UFC 254: Can Justin Gaethje End the Reign of Khabib Nurmagomedov?

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Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje face off following the UFC 254 weigh-in
Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje, UFC 254 Face-Off Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

Justin Gaethje is better equipped than anyone who’s come before, but is it enough to shock a legend in the making in current champion Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 254?

More so than any other year, there is an air of mystery around the UFC lightweight champion.  In a game of inches, Khabib Nurmagomedov is surrounded by intangibles.  What has he worked on since we last saw him compete over a year ago?  On a personal level, what impact has the loss of his father had on his preparation?  For a fighter who has been defined by a seemingly superhuman ability to take and hold opponents down, the idea of seeing a version of him that we are unfamiliar with has escalated the interest to see him perform.

“The Eagle” has an incredibly high standard to live up to.  Undefeated in 28 fights, Nurmagomedov has been virtually spotless since a razor close fight with Gleison Tibau in 2012.  Since then he has only lost a single round in a UFC run that has seen him claim the title and defend it against the likes of Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier.  Growing his legend with every victory, Nurmagomedov has become one of the most famous athletes in the world.  Last year he was named number 15 on ESPN’s list of the 100 most famous athletes in the world.  Nurmagomedov was one of only two mixed martial artists and eight combat sports athletes overall on the list.

Two years ago, expectations surrounding “The Highlight” Justin Gaethje had slowed down.  Gaethje first burst onto the scene as the electrifying lightweight champion of the WSOF and lived up to the hype in his Fight of the Year introduction to the UFC in 2017 against Michael Johnson.  However, back-to-back stoppage losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier quickly poured water on his hot streak.  Questions began to swirl: Was Gaethje’s style able to win a world title?  Had he only been undefeated because he was fighting lesser competition in the WSOF?  After becoming one of the most popular fighters in the UFC overnight, Gaethje underwent reinvention.  Originally testing his durability in walking down opponents relentlessly in order to deliver damage, Gaethje changed his style to a more measured approach and the results paid dividends.  Gaethje put together three straight first round knockouts and found himself once again knocking on the door of a world title shot.

Despite his hard work, Gaethje was on the outside looking in at the title picture to begin 2020.  Nurmagomedov was locked into the most anticipated fight of the year against Tony Ferguson and MMA superstar Conor McGregor was next in line for another pay-per-view blockbuster.  A turn of events no one could have predicted led to a golden opportunity of Gaethje.  When the global pandemic forced Nurmagomedov to return home, Gaethje was given the call to step in against Ferguson in May.  Gaethje completed the ascension to title challenger, largely dominating the fight en route to a fifth round stoppage.  Now, he finds himself with an opportunity to defeat Ferguson and Nurmagomedov within a few months and write his own place in the history of great lightweight champions.

More than with any other opponent, Nurmagomedov will have to be sharp with his boxing and get in-and-out to set up his vaunted takedowns.  “The Eagle” thrives in situations where his opponent hesitates from fear of being taken down as it allows him to open with combinations and score points.  Gaethje will be looking to capitalize when Nurmagomedov comes in with volume during each exchange.  To land kicks on Nurmagomedov, Gaethje will need to time the champion when he is committed to his striking.  Should he execute them effectively, he does stand to be able to drastically change the complexion of the fight early.  The final intangible, will Gaethje be able to defend the takedown?  Though Gaethje has credentials in wrestling, his MMA career has rarely seen him use it.  Should he be able to, it could well be the deciding factor in the bout.

Nurmagomedov’s dominance and star power would make it difficult to schedule anything but an immediate rematch in the event of a Gaethje victory.  Should Nurmagomedov win, the UFC will likely explore a rematch with Conor McGregor in what is expected to be one of the biggest fights that can be made for the promotion.  The champion has also said that his following fight could be his last and has long expressed interest in facing former two-division champion Georges St-Pierre, although the retired Canadian legend has expressed that he is doubtful the fight will come to fruition.

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