Justin Gaethje Embraces the Grind
The Interim Lightweight UFC Champ and NCAA All-American on wrestling, hard work, & staying humble
Growing up in a small town in Arizona, there wasn’t too much opportunity around for Justin Gaethje. For him, the only way out was through wrestling. So when the University of Northern Colorado called to offer him a scholarship, Gaethje packed his bags, left his family, and headed up to a new state for a chance at a college education.
From there, the next four years were a grind. Collegiate wrestling, Gaethje says, was one of the toughest things he ever went through. He used to walk off the mat after every match with his feet cramping and his forearms on fire.
Then, one day at practice, an assistant coach brought in a few MMA stars for a workout. They were big names in the sport—Georges St. Pierre, Donald Cerrone, Keith Jardine—and Gaethje outwrestled them all.
He was always a fan of MMA, but this was the moment that sparked his decision to start fighting. Even with no experience in the sport, he says he knew he could do it simply because “they seem like normal people that work hard, and I'm a normal person that works hard.” Plus, it just looked fun.
And that was it—with zero training under his belt, he went all in and started taking amateur fights in between wrestling seasons.
Gaethje is, in many ways, a fearless soul. He welcomes the difficult path forward, and embraces the grind with open arms. It’s the mentality that got him through college wrestling, as well as propelled him to stardom in the UFC. Gaethje will be participating in the Beat the Streets Virtual Benefit as a featured speaker on September 17.
FOOTBALL TO WRESTLING
Football was probably my favorite sport growing up, but luckily I wasn't any bigger so I didn't pursue that. Then I got a call to go to UNC, and it was the best thing. The best decision I've ever made.
SMALL TOWN REALITIES
Coming from a small town like Safford, there's not necessarily a lot of opportunities. There are some great jobs in the community where you can make some good money, but I really wanted to get a college education, and wrestling was my only sure way to be able to do that.
Wrestling was so hard; such consistently hard work. I fight two times a year now, but wrestling is a seven-month season. You're losing weight every week and pushing yourself every day to be ready for those seven-minute matches—and then you're still not ready. I used to walk off every match with my feet cramping and my forearms on fire. But it’s gotten me so prepared for what I’m doing now.
My last year of wrestling was hell. I cut down to 149 because I thought I’d be bigger, stronger, and faster, but it was not the case. I wasn’t making the right choices and it was the hardest and worst thing I ever went through.
Some big names in MMA came into our college wrestling room one day: Georges St. Pierre, Donald Cerrone, Keith Jardine. I kicked some of their butts. I had never fought before, so I didn’t know if I could fight, but it looked so fun. And I thought to myself, ‘These guys don't seem special. They seem like normal people that work hard, and I'm a normal person that works hard.’ And I never looked back.
I took seven amateur fights in college. I would fight two or three times in between seasons, and I’d try to fight as soon as possible after the season was over because that was when I was in the best shape.
I never had training for those college fights until my fifth fight, where I almost got knocked out. Then I was like, ‘Okay, I better learn what I'm doing here.’
YOU VS. YOU
Wrestling’s done everything to get me where I am and make me what I am. It’s the hardest sport there is; I've never done a harder sport. I learned a lesson real early: that it’s ‘you versus you.’ You lose every time you worry about your opponent or what they're doing or how they're doing it.
PATH TO SUCCESS
Your life is a combination of choices that you make. The more good choices you can make consecutively, then the better the position you're gonna find yourself in. It’s making the right choice and the hard choice—and you can't lie to yourself. You will always know if you’ve worked hard enough and made the right choices. So you have to make them.
I think you really have to have a passion to embrace what this life brings. It's just the highest of highs; the feeling that you get after a fight is unmatched. Then there are the lowest of lows. And you never know how long it's gonna last.
ON HIS OWN SCHEDULE
I wanted to live a life where I can wake up at whatever time I wanted to every day. So far I've been successful with that. And I get to do what I love, and that's pretty cool.
I don't allow myself to necessarily dwell on or fully enjoy all the great moments I’ve had, but making my family as proud as I have is an exception. I'm from a small town, so what I’ve accomplished is really inspiring to the youth. And simple things like my dad going to dinner and talking to his friends, expressing the joy and pride that I know he has is something that I enjoy.
FOR THE YOUTH
My initial plan was to work with at-risk youth at detention centers. My goal was to create some kind of program that would allow or give kids the opportunity to stay out of the system. Obviously fighting took over, but that’s still something I’m really passionate about.
My parents worked really, really hard and they are still working really, really hard. So I understand where hard work can get you. And that has ultimately been what has allowed me the opportunities I have now.