Gaethje ready to continue ultra-aggressive style in UFC debut

Justin Gaethje, formerly the World Series of Fighting's lightweight champion, will make his debut on Friday against Michael Johnson. Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

Justin Gaethje's first fight was in August 2008 -- 27 seconds of pure, unadulterated entertainment inside a Denver boxing ring.

Gaethje, now 28, was wrestling at the University of Northern Colorado at the time, and his coaches agreed to let him take fights (for fun) during the wrestling offseason.

As an NCAA athlete, he wasn't allowed to turn pro, so his initial fights were classified as amateur. In his debut, he picked his opponent up and slammed him so violently to the mat, it knocked him unconscious. That first look at Gaethje was a strong sign of things to come.

"That was my style in wrestling, too," said Gaethje (17-0), who makes his UFC debut on Friday against Michael Johnson in Las Vegas. "If I'm not dominating, I feel like I'm losing.

"People can't fathom or understand the pressure I'm going to put on them. They think they're going to be able to handle it, but you can't. If you don't knock me out, I'm there. I'm not letting you breathe in the pattern you want to breathe. I'm not letting you think in the pattern you want to think. Through 24 fights, it's worked pretty well."

The biggest question surrounding Gaethje's UFC debut, which headlines "The Ultimate Fighter" finale on Friday, is just that: Will his ultra-aggressive style still work against elite competition?

In many ways, Gaethje is the most unorthodox undefeated fighter the sport has ever seen. Usually, fighters who are willing to "take one to give one" don't go unbeaten for eight years as a pro and amateur.

His own coach, Trevor Wittman, admits Gaethje's style is often reckless, saying, "As a coach, he gets my heart rate going every single time."

Gaethje signed with the UFC this year, vacating World Series of Fighting's lightweight championship in the process. It was a title he'd held since 2014 -- and defended five times -- but what he's far better known for in the MMA world is being exciting.

"There's an expression of rolling with the punches, and I roll with the punches," Gaethje said. "I don't take shots on the chin. If I do take clean shots, hopefully they're on the forehead and I see them coming. Those shots won't knock you out. With my pressure, I don't allow space. I have to be at the end of your punches for you to put me to sleep, and I never am.

"It's a fact I haven't fought anybody that's considered the best. That's not a lie. But if you take all of my opponents and add up their records, they've got a great combined record. This sport is all about who can perform under the lights, and I do that."

There is a natural sense of added nerves any time a highly ranked fighter enters the UFC for the first time. There's something to prove. Considering Gaethje's status as an undefeated WSOF champion, you'd certainly think that'd be the case here.

But after speaking to him, you don't get that from Gaethje at all. He's not worried about proving anything because the only thing he's really interested in is entertaining. And he has never had trouble doing that, even from his first fight.

"One conversation I have with all my athletes is, 'Who are you and why do you fight?'" Wittman said. "He's an entertainer. He wants to go out there and try to do things people haven't seen before.

"I never worry about him losing. Some of these guys put too much pressure on that and, 'Am I going to have a job?' I feel with his style, he's never going to lose a job in the UFC. He's never going to lose a fan."