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Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje

“If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be doing social work somewhere. I’d probably be a probation officer. I want to work with at-risk youths.”

— Justin Gaethje

These were the words of Justin Gaethje after his five-round destruction of the UFC’s boogeyman Tony Ferguson. Those words highlight the qualities of a man whose desire in life is to help people. However, once inside the octagon, Gaethje possesses the ability to unlock the most violent man in the UFC.

Justin Gaethje and head coach Trevor Wittman are a perfect fit. Wittman provides Gaethje with a coach who has the ability to get the very best out of him.

Humble Beginnings

Justin was born on November 14, 1988, in Safford, Arizona. His mother was a postmaster and his father worked in the copper mine. He has two sisters, as well as a twin brother, Marcus Gaethje.

At the age of 18, Justin spent a summer working at the Morenci mine, the same mine his father worked at. During an interview with Brett Okamoto of ESPN in 2020, Gaethje says, “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.”

In that same interview, Justin also recalled what was said to him by two of his co-workers as he was leaving the mine to attend the University of Northern Colorado. “You’ll be right back, you ain’t gonna make it in college. You’ll be right back here.” This was all the motivation needed for Justin to strive for success.

The Gaethje family
The Gaethje family

Start of a Journey

Justin began wrestling when he was four years old. He was a two-time Arizona state champion as a wrestler at Safford High School. While attending the University of Northern Colorado, Gaethje earned NCAA Division I All-American his junior year.

Gaethje started his amateur MMA career while studying at the University of Northern Colorado. His first fight was organized by his coach after Justin honored their agreement to improve his grades. This fight took place in a boxing ring set up in a park. Gaethje won the fight in the first round via KO due to a slam after his opponent attempted a submission. He would then go on to a 7–0 amateur record before making his professional debut on August 20, 2011.

Gaethje's slam
The slam that started it all

Just like his amateur debut, his professional debut was won via an impressive slam in the first round. Justin started on the regional circuit in Colorado and Arizona. He fought to an undefeated 7-0 professional record, with 6 stoppage wins. A notable early victory in his career was over UFC veteran Drew Fickett. Gaethje won that fight by knockout just 12 seconds after the opening bell.

Making Moves

After an impressive start, Gaethje was signed to the World Series of Fighting on December 2, 2012. He would make his debut at WSOF 2 against Gesias Cavalcante on March 23rd. Gaethje would go on to finish the fight in the first round by way of TKO after opening a nasty cut above Cavalcante’s left eye, forcing a doctor’s stoppage.

After convincing wins over Brian Cobb and Dan Lauzon, Gaethje earned his shot against Richard Patishnock for the inaugural WSOF Lightweight Championship. This title fight took place as the headline bout of WSOF 8 on January 18, 2014. Gaethje finished off Patishnock early in the first round via TKO to become the first WSOF Lightweight Champion.

Title Defenses

Justin went on to defend against Nick Newell before facing UFC veteran and former training partner, Melvin Guillard, at WSOF 15. However, that fight was ruled a non-title contest after Guillard missed weight. He came in at 158.8 pounds, which is nearly 4 pounds over the 155-pound limit. Because of this, 50% of Guillard’s purse went to Gaethje. Gaethje won the fight via split decision (28–29, 29–28, and 30–27).

On March 28, 2015, Gaethje defended his title by stopping Luis Palomino at WSOF 19. This time, he won via TKO in the third round after a combination of leg kicks and punches. This was one of the best fights of 2015. These two would face each other again in a rematch on September 18, 2015, at WSOF 23. This fight had a similar result, with Gaethje defending his belt once more by finishing Palomino in the second round via TKO.

At WSOF 29 on March 12, 2016, Gaethje defended his belt once again, this time against Brian Foster. Justin won this one by way of TKO due to leg kicks at 1:43 of the first round. That very same week, 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 didn’t hold up and was lifted a day later.

Signature backflip

Gaethje won his final fight with WSOF against Luiz Firmino by TKO via doctor stoppage due to Firmino’s right eye being swollen after round three.


On May 4, 2017, Gaethje announced he had vacated his WSOF title and signed with the UFC. He would go on to make his debut against Michael Johnson on July 7th, at The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption Finale. Gaethje won his UFC debut after a back-and-forth fight via TKO in the second round through a combination of punches and knees. His performance that night would earn him Fight of the Night and Performance of the Night awards. 

On July 13, 2017, the UFC announced that Gaethje would coach The Ultimate Fighter season 26 along with Eddie Alvarez, with a fight between the two coming at UFC 218. Gaethje would go on to lose the fight against Alvarez by KO in the third round, suffering the first loss of his MMA career. Despite losing, the fight earned him his second consecutive Fight of the Night bonus award. Later that year, that bout was awarded Fight of the Year at the World MMA Awards.

Headlining Events

Since that loss to Alvarez, Gaethje has gone on to headline every event he has been a part of. However, in his first main event for the UFC, it was back-to-back losses for Gaethje. After a back-and-forth fight, he lost via TKO in the fourth round to Dustin Poirier at UFC on Fox: Poirier vs Gaethje. This fight earned Gaethje his third consecutive Fight of the Night bonus award.

Gaethje rebounded from his two losses in emphatic fashion with the quick finish of James Vick. After winning the fight by knockout in the first round, Gaethje was awarded his second Performance of the Night award. This takes his tally to five bonus awards in just four fights in UFC.

After defeating Vick, Gaethje faced Edson Barboza at UFC on ESPN: Barboza vs Gaethje. After the two exchanged vicious leg kicks, Gaethje hit Barboza with a huge overhand right, sending Barboza to the floor for the KO victory. The fight earned Justin yet another Fight of the Night award.

Gaethje vs Barboza

“The Highlight” next faced Donald Cerrone for the main event of UFC Fight Night 158. For the third fight in a row, Gaethje won via TKO in the first round. This win earned Justin his third Performance of the Night bonus award.

Interim Title Fight

On April 6th, it was announced that Gaethje would step in on short notice to face Tony Ferguson for the interim UFC Lightweight Championship at UFC 249 taking place on April 18th. However, on April 9th, UFC president Dana White announced that this event was canceled due to the ongoing pandemic. After finally getting approval to hold events again, Dana White rescheduled UFC 249 to take place on May 9th, 2020. The stage was set.

Gaethje vs Ferguson

When the time finally arrived, Gaethje dominated the fight. He stopped Ferguson via TKO in the fifth round, thus ending Ferguson’s impressive streak of 12 wins in a row. Continuing his bonus award streak, Gaethje earned another set of Fight of the Night and Performance of the Night awards. This made Gaethje the only fighter in UFC history to win at least one bonus award in each of his first seven appearances.

Related : Gaethje vs Ferguson Breakdown by Josh Feen.

What’s Next For Gaethje??

Gaethje vs Khabib poster

UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is reportedly set to take on Interim Lightweight Champion Justin Gaethje at UFC 253. This highly anticipated championship unification bout will hopefully take place on September 19th.

Can “The Highlight” be the man to finally put an end to the zero attached to Khabib’s record? If past fights are anything to go by, this bout has Fight of the Year written all over it.

Follow me on Twitter at @JamesRees83 for more MMA news and discussions. Also, make sure to follow @OT_Heroics  for all of your sporting needs. As well as @MMA_OTH for all things MMA.

Come discuss this and much more at the Overtime Heroics forums!

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