UFC 274: Justin Gaethje 1-on-1 with Kevin Iole

Justin Gaethje discusses his May 7 matchup against lightweight champion Charles Oliveira at UFC 274 in Phoenix. "The Highlight" explains to Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole why the fight versus Oliveira will have a much a different ending than his last attempt to claim the lightweight title against Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Video transcript

KEVIN IOLE: Hey, folks. I am Kevin Iole. Welcome to Yahoo Sports "UFC 274" on Saturday in Phoenix. And it is quite the show. We got two title fights on top of the card. Another great lightweight fight on the main card.

And in the main event is-- he always seems to be and we know it's going to be a great fight is my next guest, Justin Gaethje. Justin will be challenging Charles Oliveira for the championship. And I guess I'll start with you, Justin, asking this.

Charles was in the midst of a losing streak when you joined the UFC. I think he had lost three out of four when you came to the UFC. As a peer, did you watch him? And did you ever look at him and say, hey, this is a guy I may have to fight somewhere down the road?

JUSTIN GAETHJE: No, I would say I've never looked at any guy on the roster like that. I mean, I-- it's-- you know, I do not catch myself looking ahead too far. I never have. I don't think I ever will. But yeah, I mean, I've been watching Charles Oliveira since I was in college.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah.

JUSTIN GAETHJE: This dude-- yeah, I mean, it's inspiring what he's done and where he's at right now.

KEVIN IOLE: It's pretty amazing when you look at it, with you and him. I mean, you've got to figure this is going to be a finish. I mean, you're a big finisher. He's got-- I think it's what? 32 finishes, if I'm not mistaken in 34--

JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yup.

KEVIN IOLE: --wins. I mean, it is pretty crazy. What do you see is his biggest threat? Is the fact that his jujitsu is so good that it makes his striking that much better?

JUSTIN GAETHJE: I don't know. I don't-- I don't think that-- you know, I think the confidence that he's here with, I think the maturity, I think those are the factors that are different. I don't think-- he's got great jujitsu. And he's really good at stand-up.

But his takedowns aren't super effective. You know, he gets-- he falls into positions. He uses trips. You know, it's not a lot of driving double legs. He had a nice double leg against Michael Chandler. That was impressive.

But a lot of it's going to be him putting you against the fence and then working from that situation. It's not, you know, closing the distance and driving through me. So yeah, I mean, I think-- yeah, he's going to have to get it to the ground. If not, it's going to look like Tony Ferguson. His face is going to look like a Tony Ferguson's.

KEVIN IOLE: And that wasn't good because we all remember that one. You know, I--

JUSTIN GAETHJE: It was good for me.

KEVIN IOLE: Exactly, yeah. Exactly, I meant not good for Tony. [LAUGHS]

JUSTIN GAETHJE: No.

KEVIN IOLE: You know, I talked to Mike Chandler today. And he said something about you that I thought was interesting. He said when he was watching film on you that he thought, hey, no problem; I'm going to be able to get this guy to the ground and take him down easily.

And he said when he got into the fight, he said you didn't present any openings to him like-- and you were-- he goes, you were great at defending; it wasn't like fighting off the takedowns, but you just never presented any openings.

And so I guess my question to you is, is that something you've always been that way? Or is that something you've actively developed as you've progressed in this sport?

JUSTIN GAETHJE: I mean, yeah, so when I was a great wrestler, I was a great wrestler because of my defense of wrestling. It was extremely hard to score on me, and nobody can hold me down.

And that's what I prided myself in. And once they were mentally and physically broken, I had my way. I can pin them. I could-- you know, I could [INAUDIBLE]. I could do go by locks and start throwing them. I could blast double eggs. I could get some low ankle picks.

Like, once they're mentally and physically broken, you could do whatever you want. So I stayed in position. And I made sure they were exhausted, and then I turn turned it on. And that's-- yeah, it's been how I fight.

But yeah, I mean in my whole career, whatever 20 something-- 25 fights, I've been taken down maybe once or twice.

KEVIN IOLE: Right, not much.

JUSTIN GAETHJE: So if they think they're going to-- if they think it's going to be easy, then they should have a coach to slap them upside the head and be like, what are you talking about? He's only been taken down twice in his career. He knew it's going to be easy.

KEVIN IOLE: Justin, I think, you know, MMA fighters as a whole are probably some of the mentally strongest people on the planet. So what is it that you do? Or when do you know that you've broken one of them mentally? Because I can't imagine that's an easy process or that many, many of them get broken. So what is the secret for you in that regard?

JUSTIN GAETHJE: I mean, I guess it's something I-- so in the heat of the moment, it's not something I would ever recognize. Because the reason I love this sport and the reason I've been a fan of the sport is because it just takes one. You know, no matter how broken or defeated they may appear to be, if they're still in the fight, they're still in the fight.

So even in wrestling matches, I mean, I guess you could feel it physically. But then when you feel it physically, the danger is still there. So you can't come out of your shell and be like, oh, I got this. Because that's when danger is the highest-- whenever they're about to quit.

They're still going to give you something because they are the mentally toughest guys in the world. They've been through the adversity once or twice. And sometimes, they pull themselves up.

But yeah, I don't know. I don't know. I can't say that I've ever-- I don't look at their eyes. I don't care what their eyes tell me. I just want-- I want them to stop moving. Once they stop moving, it's over.

KEVIN IOLE: Now, this is your second crack at a championship. You fought Khabib in Khabib's final fight a couple of years ago. What do you think having had that experience and gone through fighting for the title-- I know you fought for the interim title, but that was the full title. What did that experience do that will make you better this time around?

JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yeah, I mean, the crazy thing is there's so many factors from that experience that are not here. I mean, if you're a creature of habit, you were so [AUDIO OUT] going to Abu Dhabi. The water wasn't the same. The food wasn't the same. The time wasn't the same.

And so you can-- those are all excuses in a way. But now, in this fight, I will be a creature of habit. And I will get to go through the process that I'm comfortable with that brings me confidence going into those fights.

And that's the biggest factor from this fight to that fight. Also, your why is everything. And Khabib's why that night with the passing of his father, with him having the knowledge that it was going to be his last fight-- you know, larger than life was his why.

And maybe Charles is there. But from what he's saying, he thinks he's available. And those are the best people to fight.

KEVIN IOLE: I spoke to him this morning. And he certainly-- his confidence is not suffering. You know, I've spoken to Charles over 10- or 12-year period. And I've never seen his confidence like it is right now.

JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yeah, I love it. I mean, I love that fact-- and that not from this source, but just by his interviews. I mean, him saying that he knocked out Chandler with his left hand-- and I don't know. He doesn't even use his left hand.

I mean, that's-- and he was saying that I was saying [INAUDIBLE] when he-- and then he came out and said that. That's the biggest bull I've ever heard. I mean, people like us can knock people out with anything, you know?

And the biggest factor which he doesn't-- he's not going to ever understand is the only reason that shot was so effective is because Chandler beat his ass for one round and then for some reason thought he was not in danger anymore.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

JUSTIN GAETHJE: And when they fight me, I bring the dog. I've-- every single one of these guys, and he embraced that the entire time. He never thought he was in danger. And the reason why that left hand was so effective against Chandler is because he's a dumb ass and thought he wasn't a danger anymore because he'd already beat this guy for one round. And I think that was a huge mistake. And I certainly won't make that one.

KEVIN IOLE: I want to-- you talk about everything in your favor this time being, you know, on-- in the US and especially in Arizona, right, where you went to college and all that. But I wonder this, the fact that you're going to have probably a lot more friends and family out of fight than you normally would have, does that impact you at all? You hear some people say that it gives--

JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yeah.

KEVIN IOLE: --distraction.

JUSTIN GAETHJE: So when I fought Poirier, I raised that it was at home. And now, it doesn't matter. I won't-- I'm going to, again, isolate myself. I've been isolated for three months now in my house. I go work. And I come home. I sleep. And I eat, and I rest my mind.

But, you know, I will talk, and in hindsight, it will be the best experience in the world. But right now, going in there, I mean, it doesn't matter what ZIP code it is. As long as it's in the same time zone, preferably, and it is. So that's all that matters.

KEVIN IOLE: I'll wrap it with this. You know, I think it was Brendan Schaub that you got into it with a little bit. I'm not mistaken, but I know somebody you were debating on your fighting style and what somebody had said about your fighting style. And you said, there's a lot more to it than what he was giving you credit for.

And I found that really interesting. And I mean, I know you have arguably the best coach in the business helping you to get ready and everything. When you come up with a fight plan, I mean, do you have very specific things like 1, 2, 3, I need to accomplish in this fight? Or are you a guy that goes out there by feel and just say, hey, I want to see what the other guy does and I'll react to that?

JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yeah, I trust that my reaction from A to B will be faster. I trust that the skills that my coaches showed me to move my feet into proper positions and create angles will be greater than anybody can create against me. And those are-- that's all I plan to.

And then I trust in the intuition that I have gained through competition and through a hard competition. I never did easy competition, man. Football was the easiest thing I have. Baseball is really easy. But football is the most dangerous, but it's not hard to compete for five seconds at a time.

When we get a 25-minute areas, I mean, that's when you're talking about a different kind of--

KEVIN IOLE: [INAUDIBLE]

JUSTIN GAETHJE: --mental fortitude and mental capacity. And so yeah, that's the biggest factor. But there has been-- there has been a method to the madness from day one. And that's because I know and trusted my intuition, my ability to, you know, get from point A to point B faster. And that's all it is.

And now, with the skills I've learned through my coach, with my feet, yeah. I mean, if you break my fights down in frame by frame, how I watch them, I mean, I've-- after-- you know, in the first round for about a minute and a half, Chandler had a chance. And a minute or two into the second round, it was over. And if it goes five rounds, he might die.

And that's-- and I don't even say that. I don't want that to happen. I never want to hurt somebody like that. But he was in a bad spot. And I was landing some seriously, seriously significant shots in that fight. He wasn't able to get to the ground. And he was going to continue to take that damage. If he were to stay in the leg kick, then, you know, would have been maybe a different fight.

Charles wants to keep me in the leg. That's probably the best option on the feet. But yeah, I was--

KEVIN IOLE: We won't charge her for that, Charles, that little scouting report.

JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yes, I mean, again, same as Chandler. You know, if he's going to take me down, I don't-- you know, everyone is so-- every fight is so pure to me because I take it as it comes.

KEVIN IOLE: Yeah.

JUSTIN GAETHJE: I haven't thought about it. I put myself through the walk because I love that part. I listen to my songs on the way, you know? And really, it's-- those instances in my life are the most peaceful that I've ever been in my whole life.

KEVIN IOLE: [INAUDIBLE]

JUSTIN GAETHJE: There's nothing to lose. My preparation is there. If I lose, I guarantee you-- and let's say if they get lucky to knock me out in the first 20 seconds, 30 seconds, then so be it. Like I would-- that would suck, and I would be extremely disappointed.

But if it goes past that, I created damage. And I gave max effort. And I can't ask more than that of myself.

KEVIN IOLE: You know, I said that was last question. Let me ask you one other thing because of what you said. I just wanted to follow up on it. A lot of MMA fighters are in great condition but are not necessarily great athletes. You are very athletic, right? You know, you--

JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yes.

KEVIN IOLE: --executed different things. And so I'm just curious, do you think you could have been a professional athlete in another sport? Like, had you tried baseball? Or had you tried something? Do you think you were that good that if you put your mind to that instead of wrestling and then later--

JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yeah.

KEVIN IOLE: --you could have succeeded?

JUSTIN GAETHJE: I think yes. However, there's a circumstance with those that come into play that I do not possess. And that is size, weight.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

JUSTIN GAETHJE: I think my-- I can throw a football like 60, 70 yards. I--

KEVIN IOLE: [INAUDIBLE] throw a football?

JUSTIN GAETHJE: Yeah, I can throw. I was a quarterback in high school. I could throw a football. And if I wanted to do anything else, it was going to-- I always-- growing up, I was like, I'm going to be a professional quarterback in the NFL. That's what I said. And then I just had to change past whenever.

MMA became an option for a sport. When I was a kid, this wasn't an option, you know, for a living, for it-- you were in a profession-- these guys were professional athletes, but they weren't professional athletes in that regard. And now, it's different. So once this was an opportunity, I-- you know, and I started it. And once I understood how much I loved it, then yeah, it's-- it was game on.

KEVIN IOLE: Awesome. Well, that is Justin Gaethje. You can see him at "UFC 274" in what's going to be a fantastic fight with Charles Oliveira for the lightweight championship. Justin, thank you so much. And good luck, my friend.

JUSTIN GAETHJE: All right, thank you, sir. Have a good day.

KEVIN IOLE: See you, brother.

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