UFC interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje tells Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole that his "life doesn't exist after Oct. 24" as he's hyper focused on taking the undisputed lightweight belt from Khabib Nurmagomedov.
KEVIN IOLE: Hey, folks. Welcome to Yahoo Sports, and I am Kevin Iole. And my next guest over the last six years, he has fought 19 times. 18 of those fights have ended in knockouts. 16 wins by him, two losses by him. And one ended in a submission of course, iron in a decision.
Of course, I'm talking about the UFC Interim Lightweight Champion Justin Gaethje. And I guess, Justin, as I start this interview, I have to ask you this. What the hell happened? Shake hands. Melvin Guillard that you didn't get the knockout finish.
JUSTIN GAETHJE: Well, first of all, he missed weight and went from a five-round fight to a three-round fight. He left-- in the third round, he left in a wheelchair. And I still want to-- I still want to get my hands on that judge that gave him that fight-- preposterous.
KEVIN IOLE: I was just kidding. I mean, it's just amazing. You look at your record, and it's just filled with finishes. And now you're on the verge of, you know, if you finish the next one, you're going to be the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. You're fighting Khabib, UFC 254 on Saturday-- going to be an amazing, amazing fight.
When you came into the UFC, did you think it was going to move this fast? Did you think you'd get within a two-year span this quickly where you're in fighting for the championship?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: One reason I'm here is because I never look ahead. I absolute-- no, I would have never dreamed or thought that it would be here only, because I would never allow myself to have that-- that thought that that process. I think that would be detrimental to my game. My game is to be the best today. My life doesn't exist after October 24 right now.
KEVIN IOLE: Right, yeah, that makes sense. I mean, you know, the thing that's really surprises me about you, I guess, is you're a collegiate wrestler, a collegiate wrestler of some, you know, good note. I mean, a lot of accolades in your wrestling career. And, yet, you have such unbelievable hands. Had you done any scrapping beforehand? Like, you know, did you use your hands in anything before before you got into MMA?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: No, it was crazy. I was never in a street fight. A couple of brawls in college, you know, big, big brawls where there's like, 50 people fighting. But outside that, it was pure wrestling. My first five fights, I fought without ever-- throwing up. I'd never been punched. I'd never thrown a punch, never thrown a kick.
But the mechanics of what I did, so like, you know, I was on the swim team. I was a pitcher. I was a quarterback. I was a punter. I was the kicker.
KEVIN IOLE: Your arm--
JUSTIN GAETHJE: Throws [INAUDIBLE]. But throwing a baseball-- throwing a fastball is the same exact mechanics that throw the punch. So, yeah, I mean, it's translated so well. And I would say the most important fact is genetics. My bones are so dense. I have dense bones. And one thing that happens in a fight is your bones will touch their bones. And someone's bones have to give when bones touch. That's just the way it works.
KEVIN IOLE: That's been crazy. Did you-- can you remember the first time where you landed a really good shot? And what was that feeling like? You know, when you haven't done it all your life and now here you are, the first time in a fight. And you land that big flush when you know is good. What was that feeling like?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: So, actually, it happened in those brawls I was talking about. I threw two punches. And each of those punches, the guys-- they did not stay awake. And, yeah, I was absolutely amazed that that could happen. I had no idea that that was even a possibility. But, yeah, I remember the first guy.
He was trying to blindside me and came from my blind side, one of my blindsides. And I just caught him out of side of my eye. And I just, you know, somehow got away, threw a right hand. And my hand melted through his face. And it was a pretty special feeling. You know, I didn't feel good for him, but it was-- it felt good for me.
KEVIN IOLE: I imagine the stories he's telling people now. I was in this brawl. You should see what happened to Justin Gaethje, right?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: I hope they did not know it was me.
KEVIN IOLE: [LAUGHS] What about-- you know, when did you feel as a pro fighter that, you know, you finally weren't just a strong dude with big dense bones that, you know, you had good technique and that, you know, that you actually were good at this sport?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: Hmm. You know, I can't allow myself to think that. You know, the way I fight, I've been telling myself every day that Khabib's going to make me look like a [BLEEP] and that he's going to take my life from me. So that's how I do it. That's how I get ready for occasions like this.
I told myself Tony was going to make me look like that. He's going to embarrass me. And then I went out there and did what I did. And I was absolutely surprised every time. Every time when I knocked out Edson Barboza, I was so surprised. So, yeah, I don't know. I think I do a little different than most.
KEVIN IOLE: And you did-- And I wonder when we talk about, you know, I mentioned about your great wrestling accolades that you had. When you came in MMA, obviously, everybody knows wrestling is probably the best bass for MMA. And, you know, you do have great MMA wrestling. But it's nothing that we see offensive in your game. Do you-- how did that come to be that you just didn't use this great gift that you have?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: So I think the reason why wrestling is the best base for MMA is not because the physical attributes, obviously, but the mental attributes that you have to gain to be a successful wrestler. You have to-- it's you versus you every single day. If I don't quit, then it's either you-- you know, my wrestling-- wrestling partner-- best friend. He's my best friend.
But in wrestling practice, I'm going to break you. And if I can't break you in the process on my-- I will break myself. And I did that for so many years that, you know, you learn. You learn things about yourself. You learn how far you can go. You learn that when you are finished, you are not finished. And those are the things that I carry with me into the fights.
The physical parts-- I mean, I'm extremely athletic. You don't see a lot of people doing backflips off a cage. I could do a standing black flip right now. You know, I just look like a normal dude. But for some reason, I'm extremely athletic. And that's-- that's the name of my game.
KEVIN IOLE: You mentioned all these other sports. Were you good at those other sports?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: I was good, yes. I'm glad I wasn't bigger, because I would have tried to play football. But, yeah, I mean, I was good-- starting quarterback, one of the main pitchers at my school. I'm from a small town too. So it's not hard to be a standout athlete in a small place.
KEVIN IOLE: Yeah, I wonder when you think about it, though, you know. You know, the stigma is not there as much anymore. But back in the day, I've covered MMA for so long that, you know, back in the day, people thought you were crazy and that, you know, cage fighting. Oh, my god.
But, yet, I think there's more damage. And you potentially get hurt more in football than you do as a fighter. And would you agree with that? You played football, and you watch football. You know, would you agree with that assessment?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: It's certainly not potential. I mean, it's proven. The science is there. It's-- boxing and football are tenfold as dangerous as what we do.
KEVIN IOLE: Right. Yeah, that's crazy. Now, the one thing in danger when you fight Khabib is to get your arm torn off, or who knows what it's going to be. I mean, his grappling is next level. Nobody has really solved that, you know, some people were better than others. But nobody has solved his grappling. How do you approach? I mean, do you see any flaws in what he does? Or do you have to somehow find a way to keep the fight on the feet?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yeah, I mean, I absolutely. Cannot stay-- I can't be on the fence. The man is impossible to beat if you are riding your ass on the fence. So that's not where I will be. Yeah, I don't know. I can't be in the middle. I got to be in the middle of cage. I got to create damage. Damage is the name of the game when it comes to myself.
He will be a danger for 25 minutes. And I will not go out like no [BLEEP]. I promise you that. And ripping my arm off is not scary. Losing your head is scary. There's not a lot of things that he does is scary, you know.
KEVIN IOLE: But, you know, I would say this. And, you know, I know you're not a big fan of Conor McGregor. But when he fought Conor McGregor, you know, if any-- McGregor had one advantage in that fight. Everybody would say it was his hands. You know, he was the better striker.
I thought Khabib really showed well with his hands in that fight. He landed a really nice right hand, and I thought he did well. Do you think he-- you know, his hands are good just because he works on them a lot? Or do you think his hands are showing the way they are because of that grappling threat that he has?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yeah, absolutely, the grappling threat. You can't be a great striker when you're scared to get taken down. So, you know, it will-- if that's your biggest fear, then it'll be detrimental to every other aspect of your game.
I'm not-- I'm not scared to wrestle with him. I've wrestled my whole life. And if one man can hold you down, then two can take advantage of you. That's my life motto. No man can hold me down.
KEVIN IOLE: When you were offered the fight with Tony Ferguson, you know, it was on short notice, obviously. There was a lot of downside to it, right, you know, that it came. But, obviously, the upside is you're fighting for the championship and the chance to fight for the real championship. And so you ended up taking that opportunity.
How close of a decision was it? As you're weighing it in your mind, was there ever a time where you were leaning toward, you know, Dana, no, I'm going to-- I'm going to wait for a regular opportunity and not take this now?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: There was. And I learned a lot of things, that fight, that process, because, really, it was my own fear that brought me to the point of almost not taking that fight. And I've never been in that position. I've never been scared of a challenge. But, you know, the challenge that Tony Ferguson was was a cardio fight. And you gain cardio. You need time.
And luckily, you know, I had-- I'm not sure why I was in such good shape. I had no-- I had never of intention of fighting those guys. I'd never thought they would not fight. But, you know, I knew that I would fight again. I knew it would be huge. So I was working. I was working, obviously, as much as I-- I didn't know how hard I was working. But obviously it was a lot.
KEVIN IOLE: Right.
JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yeah, it was-- the first time they called me, it was nine days. I went to my coaches, say, hey, they offered me this fight. He's like, no, we don't take-- you know, you're only motto your whole life is we don't take short notice fights. And I sparred five rounds. It was like, well, [BLEEP] and just felt great. You know, maybe let's sleep on it.
And then the next day, he's like, all right, let's do it. And then I was all in. And then they called me, like, five days later, whatever. And they're like, all right, fight's off. And so I was like, [BLEEP]. Hey, no. And so I weigh. And I gained like, 12 pounds. And the next day they called me. They're like, fight's on. And I was like, yo, no. Like, I'm not a puppet. Like, you don't get to pull my strings.
You know, I said the fight was on for this day, which was April 18. And, you know, now you're trying to push it to May 9. So now I lose the benefit of taking a short fight, a lot of the benefits that I would have had if I was to lose, which are all excuses in the end. So, you know, I should have never even considered that.
But, yeah, as soon as I-- yeah, that is where I would call. I would call him out. I'm like, hey, how many people got to die before we pulled in before they call this off? You know, so I was kind of looking for a way out in a sense. And--
KEVIN IOLE: Wow.
JUSTIN GAETHJE: --you know, it was messy with me mentally. But it took me probably like, four hours to really pull myself out of that and back on the grind. So it was-- it was a cool experience. It was a great learning experience.
KEVIN IOLE: I remember saying this to you. You were doing-- I had an interview scheduled with Mike Tyson via Zoom. And you were on with him right before I talked to Tyson. And I watched-- watched your interview with him. And I remember. And I think I asked you this before. But in retrospect after the Ferguson fight, I want to re-ask it. And you had said in that interview that you would rather lose by knockout or lose by finish in a crazy fight than win by a decision. And kind of a lot of people respected that, right?
But now you go, and you fight Tony Ferguson [INAUDIBLE]. You know, you were still an aggressive exciting fighter. But you weren't the crazy dynamo that you were for a long time. So do you still hold to that statement that you made that, you know, I would rather lose by a crazy knockout than win a decision?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yeah, that's just part of my mindset going in there. It's kill or be killed for me. It's not wrestling. You know, I couldn't create damage in wrestling. Right now, I can't-- this is not wrestling.
As much as he thinks this is a wrestling match, it's so far from that. This is war. And, you know, I don't want to kill him. But I certainly want to cause massive damage to his body, to his head, to his brain. You know, he doesn't think he can be hurt. And I'm going to show him that he is human.
KEVIN IOLE: Is there any concern? I'm not concerned, but, I mean, you know, his father passed. And obviously they had a close relationship. His father was a big part of his career. So, you know, you could see it going one of two ways. Hey, he doesn't have his father, and, you know, he doesn't perform the same or maybe even raising his game on the other end of it and saying I'm more motivated by my father.
So how do you prepare yourself when I know you think of things on all angles? When you think of that aspect of it, his father's not there and the way he's going to react. Is there any strategy that you employ in regard to that?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: So I do believe the latter will be the case here. I think this will be the best Khabib ever that I will face. I think he's been training with so much, you know, inspiration from his father from the legacy that his father left upon the legacy that he has to carry on for his father.
But we all have-- the reason why all of us fight and the reason why a successful person is successful is because their why is so large. And my why is the reason I fight is my family. And, you know, whether their-- my grandma and grandpa have passed away. They passed away, like, four or five years ago. I'm fighting for them. I'm fighting for my family that's alive right now.
You know, so, yeah, it should always be a motivating factor. His father was a motivating factor alive or not alive because of the inspiration that he was. I have the same thing in my family. So, you know, we're both going in there to represent our life. And, yeah, it's going to be awesome.
KEVIN IOLE: Let's wrap this up with Justin Gaethje. And by asking this question, you know, you very famously after you won. And one of the best fights of the year and one of the stunning upsets. Not stunning that you won-- stunning the way you won, right? I mean, just totally dominated Tony Ferguson. Nobody ever saw that coming.
You know, I could see you beating Tony Ferguson. But doing that, have to admit nobody saw that coming. But you famously take that belt. And you drop it after it was wrapped around your waist. Did you bring the belt with you? And Saturday when Dana White puts the belt around your waist, where you dropped that one, or you leave that one stay there?
JUSTIN GAETHJE: Balanced. No, I didn't bring my belt with me because I'm not sure if they let you keep more than one belt. But when I win this belt, they're going to have to pry it out of my cold dead fingers if they want to take it from me.
No. So it's really like, yeah, I don't want to harp on anybody. But if you remember when Dustin Poirier won on his interim title belt, you know, the look on his face. The joy in his body was like he had just conquered the world.
KEVIN IOLE: Right.
JUSTIN GAETHJE: And that wasn't the case. He still had the biggest mountain to climb. And, yeah, so I think that was foolish. And I think we've seen it so many times where someone gives it-- even Khabib when he won the belt from Iaquinta, he was all excited. Like, that wasn't a title fight.
KEVIN IOLE: I was there.
JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yeah, it was-- Tony Ferguson's belt. His belt was fake. He became a lead for that. You're talking about guys that are not fighters like you're fighting for world championships. And then you're calling it a world championship win. That was not the case. Tony Ferguson was world class, but that was not a world championship fight. What it did is it got me points on this pay per view. That's what I was fighting for.
KEVIN IOLE: And that's interesting. I like the way you think my man. Anyways, this is Justin Gaethje. He is, even though he does want to call it, he's the UFC interim champion. He is fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov for the full lightweight championship UFC 254 on October 24. Justin, I wish you the best of luck-- can't wait to see the fight. Thank you so much.
JUSTIN GAETHJE: Thank you, Sir. It's a honor. You're awesome.
KEVIN IOLE: Be well, Brother.