VANCOUVER — Outside of the octagon, UFC fighters Justin (The Highlight) Gaethje and Donald (Cowboy) Cerrone consider each other buddies.
That won’t be the case on Saturday, however, when the lightweights headline a televised card at Rogers Arena.
"He’s my enemy right now," Gaethje told reporters this week. "Friend, foe, it does not matter. I would be doing him a disservice if I didn’t try to knock him out like I do every other opponent."
Asked how he prepares to take on a friend, Cerrone (36-12-0 with one no contest) was blunt.
"Is the question you’re asking me ‘When it’s time to deliver the finish blow, do I have the guts to do it?’ Yes, I do," said Cerrone, a thick wad of chewing tobacco wedged under his lower lip.
Gaethje goes into the bout with a 20-2 record. In March, he knocked out Edson Barboza just two-and-a-half minutes into the first round.
But the 30-year-old nearly missed the battle in Vancouver due to an eye infection. He wore Ray-Ban sunglasses as he spoke to media on Wednesday, hoping the shades would help with some lingering sensitivity.
Despite the discomfort, Gaethje said doctors have cleared him to take on Cerrone in what’s being billed as a candidate for fight of the year.
"I’m 100 per cent ready to go," he said. "I’ve fought blind my whole life so unless my eyes are cut out, I’m fighting."
Cerrone’s last fight came in June, when he lost to Tony Ferguson on a technical knockout after a doctor stoppage in the second round. It was later determined that the 36-year-old had a broken orbital bone.
Cerrone is one of UFC’s most accomplished fighters, currently ranked fourth among lightweight contenders. He also holds records for most wins (23), finishes (16) and post-fight bonuses (18).
The No. 5-ranked Gaethje had words of admiration for the fighter.
"I can’t diminish what he’s done or who he is," he said. "I’m excited for the challenge. I want to fight the best in the world and I’m fighting the best in the world."
The fighters first met back in 2012, when Cerrone brought Gaethje in to help him prepare to fight Melvin Guillard.
"I wasn’t a fighter then. I was a wrestler," said Gaethje, who was named an NCAA Division I all-American when he wrestled at the University of Northern Colorado in 2010.
During training, Cerrone got the best of Gaethje, dropping him with an upper cut while sparring.
Cerrone said it must have been a "weird, lucky shot," one he doesn’t remember.
"Training’s totally different than fighting," he said. "That was so many years ago and (Gaethje) is a totally different guy now."
Gaethje isn’t letting the training mishap linger as he heads into Saturday’s fight.
"It happened. It doesn’t bother me one bit," he said. "I guarantee you he’s going to have a hell of a time trying to land those shots on Saturday night."
With 17 knockout wins to his name, Gaethje already knows how he wants his fight with Cerrone to end.
"I win or lose in one way and that’s either putting them to sleep or putting it on the line and going to sleep," he said.
"If (the fight) goes past eight, nine minutes, then we’re both on the brink of death. And that’s how I want it."
Saturday will mark the fifth time UFC holds an event in Vancouver.
Other fights on the card include heavyweights Glover Teixeira (29-7) and Nikita Krylov (26-6) squaring off, and B.C.-based bantamweight Cole Smith (7-0) taking on American Miles Johns.