PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Justin Gaethje took a peek at the Philadelphia Flyers ice that covered the arena floor and recalled a time on that spot when he let a chance at wrestling triumph slip away.
Gaethje was a Division I All-American wrestler at Northern Colorado and was closing his career in 2011 at the NCAA wrestling championships at the Wells Fargo Center. Gaethje failed to place in Philly, and his collegiate career ended with a loss in the third-place bracket round.
“Some memories, yeah,” he said. “Not the best ones.”
Gaethje is ready to make some good ones Saturday when he fights Edson Barboza in a lightweight bout in the main event of the UFC card in Philadelphia. The bout features two of the most ferocious kickers in the sport, who are both coming off wins following two straight losses. Gaethje viewed the fight as an elimination bout of sorts for each fighter to stay in the hunt for a championship match against Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Gaethje (19-2) battled in two straight UFC fights of the night in losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier.
“I become too complacent,” he said. “Fighting the best guys in the world, I was in the process of breaking them. I went in there with a plan to methodically break their legs and start there and work my way up. I was finding success in both of them. I was so comfortable and so complacent that I let them land their shot.”
He picked up a performance of the night bonus for his win over James Vick last August and now tries to knock off Barboza in what has been anticipated as one of the more brutal fights of the year. Gaethje gained his fame as a willing brawler with potent fists and a reckless approach to the sport. He stopped 15 of his first 17 MMA opponents, including four straight heading into his UFC debut. But the 30-year-old Arizona native said he’s worked on the mental stakes of not letting a fight he controlled get away from his grasp.
“Twenty-five minutes is a long time to stay focused. It’s really something I had to work on to go in there and not get complacent for 2 seconds or 5 seconds or 1 second,” Gaethje said. “That’s all it takes.”
In a city once home to the Broad Street Bullies, Gaethje and Barboza are ready to usher in a new breed of bruisers. Karolina Kowalkeiwicz fights Michelle Waterson in a women’s strawweight fight on the ESPN card.
This marks the third time UFC will hold an event at the Wells Fargo Center. UFC ran most of its East Coast shows in New Jersey until an MMA ban was lifted in New York in 2016 and now holds its biggest cards at Madison Square Garden or Barclays Center. Philadelphia hasn’t been the site of a card since UFC 133 in August 2011, and the promotion’s only other show was UFC 101 in August 2009.
Barboza (2-6) spent nearly three years training in Toms River, New Jersey and built a nice little fan base in the area. But the Brazilian couldn’t stand the winters and moved to Florida to raise a family. He lost to Nurmagomedov and Kevin Lee before a rebound victory against Dan Hooker in December.
Barboza, who has four wins by kicks, was struck by emotion during a recent visit to the Rocky statue. Barboza was a die-hard fan of the fictional fighter and snapped photos that he sent to his father in Brazil.
“I put the music on (hummed the theme), I shadow boxed, it was a dream come true,” he said.
Gaethje plans to crush that dream and prove he can become a top contender in the division. Win or lose, Gaethje has already considered his vocation a success after he ditched work in the mines for a career in fighting. His twin brother, Marcus, and their father both work in the industry at Freeport-McMoRan copper mine in Morenci, Arizona. Gaethje, who was born and raised in Safford, Arizona, worked for one summer in the mine after he graduated high school and quickly tired of 14-hour, seven-day work week.
“I had no life,” he said, laughing. “I’d come home super black every day from all the dirt and dust, oil. It was crazy.”
Was it harder than training?
“Hell yeah,” he said.
Gaethje’s family traveled the country to watch him fight in college, they just never expected he would blossom into a UFC star.
“They probably didn’t know this was going to happen or else they would have put me in the mine,” he said. “It’s their fault. They put me in wrestling at 4, gave me a twin brother, so competition has been flowing through my blood since Day 1.”
Barboza and Gaethje are primed for a violent end to Philadelphia’s third UFC night. What Gaethje hoped they’ll see is fighter with a better sense of how to punish a man and finish a fight.
“My only goal ever in a fight was to go in there and create chaos,” he said. “Now, I want to control the chaos that hate’s created. I want to fight in the right spots.”
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