UFC 254, UFC 254 prelims

UFC 254 Main Event Breakdown: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje

We have the most, or perhaps the second-most anticipated lightweight title fight in the history of the sport coming this weekend, as Khabib ‘The Eagle’ Nurmagomedov looks to make the third defense of his UFC Lightweight Championship against the No. 1 ranked UFC lightweight contender Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje.

It’s not very often we get to see champions fight the No. 1 contenders. Even if they do, often times it’ll be the champion versus someone ranked in the top five, because the next in line isn’t always ranked at No. 1. Generally it depends on whoever they haven’t yet fought, who makes the most sense, and who’s looked the best recently.

We get to see that happen this weekend however, and it really couldn’t be more exciting of a match up. The only fight that’s gone down at 155 lbs that’s anywhere near the level of this, both excitement and skill-wise, is when Nurmagomedov fought Conor McGregor at UFC 229.

This fight is quite similar to that one in a few ways, and it’s also quite different in a few ways, which we’ll get into soon here in the second half of this piece.

Of Nurmagomedov’s first 16 fights before joining the UFC, 14 were held at welterweight. He officially moved down to lightweight once coming over. It took Nurmagomedov a couple fights to really get adjusted in the UFC, though his record doesn’t reflect it.

‘The Eagle’ defeated WEC veteran Kamal Shalorus via submission (rear naked choke) at 2:08 of round three to win his UFC debut and improve his record to 17-0. His next fight disappointed some, where he fought, and defeated longtime UFC veteran Gleison Tibau via unanimous decision.

Many people point back to this fight as one he should have lost, or at least one he wasn’t completely dominant in.

To his defense, it was only his second fight ever in a cage, his first 16 were contested in a ring. Look where that fight took place, entirely on the cage with Nurmagomedov pursuing single leg attempts.

Even though he didn’t secure one, he did control the fight, and Tibau got popped for PED’s not long after. He was much more adjusted after this, as he KO’d another longtime UFC veteran in Thiago Tavares at just 1:55 of round one, before setting a UFC record in his next fight.

Next came a bout with Abel Trujillo, and this was his most dominant performance thus far. Nurmagomedov attempted 27 takedowns and secured 21 of them. Though he didn’t ever use his wrestling much, Trujillo was a four-time NAIA All-American.

To make this even more impressive, the record set for most takedowns in a single fight prior was 15. Sean Sherk had the record, and he did it over five rounds against a BJJ fighter in Hermes Franca. Nurmagomedov got six more takedowns in ten less minutes against a skilled wrestler.

He was so close to getting the tap from a triangle choke toward the end of round one, but the round ended and Trujillo was saved by the bell. It’s always better to get finishes over decisions, but the fact this went three rounds is the reason he broke this record.

Nurmagomedov then out-struck and out-wrestled Pat Healy, who’d just submitted Jim Miller late in round three after wearing him down. Nurmagomedov did that exact thing to Healy, just without the submission, as he was awarded the unanimous decision victory.

This was followed up by an absolute mauling of Rafael dos Anjos, where he was also awarded the unanimous decision victory. Dos Anjos went on to win the lightweight title, the title Nurmagomedov holds now, less than one year after facing Nurmagomedov.

‘The Eagle’ was then supposed to face Tony Ferguson, the second time they were matched up, but Ferguson pulled out and was replaced by promotional newcomer Darrell Horcher. Of course, Nurmagomedov handled Horcher and TKO’d him at 3:38 of round two.

Next came his fight with Michael Johnson, who did clip him early on, but was taken down repeatedly after that. This is one of the most vicious maulings you’ll ever see in a fight. Nurmagomedov ultimately ended up submitting (kimura) Johnson at 2:31 of round three.

13-and-a-half months later, ‘The Eagle’ returned to face Edson Barboza, who he handily out-wrestled to a unanimous decision victory. Finally, Nurmagomedov would be fighting for the title, a very long awaited moment.

When someone comes to the UFC with a 16-0 record and improves that to 25-0 with nine dominant victories, you’d think he would’ve gotten his shot sooner.

Nurmagomedov was again slated against Ferguson, and then Max Holloway, before ultimately being matched up against Al Iaquinta.

Though it wasn’t as dominant of a performance as we were used to seeing from him, he still dominated the fight and won all five rounds. He out-wrestled Iaquinta, who grew up wrestling, and also out-boxed him.

Iaquinta is more of a boxer that has a few nice kicks to go with it now, it’s not often he gets out-struck, but ‘The Eagle’ was able to do it handily.

His first defense came against Conor McGregor, who he dominated throughout the fight, securing a submission (neck crank) victory at 3:03 of round four.

Nurmagomedov followed this up with another very dominant performance, where he submitted (rear naked choke) interim champion Dustin Poirier at 2:06 of round three.

Some discredit ‘The Eagle’ for his lack of tough opponents, but really, Johnson was ranked at No. 6, Barboza was ranked at No. 4, Iaquinta was ranked at No. 11 when he was supposed to face the No. 2 Tony Ferguson, McGregor was ranked at No. 1, and Poirier was the interim champion, making him the No. 1 contender.

That marked his second title defense, and his third overall win in world title fights. Now he gears up to face his most dangerous challenger yet. And that’s not just to sell the fight, Justin Gaethje really does have the skill to do it.

‘The Highlight’ came to the UFC with a 17-0 record, pretty similar to the champion who came over at 16-0. Gaethje is a six-time WSOF Lightweight Champion, and he finished every single one of his title fights via knockout, even the lone one he’s had in the UFC.

Gaethje defeated Michael Johnson via TKO at 4:48 of round two of his UFC debut, before dropping his next two to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, both by TKO.

Alvarez was able to land a beautiful knee Gaethje didn’t see coming to get the finish at 3:59 of round three, and Poirier somehow mustered up the power to get the finish 33 seconds into round four, though he was on one leg.

Something changed after this however, Gaethje knew what he needed to fix. He’d always fought so recklessly, and he’d almost been knocked out countless times, but he still had yet to taste defeat. So why fix something that isn’t broken?

Gaethje rebounded by KO’ing James Vick just 87 seconds into round one, before doing the same to Edson Barboza at 2:30 into round one.

‘The Highlight’ followed this up with by TKO’ing Donald Cerrone at 4:18 of round one, and he was right back at the top where we expected him to be.

At this point, he’d just knocked out two professional kickboxing champions in his last two fights. Barboza went 25-3 with 22 knockouts, and Cerrone went 28-0-1 with 19 knockouts, and Gaethje ran right through them using only his striking.

Once Nurmagomedov versus Ferguson was cancelled for the fifth time, Gaethje stepped in to face Ferguson for the interim UFC Lightweight Championship at UFC 249. This was Gaethje’s best performance to date.

How methodical and calculated he was, how in-tune he was, it was Justin Gaethje 2.o. He ultimately got the TKO finish at 3:38 of round five after a dominant display over 23-plus minutes. That makes for a very interesting match up this Saturday.

Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) vs. Justin Gaethje (22-2)

There are so many things to think about when predicting this fight between this pair of 32-year-old studs. Gaethje actually won’t be 32 until mid-November, but he’s closer to 32 than 31.

We’ll start with the interim champion, Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje. Going all the way back to his single digit fights, we knew we had someone special to look out for, and that carried into his UFC career.

The sheer athlete he is, it’s quite remarkable. Firstly, we can go off his takedown defense. Now he has been taken down by Michael Johnson and Dustin Poirier, both momentarily. He’s got that Jose Aldo-like spring in his hips and his back that allows him to just pop right back up.

This is of course thanks to his wrestling career, where he started at the age of four, and went to an NCAA Division I school, with his biggest accomplishment being an All-American and placing seventh in the 2010 national championships. He was also a two-time second place, and two-time state champion in high school.

Now that you know he started wrestling at four-years-old, you’d also like to the champion also started wrestling around this age. His father, Abdulmanap, would have him wrestle bear cubs from a near toddler.

Here we continue talking about Gaethje’s athleticism. Anyone see his fight with Barboza? You’ll notice at the finish, he switched stances as he threw the right hook that knocked Barboza out. You never see things like that, it’s so incredibly hard to do, but it’s nothing new to ‘The Highlight’.

Now we can go back to his two defeats against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier.

He was doing very well in his fight with Alvarez, as he won round one, lost round two, and was finished at 3:59 of round three. Gaethje was eating Alvarez’ legs up badly throughout that fight, and even dropped him with them a couple times in round three.

Gaethje just decided to let Alvarez up though. If he would have jumped on Alvarez and not let him up, he would have won that decision, but that’s not the fighter he is. As for his fight with Poirier, it’s one of the most dominant fights you’ll ever see, for Gaethje that is.

The first time ‘The Highlight’ dropped ‘The Diamond’ with a leg kick was just 90 seconds into the fight, and that was the entire fight, up until the start of round four, where Poirier ended up cracking Gaethje hard, and hurt him bad enough to get the stoppage.

If you think about it, if this newer version of Justin Gaethje fought those two, he’d probably be undefeated at 24-0, like Nurmagomedov at 28-0. It took until Gaethje’s 26th fight for someone to figure him out, as he went 7-0 as an amateur as well.

As you see, both of Gaethje’s defeats come from standing knockouts. It’s honestly a shock it didn’t happen sooner, that’s just a credit to how great of a talent he is. But in knowing this, that is not a method the champion will defeat him with, that makes things very interesting.

When was the last time we’ve see Nurmagomedov score a standing knockout? He had one that stemmed from a standing position against Thiago Tavares, but that’s about it. When Michael Johnson cracked him with that one shot, he got away, then shot on the takedown.

Same thing happened in Nurmagomedov’s last fight against ‘The Diamond’. Poirier eventually just started throwing and landed that boxing combination on him, he circled away as much as possible, then shot the takedown. It’ll be very interesting to see if Nurmagomedov’s wrestling will work for him in this fight.

Gaethje has always been known as an elite wrestler that never uses it. Some criticize him for it, but he has two good reasons for that. One is that he’s afraid of gassing himself out with it, and the other is that he was always a defensive wrestler.

In fact, he was such a great defensive wrestler that the USA’s best wrestler of the last decade Jordan Burroughs couldn’t double leg him when they wrestled, and that’s Burroughs’ favorite takedown.

You see, in wrestling, you have defensive wrestlers, and offensive wrestlers. Each of them make up about 45% of the wrestlers on the mat, then the other 10% are guys that are good at both. It’s a lot more rare to find talents like that. Most wrestlers have two, three, or four moves they always resort to.

It’s evident what Gaethje has to do here, that’s simply not get taken down and make sure the fight plays out on the feet, though it’s obviously not a simple task. ‘The Eagle’ has shown us that he does have good striking, but it’s no where near the level of Gaethje’s.

‘The Highlight’ both hits and kicks so hard. There won’t be a feeling out process in this fight, because Gaethje won’t allow it. He’s going to be targeting Nurmagomedov’s legs right away, as soon as the referee says ‘fight’.

His shot selection and accuracy is really something to behold, he’s a very special individual, and he can land those leg kicks from literally any angle, and they’re just as vicious as his hands.

Gaethje is so special in fact that he has the same exact knockout ratio as Conor McGregor. Both Gaethje and McGregor have 22 wins, both have 19 knockouts, two decisions, and one submission. The thing that’s different about this one though, and it’s mentioned all above, Gaethje grew up wrestling. It may make all the difference in the world.

Nurmagomedov has to take ‘The Highlight’ down and relentlessly pound on him as he does all of his opponents.

That thousand yard stare his opponents have in the middle of their fights with him; just like we’ve never seen Nurmagomedov get knocked out, we’ve never seen anyone do that to Gaethje. Something’s got to give in this fight.

This will be Nurmagomedov’s first fight in 13-and-a-half months, while Gaethje has gone 2-0 in that time. This is also Nurmagomedov’s first fight since his father passed away. That could either drive him more or completely change him for the worse, it depends on the individual. We’ll have to wait and see if that plays a part.

His father was however able to attend his last fight, finally, considering it was in Abu Dhabi. He hadn’t been able to have his father in his corner for his first eleven UFC fights, at least he was able to at UFC 242. That was a beautiful swan song for his father, finally he got to corner his son in a UFC fight, a title defending effort at that.

As far as being out since September of 2019, that shouldn’t really hinder him too much. He does fight an average of once a year these days.

This is a classic striker versus grappler match up. Gaethje does have a real shot at beating ‘The Eagle’, and though it will be considered an upset if he does, it shouldn’t be. None of us have any clue how this will play out.

We have the strength and grappling technique of Nurmagomedov against the athleticism and elite striking technique of Gaethje.

These are two of the pound-for-pound best in the sport, not just at 155 lbs, but overall as a whole. There are so many things that could go wrong for both men in this fight. They’re equally as good and dangerous to everyone they fight as one another, but in completely opposite ways.

Gaethje just ended the longest win streak in lightweight history when he defeated Tony Ferguson, who’d won twelve-straight. Nurmagomedov is also riding a twelve-fight win streak, will he end this one too?

The undisputed champion stands 5’10” and boasts a 70” reach, while the interim champion stands 5’11” and boasts the same reach of 70”. This is one of the highest level match ups any of us will ever see, and it’s finally going down this weekend!

Who walks away from UFC 254 as the Undisputed UFC Lightweight Champion?

Do Not Sell My Personal Information