak (10).
3. Opponents pay for their mistakes.
In a third of his 18 career victories, Gaethje has stopped his counterpart inside one round. They include 12-, 61- and 69-second finishes.
4. He blends efficiency with volume like few others.
Gaethje has landed 55 percent of the strikes he has thrown — 344 of 627 — in UFC competition, a staggering rate for such a prolific striker.
5. He hit the ground running in mixed martial arts.
Gaethje started his MMA career a perfect 25-0. He won seven straight fights as an amateur and then rattled off 18 consecutive victories after turning pro. His list of victims included Michael Johnson, Luis Palomino (twice), Melvin Guillard, Nick Newell and Gesias Cavalcante.