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Justin Gaethje on the big stage can mean only one thing: Fireworks

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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Lincoln-Gaethje vs Vick Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Justin Gaethje donned a singlet for the University of Northern Colorado’s wrestling team, it was at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia. Today that same arena is known as the Wells Fargo Center, which happens to be the host venue for Saturday night’s UFC on ESPN 2 card, which Gaethje is headlining. This time instead of cruciferous-eared collegiate athletes trying to outpoint him, it’ll be a human buzz saw known as Edson Barboza.

And make no mistake. Barboza is the lesser berserker in the scenario. Gaethje fights like a howling gallowglass with no concern for self-preservation. To beat Gaethje, you need to fully snatch his consciousness or give up a piece of yourself trying.

“I’m a fan of MMA, so I can’t wait to [go back and] watch this fight when it’s over,” Gaethje told MMA Fighting. “[Edson]’s great. I’ve wanted to — and have been — testing myself against the best guys in the world. When I’m done with this adventure I’ll be glad to say I fought the best.”

Gaethje is coming off a somewhat improbable first-round knockout over James Vick, a fighter who was being circled for title contention riding a four-fight win streak. It was both a thing of majestic beauty and a brutal reminder that Gaethje doesn’t mess around.

It also snapped a two-fight skid for Gaethje, and boosted his own stock among the lightweight elite. If there was a difference in the Gaethje that beat Vick and the one that lost to Eddie Alvarez in late 2017, it was that there appeared to be a semblance of…patience?

“My approach was 100 percent different than in any other fight,” Gaethje says. “I was able to finally able to go back and make some adjustments. I hadn’t lost [coming into the UFC]. I was 18-0, and I really did have a lot of success in those two losses, especially against Eddie. I was just…right there. Both of them honestly, but Eddie I was right there. I couldn’t make the changes, lost to Dustin [Poirier] and I was able to go back and look real deep, and understand that I can’t take as many chances as I sometimes take. And I did that in the Vick fight.”

The surest way for Gaethje to neutralize Barboza’s wicked kicks and jabs would be activate the old wrestler — to shoot for a double-leg, take him down, and unleash some ground and pound. That game plan worked for Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee. It could work for Gaethje, too.

Yet if there’s ever been a fighter who is not tempted to drown out his own clobber-happy aesthetics, it’s Gaethje, who is known as “The Highlight.” Nearly all of his fights are frenzied, all-heart and offense affairs, with torrents of leg kicks that make the crowd groan. His fights are like watching fighters set on tumble-dry. In fact, Gaethje usually snaps into kill mode when he gets hurt.

Perhaps now that he’s 30 he is trying to tame that feral side. Perhaps there is a bit more of a long play in Gaethje’s mind heading into his fight with Barboza, to be a little more selective with his shots.

“I think so — I think the older you get, the wiser you become,” he says. “I’m trying to live until I’m at least 65 or 70, so I might as well try and stay healthy until at least that long.”

Before he’d arrived to the UFC, Gaethje had already built his reputation as a forward-pushing brawler with the World Series of Fighting. He was the lightweight champion there for three years between 2014-2016, defending his title five times. The questions surrounding were pretty basic: Could he fight like that in the UFC and be successful? And was that fighting style conducive to becoming a UFC champion?

So far he is 2-2 in the UFC, and could easily be 4-0. He could just as easily be 1-3. There’s still a roulette vibe to his style — and nearly always a moment when both guys stand in each other’s wheelhouse and chin-check each other — that draws fans in. Against Barboza, he expects the same. And if he can take out Barboza, he is hoping that a title shot starts to come into range.

“That is the goal,” he says. “With a win over Edson there’s five guys ranked in front of me after that, and I have to go through those guys.”

If one thing stands out about Gaethje as he heads into his fifth UFC fight, it’s that the former copper miner is true to his word. When he came in he insisted he wanted only to face the best in the world, and he didn’t shrink from the idea that he would lose some of those battles. He embraced it. He said losing would be inevitable, and that he wouldn’t be devastated by a loss (or two). “I’m not going to beat myself up after I just got beat up,” he’s wont to say.

But he also assured everyone that he would put any man he faced through hell to get it done. That’s still his attitude heading into Philadelphia.

“I didn’t want to take the long road,” he says. “I wanted to take the short road to the top, and I think I’m doing that. This fight proves it. There’s not going to be many people in history that have gone through what I’ve gone through in their first…I mean, Eddie Alvarez was one of my first opponents. I asked for it, my paycheck it, so I’ve got to fight the best.”

Gaethje says it’s “awesome” to be headlining a card ESPN, which he sees as a culmination of all his hard work. He’s been wrestling since he was four years old, and after 20 years of that he’s been trading punches in a cage. He’s returning to the place he last competed in an NCAA tournament, and — who knows — you may see an evolved Gaethje, who executes a game plan and picks his shots carefully.

Then again, come on — this is Justin Gaethje we’re talking about. His philosophy of an ideal fight is simple.

“I get paid by the fight, not by the minute,” he says. “Ideally I’d like to knock him out in three seconds.”