Former UNC Wrestling Standout Justin Gaethje Returns to Campus to Defend MMA Championship

UNC alumnus Justin Gaethje poses with his World Series of Fighting championship belt. Photo courtesy of WSOF.

After his most recent mixed martial arts title fight, Justin "The Highlight" Gaethje climbed the cage, stood on the edge, and flipped backward to the din of a standing, cheering crowd. Gaethje, an undefeated World Series of Fighting lightweight champion and former University of Northern Colorado wrestler, had just soundly pummeled his opponent into defeat.

When Gaethje returns to Bank of Colorado Arena at Butler-Hancock Athletic Center on March 12 to defend his WSOF title against fellow MMA standout Brian Foster, he promises a show that will be just as exciting.

Gaethje started wrestling with his twin brother when they were four-year-olds back home in Safford, Arizona. After three high school state championships, he chose UNC for the season changes, the snow, the city of Greeley, the chance to get away from bad influences back home, and most importantly, wrestling.

He arrived at UNC in 2007 and went on to earn the first Division I All-American honors in the program's history, earning seventh place in the 2010 nationals.

He dipped into MMA when fighters trained with his wrestling team on campus. He started taking amateur fights during summers, fighting and winning a total of seven times. He earned his nickname, "The Highlight," because he'd just pick people up and slam them down, he says. After all, he'd never trained for MMA or learned fighting technique.

But even if he didn't have formal training in his early fighting days, he had what his current coach Trevor Wittman, owner of Grudge Training Center in Arvada, calls the "walk of a champion." Gaethje is coachable, willing to learn, makes good intuitive decisions while fighting, does more than he's asked, has a will to win and will do anything for anybody.

Many of those qualities stood out as Gaethje studied Human Services at UNC. One of his professors, Jill Bezyak, says he could always make the class laugh, especially if he sensed his classmates getting tense.

"He's one of those people that, probably without knowing it, works to help other people feel better," Bezyak says. "He can operate at whatever level is needed."

He takes that sense with him both into the human services field he wants to work with at-risk youth when he retires from fighting and into the cage.

"He knows how to navigate intensity," says Jimmy Henderson, associate athletic director for academic success at UNC, who worked closely with Gaethje during his UNC tenure.

In the cage, Gaethje channels that intensity at a very high level. MMA fighting is a brutal and highly athletic sport, especially from the fighter's perspective. "You can't stop and watch it," Gaethje says. "You just have to go off reactions."

Foster, Gaethje's opponent on March 12, has a professional record is 25-8; Gaethje's is 15-0.

"I'm really excited," Gaethje says about his return to his old wrestling grounds. "It's gonna be something definitely that I wasn't anticipating ever to do again."

WSOF29 will air live March 12 on NBC Sports Network. Check your local TV listings for specifics. Tickets are available here.

You can watch Gaethje's Sept. 18 title fight on YouTube.

- Rebecca Dell, UNC University Relations Writer


Gaethje isn't the only former UNC student-athlete to switch sports and turn professional. Dominic Breazeale, who played quarterback for the Bears from 2006-07, took up boxing after he left campus and qualified for a spot as a super-heavyweight on the U.S. National Boxing Team for the 2012 London Olympic Games, losing in the preliminary round. He turned pro later that year and currently has a 17-0 record with 15 knockouts as a heavyweight. Read a pre-Olympic profile of Breazeale here.


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