Justin Gaethje is one of those fighters who telegraphs exactly what he’s going to do and dares anybody to stop it. And what he does is push an amphetamine-pace, moving forward like some kind of industrial berserker -- pressure-pressure-pressure -- while dropping hard stuff until somebody falls. He knows at some point it could be him, but so far it’s always been the other guy. He describes his style as "reckless," and means it as a positive attribute.
Whatever he calls it, it’s working.
Gaethje, the World Series of Fighting’s lightweight champion, is undefeated at 12-0. Eleven of those wins have been finishes. Most of them have come in the first round. If he’s a roulette player, he’s a pretty hot one.
And it just so happens that his next opponent, Melvin Guillard -- Gaethje’s toughest opponent to date -- likes to bang, too. He especially likes to chin-check early in fights. Sometimes it pans out spectacularly for the longtime UFC vet, as evidenced when he knocked out Evan Dunham and Shane Roller during one good run in the UFC. Sometimes he gets caught. Joe Lauzon punished his aggression in Texas, and Donald Cerrone weathered an early blitz to put Guillard away with a first-round headkick.
So what happens when two jugular hunters like Guillard and Gaethje come together in the cage?
"It should be explosive, man," says the 25-year old Gaethje, who will be fighting for the third straight time in Florida on Nov. 15. "It has the potential to be everything I’ve ever wanted it to be. People like it when you put it on the line. It’s about putting it on the line and trying to finish your opponent, being exciting and putting a performance on. Me and Melvin both do that. We’ve always done that."
Guillard is one of the game’s great training camp vagabonds, having spent time training all over the country. It’s to the point that his bouts in New Orleans and Houston were both considered "homecoming" fights, but he’s also spent time in Florida, down in Albuquerque with Greg Jackson and, not all that long ago, in Denver, at the Grudge Training Center with coach Trevor Wittman. Wittman happens to be Gaethje’s coach.
Guillard and Gaethje are old training partners. At one point they lived together at the designated Grudge training quarters in Arvada. According to Gaethje, he and "The Young Assassin" remain "cool" with each other, but if you sat in on Thursday's media call you know that there's some serious tension to cut through. (In sum, Guillard attacked Gaethje's glaring anonymity and Gaethje said he had the kind of chloroform in his fists to put Guillard to sleep).
Yet, once Guillard came over to WSOF, Gaethje had a hunch they’d be in each other’s crosshairs sooner or later. When Guillard scored a TKO victory over Gesias Cavalcante at WSOF 11 in July -- the same night that Gaethje defended his belt against Nick Newell in Daytona -- the clash became inevitable.
"Yeah, it’s business." Gaethje says. "He wants my belt, so there’s only one scenario. I’ve got to fight Melvin and it’s about my career and making money. If I knock out Melvin impressively, that’s great for my career and making money. So that’s what I’m going to do. Melvin knows. We’re going in there to finish each other. He knows that and I know that.
"When it comes to my resume it was the best opportunity I could get right now. Melvin…everybody knows Melvin. Everybody’s seen Melvin fight, everybody knows that Melvin punches people hard and knocks people out. And he can be one of the best lightweights in the world."
For Gaethje, a win over Guillard would help in getting him the recognition he feels he deserves. Though he’s been impressive in his WSOF run -- scoring wins over JZ Cavalcante and Dan Lauzon -- he’s yet to add a big name to his casualty list. It’s the point that his Wikipedia page one day up and disappeared, as if his accomplishments did not yet merit entry. How else would you know he comes from wrestling and a family of Arizona copper miners?
Not that he pays attention to that.
"I have no clue what happened there," he says. "But Wikipedia is bullsh*t anyway. I couldn’t even use it in college for research papers."
The guess is the Wikipedia page will reappear if Gaethje does to Guillard what he’s done to so many others. Right now Gaethje sits as one of the kingpins in the WSOF, which has been a fallback option for UFC veterans as much as it’s been a springboard for fighters trying to get to the UFC.
Gaethje is presumed to be among the latter, though right now he realizes the gateway to all things -- from bigger fights and bigger money -- begins and ends at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, Florida on Saturday night at WSOF 15.
"I don’t even have time to even think about it, honestly," he says. "I’m so caught up in the every day stuff. I never want to take anything for granted. I have to go to each workout, work out just as hard as the last one and get ready for Melvin right now. After that, it’s all about making money in the end. Wherever the money is at, that’s where I have to go.
"My one guarantee is I’m coming hard. Melvin knows I’ll be coming hard and fast-paced -- I always keep a high pace. It should be an exciting fight. It has the potential to be an amazing fight. I know I’m showing up. I hope Melvin shows up and he comes to put on a show with me."