Justin Gaethje has been there since the beginning.
The 26-year-old Lightweight from small-town Safford, Arizona fought on the second WSOF fight card against Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante, a Brazilian known as nothing less than a brash, imposing fighter and a tough night for the shopworn and unworn alike. Gaethje was 6-0 but had yet to be tossed in the spin cycle. It was time to put up or sit down.
Gaethje came out firing on that night. He started off pressuring Cavalcante and landing sharp strikes from the outside. It took no more than two minutes, and Gaethje did work his way to the clinch, stay off of his back, and batter Cavalcante on the inside. The veteran had no answers. The doctor did, however, as the fight was stopped due to a large cut etched by Gaethje's in-fighting at 2:27 of round one. The World Series of Fighting were still scouting fighters to compete for the title belts, but, at only their second event, one fighter beckoned for his shot to be the face of this up-and-coming promotion. Someone given their chance to shine, and someone who did just that; Gaethje wanted to be.
Skip forward, and it's 2015. Justin Gaejthe is 6-0 in WSOF. He has captured and defended the WSOF Lightweight title, and has only gone the distance once. He's a menacing force on his feet, and not afraid of a little give-and-take at the center of the cage.
He recently stated to MMAFighting.com that entertainment is his number one priority in the cage, because, those who aren't willing to fight with some of that reckless abandon "aren't making money." And, that's true. The sport of MMA lives and breaths on it's own tenacity. The bloodthirsty audiences that follow this sport aren't looking for a grappling exhibition or a sparring match. Instead, a good, clean fight. That is what you can expect from Justin Gaethje.
What a better pitch is that, for WSOF, to cling onto a look to sell this American fighting bravura to a broader audience?
WSOF currently holds a broadcasting deal with NBC Sports through 2016. This deal has seen the majority of their events -- at least six per year (since 2013) -- land on NBC Sports Network or the flagship NBC station. That's plenty of airtime -- with more probably on the horizon -- to develop Gaethje into the face of World Series of Fighting, and, perhaps, that of the sport of MMA outside of the UFC. He's not ready for MMA's highest platform, but has the tools to make something of himself for now, and in the future.
Likewise, the World Series of Fighting is in a position to shape it's own talent, instead of relying on the falling fruit from the UFC.
In, perhaps, an effort to keep this promotion moving down that course, Justin Gaethje headlines WSOF 19 tonight. He faces Luis Palomino, a fighter from Peru who has broken through emphatically with back-to-back knockout victories in WSOF. No matter the victor, the World Series of Fighting, tonight, takes a step forward in charting their own path and branding their own talent. However that may end up, it's sure to be some ride for those loyal to some raw, exciting cagefighting.