Any champion will tell people that the hardest part of being a champion is not becoming the champ, but staying the champ. An undefeated record can only make it that much tougher.
In MMA, there are not a lot of undefeated champs. Between the UFC, Bellator and Titan FC, there are exactly four current champs with undefeated records — Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Liam McGeary, Andre Harrison and Jose Torres. The World Series of Fighting has two between fast-rising flyweight Magomed Bibulatov and lightweight king Justin Gaethje. Of the four major organizations in the United States, that is it.
With a title win, followed by four successful defenses and a catchweight win over UFC veteran Melvin Guillard, Gaethje is the most successful of these aforementioned champions. Even though he wears his title with pride and clearly knows he’s the champ, Gaethje always trains like he is the underdog and feels this approach is the real secret to his success.
“The whole leading up to it is the hardest part,” Gaethje told Combat Press. “Every day, I tell myself that my opponent is working harder than me and better than me, and that way, I’m always working my hardest. Come fight night, I’m 100 percent ready.”
Gaethje’s last fight came with a lot of hype. He was set to face blazing-hot veteran Brian Foster in what was anticipated to be his toughest challenge yet. Gaethje never assumed he would win. He trained as hard as possible. The result was a first-round drubbing of Foster’s left knee, which led to a TKO in under two minutes. Even Gaethje seemed a little surprised with such a speedy outcome.
“The fight went the way I hoped it would, and that was luckily one of the quick ones,” said the WSOF lightweight champ. “Those leg kicks — they hurt. I didn’t think they would finish him quite that fast, but I was definitely glad it happened like that.”
As with any promotion, the WSOF is only able to give its champions fights a couple times per year. In keeping with the typical schedule, Gaethje’s next fight takes place on Friday night at WSOF 33. It’s been more than six month since the champ’s last outing. Some of this was due to a suspension for an off-the-cage backflip following his last win.
“Now that I have the title and I’m defending it two or three times a year, I know about how long it’s going to be between fights,” Gaethje explained. “I need to take some breaks here and there, especially because of the way I train and the way I fight. I’ve been golfing, hunting, just staying busy.”
Due to a scheduling change, WSOF 33 actually got pushed a couple weeks after Gaethje was already in camp.
“I was about 12 weeks out from September 24th, but then they pushed it out to October 7th,” Gaethje said. “Right when I found out they pushed it back, I took a little break and let my body rest. I’ll take more training time whenever. The more training I get, the better I’ll be.”
When Gaethje first entered the WSOF, people suggested his undefeated record was untested. Three and a half years later, he is clearly a threat to any lightweight division in any promotion. He doesn’t let it go to his head, though.
Gaethje trains out of Grudge Training Center in Denver. The Arizona native works under longtime coaches Trevor Wittman and Jake Ramos, along with the newly formed 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu Arvada, which is housed out of the same location. With training partners like Nate Marquardt, Brandon Girtz, Justin Salas and Luke Caudillo, Gaethje gets a lot of different high-level looks to help him prepare for his next title defense.
Fellow WSOF veteran Ozzy Dugulubgov, who trains and teaches at the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City, will challenge Gaethje for the lightweight title at WSOF 33. Dugulubgov is currently riding a three-fight winning streak, but he hasn’t fought since December.
“I watched one or two fights of Ozzy,” Gaethje said. “I don’t really watch too much tape. The whole camp, I just keep telling myself that they’re so much better than me and I need to work harder every day.
“Ozzy’s tough. He definitely has some power. He’s got that good high kick, a good right hook and a good left straight. I think he’s going to try to take me down. I did notice that he does not like to get hit at all, so that’s something that can be detrimental in this sport. I think if I hit him a couple times, he’ll be going backwards, and then we’ll see how it goes from there.”
Even though Gaethje has finished 13 of his 16 opponents with strikes, at no point did he say, “I’m going to knock him out,” or, “He doesn’t stand a chance on the feet.” The champ keeps his head on straight, focuses on what he’s good at, and, if his prior performances are any indication, he finds a way to finish. Only two of his fights have gone to a decision.
Nobody really knows what the future holds for Gaethje. This includes the champ himself. He keeps it simple and focuses on the task at hand. It is not uncommon for champs to have their focus on getting into the UFC. It happens all the time. However, when people focus on the wrong things, they end up down the wrong path. This is not Gaethje. He is very happy with where he is. Unlike some champions, he is not getting ahead of himself. The next step comes Friday night, when fans will get to witness the champ in action once again as he headlines WSOF 33, which airs live on the NBC Sports Network and takes place at the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.
“I take it one fight at a time. I know that’s cliché, but that’s how I’ve done it my whole career. I feel like I’m treated well. I feel like my skills are very much appreciated at World Series of Fighting. I have two fights left on my contract, so we’ll see what happens. I’ve got to get these two wins. If you’ve ever watched me fight, you know I’m going in there to finish fights.”