Justin Gaethje is crazy. Properly, undeniably, full-blown crazy. He fights crazy and is liable to act a little crazy from time to time, too.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Ask his coach, Trevor Wittman, the man responsible for harnessing this craziness on a daily basis.
“He is crazy,” Wittman confirms, like a doctor delivering a prognosis. “But a great crazy. I love it.
“He’s a guy who belongs in the X Games. He should be fifty-feet in the air jumping off a snowmobile and swimming back. He gets a rush from doing spectacular and dangerous things. He loves facing danger.”
Arizona’s Gaethje and all his craziness will head to the UFC’s Octagon on Friday, July 7, when he makes his debut for the promotion against Michael Johnson. A long time coming, in the eyes of many, Gaethje, a lightweight, has racked up a 17-fight unbeaten streak away from the big show before receiving his invitation to get involved. That it took so long is crazy, so say his fans.
For Wittman, though, the timing of Gaethje, 28, making his way to the UFC couldn’t be better. It’s a move that comes at a time when the fighter’s confidence is sky-high and his crazy-controlled ratio has been worked on to such a degree that both now believe they have cracked it.
“Nailed it,” said Wittman. “It’s one of the best timed moves to the UFC I’ve been involved with. There are plenty of examples of guys getting to the big show too quick, but this isn’t one of them.
“I feel like he’s got a lot of experience with the World Series of Fighting and that has given him that kind of star power on the smaller shows. He’s doing the stages slowly. He’s not just jumping into a main event. He has been the main event many times. That’s going to help in this situation.
“The UFC are the real, real guys. I’m excited to have this be a learning process. I’m not coming out and saying, ‘Hey, he’s going to whoop everybody and win every fight.’ I look forward to the whole process.”
Gaethje’s style is that of a kid in the throes of a sugar rush. High-octane, crowd-pleasing, at times annoying (for those opposing him), Gaethje has fighting ADHD and doesn’t bother with meds. Instead, he embraces this hyperactivity and all it brings. He embraces the punches he has to take because of it. He embraces being in the danger zone.
“He’s got a fighting style that is rough and tough,” says Wittman. “As a boxer, I don’t want to say he’d have a short career, but he’d had a rough career. In MMA, though, there is so much less damage taken.
“He’s also a very good defensive fighter. What I mean is he uses offence as defence. You’ll hear it in many sports: offence is the best form of defence. He’s a guy who closes the gap on shots. He’s very good at breaking punches.
“It’s important not to take clean shots and he has never been concussed in a fight, which I’m super proud of as a coach. People think he takes damage, but often he takes shots on the forehead or on the side of the head. He’s getting an angle on the punch so he can close the gap. He does, however, have a style that puts himself in the pocket all the time.
“Experience will change guys a lot. If they go out there and get dropped in a fight, you’ll see them change. They’ll change their style. I don’t see him going out there, if he was ever stopped in a fight, and thinking, oh, I need to change everything up. I think it will let him pull off the gas pedal a little, but it’s not the time right now for me to say ‘pull back on gas’ because that’s what makes it work. It’s a slow process and a slow adjustment. For me, as a coach, I feel we need to keep the momentum going and the ball rolling. We need to follow what he is chasing – putting on great fights and going after finishes.”
Given the kamikaze nature of his style, it’s perhaps a miracle Gaethje is undefeated. Naysayers will point to the level of competition faced as the reason for this, but, even so, a sport as unforgiving as mixed martial arts typically hands out a lesson or two by this stage, especially for men who fight like Gaethje. This, therefore, suggests there’s something nuanced going on with Gaethje; that he’s not all blind, ballsy brawling; that there is method to his madness.
Certainly, this will come to light now he is in the UFC. With a step up in competition, soon we’ll know whether Gaethje got to 17-0 because he’s that good or because the competition was that bad. Likewise, soon we’ll know whether he is destined to be a crowd-pleaser or a title contender.
For Justin Gaethje, part of the thrill of joining the UFC is this revealing of the truth. He, seemingly more than anyone, wants to find out. It’s why he has made it his mission to target “the scariest guys in the UFC” and why he has promised only to be knocked out at some stage during his UFC tenure. Hellbent not just on testing himself against the best in the world but doing so with no fear of defeat, Gaethje, true to form, is going in swinging.
“His purpose is to be the most entertaining athlete on the planet,” said Wittman. “That’s something he strives for. It’s not so much about winning and losing. That definitely matters, but it’s not the be-all and end-all with him. It’s like anything in life. You’re going to learn more from a loss than a win.
“I don’t fear the day he loses. Some coaches have fighters who are hard to pick up after a loss. Gaethje’s a guy I know who will look at it, make adjustments, not overthink it and just get better. He wants to face that type of opposition. For me, as a coach, I love to see that type of energy.
“He says, ‘Who cares? Everybody gets knocked out.’ He has that mentality. He doesn’t fear it. They say if you fear something it causes hesitation and it will plant little seeds of doubt. But he accepts reality and doesn’t put pressure on himself. He says, ‘I’m going to go out there and do it. If it doesn’t work, I’ll make an adjustment and do it again.’”
Wittman and Gaethje, together since Gaethje’s seventh and final amateur bout, appear made for each other. Similarly excitable, they wear a smile like a badge of honour and refuse to believe in the notion of a backwards step. They are fuelled by energy and a shared goal.
“He’s an absolute pleasure to be around,” said Trevor. “He’s always full of energy and I’m a guy who’s always full of energy. As a coach, I enjoy being around him.
“He’s also a very positive mindset type of guy. He chases what he wants. His mindset is so strong. His parents have done a good job with him. With most of my athletes I have to work a lot on mental preparation, but Gaethje has this uniqueness to him when it comes to mindset.”
Mindset is one thing. That can take a fighter to the cage – make them relaxed, make them composed – but it won’t necessarily ensure victory. Victory takes more than just confidence or craziness. It requires a semblance of control, too. And this, one assumes, is often the biggest obstacle facing both Gaethje and his coach on fight night. Like a wild dog on a leash, Wittman needs to get the amount of slack just right. Don’t restrict the animal completely, but, at the same time, don’t allow it to become a danger to itself and those in its vicinity.
“A coach never wants to adjust the mental part with a guy like Gaethje,” Wittman said. “It’s planting seeds of longevity and technical parts, but it’s not building game plans. If I build game plans for him, that’s too much thinking.
“If he goes in there thinking too much, he’s not going to perform. If he goes out there and just reacts to situations, he’s an amazing athlete. He’s cool and calm in a fight, mentally. He’s calm when his heart is pumping at a high rate. He’s able to take people into deep waters in the late rounds. For me, that’s a great thing. If you’re able to fight with that mindset, the response is easy.”
Gaethje’s first opponent in the UFC, Missouri’s Michael Johnson, is a man Wittman knows well; a man he would go so far as to call a friend. He is also represents a significant step-up in class for Gaethje – a fact Wittman appreciates – and is someone against whom Gaethje will have to be at his very best if he’s to keep his 17-fight unbeaten record intact.
“Michael Johnson has a lot of fear and that means he is going to fight back,” said Wittman. “A lot of guys feel Gaethje’s leverage and start to survive, and people who survive make for a boring fight. Those fights aren’t fun for Gaethje. People who fight back are what he likes.
“We will probably give up a round or two on Friday because Michael Johnson is very fast. He has fast hands and is a good mover. But, with what we’re planning on doing, I feel we will slowly start to break him. I feel like it will be a nerve-wracking fight for the first couple of rounds, as a lot of Justin’s fights are, but, once he gets the timing and the distance with his feet, it will be a fun fight.”
In a sport as unpredictable as mixed martial arts, there are only a few certainties: one is that Justin Gaethje is crazy; another is that he’s fun.