If you made a list comparing UFC athletes’ strength of schedule, Justin Gaethje would sit at the top. In the span of only a few years, “The Highlight” earned the interim lightweight title against Tony Ferguson and challenged for the undisputed title against UFC Hall of Famer Khabib Nurmagomedov and former champion Charles Oliveira. And don’t forget his Fight of the Year-winning performance against Michael Chandler.
Despite falling short in his two runs at the undisputed crown, those fights were nothing short of learning experiences that he and coach Trevor Wittman could analyze back at ONX Sports in Denver, Colorado.
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“Coming from the boxing game and especially me being a wrestler my whole life, [Wittman] has been able to share his knowledge in the striking aspect of this sport,” Gaethje said. “How to control the feet, how to control distance, how to create angles, how to capitalize on your opponent’s mistakes, that’s where he’s the best.”
Since his title fight against Oliveira at UFC 274 in May, Gaethje has had 10 months to prepare for his upcoming bout with Rafael Fiziev at UFC 286: Edwards vs Usman 3. After providing some medical attention to his nose, Gaethje got straight back to the gym and focused on improving his physical strength ahead of his upcoming bout.
“Initially, I had to say no [to the fight] because I had to get my nose fixed,” Gaethje said. “As soon as that was over, I was all in. He’s a young up and comer; young, hungry – a dangerous combination. Coming off a loss, I find it natural to fight someone just outside the Top 5. I’m sitting at number three, so it doesn’t matter who I fight or what number they are. As long as I win, I’ll be that much closer to where I want to be.
“I really focused on getting stronger and getting more size, so when I step in the Octagon, I’m a little bit bigger than I have been in the past.”
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That strength will be put to the test on Saturday in the O2 Arena against Fiziev, a prolific kickboxer who surged his way into the lightweight Top 10 following six consecutive UFC victories – a streak Gaethje’s had his eye on over the last few years.
“I’m super impressed with [Fiziev]. He’s dangerous. This is a dangerous sport; anything can happen at any point and that’s why we’re all such big fans of this sport. He is able to create leverage and produce maximum leverage in his strikes, which is dangerous. If you get hit with one of those strikes, you’re definitely discombobulated, and s*** can go south real fast.
“I think my experience in these big fights, my ability to fight a perfect fight, I think that’s what you have to do and what I’ll be able to do on Saturday night. I’m not going to give him opportunities that he shouldn’t have. He’s going to have to try and brawl with me, and I’m the best there is at that.”
While acknowledging Fiziev’s recent run of success, Gaethje’s tried to put all his focus on himself this camp and become the best version of “The Highlight” that fans have ever seen, rather than tailoring his training to strictly focus on Fiziev’s strengths.
After doing a little sightseeing around London, Gaethje’s tried to limit all fight week distractions to not let the magnitude of the moment cloud his gameplan on Saturday. Helping him stay focused throughout the week was ONX teammate and one-half of UFC 286’s main event, Kamaru Usman.
“I think you can’t worry too much about your opponent,” Gaethje said. “You need to be your best self; you need to be in full control of your emotions. I think that’s the biggest factor: not letting the arena you’re fighting in, the place you’re fighting or the opponent you’re fighting against necessarily dictate what you’re thinking or feeling.
“There are only positives that can come from sharing a fight card with your teammate. It’s such a struggle to be mentally confident in yourself, in your skills, and really, it’s pretty scary knowing you’re going to walk in there alone on Saturday night. Knowing he’s going to go after me gives me more confidence.”
UFC 286: Edwards vs Usman 3 took place live from the O2 Arena in London in March 18, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!