World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje has forfeited more than a few brain cells over the past eight months, with both fights of his all-offense series against Luis Palomino slotting high on 2015's list of ‘Fight of the Year' candidates. Gaethje knocked out Palomino twice in those two fights, however there were dicey moments in each, which is exactly why Palomino was given the opportunity to earn a third crack with a win at WSOF 25's eight-man, one-night tournament.
It was not meant to be though, as Palomino suffered another brutal finish at the hands of eventual tournament winner Brian Foster in the semifinals, and afterward Gaethje admitted he was happy to have a new challenge in front of him.
"I'm definitely glad it wasn't Palomino," Gaethje said. "Like I always say, that dude's tough, Palomino. I felt bad, he deserves to be in the tournament, but (after) two rough fights like that, I don't know how you could even think about putting yourself through something like this. I have so much respect to all these guys. I'm never going to blatantly disrespect any of these guys, but Foster came taking crap after he lost.
"He's the most confident. He obviously feels like he's ready and I need new blood. I'm glad it's not Palomino and I'm glad it's Foster."
Foster's own title chances were given new life after a disappointing loss in the tourney quarterfinals. The quick nature of his first-round heel hook defeat to Joao Zeferino gave Foster the inside track to return to the bracket following an injury dropout by Mike Ricci, and Foster took full advantage, besting Palomino then knocking out Zeferino to gain instant vengeance in the tournament finals.
Foster has been pursuing Gaethje ever since he dropped from welterweight to lightweight in the summer, even publicly calling out the champion this past September following a 32-second victory over LaRue Burley. He was one of several fighters to repeat that favor last Friday, and Gaethje -- who was seated cageside for the festivities -- enjoyed every second of it.
"I'm a fan of MMA, so the carnage was awesome," Gaethje said. "I sat there and loved it. I had the best seat in the house. I could hear every single shot, right there, level with it. It was crazy."
With Foster next and Palomino seemingly behind him, Gaethje has his work cut out for him in the year to come. A grudge match against Foster is tentatively scheduled for the first quarter of 2016. That fight will likely take place in Phoenix, Ariz. -- which has quickly become Gaethje's go-to destination, as rowdy supporters from his hometown of Safford religiously swarm downtown to support their local boy.
After that, Gaethje's options are many, with a handful of new WSOF signings and prospects potentially staking a claim for a title shot, chief among them Islam Mamedov and Ricci -- both of whom won their opening tournament fight then withdrew due to injury -- and Jason High, the former UFC fighter who knocked out Estevan Payan in his WSOF 25 debut.
"I want to fight them all," Gaethje said. "I'm going to be at the top for as long as possible. There are plenty of guys, we just signed a lot of new guys.
"Every single one of them is high level, and I'm glad I'm in this position. I'm glad I've got the target on my back. I've got to deal with all of them, but right now it's just Brian Foster. That's all I care about. I'm ready to fight him, and then I hope Jason (High) gets in there next."
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