Grand County local helps history at UFC 249

Middle Park High School alumnus Ben Cherrington (R) with new UFCUFC Lightweight Champion Justing Gaethje.
Middle Park High School alumnus Ben Cherrington (R) with new UFCUFC Lightweight Champion Justing Gaethje.

by Tyson Arnold

After nearly two months without live sports, fight fans were delighted with the UFC’s decision to hold a PPV event, UFC 249, on May 9. The only noticeable change was the lack of crowd noise. Fighters are extremely focused. They spend months preparing with their teammates for just a few minutes inside the cage.

As satisfying as it is to have some live sports back, the local pride was exploding for Saturday night’s main event. Colorado fight fans had the pleasure of watching our very own, Justin “the Highlight” Gaethje (22-2-0, W-L-D) take the interim Lightweight title from Tony Ferguson in a dominating and unforgettable performance. The fight didn’t last the full 25 minutes, as Gaethje was handed the win when referee Herb Dean stopped it at 3:40 in the fifth. For his efforts he was awarded with the fight of the night, as well as
the performance of the night. In taking the belt from Ferguson, he ended the longest winning streak ever in the lightweight division.

As he was preparing for his five-round bout with Ferguson, a familiar Grand County face graced the big screens across the world. Graduating from Middle Park High School in 2001, Granby-raised Ben Cherrington was among the coaches in Gaethje’s corner. Legendary in his own right, Ben was a 3-time Colorado State Champion wrestler, and only the second Coloradan to win a Division 1, NCAA national title in 2006 (while at Boise State.)

They started training together in 2007 when Cherrington took the assistant wrestling coaching job at UNC, when Gaethje was starting his freshman year there. “In the first few weeks, it became evident that he was a goofball with a different type of mindset. He loved to compete and was very respectful in the practice room,” Cherrington said of his first impression of Gaethje.

At the time there were other professional fighters coming into UNC to wrestle. Cherrington said, “Justin got a taste of the fight world as a result of having guys like George St. Pierre, Shane Carwin, and Rashad Evans in our wrestling room. It was down hill from there.”

“Fighting became leverage for us coaches,” Cherrington continues. They were able to keep Gaethje motivated to go to class and remain eligible in exchange for allowing him to take a couple of amateur fights during the off-season. “We both got what we wanted and he earned a college degree because of his desire to fight.”

Cherrington says the best part about traveling and training with Gaethje is “knowing that Justin trusts me enough to involve me in the biggest and most important moments of his life. He’s always been very special to me, so to be able to walk along side him on this journey is truly an honor.”

When asked about his wrestling coach, Gaethje mentioned, “When I first met Cherrington, I just listened. He’s such an intense guy in the room.” When asked about what it’s like wrestling and training with Ben, Gaethje said, “He was the one that would literally drag me by my feet back on the mat when I wanted to give up. He makes sure I listen to Coach Wittman, and I do everything he says.”

Gaethje also made mention of Ben’s technique. “He’s big on hand fighting, and that helped
me a lot with my wrestling.”

While his wrestling is certainly stronger with Cherrington on his coaching staff, he didn’t need it against Ferguson. Gaethje landed 143 strikes, 100 of which were head strikes, and no take downs between the two.

He said of the recent bout “I was more patient with my striking (vs. Ferguson), and that helped me stay calm and control the pace.”

Cherrington has always been the hardest working guy in the room, and that work ethic was passed down from his dad Cal, who coached wrestling at Middle Park for over 20 years. Cal’s workouts are tougher than any other training, and they didn’t stop when he retired from coaching wrestling. Currently he’s one of
the top-rated 60+ year-old cross-fit athletes in the world. It seems that performing at the highest levels of athletics just runs in the blood.

Although wrestling and fighting are individual sports, the competitors rely heavily on their coaches and training partners. It takes a lot of time, energy and dedication on behalf of the entire fight camp to get them ready. The work that is put in passes down as pride when there is success. Gaethje’s win perpetuates the pride in himself, his family and friends, in his coaches and training partners, in his gym, at his alma mater, in the wrestling community, to all the fans in our state, in our country and all over the world. During a time when there are so many people feeling hopeless and uncertain, Gaethje agreed “this (UFC 249) is something we all needed right now.”