After spending four years reigning over World Series of Fighting’s lightweight division with an iron fist, Justin Gaethje is finally a UFC fighter. The undefeated 28-year-old inked an exclusive free agent deal with the UFC last week, ending a sterling 10-fight run with WSOF that established Gaethje as one of most talented and entertaining non-UFC fighters in the world.
“At the beginning of this [last WSOF contract], I let them know I was set on becoming a free agent at the end and seeing what my value was to the sport of mixed martial arts, so that was my intention,” Gaethje explained Monday on The MMA Hour. “At the end of the day, they worked well with me. I praise World Series of Fighting, they gave me every opportunity I had, and at the end, they were totally professional and did everything they could to help me out.
“I had one fight left (on my WSOF deal), but I wasn’t going to get the fight in before (the contract expired), so they allowed me to start the negotiation process, to go out and get different offers and then they had matching rights. So it all came down to numbers, and the market for people like me — people who put max effort on the line — is pretty good right now, so I was happy. I was a little nervous right at the beginning, but boom, a couple days in it was known to me that I was going to get some offers from different companies and my skills were going to be appreciated throughout the whole community.”
Gaethje (17-0) was the definition of an attractive free agent. Over the course of his unbeaten WSOF run, the Arizona native built a reputation as one of the most fearless fighters in the sport, utilizing a fan-friendly, all-offense style to land on several ‘Fight of the Year’ lists for his many wars in the WSOF decagon. And because of those credentials, the UFC wasn’t the only major organization to come calling.
“I want the best money, and obviously the highest ceiling that you can be the best is in the UFC. But yeah, I praise Bellator. They gave me a great offer,” Gaethje said. “I had some conversations with them and they treated me with nothing but respect, man. Like I said, right away I was under the impression that this was going to be a smooth process and that it wasn’t going to be as nerve-wracking as I thought it was going to be. And like I said, if you fight like me and you put — I’m undefeated right now, but I go out there and I fight my ass off, max effort. Humans recognize effort, and that’s what I do. I give max effort. I’m skilled and I’m ready, and I’ve been preparing for this for a very long time.”
With his free agency courtship now behind him, Gaethje is looking forward to his future in the stacked UFC lightweight division. And he already has one name on his mind for his UFC debut: Edson Barboza.
“I don’t have a fight booked officially or unofficially, but you know who I want,” Gaethje said. “I’ve made it every bit clear. I haven’t done a lot of interviews, but right away I said I want the scariest fight possible. When you say that, you can tell me who that is. When you think scariest, heaviest kicks, knees, elbows, punches, scariest knockouts, who comes to your mind?
“I’m 17-0 with 14 knockouts. I’ve been saying I’m the best in the world for a long time. I’m up here standing on a pedestal in front of the world, and I’m ready to fall flat on my face, so I want the scariest dude, the one who can embarrass me the most. That’s what I’m looking for, so it’s simple. When I think about this, it’s a matter of inches. Less than inches, milliseconds. It’s a little luck, a little skill, a lot of perseverance, and that’s what I have been training my whole life for.”
In Barboza, Gaethje sees an opponent who immediately gives him a chance to truly test what he is made of as a fighter. The Brazilian is currently the No. 5 ranked lightweight on the UFC’s official media-generated rankings, and has a résumé littered with vicious knockouts like his infamous starching of Terry Etim or his brutal flying knee finish of Beneil Dariush last month.
“That’s who I want,” Gaethje said. “That’s one of the scariest dudes on the planet right now at 155 pounds. He’ll kick your head off, knee your head off, elbows, wheel kicks. I mean, what other lightweight is going to — Khabib (Nurmagomedov) is scary, he’s going to maul you and make you fight for your life; (Conor) McGregor is going to knock you out with the left hand, but he’s not going to kick your head off. That’s what I want. When I sat down and knew I was going to go to the UFC, I thought of Edson Barboza and I almost had a panic attack, and then right away I called my manager Ali Abdel-Aziz.
“I said, ‘Ali, that’s the fight I want.’ I think it’s the worst fight in the lightweight division for me, the scariest. Great match-up. He doesn’t fight good going backwards, so clearly it’s a great match-up for me, stylistically. But like I said, most dangerous guy in the lightweight division, so I called [Abdel-Aziz], I said that’s what I want. So I’m sure he called the UFC. I’m sure if Edson Barboza wants the fight, he could have it.
“I can’t see the most dangerous, baddest man on the planet at 155 pounds, in my mind, not wanting to fight someone that gets hit way too much and is willing to get knocked out. So, I don’t know why he wouldn’t take the fight.”
Gaethje also named Michael Johnson as a potential opponent, reasoning that Johnson holds wins over both Tony Ferguson and Barboza, and thus would serve as a good introduction to the UFC. Either way, Gaethje said he expects to know the name of his next foe soon, and although he was hesitant to look beyond that, he appeared giddy to get started now that the best fighters in the world were finally within arm’s reach.
“I want to go to Brazil, I want to fight top Brazilians in Brazil. I want to go to Russia, fight Khabib in Russia. They’re going to be screaming ‘you’re gonna die’ the whole time. That’s the sh*t that I freakin’ love,” Gaethje said. “It’s the sh*t that separates one from the other. I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle it, we’ll see. I’ve been in some huge wrestling matches. I wrestled at the NCAA Division I tournament three times.
“I’ve wrestled in huge matches that I should never have won, and I won. I wrestled some turds that I should never have lost to, and I lost to those guys. My whole life I’ve been preparing for these moments right here, so I’ve learned a lot of lessons in wrestling. It’s helped me to get to this point, but right now, Trevor Wittman and my striking, I’m an entertainer and I’m violent motherf*cker, so you guys love violence and that’s what you’re going to get.”