Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje face off on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi
Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje face off on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: When Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje inked their contracts to fight at UFC 254, one thing was certain — one of them would leave the Octagon as the GOAT and the other as the GOAT in waiting.

But there was something else that many may have overlooked, not least the two supreme combatants — there would be danger lurking at every punch, every kick, every clinch and every takedown of their 25-minute five-round contest for the UFC lightweight crown.

Nurmagomedov puts his belt and his unbeaten record (28-0) on the line against the interim champion Gaethje, who most people believe has the tools and the heart to hand the Russian fighter the first defeat in a career in which he has lost just one round — one round.

That’s incredible, as are many other things that the Dagestan native has done ever since he graced the MMA Octagon as he began to piece together his legacy.

Khabib Nurmagomedov looked in good shape at the weigh-in on Yas Island
Khabib Nurmagomedov looked in good shape at the weigh-in on Yas Island Image Credit: Supplied

On Saturday night at the purpose-built Flash Forum arena on the iconic Yas Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, history will be made, either way. Both fighters will put everything on the line to secure their place in the record books, one as an unbeaten warrior and the other as the one who snapped the other’s flawless record.

While Nurmagomedov has an impeccable record having dismissed some of the best ever lightweight fighters including Dustin Poirier, Conor McGregor, Al Jaquinta and Edson Barbosa in recent years, Gaethje has shaped his own reputation as one of the sport’s most deadly fighters by knocking-out one rival after the other, the most recent of the unfortunate athletes being Tony Ferguson.

Weighing up

So how will the most anticipated fight in UFC’s recent history play out?

Nurmagomedov has promised to do whatever it takes to get the win even if it means taking him down ‘100 times if necessary’ and engaging in grappling for all of 25 minutes.

“I think he has dinner meat on his hands,” Khabib said. “He has very good kicks. They all are good when they stand up. But when I grab them, it changes a little bit. I think that more than Dustin, Conor, and other guys, he knows how to wrestle. He’s going to be a little bit hard. But I prepare myself to try to take him down 100 times. It’s going to be very interesting Saturday night.”

So the questions that begs an answer is can Gaethje prevent being taken down by the greatest grappler in MMA history?

Yes and no, that’s if you go by the international betting odds. Most oddsmaker can’t see Nurmagomedov being beaten while the daring ones make Gaethje a narrow outsider given that he poses the biggest threat ever to the Russian.

Recent fight record
Khabib Nurmagomedov
Win: Dustin Poirier (submission Sep 7, 2019)
Win: Conor McGregor (submission, Oct 6, 2018)
Win: Al Jaquinta (unanimous decision, Apr 7, 2018)
Win: Edson Barboza (unanimous decision, Dec 30, 2017)
Win: Michael Johnson (submission, Nov. 12, 2016)

Justin Gaethje
Win: Tony Ferguson (TKO, May 9, 2020)
Win: Donald Cerrone (TKO, Sep 14, 2019)
Win: Edson Barboza (KO, Mar 30, 2019)
Win: James Vick (KO, Aug 25, 2018)
Loss: Dustin Poirier (TKO, Apr 14, 2018)

While Nurmagomedov has not fought since he submitted Dustin Poirier at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi last September, Gaethje has had an unbelievable year, stepping in to fight Tony Fergusson after the fight that was five years in the making against Nurmagomedov was cancelled and tore him to pieces.

From the way he fought Ferguson and the confidence that that win has given him, Gaethje seems to be at the pinnacle of his career. Or is he? Could he have more to offer against Nurmagomedov and like he says, ‘surprise’ himself.

Conceivably, because he looks like he’s still not quite the finished article. He has the hunger, the passion and conviction to chase his own legacy and to make his coal-mining town parents proud.

As dominant as Nurmagomedov has been all through his career, Gaethje would appear to have superior cardio and ammunition in his fists and legs. He is a finisher and we’ve yet to see him having to wrestle more than he needs to.

So, as Nurmagomedov has predicted, the main event at UFC 254 is going to be a class act, with MMA’s best grappler against the sport’s hardest hitting stand-up fighter.

Undercard

While all eyes will be on the Nurmagomedov v Gaethje superfight at Yas Island on Saturday night, it’s hard to overlook some great match-ups that feature on the undercard including the fight between ex-middleweight champ Robert Whittaker and top contender Jared Cannonier. The contest will decide the challenger who will take on unbeaten UFC champion Israel Adesanya next. The top three fighters on the UFC’s 185-pound rankings are Whittaker, Paulo Costa and Cannonier.

Meanwhile Walt Harris a chance to re-establish himself at the top of the heavyweight division when he takes on top contender, Alexander Volkov having lost to listair Overeem in May. In a women’s fight Lauren Murphy takes on UFC newcomer Liliya Shakirova, who is a late sub for Cynthia Calvillo.

By the numbers

Justin Gaethje
Justin Gaethje Image Credit: Supplied

35 secs
Total amount of time Justin Gaethje has spent on the ground in his seven-fight UFC career so far.

1
Justin Gaethje has only suffered a solitary clinch takedown in the UFC which was by Eddie Alvarez with a lower body attempt. This is the same technique that Khabib attempts 165 per cent more frequently than the average lightweight and with 60 per cent accuracy (44 per cent average).

62 per cent
Power strike volume that Gaethje throws to the head and body during a fight, which is more than that of an average lightweight, Khabib connects with power at a rate that’s 82 per cent above average. A typical lightweight will land 14.2 power shots to the head or body per five minutes of ground control, while Khabib has a superior rate of 25.8.

17 secs
In the two times that Gaethje has been taken down in the UFC, he’s bounced back to his feet within 17 total seconds.

52.9
Gaethje’s distance game in the UFC has become stuff of legend, but it also puts him a position to be hit. Unlike the classic stand-up fighter he is not a fan of head jabs, but prefers to land 52.9 power bombs per five minutes in the position, and connects at a phenomenal 60 per cent rate. The average is 38 per cent, the same percentage that Khabib lands.

57
Takedowns in the lightweight division by Nurmagomedov, the most among active UFC 155-pounders. And the champ does something with those takedowns. He has landed 308 ground strikes during his UFC career, the most ever by a lightweight.

12
UFC victories for the unbeaten Nurmagomedov. A win Saturday would put him in a tie with Jon Jones, Demetrious Johnson and Max Holloway for the second most all time, behind Anderson Silva (16).
Source — Bloody Elbow, the Official MMA blog of SB Nation

Predictions

Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje with Dana White at the weigh-in on Yas Island
Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje with Dana White at the weigh-in on Yas Island Image Credit: Supplied

Everybody has his own opinion about who will with the Khabib v Gaetheje superfight. However, here are the views of the experts.

Daniel Cormier — former UFC light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion: “I think Khabib’s going to fight his toughest opponent. (But) I think he’ll be OK. Sometimes you need distraction and you need motivation in different forms. I think Khabib will use [his father’s death] as motivation. He’s a professional. He’s a pro’s pro and he’s going to prepare himself to the best of his ability.”

Paul Felder — UFC lightweight fighter: “I think whoever is going to give Khabib the biggest challenge and really be able to maybe win has to have really solid wrestling. Wouldn’t that flip everything on it’s head if Justin\ just came out and shot double legs on Khabib? But, he’s not going to.”

Ben Askren — former UFC welterweight: “I think it’s fascinating. I’m very curious to see what happens. I think Justin’s very clearly the best wrestler that Khabib has fought for a very long time and then number two on that is he hits really hard and he kicks really hard. Everything he does is hard and I’m very curious to see how that plays out. I think he has a good chance to beat Khabib.”

Jan Blachowicz — UFC light-heavyweight champion: “Khabib is going to win this fight. Second or third round [via] ground and pound or submission. This is what I see when I think about this fight.”

Robert Whittaker — Former UFC middleweight champion: “With Khabib’s fighting style and prowess — everyone knows no one can stop him. There’s no secret. He doesn’t come into fights with a new game plan. It doesn’t matter, because he just knows he’s going to take you down and beat the hell out of you. And that’s it. Every fight, same game plan, same layout. He knows. It’s amazing to have that sort of level in anything in the game.”

Dustin Poirier — former UFC lightweight interim champion: “Gaethje’s definitely a decorated, accomplished wrestler for sure, but Khabib’s style is different, it’s not a collegiate style. If Gaethje can stay off the fence, I think Khabib will have a really tough time taking him down in the open, if Khabib gets him against the fence I think Khabib will do what Khabib does. But, if it stays in the open, Gaethje will give him some problems.”

Chael Sonnen — former UFC light-heavyweight title contender: “I would predict that Khabib is going to win but it is a very interesting match. Khabib wins every fight the same. He throws you down and bludgeons you, but Justin Gaethje has never been held down and bludgeoned and he also knows how to scramble and get back up to his feet.”

Eddie Alvarez — former UFC lightweight champion: “I just can’t picture Khabib not taking him down. That match-up, them two on the ground, there’s such a large gap when it comes to Khabib’s ground and Justin’s ground that I don’t feel Justin has the time to make up. I don’t think Gaethje has enough movement to stop the takedown. When the fight does down on the ground, that’s why I’ll go with Khabib.”