The UFC returns again with a bang, putting on another live event from the UFC’s “Fight Island” arena on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. The top of the card is highlighted by the return of the dominant Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and his toughest test yet in lightweight contender and brawler, Justin Gaethje.
What this Fights Means for Both Guys
As stated above, this is widely considered Nurmagomedov’s toughest matchup yet. Justin Gaethje is an incredibly impressive and exciting fighter with all of his fights in the UFC, whether a win or loss, ending in finishes. Gaethje is coming off of his most impressive victory to date, with his domination of Tony Ferguson back in April of this year.
A win for Gaethje would skyrocket him to complete stardom. Defeating the undefeated and, widely considered, most dominant UFC fighter ever, would be an unbelievable feet. A win for Gaethje would most likely be followed up by an immediate rematch or a fight with the winner of McGregor and Poirier. Whether it be a rematch against Nurmagomedov, an incredibly exciting and massive fight with McGregor, or a much anticipated rematch with Poirier, no matter what, a win by Gaethje would guarantee him a blockbuster next fight.
Nurmagomedov has been wreaking havoc on the lightweight division since he entered the UFC in 2012. He has only lost one round in his entire career (Round 3 vs. McGregor); that is pure dominance.
Despite his dominance, this fight is still incredibly important to Nurmagomedov’s legacy. Although he has been the Lightweight Champion since 2018, he has only had 2 title defenses. Adding Gaethje to his list of title defenses would be extremely beneficial to his legacy in the UFC.
Nurmagomedov has made it clear that he plans to retire at 30-0 as his official record. Currently, Nurmagomedovis sitting at 28-0 and a victory over Gaethje will lead him into his last fight. Nurmagomedov has made it clear that he wants his last fight to be a giant one. Among the top of his list for retirement fight opponents, is none other than Georges St. Pierre. I’m not sure how likely that fight is to happening, but regardless, if Nurmagomedov wins this fight against Gaethje, it puts him in the ultra-rare spot of having the opportunity to plan his retirement fight and that fight to be displayed on the largest stage available in the sport.
Questions That Will Be Answered in the Fight
This is an incredibly intriguing matchup for both men.
We have never seen Gaethje fight anyone in the UFC with the wrestling acumen that Nurmagomedov has. Gaethje has kept all of his fights in the UFC mostly standing with only 2 of the 10 takedowns attempted against him being successful, but will he be able to do that against a wrestler as dominant as Nurmagomedov?
Nurmagomedov has never fought anyone as dangerous as Gaethje with the wrestling base and devastating leg kicks that he offers. Nurmagomedov has always been able to walk his opponents back to the cage and then take them down to the mat at will, but will he be able to do that against someone as defensively sound in grappling and as octagon-aware as Gaethje?
What to Expect
There are a few outcomes that can be expected.
Nurmagomedov is just too much for Gaethje to handle and is able to do what he has been able to do to all of his other opponents; smother them until finishing the fight in later rounds, or earning a dominant Unanimous Decision victory.
Gaethje surprises Nurmagomedov with his takedown defense and keeps the fight standing while greatly damaging Nurmagomedov’s legs. Gaethje is then able to KO a frustrated Nurmagomedov rushing in trying to force a takedown.
This fight is an instant classic with both fighters exchanging rounds. Gaethje is able to fend off many but not all of Nurmagomedov’s takedowns and land very damaging blows to the champion. When Nurmagomedov is able to get Gaethje down, he is able to hold him there and win himself those rounds. I don’t know who exactly would win in this outcome, but this is the most interesting and exciting possible outcome in my eyes.
Paths to Victory
Gaethje has made his gameplan very clear for this fight. He is going to stay away from the cage as much as he can and land hard calf kicks until Nurmagomedov is compromised. In situations where he is taken down, he will act like a worm and make it very hard to hold him down. This is the exact path to victory for Gaethje and not extremely far fetched either.
Gaethje has a very underrated but impressive wrestling background. Not only does he just have an impressive wrestling background, but his background is in folk-style wrestling. That style of wrestling is exclusive to the US and is one that will be completely unfamiliar to Nurmagomedov. This may make the fight very interesting as even if Nurmagomedov is able to take him down, Gaethje is going to be much harder to hold down with this style than Nurmagomedov might expect.
In addition to his wrestling, Gaethje has proven to have some of the most devastating leg kicks in the UFC and he is able to throw them from some of the strangest angles and distances.
If Gaethje is able to utilize his skills highlighted above effectively and keep the fight on the feet as much as possible, then he can create a very interesting mismatch in the striking department that can very likely lead to a KO finish of the champion.
Nurmagomedov’s path to victory is pretty much the same as it is in all of his fights. Pressure his opponent, avoid the big shots, engage in the grapple against the cage, take down his opponent, and smother him with constant ground-n-pound and debilitating top game pressure until the bell rings signaling the end of the round. After a few rounds of domination, he then looks for the finish as his opponents begin grasping at straws to change the direction of the fight and often leaving large openings.
No one has given Nurmagomedov any reason to change his common gameplan in his UFC career. He has mostly always been able to walk his opponents down and dominate them in the same way each time. There is no history that can truly point to this not being the case in this fight either.
Nurmagomedov has everything to fight for in this one with his father recently passing this year and a ride off into the sunset just around the corner with only two more victories. It’s hard to imagine anyone beating Khabib, especially a motivated Khabib.
My prediction is that Gaethje is going to pull off the crazy upset. I think that if you were to design someone to give them the best chance at beating Nurmagomedov, you would create someone like Justin Gaethje. He is wild enough to not be afraid to throw on the feet in fear of an impending takedown, he has unbelievable leg kicks that greatly compromise his opponents footwork, a large gas tank, great striking, and knockout power in his hands. On top of all of that, he is very adept at Octagon awareness and avoiding the fence, as well as takedown defense.
Of course, Nurmagomedov is the rightful favorite in this fight and I can very likely have egg on my face come Saturday, but I truly believe that if anyone beats Nurmagomedov, it’s Justin Gaethje.
Justin Gaethje wins by KO in Round 3 after catching Nurmagomedov while rushing in for a takedown.