Once upon a time, UFC fans pined for a showdown between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. It wasn’t to be.
But rest assured, fight fans. Khabib versus Justin Gaethje, which is set to go down this Saturday, is the better fight.
The crux of this argument is simple. For the tl;dr crowd, it’s this: Rarely do fights as hyped as Khabib vs. Ferguson live up to expectations. And let’s be honest, the expectations set upon a fight cancelled no fewer than five times had pretty much left Earth’s orbit.
Beyond that, styles make fights. It’s old, it’s tired, it’s cliched, and it’s true. Justin Gaethje, with his rarely seen freestyle and folkstyle wrestling background, may very well have the kryptonite for Khabib Nurmagomedov’s relentless attack. There’s a good possibility that he could become the first man to derail the Dagestani fighter. Ever.
And if Gaethje’s wrestling comes through, “The Eagle” may be forced to stay on his feet. Going shot for shot with a fighter who possesses crippling power.
Sure, people thought the same of Tony Ferguson. His grappling was looked at as a potential foil for Khabib. But looking back now, it feels like Gaethje was the right choice all along.
His early career earned him a reputation as the most exciting fighter on the planet. Smashing his way through the likes of Drew Fickett, Dan Lauzon, Luis Palomino, and Brian Foster proved that Gaethje could hit like a truck, and had some of the best kicks in the business.
When he arrived in the UFC, and did the same to Michael Johnson, fans knew they were in for a treat.
Then Gaethje went and lost a couple of fights, to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. Sure, they were some of the most entertaining fights in UFC history. Yes, he earned post-fight bonuses for both. But Gaethje lost.
Among cynical fight fans, a couple of losses, and your career is a bust. That’s not reality, of course — ask Michael Bisping, who had accumulated a full seven losses on his professional record by the time he won UFC gold.
Still, Gaethje was seen as one-dimensional. Too tough for his own good. Or just plain not good enough to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Then came the reinvention of Justin Gaethje. A more patient, measured fighter. With all the same tools, all the same weapons, as he’d always had. Just infinitesimally more calculated.
You saw glimpses of this new, improved Gaethje in first-round knockouts against James Vick, Edson Barboza, and Donald Cerrone. You saw it full-force when he dismantled Ferguson at UFC 249 earlier this year.
The right fighter, at the right time. With the right tools. That’s what Justin Gaethje offers Khabib at UFC 254.
This isn’t to say that Justin Gaethje is going to steamroll Khabib Nurmagomedov this Saturday in Abu Dhabi. It’s not even a claim that he’s going to win. But as anticipation goes, it’s damn hard not to await this showdown with bated breath.
We all wanted to see Ferguson give it his best against Khabib Nurmagomedov. The MMA Gods had other ideas. But in the end, the “consolation” prize looks to be the better deal. As anticipated as Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson was, the fight against Gaethje is even more compelling. That’s not something that happens often in this sport.
And hey — maybe we’ll see Tony Ferguson back there some day.