Editor's note: This story was originally published ahead of UFC 249. He will face Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 254 on Oct. 24 and the story has been updated to reflect his upcoming fight.
JUSTIN GAETHJE WAS 18 years old when he spent a summer working at the Morenci copper mine, located about an hour's drive from his hometown of Safford, Arizona.
Safford is a small town of approximately 10,000 in the southeast portion of the state. One of its largest employers is FreePort-McMoRan, a Phoenix-based company that owns Morenci, one of the largest copper reserves in the U.S.
Gaethje's father, Ray, retired from the mining business in September after working at Morenci for 36 years. His mother, Carolina, worked there briefly after high school. Both of Gaethje's grandfathers were miners, as was his twin brother, Marcus, for nearly 10 years. Marcus now works for a company that sells equipment to the mine.
And for three summer months, right after he graduated from high school in 2007, Morenci was Justin's home, too.
"I worked seven days a week, 12 hours every day," Justin says. "I did it for three months straight and took one sick day, because I had to sleep. I did 96 hours one week, and I got all the s--- work."
Thirteen years ago, Justin Gaethje didn't know where life would take him. He couldn't have foreseen that a kid from a mining family would end up as an elite mixed martial artist. Yet that kid from Safford will fight Khabib Nurmagomedov on Saturday on Fight Island in the main event of UFC 254 (2 p.m. on ESPN+ PPV) with the interim lightweight championship on the line.
As much as Justin didn't love working the mine -- he used to come home covered in a thick, sticky oil called crater -- it ran in his family's history, and the money was tempting. By the time he and his brother were in their early 20s, Marcus had already bought a home and was financially stable. It would be years before Justin could say the same as he worked his way up the MMA ranks.
There was only one time, and it happened during that summer job, when Justin remembers feeling adamantly opposed to a future in the mine -- when it was suggested to him that he would have no other choice, simply because he was born in Safford.
"There were two guys I worked with who told me, 'You'll be right back, you ain't gonna make it in college. You'll be right back here,'" Justin recalls. "That stuck with me for a long time. I said, 'Absolutely not. That's not gonna happen. If I come back, it's because it will be my choice. I'm not gonna have to come back here because I failed.'"
THE SAFFORD HIGH Bulldogs held a comfortable lead in the second quarter of one particular football game in 2006. With only a few seconds remaining before halftime and the Bulldogs pinned deep in their own end, the coach instructed Justin Gaethje, the senior quarterback, to take a knee in the backfield and run out the clock.
"So he hikes the ball and takes off running to the side," Marcus recalls. "And I don't know if he saw an opening or what, but he decides to try and run for a touchdown."
"He broke outside, but he would have had to go about 80 yards to score," Ray Gaethje says. "It was obvious it wasn't going to happen. A couple guys started to get around his legs and instead of just going down, he kept trying to fight them off. As he was fighting, he turned, and here comes a guy with a free shot at him. Just knocked the heck out of him."
"[Justin] was almost out cold," Marcus says. "He didn't know what was going on. Nothing. We get him in the locker room, and when the third quarter starts, he runs back onto the field. The coach had to literally drag him off the field as he was trying to say, 'I'm fine.'"
Every member of Justin's inner circle believes the No. 1 reason he is a win away from the UFC's interim lightweight belt, and not following a more traditional career path in Safford, is his competitiveness. He has to compete.
"He's a guy who looks for those opportunities," says Trevor Wittman, Gaethje's longtime MMA head coach. "He's presently aware and always looking for them. He's a 'yes man' to them."
Sometimes those opportunities are less about competition and more reflective of Justin's fearless and quirky nature. Ray remembers how Justin used to jump off the roof of his house, onto a trampoline and into a backflip. Justin has carried that backflip habit into the Octagon. Carolina remembers a 2-year-old Justin chasing down a puppy who bit him and biting the dog back.
But his friends and family say it is Gaethje's need for competition that has dictated his life. It's what made him stand out in wrestling at a young age and resulted in two state wrestling titles in high school. It's what convinced him to accept an offer from Division I University of Northern Colorado, even though he initially filled out forms to attend a smaller school in Arizona to remain close to his family. And it's what led him to transition into mixed martial arts when his wrestling career ended with an NCAA All-America season in 2010.
And it explains his decision to not simply take a knee back in 2006.
"There's only one way to do it," Justin says, "and that's to win and try to score every time."
Justin Gaethje's greatest UFC moments
Justin Gaethje has earned a fight night bonus each time he entered the Octagon. Check out the best moments that have him fighting for the interim lightweight title. Order UFC 249 here on ESPN+ espn.com/ppv.
GAETHJE'S FIRST MMA contest was an amateur bout in August 2008, in an outdoor boxing ring in Denver.
The debut lasted all of 27 seconds. With no striking background, Justin immediately went for a takedown and knocked out his opponent with a slam. It was a dominant and entertaining result for someone with zero MMA experience, and it was a sign of things to come.
Up to that point, Gaethje had focused solely on competing -- and winning. From the age of 4, he was a wrestler, which required a singular focus: Beat your opponent. That's not to imply he was a boring wrestler, because he always felt he needed to dominate.
But as he started to transition after his collegiate wrestling career into MMA, where entertainment can mean bonuses that exceed fight purses, he knew what he had to do. Winning was still important, but style points affected the bank account.
"When I first asked Justin, 'Do you believe you can be a champion?' he answered, 'One hundred percent, I think I can be a champion,'" Wittman says. "But his purpose was always to be the most entertaining fighter in the world. I have never had anyone else say that to me. Not one."
Gaethje understood the economics of the situation.
"I'm getting paid what I get paid now because people love the way I fight," he says. "There can be guys out there who are 13-0 with 13 decisions, and they're not [even] getting paid $5,000 to fight because nobody is watching. I've gotten opportunities on the biggest stages because of the way I fight."
Gaethje won his first 17 professional MMA fights, and only two of them were by decision. He was brawling and winning.
So when he became a free agent from the World Series of Fighting in 2017, the UFC came calling. Gaethje delivered in his debut with the promotion on July 7, 2017, with a knockout of Michael Johnson. Gaethje reportedly took home $300,000, including $100,000 to show, $100,000 to win and two $50,000 bonuses for performance and fight of the night.
Gaethje then suffered back-to-back TKO losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier in his next two bouts. Both were fan-friendly slugfests -- which meant the $50,000 bonuses kept rolling in -- but those consecutive, violent losses made an impact. The bonuses were nice, but they were no longer enough.
"I asked him after those two losses, 'Is your purpose still to be the most exciting fighter in the world?'" Wittman says. "And he said, 'Not really, Coach. I want to be a UFC champion.'"
IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE Poirier loss on April 14, 2018, the focus started to turn.
"My first three fights in the UFC, I read somewhere they were three of the top five most exciting fights in the UFC during that time," Gaethje says. "But two of those times, because I lost, I only got paid half my money, because that's how it works in this sport. You get half to show and half to win. That wasn't cool with me."
The goal became clear.
"I felt I had legitimized myself as one of the most exciting fighters to ever step in the Octagon, and now to solidify that, I need to win a belt," Gaethje says. "That's what is important now. I've never not wanted to win a belt, but I wanted to make money, and the surest way to make money in this sport was to be exciting."
According to Wittman, Gaethje has started taking fewer risks in the Octagon and changing the way he spars. He's still a pressure fighter, but he has become more selective about when to stay in the pocket.
The results have been spectacular. Gaethje has won his past three fights, all by first-round knockout. And the bonuses haven't stopped. Justin has won a Fight of the Night bonus four times in just six UFC appearances, and he has won seven performance bonuses overall. Nicknamed "The Highlight," Gaethje is one of only five fighters in UFC history to earn a bonus in six consecutive bouts.
And many are predicting Saturday's main event to be a strong contender for Fight of the Night, especially considering Ferguson has 10 bonuses of his own.
But bonuses are no longer the priority for Gaethje. A victory over Ferguson would lead him to undefeated lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov -- which is exactly the kind of challenge that excites Gaethje the most.
"When I beat Tony, I am fighting Khabib next, because that's what I'm here for," Gaethje says. "I'm here to try to be the best in the world."
MARCUS FOLLOWED THE family mining tradition, but he also works Justin's corner during fights, and he'll be there in Jacksonville. Ray and Carolina will be watching from Safford, due to the closed-arena policy in Jacksonville to combat the spread of the coronavirus. It will mark the first time in Justin's professional career that Ray will not be in attendance.
"I don't know how it's going to be sitting on the couch and watching him fight," Ray says. "I'm going to be a nervous wreck."
It's unlikely Ray will be the only one in Safford watching the fight. The small town in Arizona known for producing copper miners, cattle ranchers and cotton farmers is also aware that it produced perhaps the most entertaining fighter in the world.
Justin is aware of the impact he can have on those who were in his shoes. Maybe there will be a kid who spent all week cleaning crater in Morenci who will catch the fight and see the former Safford boy who broadened his horizons despite the predictions of those coworkers back in 2007.
"I'm from a very, very small place," Justin says. "Trouble is easy to get into, and it's really easy to think this is all there is, especially when you haven't seen how big the world is. So I really want to inspire youth to go and check out the world.
"I think we all have very particular skills, and it's hard to understand yours if you don't take chances and face your fears. So, that's what I'm doing. And I'm telling them they can do that, too."