Justin Gaethje (Photo/Northern Colorado Athletics)
Before Justin Gaethje ever set foot into the Octagon, he had an extensive wrestling career. The highlight came in 2010 when he became Northern Colorado's first Division I All-American in wrestling since 1970. Gaethje is expected to face off against Tony Ferguson for the interim UFC lightweight title Saturday night. Let's take a long look at the wrestling career of the now-MMA contender.
Safford High School
Gaethje was a two-time Arizona state champion and a four-time finalist wrestling for Safford High School. Safford was a wrestling powerhouse at the time and won six-straight team state championships from 2005 to 2010.
In the 2004 final, Gaethje, then a freshman, was winning 5-0 over Clint Lemiuex of Queen Creek. He allowed a reversal in the second period and gave up a surprising fall to finish second.
In the 2005 final, he entered the state tournament with an undefeated 56-0 record. He once again came up short, this time against Aaron Hancock of Camp Verde.
Years later he would sum up the performance to MMAFighting by saying, "He kicked my ass, and it was on TV."
Over his next two seasons, Gaethje would put together a 98-2 record and bring home a pair of state championships. He pinned his way through the bracket in his senior year and brought home Outstanding Wrestler honors.
Northern Colorado University
Freshman Season (2007-2008)
Gaethje was introduced to the Division I grind early as he faced off against All-American C.P. Schlatter in the first month of his freshman season on Nov. 24, 2007.
On Dec. 2, 2007, Gaethje competed in the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. He went 2-2 and failed to place in the 157-pound bracket. At the same weight, fellow UFC competitor Gregor Gillespie (Edinboro) was the No. 1 seed and ended up finishing second behind Michael Poeta (Illinois). Bellator champion Michael Chandler (Missouri) took sixth place.
Gaethje finished his freshman season with an 18-9 record that included two falls and a major decision.
In the offseason, he began his amateur MMA career. On Aug. 2, 2008, he made his debut with a 27-second knockout over Ben DeAnda.
Sophomore Season (2008-2009)
On Nov. 24, 2008, Gaethje defeated future world medalist Bekzod Abdurakhmonov in the semifinals of the Old Chicago Northern Colorado Open via 5-1 decision.
On Jan. 4, 2009, the Northern Colorado representative faced off against future multiple-time world champion Jordan Burroughs and dropped a 19-8 major decision.
Gaethje finished the regular season with a 12-4 record and entered the postseason riding a 10-match winning streak.
On Match 7, 2009, he defeated Vincent Salminen (North Dakota State) and Tyson Reiner (Northern Iowa) to win the NCAA West Regional and qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Gaethje made his debut in the NCAA tournament on March 19, 2009. He dropped his first match against current Little Rock head wrestling coach Neil Erisman (Oklahoma State) and went 0-2 to fall out of the tournament. Following the season, he earned first-team all NCAA West Regional.
He returned to the amateur MMA cage once again in the summer. Gaethje fought three times prior to his junior season and scored a TKO and a pair of submissions.
Junior Season (2009-2010)
On Nov. 22, 2009, Gaethje dropped a four-overtime match against multiple-time All-American and Mongolian national team member Ganbayar Sanjaa then of Colby Community College.
Gaethje went 2-2 at the Northeast Collegiate Duals on Nov. 28, 2009, including a 12-6 decision over Justin Lister (Binghamton).
On Dec. 5, 2009, he came up against Burroughs once again. This time they met at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. Gaethje closed the gap but eventually dropped a 7-3 decision.
Gaethje came back with seven straight wins on the back side of the tournament before eventually falling to Jesse Dong (Virginia Tech) in the third-place match to finish fourth. Along the way, he bested multiple-time all-american Chase Pami (Cal Poly).
On Dec. 15, 2009, Gaethje was awarded Western Wrestling Conference Wrestler of the Week honors after a week that saw him defeat Clay Tucker (Ohio) and Joe Grygelko (Minnesota) in close matches.
On Jan. 9, 2010, Northern Colorado competed against Oregon State in a dual meet. In addition to Gaethje, the match also featured former interim UFC welterweight champion Colby Covington and former WWE developmental wrestler Clayton Jack who performed as Cal Bishop.
Also on Jan. 9, Gaethje picked up his 50th career win over Adrian Gonzalez (Menlo).
Against North Dakota State on Jan. 17, Gaethje scored the fastest fall of his career up to this point. He stuck Vince Salminen in only 1:11.
Gaethje needed an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament after finishing fourth at the NCAA West Regional on March 10, 2010.
On the first day of the NCAA tournament on Jan. 3, 2010, Gaethje knocked off both Bryce Saddoris (Navy) and Matt Moley (Bloomsburg) in overtime.
Justin Gaethje fell to J.P. O'Connor at the 2010 NCAAs (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Gaethje returned for the second day of the tournament. He dropped a decision to the No. 1 seed and eventual champion J.P. O'Connor (Harvard). Once he fell to the wrestlebacks, he defeated Shane Vernon (Oklahoma) in the blood round to become an All-American. In the process, Northern Colorado's first Division I All-American in wrestling since 1970.
During his summer amateur MMA break, Gaethje went 2-0 including a split-decision over Scott Cleve. Cleve was a 2006 NCAA Division II All-American for Adams State and eventually fought five times for Bellator.
Senior Season (2010-2011)
The original plan was for Gaethje to redshirt his senior season, but he came out of redshirt and dropped down to 149 pounds for the Reno Tournament of Champions on Dec. 12, 2010. He won three matches to reach the semifinals, including a 32-second pin over Anthony Varnell (Great Falls). Gaethje then dropped a 3-1 decision against Jason Chamberlin (Boise State) and finished third.
Gaethje struggled with the cut down to 149 for most of his senior season. He would tell the Greeley Tribune, "I wasn't doing that at the beginning of the season. I was cutting 12 to 13 pounds before every match. I wasn't able to cut it. Maybe it was because it was early in the season. I don't know why. But now it is really just kicking my butt."
Despite that he built a 25-7 record. He entered the NCAA West Regional on March 6, 2011, as the third seed. Unfortunately, there were only two qualifier spots up for grabs at the weight. Things got off to a rough start as Gaethje dropped a decision against Josh Kreimier (Air Force) in his first match. He then wrestled all the way back for third, which earned him a shot in the true second match. There Gaethje defeated Brett Robbins (Northern Iowa), who had previously bested him during the season, to qualify for his third NCAA tournament.
On March 17, 2011, Gaethje took to the mats at the NCAA tournament. He dropped his opening match against Ganbayar Sanjaa (American), but he made it to the second day with a win over Don Vinson (Binghamton).
On the second day of the tournament, Gaethje's collegiate career came to an end. He put up a strong fight against Scott Sakaguchi (Oregon State), but ultimately dropped the decision. The following is how UNCBears.com described Gaethje's final match.
"Gaethje was aggressive in the first period, recording two takedowns with one Sakaguchi escape for the 4-1 lead, but fortunes were reversed as Sakaguchi got an escape for the only scoring in the second period and he had two takedowns in the third period, while Gaethje got one point each on an escape and penalty point for a 6-6 tie. Sakaguchi recorded a takedown early in the sudden victory period for the 8-6 win to end Gaethje's career."
Less than a month after the NCAA tournament, Gaethje had his final amateur MMA fight on April 16, 2011 and defeated Aaron Carter. He would make his professional MMA debut in August of the same year.