Justin Gaethje celebrates his victory over Tony Ferguson
Justin Gaethje celebrates his victory over Tony Ferguson in May this year. Image Credit: USA TODAY

Dubai: The deadly game of chess that Justin Gaethje has proposed with undefeated world champion Khabib Nurmagomedov on Sunday at UFC 254 has taken on a whole new meaning with both fighters dismissing each other’s taunts and threats as the day draws near.

Interim UFC lightweight champion Gaethje may be the huge underdog but the 31-year-old, who credits his punching power to his Mexican and copper mining roots, is confident that he has the perfect gameplan to hand the Russian his first-ever defeat in the Octagon.


“It’s the biggest fight of my life. My confidence paired with the power I possess and the coach (Trevor Wittman) I have, it’s a dangerous combination,” he said earlier this month.”This sport involves a lot of hard work and skill and a bit of luck.

“So, anybody can go to sleep.”

Gaethje, one of the most improved MMA fighters in the world as he showed with his dismantling of the dangerous Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 in May this year, once Khabib’s intended opponent, has been oozing confidence. And he believes that he has the perfect plan to make history at YAS Island on Sunday morning.

OPN 200908 Khabib Poirier
Khabib Nurmagomedov tames Dustin Poirier in their marquee fight in September last year. Image Credit: UFC

“This is a World Championship fight,” he said. ‘‘Controlling the distance is important in any fight. I can’t be in a straight line with him. I have to keep changing tracks. If he’s closing the distance, I at least have to threaten damage.

“It’s going to be a chess match against Khabib,” he stressed.

“I’m happy to be the underdog. I had lost when I was the favourite against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. But I beat James Vick and Tony Ferguson, being the underdog. So that’s brilliant.”

Although Gaethje has a wrestling background, he has won 16 of his last 19 fights with his stand-up game. His last win was by either KO or TKO.

Considering Khabib is one of the best grapplers ever in UFC when it comes to the ground and pound style, it will be interesting to see how the five-round contest will play out despite experts saying that Gaethje will be at a disadvantage.

But the American disagrees. “I’ve wrestled my whole life,” he contends. “A huge part of wrestling is not allowing someone to hold you down.

“I never had a great offence but you can’t take me down easily. I have to focus on not being on the fence. And even if I’m taken down, I have to make him work as though his life depends on it.”

Khabib on the contrary, who had done most of his pre-fight training at the high-security Nad Al Sheba Sports Comlex owned by Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, dismissed Gethje’s ‘chess game’ claim, contending that he has the superior fight IQ to win.

The 32-year-old Russian, who has not fought since September 2019 when he beat Dustin Porier in Abu Dhabi, plans to tire Gaethje and “finish him” in the third or fourth round.

“My fighter IQ is better than Justin Gaethje’s,” he claimed. “He’s just a tough guy. He likes to fight, he likes blood. He’s like a real warrior.

“But if we’re talking about fighter IQ, I think mine is a lot better than his,” Khabib said of his rival.

However, Gaethje is happy to let the fight go to the grounds. “I’m going to try to beat him into submission,” he said. “I want him to quit. I want him to know I’m the superior athlete, the superior man. That’s the goal of this game.”