Former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje, 17-0, makes his UFC debut this Friday (July 7) against top contender Michael Johnson. The unbeaten Arizona-native spoke with Fighters Only’s Tony Reid ahead of his Octagon bow and outlined the reasons why he feels he is ready for the jump into the big league.
Q: This is a big one – the main event of the evening for the TUF 25 Finale – and it’s your UFC debut against a top five fighter during International Fight Week. A dominant performance has you right in the mix for a potential title shot. Is that how you see it?
Justin Gaethje: Yeah. I love it. I love the opportunity. I love rising to the occasion. I am a show off and I can’t wait to be under those bright lights and perform.
Q: You have said that fighting is your high; your drug, if you will. You have always done well under those bright lights. There are guys that step up to the occasion and show out and then there are guys who shrink away from that. Can you speak to your mentality of being one of those guys that lives for those bright lights and huge opportunities?
JG: Yeah, man. It started at four years old, when I started wrestling. It’s very easy for me to be confident in my skills. I don’t know what makes one person show up and the next one cower in those situations.
Right before I walk out to the cage I look in the mirror and ask myself if I did everything possible to be ready for this opportunity. I cannot lie to myself. The answer has been ‘no’ before and those were the hardest fights I have ever had mentally. I have had thousands of minutes to get ready for these 25 and I took advantage of every single one. So, when I ask myself that question on Friday night the answer will be ‘yes’, a confident ‘yes’. When the bell rings it’s just me, Michael and the referee. That Octagon is locked. That’s what I’m here for.
Q: I’m envisioning you in an Eminem ‘8 Mile’-style raw, honest moment. Is that what it’s like?
JG: Eminem was trying to pump himself up. I am back there trying to stay calm. I only get to be that raw a couple of times a year. I love when I get to go into that mindset and put myself in the situation where it’s me or him. He is trying to take everything I have ever worked for. I am going to love taking everything he has ever work for. That’s where I am at.
Q: How do you see the fight playing out?
JG: I am a lot different to most fighters. I envision some of the stuff leading up to the fight, but, once that bell rings, I haven’t envisioned a fight once. I never have had a game plan going into a fight. It’s the rawest place that we, as humans, can be in. We are in front of a bunch of people having another man take what you have worked for. I don’t envision anything. I am prepared. I am confident in my skills. I know I hit like a truck. I just want to put my hands on him and kick his legs off.
Q: You have been putting guys on blast already. You have had things to say about Conor McGregor, your opponent Michael Johnson and others. I know you aren’t a huge fan of that style, so how do you balance keeping true to yourself and also being a bit of a showman?
JG: I am just going to be myself. I am going to speak my truth. I’m not sure if it will register with fans or not. I do know that after I fight they will go back to what I said and they will believe me more.
Q: You come into this fight at 17-0. As a former World Series of Fighting champ and undefeated fighter, what does that ‘0’ mean to you? Is there a certain pressure that builds? Is it something you focus on?
JG: It doesn’t mean much to me, especially in this sport. I am going to lose one day. I’m just thankful that I haven’t succumbed to an injury in a fight. I have been pretty lucky, if you want to call it that. There’s no reason one of those shots shouldn’t have knocked me out. It’s a matter of inches and milliseconds. I prepare for everything I can control. I can’t control what happens once you get in the cage. I can control my preparation and the lead up. Obviously, it’s pretty awesome. It’s probably helped me get paid a little more than if I had a few losses but other than that the ‘0’ doesn’t mean much.