In Sept. 18, 2015, heading into the third defense of his World Series of Fighting lightweight title at WSOF 23, Justin Gaethje was quickly outgrowing his status as the division’s best-kept secret. The 14-0 Arizonan had a well-deserved reputation as one of the most exciting fighters in the sport, with all but two of his wins coming inside the distance.
The talk around Gaethje already centered on when, not if, the Ultimate Fighting Championship or Bellator MMA might snap him up. The one glaring question hovering over the 26-year-old was how well his psychotically aggressive fight style would carry over to the next level. While “The Highlight” was already known for engaging in back-and-forth slugfests, some of those slugfests involved fighters that—according to conventional wisdom—should have been easier prey than Gaethje made of them.
Gaethje’s foe at WSOF 23, Luis Palomino, was a prime example of that concern. The Peruvian was an aggressive, reliably exciting brawler, but a journeyman; he had probably never been one of the 50 best lightweights on the planet at any point in his career. Nonetheless, Gaethje and Palomino’s first meeting at WSOF 19 in March 2015 had been a sensational firefight, one of the best fights of the year. While running it back was a no-brainer, it seemed valid to ask whether a true future contender wouldn’t have made much shorter work of a fighter like Palomino.
The rematch was a thoroughly entertaining fight as well, though definitely more one-sided than the first meeting. While Palomino got his licks in once again, Gaethje landed first, harder and more often, winning the first round before putting Palomino’s lights out late in the second. Gaethje’s WSOF belt, and undefeated record, were secure. A little over a year later, the still-undefeated Gaethje would sign with the UFC, where his kamikaze style would be put to the test immediately, as he was matched up with contenders from the start.