No other fighter can change their lives with a win as much as Arizona native and fan favorite Justin Gaethje (22-2 Career, 5-2 UFC) can by defeating the undefeated, undisputed UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0 Career, 12-0 UFC) at UFC 254 this Saturday. By handing Nurmagomedov his first loss, he not only takes the crown at 155 lbs, it also moves him closer to becoming the face of the UFC.
Gaethje is an underdog, and after countless dominant victories from Nurmagomedov, many are left asking, “Does Gaethje even have a chance to win?” Not only do I believe he has a chance, I believe he will be victorious and do what no man has done before. These are my reasons why:
1. Gaethje is by far the most accomplished wrestler Nurmagomedov has ever fought.
Anyone who has ever seen Khabib Nurmagomedov fight knows that he has masterful takedown ability and dominates fights with a grapple first, top heavy approach. If you don’t have at least really good takedown defense, you don’t stand a chance. If you have GREAT takedown defense, you are still in danger.
Where does Gaethje fall on the spectrum of wrestling ability compared to Nurmagomedov’s past opponents? In terms of pedigree, he’s the best.
Gaethje wrestled at the University of Northern Colorado, NCAA Division I level, where he amassed a 191-9 career record, was an All-American with three NCAA Tournament Appearances. Darrell Horcher and Michael Johnson (Who Gaethje knocked out in his UFC Debut) are the only two fighters Nurmagomedov has faced with college wrestling backgrounds, neither at the D1 level.
Many aren’t convinced that Gaethje’s wrestling ability transferred to MMA successfully because of his strike first style, rarely scoring takedowns in the cage. Gaethje uses his wrestling defensively to drag fights into wars similarly to Chuck Liddell.
I actually think that Gaethje’s sprawl and brawl style is more effective in cracking the foundation of Nurmagomedov. A great offensive wrestler would engage Khabib at his strengths all night, whereas a defensive wrestler who can neutralize his top game forces him where he is most uncomfortable, on his feet.
2. Nurmagomedov’s training camp Is different for this fight than his previous 28 bouts.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is a proud student of the American Kickboxing Academy in San Joss, CA. AKA has produced and trained fighting superstars such as Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez, and Luke Rockhold. While a native of Dagestan, Russia, Nurmagomedov spends his training camps in Northern California. This time it is different.
Between travel restrictions due to COVID-19 and the untimely death of his father, Abdulmap, Nurmagomedov has spent the entirety of his training camp in Russia for this fight, extremely out of the ordinary for his routine and preparation. Not training on a day to day basis with Javier Mendez, Crazy Bob Cook and the stellar training partners AKA has to offer will certainly shake his foundation, the last thing he needs before fighting a hard hitting ruthless competitor in Gaethje.
What has been different for Gaethje? Nothing at all. He is going through the same training camp in Colorado with Trevor Whitman as he always does, this time grinding for the biggest win of his life. While it may seem like I’m splitting hairs, details matter in title fights, and Nurmagomedov will have to settle for unconventional circumstances.
3. The ways in which Gaethje has lost do not line up with Nurmagomedov’s paths to victory.
When trying to break down matchups where one of the fighters, it’s tough to point out weaknesses in an unbeaten fighter because, well, they haven’t lost. Nurmagomedov is unbeaten for a reason, 28 men tried to crack the code and 28 men failed.
On the flip side Gaethje is 22-2 in his career, so we have some tape on where fights have gone wrong against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. In both of those fights, Gaethje was knocked out in absolute bloodbaths in which he was giving as hard as he was getting.
No decision losses, no submission losses. As a matter of fact, Gaethje has only won one fight by decision, his fourth pro bout. Everything since has been finishes.
Nurmagomedov may not have a tangible path to defeat, but he has never beaten an opponent in the fashion that resembles Gaethje’s defeats. For all we know, Nurmagomedov’s path to victory is as mysterious as Gaethje’s, and I will always lean on the more unpredictable fighter in that scenario.
4. Nurmagomedov has had lackluster victories in his career, Gaethje hasn’t
Listen, the last thing I want to do is disparage Nurmagomedov’s unbelievable run of victories, especially in the dominant fashion that he has. However, in his 12 fights in the UFC, there have been lethargic victories and moments that raise questions.
The Al Iaquinta fight is a prime example. While the circumstances surrounding opponent changes and his bus being assaulted before a press conference likely rattled his foundation (not unlike the weirdness of his training camp for his upcoming fight), Nurmagomedov fought lightweight contender Al Iaquinta to a victory in a less than dominant showcase.
Many expected him to dominate, but his slow paced jab and move decision win didn’t make anyone jump out of their chair. Even in spectacular performances against Dustin Poirier and Michael Johnson, there were times in those fights where Nurmagomedov looked to be caught off guard by big counter punches. Is he the best lightweight of all time? He sure is, but those moments and performances make you realize he’s human.
In all seven of Gaethje’s UFC appearances, not one was even close to a lackluster showing, even his losses. His five wins were showstopping knockouts and TKOs, and his losses won fight of the night awards in which he was extremely close to stopping his opponents.
Is Gaethje’s best better than Nurmagomedov’s best? I’m not sure. However, if Gaethje is al gas and Nurmagomedov is coasting, it could be the recipe for the end of an unbeaten streak.
5. At times, Nurmagomedov is already looking past this fight to his next prospective bouts.
If you aren’t a hardcore MMA fan and follow the sport casually, you likely know of and associate Nurmagomedov with his victory over MMA superstar Conor McGregor in 2018. He dominated the Irish household name in four rounds, and while he put any doubt in his ability to bed, his bad blood with McGregor and violent performance helped him become a household enterprise.
Mainstream sports media outlets and pundits have not spent as much time previewing his fight with Gaethje as they have prodding during interviews at a possible rematch with McGregor. Nurmagomedov hasn’t given it too much attention, but he has been talking about a fight he wants against UFC Hall of Famer Georges St. Pierre, and often mentions his destiny to retire 30-0.
I see this as an error in judgment. To look past a well conditioned, tough fighter with ballistic KO power and wins over some the best in the business seems unwise and a good way to slip up in a fight. Many have looked past Gaethje before and failed, Nurmagomedov can end up as another.
If you’re looking for an upset of the year Saturday at UFC 254, these are the 5 reasons I think your wish may come true. If I’m wrong, try not to roast me too hard on the Internet, I don’t need that shit while sweating Dodgers World Series games each night. Below, I have my predictions for the entire card and a betting tip for you degenerate gamblers like me:
Main Card (11am PST, PPV)
Gaethje def. Nurmagomedov (KO)
Whittaker def. Cannonier (KO)
Volkov def. Harris (Decison)
Hawes def. Malkoun (KO)
Shakirova def. Murphy (Decision)
Ankalaev def. Cutelaba (Decision)
Prelims (9am PST, ESPN2)
Tuivasa def. Struve (KO)
Kenney def. Wood (Decision)
Rakhmonov def. Olivera (KO)
Jung def. Alvey (Decision)
Early Prelims (7:30am PST, ESPN2)
Maverick def. Jojua (Decision)
Alvarez def. Yakolev (Submission)
You may not exactly share my confidence in Justin Gaethje Saturday, that’s fine! You may be all in Khabib Nurmagomedov, but at -365 at most books, it’s a hefty price. If you want action on the main event but don’t like the juice in taking a Khabib victory, I recommend either parlaying his victory with under 4.5 rounds or taking U4.5 straight up.
Gaethje is a kill or be killed type fighter who has only gone to the scorecards once. Nurmagomedov has finished three of his last five opponents in less than four rounds.
Parlaying the two can get you even money, and if you take U4.5 straight at -190, you give yourself a little insurance if Gaethje lands the big one early. Best of luck!