World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje is known for his tendency to brawl — but this was just ridiculous.
Gaethje (14-0) recorded his second title defense on Saturday, defeating Luis Palomino via third-round TKO in a wild brawl inside Comerica Theatre in Phoenix.
The 155-pound championship tilt played out like a button-mashing video game. Gaethje, 26, relentlessly pressured Palomino (23-10) from the opening bell and the veteran was up to the challenge, returning fire and hurting Gaethje on several occasions.
After more than 13 minutes of haymakers, Gaethje’s leg kicks proved to be the difference. A hobbled Palomino went down twice in the third frame due to kicks, eventually succumbing to strikes on the ground at the 3:57 mark.
“That is the toughest man I have ever faced,” Gaethje said. “I knew that coming in and I trained harder than I ever have before. I’m just happy I got someone who wanted to fight me.
“[I was hurt] a couple times. I came for stitches and I got some. I’m as happy as I can be.”
The sheer magnitude of Gaethje’s pressure threw Palomino off-balance at times. Gaethje continually put Palomino’s back on the fence and opened up with uppercuts and straight rights. The 34-year-old Palomino’s chin held up, though, and he made Gaethje pay for his aggression with hard counterpunches.
Several times in the opening round, Gaethje was visibly hurt by Palomino’s hands. He was forced to clinch at times and his mouthpiece went flying at one point from the force of a right.
In the closing seconds of the opening round, Gaethje jumped into a wild cartwheel kick that missed badly.
Palomino established his counter punching more in the second round, slipping Gaethje’s offense and ripping back with two- and three-punch combinations. Quietly, Gaethje continued to score outside leg kicks at the end of exchanges, which would prove to be crucial later in the fight.
By the start of the third, Gaethje wore a cut over his right eye, while Palomino dealt with heavy swelling under his left.
It was clear early in the round the challenger’s lead left leg was done. He fell to the ground following an outside kick and struggled to get back to his feet. His mobility was shot and his punches didn’t carry the same weight as they did in the first.
The Phoenix crowd went nuts as Gaethje, who is from Safford, Arizona, put the finishing touches on his performance, sealing the TKO victory with elbows from top position.
“I’m disappointed in myself,” Palomino said. “Don’t take anything away from him. You guys have a great champion out here, man. You have to love the guy. He fights with all his heart and puts it all out there. He’s the man.
“In the second round, I started turning it on and my hand was gone. My right ankle is gone. Not putting up excuses. He’s a champion for a reason and it was his night.”
Fighting out of Grudge Training Center in Denver, Gaethje is now 7-0 in WSOF. He won the title in January 2014 and recorded his first defense against Nick Newell at WSOF 11 in July.
He was scheduled to defend it again opposite Melvin Guillard in November, but the fight was downgraded to a non-title bout after Guillard missed weight. Gaethje won via split decision.