Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Minnesota. If Justin Gaethje breaks through, we might need to add Northern Colorado to that list.
It doesn’t have the name recognition of those big state wrestling monoliths, which roll MMA fighters off their lines like high-polished SUVs. But Northern Colorado has pedigree nonetheless.
It is, after all, situated in the home state of the UFC, with Denver having hosted UFC 1 all the way back in 1993. It is the headquarters for current UFC fighters Donald Cerrone, Melvin Guillard and Nate Marquardt. It is the birthplace of former lightweight champ Benson Henderson and current heavyweight Brendan Schaub. As for the program itself, Northern Colorado faced tough straits last season thanks to NCAA sanctions but advanced at least one competitor to the national championships the preceding three seasons.
During his time in the program, Gaethje was its star pupil. Following the 2009-10 season, he became the first Northern Colorado athlete to attain All-American status since the school joined Division I in 2006.
But it doesn’t end there, not for the school or for Gaethje.
Gaethje is 9-0 now as a professional MMA lightweight and would like to make it a perfect three for three under the World Series of Fighting banner with a win over UFC veteran Dan Lauzon Saturday at WSOF 6.
As for the program, it turns out the Bears have a tiny little weapon up their collective sleeve when it comes to developing not only standout wrestlers but also mixed martial artists: a volunteer coach by the name of Shane Carwin.
“He came in a lot,” Gaethje, now 24, said of Carwin in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “I remember Cub Swanson came in once, and so did Clay Guida. The coach told me that if I got my grades up, he’d help get me a fight some day.”
That wasn’t the first time the thought occurred to Gaethje, who has wrestled in some form since he was 4 and remembers rooting for Tank Abbott back in the old days of the UFC.
“I was always sort of a competitor,” he said. “I got into wrestling when I was four years old. I watched the UFC way back in the day, before there were time limits. I always knew it’s what I wanted to do some day.”
Gaethje is now chasing that dream, all while carrying the banner of both his alma mater and his adopted state. He now trains alongside Carwin, Guillard, Marquardt, top striking coach Trevor Wittman and others at Grudge Training Center, located in the Denver suburb of Arvada.
Though wrestling is his obvious bread and butter—his double-leg takedowns are particularly hard to resist—the standup game Gaethje now brings is a weapon in itself. His shots have always been powerful, but Gaethje now says he can get them off more frequently in the vertical phase of the game.
“Don’t take me as a wrestler too much,” Gaethje said. “I’m working on my standup.”
Gaethje showed as much when he finished Brian Cobb with leg kicks back in June at WSOF 3. That win came on the heels of the biggest in Gaethje’s career. In his WSOF debut he finished Strikeforce veteran Gesias Cavalcante in the first round with a clubbing barrage of short right hands and knees from a smothering clinch game, forcing a doctor’s stoppage.
Lauzon may want to expect more of the same Saturday night from the newest ambassador of Colorado combat.
“I watch a little bit of tape to pick up small stuff, but I don’t try to pick apart my opponent’s game plan,” Gaethje said. “I’m going to keep coming forward. I don’t ever take a step backward. I get hit, and I’m right back into range.”
The Beaten Path is an article series profiling top MMA prospects. Read the previous interview here. Scott Harris is a writer for Bleacher Report. Find him on Twitter @ScottHarrisMMA. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.