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Box-office appeal has never been an issue for Justin Gaethje, one of the sport’s true live-by-the-sword-die-by-the-sword entertainers.
The 31-year-old Genesis Training Center representative will meet Tony Ferguson for the interim Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title in the UFC 249 headliner on Saturday at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, with the winner presumably moving on to face Khabib Nurmagomedov in a 155-pound unification bout sometime in the second half of 2020. Gaethje finds himself on a three-fight winning streak during which he has finished all three of his opponents inside one round. The onetime NCAA All-American wrestler has gone the distance just twice in his 23-fight career—a testament to the aggression with which he competes.
As Gaethje approaches a potentially career-defining battle with Ferguson, a look at some of the rivalries that led him to this point:
Palomino stood his ground and at one point sent the champ’s mouthpiece flying. (Photo: Keith Mills/Sherdog)
Gaethje walked through serious fire to retain his World Series of Fighting lightweight championship, as he cut down the “Baboon” with third-round leg kicks and subsequent ground-and-pound in the WSOF 19 headliner on March 28, 2015 at Comerica Theatre in Phoenix. Palomino succumbed to blows 3:57 into Round 3. Neither man backed down in an amazing first five minutes that featured a little bit of everything. Gaethje fired all his weapons at the challenger—including a standing rear-naked choke takedown and a cartwheel kick—but Palomino stood his ground and at one point sent the champion’s mouthpiece flying. His resolve seemed to pay off in Round 2, where he blasted Gaethje with repeated left hooks and opened a cut above his right eye. Fatigue, however, began to impact both lightweights. At the start of the third round, the leg kicks in which Gaethje had so heavily invested started to pay dividends. Palomino twice went to the ground after shin-to-thigh contact. Following the second knockdown, Gaethje made sure he would not get up, uncorking punches and Donkey Kong hammerfists until the stoppage was called.
It was the first of two meetings between the two men. Gaethje also emerged victorious in the rematch, as he buried the Peruvian brawler with punches in the second round of their WSOF 23 main event some six months later, affirming his superiority in their memorable head-to-head series.
Through it all, Gaethje moved forward with sadistic resilience against Alvarez. (Photo: Getty Images)
The former Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator MMA titleholder on Dec. 2, 2017 chopped down the indomitable Gaethje with a third-round knee strike and follow-up punches in a hotly anticipated UFC 218 feature that somehow managed to live up to the great expectations that preceded it. Gaethje bowed out 3:59 into Round 3, as he suffered his first professional defeat before a crowd of 17,587 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. Alvarez used superior speed, footwork and output to build a two-rounds-to-none lead on the onetime World Series of Fighting champion, snapping back his head with uppercuts while digging to the body with left and right hooks. Through it all, Gaethje moved forward with sadistic resilience. Leg kicks were his primary weapon, and he nearly crippled the Philadelphia native with them. Though he was nursing a grotesque swelling on his face and could barely stand, Alvarez managed to fire a picture-perfect knee through Gaethje’s porous defenses in the center of the cage. The Trevor Wittman disciple kissed the canvas and could not defend himself from the punches that followed, prompting referee Herb Dean to intervene on his behalf.
Gaethje dusted Cerrone with a counter right hand and follow-up punches in the first round. (Photo: Getty Images)
Gaethje might as well be swinging a sledgehammer. The ex-World Series of Fighting titleholder inched ever closer to an elusive shot at the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight crown, as he dusted Donald Cerrone with a counter right hand and follow-up punches in the first round of their UFC Fight Night 158 main event on Sept. 14, 2019 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia. Cerrone bowed out 4:18 into Round 1, and despite his initial protest, he soon seemed to conclude that the stoppage was just. Gaethje zeroed in on his opponent’s lead leg while cutting loose with hooks and uppercuts to the head. Late in the first round, Cerrone charged forward and walked into a right hook from Safford, Arizona, native. The impact briefly dropped “Cowboy” and left him susceptible to further punishment. Gaethje closed the distance and uncorked a pair of right uppercuts before driving Cerrone to a kneeling position with another right hook. A few more punches followed until referee Jerin Valel had seen enough.