Wrestling, like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai, has long been one of the great “segue sports” to transition from into mixed martial arts. The popularity of the wrestling background in MMA has been growing every year, but goes back as far as one of the UFC originals, Dan “The Beast” Severn. While wrestlers, like Severn, typically finish most of their fights on the mat, occasionally the sport is graced with wrestlers who earn most of their wins by knockout. Dan “Hendo” Henderson is probably one of the best examples.

Hendo, a longtime Olympic wrestling and pro MMA veteran, has finished an impressive 45 percent of his fights by knockout and only seven percent by submission. The veteran is fighting in a UFC main event on Saturday night, but the night before, at World Series of Fighting’s third installment, another All-American wrestler will be making his ninth appearance in the pro MMA cage. Like Hendo, most of this young man’s stoppages are by knockout.

On Friday night, live from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, undefeated Justin Gaethje will be stepping into the cage for the second time under the WSOF banner in an attempt to improve his record to 9-0.

Gaethje, who is an Arizona native, but fights out of Grudge Training Center in Denver, was the University of Northern Colorado’s first All-American wrestler, since becoming an NCAA Division I program. He began his amateur MMA run as a sophomore in college, so, for a time, he was both a high-level wrestler and a mixed martial artist.

Gaethje celebrates (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Since graduating in 2011, Gaethje’s pro MMA career has quickly skyrocketed. In less than two years, the 24-year-old has racked up eight wins in a row, and has moved up the ladder from the local fight scene in Denver to the up-and-coming WSOF promotion.

“It’s a journey,” said Gaethje in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner.  “I’m taking it one step at a time.  Even back then, it doesn’t matter who you’re fighting.  You’re still stepping into the cage, and getting locked in, and only one person gets to walk out.  It’s just as intense either way.”

All fighters who want to make it to the top have their eyes set on UFC glory, but between Bellator, WSOF, RFA and MFC, there are a lot of other promotions out there that are considered a big step up in competition. Being so new, Gaethje definitely had some reservations in the back of his mind, but he now realizes WSOF is the real deal.

“It was great, you know?” said Gaethje of getting offered his first WSOF shot. “They’re brand new, so I was kind of skeptical on my part, because I wasn’t sure where it was going to go. Once I got there and got to fight my first fight, I was really happy with them and the way they treat us as fighters.”

Even though the UFC is the premiere MMA promotion in the world, many fighters have expressed dismay with the way fighters are treated  and how quickly they can be swept aside or not even considered at all.  With all of the previous organizations that have failed, any time a new promotion pops up, it is fair for a fighter to be skeptical.  However, so far, WSOF has done a great job and many of the fighters are happy, like Gaethje.

In his promotional debut at WSOF 2, Gaethje, who had primarily faced relatively inexperienced opponents in the past, was thrown into the ring with two-time K-1 Hero’s Middleweight Grand Prix champion Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante, a veteran of Dream and Strikeforce. This was a big step up in competition and his toughest opponent yet. Unfortunately for Cavalcante, Gaethje came out on top.

Right out of the gate, the youngster came flying out of his corner and got right into the face of the Brazilian, landing many powerful punches and leg kicks, badly damaging Cavalcante early. At only 2:27 of the first round, referee Keith Peterson broke the action to get a serious gash on Cavalcante’s head examined, and the doctor stopped the fight. While a doctor stoppage was not the ideal way to finish the fight, Gaethje isn’t looking back.

“I was disappointed, because I feel like I was real close to getting a knockout,” admitted Gaethje.  “I know it would have made the fans a lot more happy, along with myself, but it goes down on my record as a win, so I’m not too worried about it.”

Obviously, the proud professional Cavalcante would have liked to continue, but he was badly damaged. Some people have tossed around the idea of a rematch, primarily Cavalcante’s supporters, but Gaethje is on to the next one.

“I have nothing to prove,” Gaethje explained. “If the WSOF wants us to fight, it would be perfectly fine with me. It’s just another paycheck. He’s a tough fighter. I couldn’t believe some of the shots he was taking.

“[But]I don’t think he deserves another shot at me. I think he’s got to beat a couple other guys first.”

The WSOF brass seems to be on the same page. Cavalcante is not getting his shot at a rematch, and Gaethje is set to fight a very closely matched Brian Cobb in his second fight under the WSOF banner. Not only is he getting his second big fight in three months, but he also gets to fight in Las Vegas for the first time. Gaethje is very pumped for this one.

“I’m going to be fighting a lot closer to my hometown in Arizona.”  Gaethje elaborated, “I have a lot of people coming up, and I have great support down there. It should be what I’ve always been dreaming of in a fight, being in Vegas, being in front of a large crowd, all of that.”

Gaethje (R) delivers a knee (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

WSOF 3 will not only be his first time fighting in Vegas, but it should definitely be the largest crowd he has ever witnessed This fight, however, may be a little tougher than his past opponents. Cobb was an All-American high school wrestler, and also wrestled at the NCAA Division I level at Cal State-Bakersfield, where he is still an assistant coach in the wrestling program.

“He’s a great wrestler, I’m not going to take that away from him,” Gaethje said. “He’s got a great heart and everything. He’s a grinder. I’m going to have to put my hands on him. I’m going to keep the distance. My wrestling, I don’t think there’s anybody, especially in my weight class, that’s going to take me down whenever they want to.”

While both men have very strong wrestling backgrounds, their respective fighting styles are night and day. Cobb is the typical wrestler, finishing 12 of his 20 victories by submission, but only losing by knockout once. As alluded to, Gaethje is a very powerful, striking-oriented fighter, who like to go for the knockout. Gaethje really wants to hand Cobb his second knockout loss on Friday night.

“It would be great,” exclaimed Gaethje. “That’s what I’m there for, to knock somebody out.”

Only twenty-two months into his pro career and fighting on a major televised card for the second time, Gaethje has the unique opportunity to make a big name for himself at a young age. He is honored to be fighting such a high level of talent so early in his career.

“It’s awesome,” said Gaethje. “What more could someone in my position ask for, than to fight guys with those names behind them? Every fight from now on, as long as I’m winning, or losing, no matter what, every opponent I’m going to fight in WSOF is going to be a top name or someone that has a lot of hype behind them, such as myself. Everyone here is going to be a war from now on.”

From the wrestling mat to the steel cage, Gaethje is on a meteoric rise and fans shouldn’t be shocked when the 8-0 youngster moves the needle to 9-0 on Friday night, live from Las Vegas.

Justin would like to thank his coaches and teammates at the Grudge Training Center, and sponsor, Andrew’s Jeweler. Follow him on Twitter: @GAETHJE_FSU

Top Photo: Justin Gaethje (R) stuffs a takedown attempt (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)