Justin Gaethje Remains WSOF Lightweight Champion After New Year’s Eve Scare

By: Joseph Santoliquito
Dec 31, 2016
NEW YORK -- Something had to give. Either a chunk of Luiz Firmino’s face would fall off or Justin Gaethje’s right arm would, from hitting the Brazilian constantly with right uppercuts.

The World Series of Fighting 34 main event on Saturday at Madison Square Garden turned out to be a thriller, featuring an incredible, back-and-forth battle between Gaethje, the defending WSOF lightweight champion, and a valiant challenger who took the fight on three weeks’ notice. In the end, with both fighters busted up and swollen, it was Gaethje that drove his record to 17-0 after referee Dan Miragliotta wisely waved off the fight after three rounds.

Firmino, who fell to 19-8, could barely see. His right eye was swollen shut, possibly from a broken orbital bone, and his left eye was a mere slit. According to the judges, it was Firmino that was ahead after three rounds, winning the first and second before Gaethje’s sledgehammer right uppercuts began cracking his granite skull.

What threw a bolt into the fight occurred in the waning seconds of the first round. Gaethje’s poor attempt at a somersault kick landed right on Firmino’s face. The Blackzilians rep took offense, glaring at Gaethje. Agitated, Firmino wanted to go after the champion when the round concluded, but he stored his venom for Round 2, where he sprang at Gaethje. He tried a flying knee and constantly burrowed in on Gaethje, taking him down a few times.

When Firmino closed in, he paid a price. Gaethje kept connecting with a right uppercut that landed unimpeded almost every time he threw it. Firmino’s left eye began to close, and his face began falling apart. Gaethje continued his torrid pace in third, and though Firmino tried matching Gaethje’s fire, he was unable to take the punishment.

It was an ooh-and-ah fight for the fans, who implored the ringside doctor to let it continue. However, Miragliotta and the ringside medical staff made what appeared to be the more prudent call.

Fitch Edges Shields in Defense of Welterweight Title

There was a heavy dose of boos that greeted Jon Fitch (29-7-1) upon defending the WSOF welterweight title, as he bested Jake Shields (31-9-1) by unanimous decision. Scores were 49-46 on all three scorecards. Fitch then dropped a bomb by announcing it may have been the last fight of his career.

The fans expected more. A Fitch-Shields matchup had stirred the curiosity of MMA fans for some time, but this tilt more than anything dragged along. Shields, the former Strikeforce, Shooto and EliteXC champion, had not fought since WSOF 22, where he submitted to Rousimar Palhares on Aug. 1, 2015; and it showed. By the third round, Shields’ inactivity came through.

Fitch’s corner kept telling him to stay off the fence. It seemed to get through in the middle stanza, where Shields kept Fitch locked up for most of the round. There was little action, but for Shields, it was effective. He conserved energy and paced himself while in control, but the momentum swung back to Fitch in the final minute of the third.

In the fourth round, Shields gained the early control again, though it was at a very tedious, unaesthetic pace, with both fighters spending most of their time on the canvas doing very little. It was, however, a round that Fitch controlled, and it was a drive he continued throughout the round. It pretty much sealed the victory.

“I feel pretty good after the fight, but you know, I’m always my biggest critic. I’m getting older and my body is falling apart. I can’t train the way I know I need to, and I feel like it shows,” Fitch said. “I just can’t grapple anymore, [and] my neck’s been jacked up for a long time. I’ve had a lot of cortisone shots over the years, and the last time I had one it was a sport’s medicine doc, and she told me, ‘You’re done. You’re done. Why are you doing this? Stop doing this.’

“I’m still grappling with retirement. I want to talk to some people and see what they can do,” he added. “They’ve come a long way with stem-cell injections, so with the degeneration I have in my spine, if I can get back to grappling and actually having fun grappling like I used to, then we’ll see. Retirement would be like cutting off an arm or a leg, but with my physical condition the way it has been, I’ve been depressed because I used to go out and do three days of jiu-jitsu training on top of my regular MMA training. I can’t do that anymore. I can’t just do that for fun anymore, and it is heartbreaking to me.”

Branch Submits Taylor in Fifth

It was bound to come; David Branch just needed a little patience to execute it. It also did not help that Louis Taylor was not exactly cooperating. That was what made the WSOF middleweight champion’s title defense so intriguing.

In the first round, Branch failed twice to get Taylor (13-4) in a rear-naked choke. In the second, the two men filled the stanza with clinches. In the third, it was Taylor that locked up Branch, squeezing for dear life on a submission, but somehow, Branch escaped. By the fifth, Taylor was depleted, and Branch, now 20-3, closed it with a rear-naked choke at 2:00.

“I really didn’t take any punishment; yes, he was tough, but I got the win and I’m looking to do big things in 2017,” Branch said. “I already had that same finish in the first round. That’s why I abandoned really striking with him. When it came again in the last round, I knew I could lock it up. A lot of people have been saying I’m the best 185er not in the UFC. I think I’m the best 185er in the world regardless of promotion, and I’m planning on proving that in 2017.”

Moraes Gobbles Up Silva

WSOF bantamweight champion Marlon Moraes (18-4-1) successfully defended his title with a demolition of challenger Josenaldo Silva (25-5) in a fight terminated by the challenger’s knee injury at 2:30 of the first round.

Silva hardly had a chance. Moraes had him on his back in the opening minute, raining down blows. Silva managed to get back on his feet, and the two swung wildly at each other. Silva injured his knee attempting to counter a Moraes kick with one of his own, spelling the end.

Moraes extended his winning streak to 13 fights, a run that includes victories over Miguel Torres, Tyson Nam, Brandon Hempleman, Carson Beebe, Josh Rettinghouse, Cody Bollinger, Sheymon da Silva Moraes, Joseph Barajas and Josh Hill (twice). The 28-year-old has not lost since Nov. 2011. Silva had his 17-fight win streak snapped.

“I’m happy right now and I just want to go home and celebrate the New Year’s with my family and rest a little bit, stay with my team; and thank you everybody for the support,” Moraes said. “This is just the beginning. I live in Tom’s River now, and it’s really close. I’m happy to fight [and] perform. Now I get to go home and sleep in my own bed. That was amazing fighting in New York City. I had a lot of people cheering for me and it always makes me so happy, and I think a lot of them are happy now too.”

Rama Excels in Light Heavyweight Debut

Former WSOF heavyweight champion Smealinho Rama dropped to 205 pounds for WSOF 34, meeting Jake Heun on the undercard. He was looking for his first victory since beating Derrick Mehmen on Oct. 11, 2014. Heun (10-6) entered the fight a winner in three of his last four fights. Rama was coming off his loss to Blagoy Ivanov in June 2015. Rama (10-2) did not show much rust, forcing the stoppage with punches at 3:30 of the second round.

“I’m very happy and excited to do it with a great team behind me,” Rama said. “I am happy with my performance, but I always find things to improve on every fight. I plan on going back to the gym and getting back to the drawing board and improving on this win.”

Prelims: Okami, Alencar, Harrison All Victorious

Yushin Okami (33-10) claimed a split decision -- 29-28, 28-29, 29-28 -- over Paul Bradley (23-7) in a three-round showdown at 170 pounds; Caio Alencar (11-1) took care of Jared Rosholt (14-4) with punches 77 seconds into the first round of their heavyweight pairing; Andre Harrison (15-0) submitted Bruce Boyington (14-10) with a rear-naked choke 1:54 into the first round of their featherweight tilt. “It was a hard right hand, good takedown finish and an awesome submission. I’m game, I’m ready, I’m healthy and I’m looking forward to the next fight in the 145-pound division,” Harrison said; Shane Kruchten (12-3) earned a unanimous decision over Jeremy Mahon (5-5) in their three-round catchweight clash at 150 pounds, drawing 29-28 marks from all three judges; Bruno Santos (15-2) eked out a split decision -- 28-29, 29-28, 29-28 -- over the previously unbeaten Vagab Vagabov (18-1) in their 15-minute middleweight affair; and Tom Marcellino (8-5) submitted Matt Denning (3-5) with a guillotine choke 3:30 into the first round of their battle at 170 pounds. Marcellino was appreciative of the opportunity: “It’s been my dream for the last 10 years. I started training over 10 years ago. I always wanted to fight in New York, and this was a dream come true. I always said this was never going to happen, but they pushed it through and it finally happened. That was a Renzo Gracie finish. We do that every day there. The guys I train with and the coaches I have are all top, top, top guys, plus the wrestling coaches and boxing coaches. I’ve got a lot of great coaches.”

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