Justin Gaethje

Arizona native Justin Gaethje lands a punch against Michael Johnson July 7, 2017 in Las Vegas.

As Gila River Arena prepares to host its first-ever Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event April 14, Arizona fan favorite Justin Gaethje is ready to headline his first UFC event in the state.

“I have fought in Arizona numerous time, just never for the UFC, so this is going to be exciting,” Gaethje said during a recent sit down interview. “It is going to be really special to have that many people cheering for me here.”

Gaethje, ranked No. 6 at lightweight (146-155 pounds), will battle No. 5 ranked Dustin Poirier in the main fight.

“The Phoenix area is a great market, and there is a great MMA culture here, and some of the best fans are here,” UFC Director of Public Relations Dave Lockett said. “We have been looking to return to Arizona, and this is a perfect time and place to have it.”

Gaethje history in Arizona

Gaethje grew up in Safford in southern Arizona, and started wrestling at the age of 4. He has been competing his entire life.

“Safford is so secluded and a small town and I got into wrestling early in life and fell in love with the competition,” Gaethje said. “I had a twin brother and we did everything and pushed each other in all sports and my brother pushed me.”

He graduated from Safford High School in 2007. He played football, baseball and wrestled and led Safford to three team wrestling titles — the first in school history from 2005 to 2007 — as well as winning two individual titles in 2006 (152 pound) and 2007 (160). He was a four-time finalist in high school wrestling and said he was focused on wrestling.

“Even though I played other sports, wrestling was my first love and I always wanted to win,” Gaethje said.

He finished his high school career 190-7 including a 52-0 record during his senior season and decided to attend Northern Colorado University. As a junior, he finished seventh in the 2010 NCAA Division I 157 pounds Championship and became the first (and only, as of 2017) Northern Colorado athlete to attain All-American status since the school joined Division I in 2006.

“My first year there, we got our butts kicked, and that was new to me,” Gaethje said. “Then, to help turn the program around and be successful, and the first and still only All-American is a nice feeling.”

He dropped down to the 149 pound division for his senior year, but had struggles with weight cutting and he also wrestled with a number of mixed martial artists such as Georges St-Pierre during his collegiate years, when he first got the taste for MMA.

“I got into MMA through wrestling, taking some amateur fights during summer in college,” Gaethje said. “When I graduated from college, I decided to turn pro and had some early success and was making some money.”

Gaethje graduated from University of Northern Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in human services.

Professional MMA career

He began his career in the Ring of Fire and Rage in the Cage in Arizona, winning his first 16 fights but still remembers his first time in the cage, a victory by slam over Kevin Croom.

“I still remember it because I probably should have lost that fight,” Gaethje said. “I was very nervous and when the fight started, I just came out and got a hook and slammed him for the win.”

It was there he earned his nickname, “The Highlight,” based on his style of finishing matches.

“Actually, it has nothing to do with how I fight now, it was from my early career,” Gaethje said. “I would pick people up and slam them, I got three wins off knockouts by slam, and Sven Beign (promoter of Ring of Fire) called me a highlight and it stuck.”

Gaethje won 16 straight fights, including winning the inaugural World Series of Fighting lightweight championship and defended the title five times before vacating the title May 7 to join the UFC.

He made his UFC debut July 7, 2017, by defeating Michael Johnson by technical knockout in The Ultimate Fighter Finale, winning Fight of the Night and Performance bonuses with the win.

After coaching the next season of The Ultimate Fighter 26, Gaethje coached opposite former champion Eddie Alvarez, featuring women trying to win the inaugural title in the new flyweight division.

“It was so much fun coaching that season, and coaching women was different, but I got a lot out of it myself,” Gaethje said. “At the end of that season, having to face Alvarez, it was a great opportunity for me.”

Gaethje faced Alvarez in the main event of UFC 218 where he lost his first fight by knockout in the third round.

“I probably learned a lot more from the loss because it showed me that I have to work harder and be more prepared,” Gaethje said. “As a human being, if you succeed 100 percent of the time, you try to weasel your way around and do things the easiest way possible. Instead of running seven days a week, maybe you only run four days and I just wasn’t as mentally tough as I thought.”

He said that since wrestling from the time he was 4 years old and competing in more 1,500 matches and winning most of them, he thought he was a little too relaxed against Alvarez.

“I had won 25 MMA fights (including amateur fights) in a row, and it was tough to get my first defeat,” Gaethje said. “I would say this, if I could tell my younger self something, it would be to lose your first fight early, but I have to rebound and be ready for Poirier.”

Fight Night at Gila River Arena

Gaethje said he is excited and ready to finally fight in his home state after not competing here in a number of years.

“This is a fight the fans want to see, so it should be a tough battle,” Gaethje said. “I am excited to be fighting close to home, and am looking to give the fans a battle.”

Poirier comes into the fight having won six of his last eight fights (six wins, one loss and one no contest) including wins over Anthony Pettis, Him Miller and Yancy Medeiros and knows he faces a tough battle against Gaethje.

“In my heart, I’m hoping I get this win, put on a great performance, show my skills, and I get a title shot next,” Poirier said. “I know (Gaethje) is a great fighter and we are both going to come in looking for a title shot and we will see what happens.”

While Gaethje knows he faces a battle against Poirier, he is ready to showcase what the UFC is all about.

“It is going to be awesome to fight at home as part of the UFC,” Gaethje said. “I want to come out and showcase what I can do and I know (Poirier) also is looking to put on a show, so it should be fun.”

When asked why people should go to the fights, Gaethje said, “They know why.”