Justin Gaethje is desperate to prove himself. He's undefeated in seven amateur mixed martial arts and 11 professional bouts and is so aggressive, so focused, that "he's like a wild animal who just wants to tear your head off," said Ali Abdelaziz, the vice president of the World Series of Fighting.
Gaethje is the WSOF lightweight champion but is almost like the B side in his title defense Saturday against Nick Newell on NBC in Daytona Beach, Fla. Newell is a one-handed fighter and has received enormous media attention and support from the fan base.
A win over the unbeaten Newell will do much for Gaethje's career, but it won't do exactly what he wants, because Newell is also unproven at the highest level of competition.
A former All-American wrestler at Northern Colorado, Gaethje is so desperate to be recognized as the best lightweight in the world, regardless of promotion, that he's willing to go to virtually any length to prove it.
He said he would eschew a massive payday if he were given the chance to fight UFC champion Anthony Pettis, who is widedly regarded now as the greatest 155-pound fighter on the planet.
"I would rather prove I'm the best in the world than be paid a million dollars to fight someone and not be recognized [as the best]," Gaethje said. "If that makes me crazy, then I'm crazy, I guess, but I don't care. I believe I am the best in the world and my mission is to prove it. If I beat these guys and keep winning, sooner or later I'm going to be in there against the guys everyone else considers to be the best, whether it's in the UFC, Bellator or in the World Series."
Gaethje's life has changed since he realized he had the talent it took to fighting at the highest level. When he was wrestling in college, making weight was always a challenge.
He wrestled at 157 pounds his first three years, and competed at 149 as a senior. But he'd cut to 149 from 171 pounds.
"I wasn't aware of what I was doing to my body [in college] and how much it took out of me," Gaethje said. "I never went to practice to get better. It was always to cut weight."
But when he decided to turn pro as an MMA fighter, things changed, even though his diet wasn't what one would think a professional athlete's should be.
He made so little money from fighting in his early days fighting that he would routinely eat at McDonald's.
"Since I've signed with the World Series, I've actually had money to go out and buy my own food instead of depending upon the Dollar Menu [at McDonald's]," Gaethje said. "I wouldn't eat for long periods and then I'd go eat soemthing horrible for me. But now, I have the money to buy the good food, and I don't snack on a ton of junk food like I used to."
As he's taken better care of his body, it's taken better care of him. He is 11-0 with nine knockouts and one submission as a pro. As an amateur, he was 7-0 with four knockouts and two submissions.
His wrestling has transitioned well to MMA, but he's a banger who loves to score highlight reel knockouts.
Gaethje, 25, had nothing but compliments about Newell and said he has no problem with Newell getting the majority of the attention, despite the fact that he's the champion.
But he doesn't feel any sympathy for Newell and plans to put a serious beatdown on him.
"I'm not going to change my style ever," Gaethje said. "I'm coming forward, going to push the pace and try to blow everyone away with a big knockout. I'm looking to knock Nick's head off. I'll keep him from taking me down. I might make some mistakes because I take chances, but I love to put on a show and so I'm not going to stop trying. I promise you, you're going to go, 'Oh my God,' when you see how I finish this."