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Eddie Alvarez vs Justin Gaethje

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Déjà vu: Undefeated no more, Justin Gaethje returns to the site of heartbreak — and triumph — for UFC on FOX 29

Justin Gaethje returns for a hometown affair against Dustin Poirier at UFC on FOX 29.
| Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The ghosts of Gila River Arena still roar to life for Justin Gaethje, memories alive and well and as vibrant as the desert sun.

The venue located deep in the heart of Glendale, Ariz., which will play host to UFC on FOX 29 on April 14, went by a different name when Gaethje first strode through its halls in 2004. Back then, when Gaethje first learned what it meant for champions to struggle and overcome and strive for greatness on the grandest stage, the building went by a simpler name: Glendale Arena. Gaethje was a freshman from far-off Safford High School, a standout wrestler who had dominated Arizona’s 145-pound division over the course of an eye-opening debut season on the mats. The trip to Glendale for the state championships was supposed to be the big payoff, a road-trip coronation for a gold-medal freshman campaign. And Gaethje dominated, just as he did all season, smashing and pinning his way into a finals matchup against Queen Creek High School’s Clint Lemieux.

Lemieux was a senior who Gaethje had already beaten three times over the calendar year. The perfect final showcase.

Or at least it was supposed to be.

En route to a 5-0 shutout and state gold, Gaethje made a fatal mistake midway through the second period, shifting the wrong way during a scramble and giving up a miraculous pin with just 42 seconds left on the clock. The biggest stage of his athletic life up to that point, the stands teeming with frenetic supporters who had made the four-hour drive to support the young kid from Safford, but Gaethje lost. He was stunned. “The only mistake he made the whole tournament, and he had to pay for it with the state championship,” his coach later told a local paper. “I let it slip away,” a teenage Gaethje said simply at the time.

Fifteen years have since passed. Gaethje still has never watched video of the match.

That was only the beginning of heartache in Gila River Arena.

The next year, driven by his disappointment, Gaethje embarked on a monstrous 56-0 sophomore campaign that carried him once again into the state finals and once again to the site of his grand stumble. This time, Gaethje was pitted against Aaron Hancock, a 152-pound senior out of Camp Verde High who was also undefeated, 50-0, a monster in his own right. The match was a year in the making. Gaethje and Hancock had been eyeing one another across the bracket all year, and Gaethje remembers it well.

A sequel far less dramatic than the original.

“He kicked my ass,” Gaethje says flatly. “And it was on TV.”

Hancock won an effortless decision, 13-3. Gaethje finished once again in second place.

And that could’ve been the end of it.

Reeling from two crushing defeats, the teenager could’ve moved on with his life, as some of his mat-mates surely did, content to be the next-best in a state of 7 million. Good, but not good enough to be a champion. People would’ve understood.

But that Gaethje was always a tenacious one.

Over his next two years, the future lightweight star worked tirelessly to string together a ridiculous 98-2 record en route to capturing two state titles, both attained inside the Gila River Arena. In his senior season, he sang a swan song to remember, steamrolling through the 160-pound bracket with a quartet of nasty wins via fall, rendering the scoreboard obsolete and seizing the tournament’s Most Outstanding Wrestler award. The run launched him into the world of collegiate wrestling, and in time, into the world of mixed martial arts.

And it all started inside one familiar venue, a venue where a kid learned the difference between winning and leaving in tears.

“I’ve had some good, good memories in that place,” Gaethje says today.

“I have some life lessons learned in that arena.”

It’s ironic then, or serendipitous — or perhaps both — that Gaethje finds himself reuniting with the memories of his past once more in advance of April 14, considering where he is in his present day. Gaethje’s UFC on FOX 29 open workout Thursday marked the first time he had returned to Gila River Arena since the 2007 triumph of his senior year. He remembered the building well. Where he left over a decade ago as a champion, he returns to Glendale as a man with a smoldering chip upon his shoulder. A man with something to prove, same as he was after those two gut-wrenching second-place seasons.

He spoke often in years past about the inevitability of such a moment.

Throughout his run as World Series of Fighting’s marquee attraction, Gaethje was often honest to a fault, speculating openly about the day an opponent would climb inside the cage and separate him from his undefeated record — and his consciousness — and how eagerly he awaited that rival who could be his better. Counterintuitive perhaps, but the most exciting man in MMA has always been a lunatic. That’s just the way he is wired.

At last, that fateful moment arrived last December, when Gaethje met his match in a brutal war of attrition against Eddie Alvarez. It was a fight that cut short a jaw-dropping eight-year unbeaten stretch, and one that ended as these things tend to do, with Gaethje dazed and confused on the canvas, felled by his own sword of raw, unhinged aggression.

Even though he knew his time would eventually come, the reality of the loss was more revealing than expected. It was an experience Gaethje now values as a necessity.

Winning has a way of obscuring the truth, and over the course of nearly a decade of peerless performances, Gaethje’s truth had become mightily obscured. It started in baby steps. Little allowances that Gaethje afforded himself as the W’s stacked upon his résumé. Less intensity in his training here. Less focus on his preparation there. With each passing win, the allowances became more generous, the risks more dangerous.

Everything finally crested midway through the Alvarez match, when in the midst of a genuine fight for survival, Gaethje realized he simply didn’t have the cardio needed to use all of his best tools. The limitless gas tank he relied on so many times in the past was nearing empty, and the wrestling base that served as the foundation for his skill set had been hurled out the window too. Unheard of. Justin Gaethje, the two-time state championship wrestler, forced to do everything he could to avoid a grappling exchange.

In a strange way, it was a realization of relief.

It meant his moment of reckoning had finally come.

“Natural human instinct, reaction, whatever, is if you’re perfect, you’re going to try to skate by and get by, get away with things the easiest way possible,” Gaethje admits. “I want to work hard and I do work hard, and no one will ever outwork me, but there was times where ... I started getting away from small things, the very small things that matter over 12 weeks, like that wrestling cardio that I need.

“You don’t drink enough water, you don’t hit your intake goal of water, and then maybe I just don’t even start thinking about intake of water and I just start drinking water whenever I want, because that wasn’t a factor, I’m good enough, I’ve beaten these guys. It wasn’t because I drank all that water. But it was because I drank all that water. It was because I went to sleep on time every night. Because I didn’t miss a meal. Because I didn’t miss a workout. That’s why I was winning. That’s why I win. That’s why I’m better and as confident in being tired, because I was outworking everybody.

“But I wanted to avoid grappling situations with Eddie because I knew how tired that makes you and I didn’t want to get that tired, because I knew I didn’t wrestle [in camp], or I knew I didn’t swim or bike, things like that. Small things like that. That should never even be a factor in the fight. Or throw the high kick, I should’ve thrown the high kick more. But you throw the high kick, there’s a chance he’s going to catch it and get me into a grapple exchange, what I was trying to avoid. I should never be trying to avoid something in a fight, especially something I’m good at. And it’s purely because I didn’t work hard enough and got away from doing that, which is alright. I’m okay with it.”

There were little signs along the way.

Gaethje’s lackluster showing in The Ultimate Fighter 25’s coach’s challenge was one. Matched against Alvarez in an 800-meter swimming match, Gaethje lost badly, vomiting after nearly getting lapped by his reality show counterpart. There were others as well, but just as his initial high-school stumblings caused him to self-evaluate what was wrong, the disappointment of his entire experience against Alvarez did more than a win ever could.

Justin Gaethje Eddie Alvarez Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The four months since have been a revelation for the Safford native.

Gaethje has recommitted himself in a way he hasn’t done since he was young and unproven, running and biking and swimming and generally living a miserable life ahead of his headlining showdown against fellow lightweight contender Dustin Poirier. It’s a shift in his focus that has long been needed, especially now that he is fighting among the world’s best within the UFC. For a pressure-monger like Gaethje, it’s made him meaner than ever before. It’s also caused him to understand the weight his undefeated record actually carried, the false sense of security it wrapped him around.

“It was a big thing that, every time I fought, most of the questions were derived from or [based] around,” Gaethe says. “I’m the only one who’s ever knocked out Michael Johnson. I made him quit. My pressure is second to none and my timing and attitude are second to none, and that’s what I want to be recognized for; not for being undefeated, because what does that mean? That just means you won. And I want to known for my style and the way that I fight, the timing that I bring and the fact that I rely on my reactions, stuff like that.

“I don’t need to go into that fight with a big ego. I’ve gone into every fight with a big ego because I was undefeated, and I don’t need to have a big ego anymore. I’m just more comfortable, I’d say, with myself. Dustin’s tough. He’s going to be a tough fight.”

Such honestly and frankness is rare to hear from a fighter, such self-examination that one would expect to be accompanied with a scowl. But from Gaethje, it’s said with a sly grin.

He’s been waiting for this wake-up for awhile.

That doesn’t mean he’s going to change what he does. Gaethje is nothing if not violence incarnate, a forever-march-forward terror who has fast endeared him to UFC audiences and made himself a permanent resident of annual ‘Fight of the Year’ lists. He vows that his renewed fervor is only going to make the results more vicious, the moment of truth more hellacious, the bloodstains splattered upon the canvas more generous with Poirier’s special brand of crimson. And in the roundabout way life often works, the timing is fitting.

UFC on FOX 29 is going to be junior year of high school all over again.

Revenge commandeered inside the old Glendale Arena by a man driven by failure on the grandest stage.

Over a decade since he left Arizona as a champion, Gaethje is returning to the desert to live out what he calls a dream come true. He’ll bring all of Safford with him, and with the lightweight division having finally righted itself at UFC 223, the time for Gaethje to prove his championship mettle is once more nigh.

“Dustin knows what’s coming. He knows,” Gaethje says with a low growl.

“I’m going to be my best. I’m going to be more prepared than I’ve been for a long while.

“When I’m done, I want to be known as the fighter that everybody wishes they could’ve seen live. And I will be known as that. So if you have the opportunity, then you won’t regret coming to watch — unless I get knocked out quick or he gets knocked out quick, then it’s still sweet.”

At that, Gaethje once again grins. The grin of a lunatic. A lunatic who has been here before.

He’s ready for anything.

“So Dustin better hope he knocks me out. The quicker he knocks me out, the more unscathed he gets out. But if not, he will be hurting very badly the next day.

“Either way, it’ll be a night to remember.”

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