Skip to main content

Justin Gaethje's 'lifelong mission' within reach at UFC 274

Fueled by past experience in vying for lightweight gold, 'The Highlight' can't let this opportunity slip through his fingers.

In a lot of ways, Justin Gaethje feels like a different person this fight week.

Don't worry, he's still the same human highlight reel who will plant his feet in the center of the octagon and throw everything but the kitchen sink at whoever stands in front of him, but this fight week in the desert differs from others on an emotional level.

Maybe it's the nerves that comes with fighting for championship gold in arguably the UFC's toughest division, or maybe it's just that we interviewed him two weeks out in the comfort of his home, but the Gaethje sitting on the other end of the camera lens seemed a little less primal and a little more reserved.

"Going through a title shot in the past and losing, it was a learning experience. I got to take a lot from that," Gaethje said after being asked what was different this time around.

"And then, you know, getting passed over when I felt like I was the candidate that should be fighting for the belt, having been the last guy that held the interim title and being ranked number two," Gaethje (23-3 MMA, 6-3 UFC) added, referencing the fight last May during which Charles Oliveira (32-8 MMA, 20-8 UFC)filled the vacant spot as champion in the lightweight division following Khabib Nurmagomedov's retirement. "Now that I went out there and beat (Michael) Chandler like I did, I cannot let this opportunity pass me."

It's not the first time the Safford, Arizona product is fighting for the lightweight throne. Despite having held the title as interim champion in 2020 before fighting in a second title fight to unify the lightweight division, Gaethje enters this one with a chip on his shoulder.

"I cannot put the time or energy to enjoy what I've accomplished thus far, because the job is not done," he said. "I have to stay focused, because if I were to look back, then there's a lot of things that can distract me, because I've lived an amazing life, and I've had an amazing ride. You know, I've done a pretty good job of proving everybody that believed in me right. So, I just have to finish the job on May 7th."

"Finishing the job" comes as a sort of a full circle opportunity in the career of the 33-year-old, who remembers watching "Do Bronx" fight, simply as a fan, prior to the start of his MMA career.

"Way before I was in the UFC, I was a huge fan of the UFC, and MMA, in general. Charles Oliveira, I think he's been fighting in the UFC since at least 2012 – I was graduating college in 2012. So, I was just a huge fan; I've been watching him the whole time, and to look back and then see myself fighting him for a title is pretty amazing.

"He's a much different fighter than the past: I think he's mature, I think he's confident. And those two factors are huge when it comes to being successful in the cage."'

Backed by his own level of maturity and unquestionable confidence, Gaethje gets to take the stage not only in his home state, but with those nearest and dearest to him in the crowd.

"It's a crazy ride that I've been on since starting wrestling very young. I'm from a small town, we would go to the big cities every weekend – tons of traveling, tons of debt my parents put themselves in. So yeah, to go home and fight in the biggest fight of my life – for the world championship, in which I know I will be successful – it's going to be an amazing experience."

A lifelong martial artist, "The Highlight" is ready to put it all on the line yet again, not only for himself, but for his family, his heritage, and his country, as well.

"More than anything, I represent the United States. I'm gonna walk out to 'El Rey' by Vicente Fernandez, and I'm gonna be carrying an American flag, and I think that's the definition of who we are as Americans. I look white, but I am Mexican. My family is Mexican, I have Mexican roots, and I'm proud of it. I've always been proud of it. And I'm proud to represent the United States of America. My family has Mexican roots, but I am American through and through."

With a goal he's been working toward for decades just within reach, Gaethje knows what it will take to get there, but he doesn't allow himself to daydream.

"I don't visualize hearing 'and new' because I want that moment to be pure and real. I know I'll probably cry. It's been a lifelong mission to accomplish something, and I'm on the cusp of it. I've had a chance before, and I failed. If I fail again, it will be detrimental, but regardless, I will represent my family and my country accordingly. And I'll be happy with that."

This story first published at