Looking At Khabib vs. Gaethje

After a second series of events at UFC “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, the finale of the UFC 254 pay-per-view will be headlined by Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje for the undisputed Light Heavyweight championship. The unification bout comes together after Gaethje stepped in for Khabib, who was stuck in his native country of Russia because of the travel restrictions of the pandemic earlier this year, and beat Tony Ferguson in the fifth round via TKO this past May. Speaking of the fifth, it was also five times that the Khabib/Ferguson fight was scheduled, but didn’t take place. Considering that Gaethje won to claim the interim belt, it’s probably just not meant for the Khabib/Ferguson fight to happen.

Still, Gaethje has a chance to really solidify himself as a top name if he can be the first competitor to defeat the reigning Lightweight champion. On the surface, one might only give the interim titleholder a “puncher’s chance” because 19 of his 22 career wins are via KO/TKO, with only one submission and one decision victory of his record. Furthermore, his four wins in the UFC were from strikes and he specifically made a name for himself as a dynamic KO artist.

However, Gaethje actually has an accomplished amateur wrestling background, competing in for the NCAA championships on a few occasions throughout his collegiate career. He simply hasn’t used it much during his tenure in the UFC. One of the question marks ahead of this title bout is, will Gaethje try to graaple with his Russian opponent, who has made his respective career in the octagon through the ground and pound aspect of the sport, and if he does, how effective will Gaethje’s grappling skills be against the elite level of Sambo skills of Nurmagomedov?

In truth, the 31-year-old Gaethje was under the radar in some ways because despite inking a UFC deal over three years ago and fighting regularly, he fought mostly on smaller cards with the exception being his last bout as the pay-per-view main event against the previously mentioned Ferguson at UFC 249. Even though he became known for the big KOs, something that will get the casual fan to notice, outside of the diehard audience that follow the sport more closely, most aren’t talking about him as a potential undisputed champion of the 155 LBS division.

Underestimating Justin Gaethje at this point would be a mistake because the guy has KO power, and if his wrestling skills could at the very least be used to defense the take down attempts of Khabib, this could be a very evenly-matched contest.

Speaking of under the radar, up until recently, the same could be said for Khabib Nurmagomedov, the undefeated champion that has steamrolled through 28 opponents with nearly equal efficiency of KOs, submissions, and decisions during the course of his 12-year MMA career. He has fought for the UFC for eight years, appearing in the cage 11 times with sporadic absences because of injuries or cancellations. Some of that was beyond his control, but it should be noted that despite the dominate run, the main stream public wasn’t really aware of Nurmagomedov until the infamous bus incident in 2018, when Conor McGregor showed up at the UFC 223 press conference and threw a moving dolly through the window of the bus that was going to transport the fighters back to the hotel. A few on the bus were injured from flying debris and were cancelled from that weekend’s card. McGregor was arrested for the incident and the charges were later reduced because of his highly-paid legal team.

Six months later, UFC management capitalized on the publicity from the altercation and booked Khabib vs. Conor for UFC 229, a pay-per-view that generated an astounding 2.4 million buys, ranking it among one of the most successful events in combat sports history. Unfortunately, the show is known more for the outrageous post-fight brawl, which saw Khabib jump out of the octagon to get into a scuffle with McGregor’s corner, than any of the mega business it did at the box office.

The silver lining was that outside of the dominate victory against the top star Conor McGregor, one way or another the name Khabib Nurmagomedov became a commodity for the UFC.

After a six-month suspension from the Nevada State Athletic Commission that had no impact on his schedule anyway, he returned to defend his title against Dustin Poirier last September, winning with a choke in the third round. As mentioned, the pandemic prevented his most recent bout from taking place as scheduled, but he is set to return to Abu Dhabi, where he has fought before, to defend the championship on Fight Island. As we’ve discussed, his skills speak for themselves, he is an accomplished striker, can use tremendous wrestling ability, and has the cardio to go five rounds so he’s definitely a very well-rounded fight without any noticeable flaws in his skill set.

That being said, the physical aspect of the fight game might not be the determining factor at UFC 254. Tragically, his father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, died of the corona virus in July. It’s well-documented that Khabib is very close with his family, and if he allows the death of his father affect him inside the cage it could hinder his performance. I think it will either distract him from his game plan or provide motivation so it will probably have some role in the championship bout.

At 32, Nurmagomedov is still in the prime of his career, but has mentioned retirement in prior interviews. Plus, he has voiced his discontent with UFC management when he disagreed with their decisions on certain scheduled fights in the past. I’m just guessing, but it seems like Khabib views mixed martial arts as strictly a business, looking to make as much cash as possible with the least amount of damage to his body as possible, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I doubt we will see him look for one final iconic moment in the cage the way that Chuck Liddell tried to recapture his prime for just one night against Tito Ortiz at the disastrous Golden Boy MMA pay-per-view a few years ago. Right now, Nurmagomedov is in the best spot possible to make as much money as possible and will probably cash-in on that to ensue himself and his family financial security then retire.

How many more fights the Russian champion signs for remains to be seen, but Yahoo Sports recently reported that he declined an Ultimate Fighter spot opposite Conor McGregor on the reality show to set up a rematch so it appears he has no desire for a lavish lifestyle. Considering the real-life animosity between the two, Khabib doesn’t want to help McGregor score another big payday, especially when he can already compete for top money as the UFC Light Heavyweight champion. It will certainly be interesting to see how UFC brass negotiates with Nurmagomedov if he retains the 155 LBS title because when the allure of more money only goes so far, the company doesn’t have the leverage in negotiations.

As for the UFC 254 main event, I have to pick Nurmagomedov to retain the championship, simply because he’s still in the prime of his career and hasn’t shown any weaknesses in his game. While Gaethje shouldn’t be reduced to a puncher’s chance, that’s still the most logic option for a victory based on the skills that the Russian champion brings to the table. That being said, I wouldn’t advise anyone to bet big money on Khabib either,simply because we won’t know if or how his father’s death will affect his performance until the bout starts on Fight Island. I’m not attempting to overlook Gaethje, but assuming Nurmagomedov gets the win, you have to wonder how much cash UFC management would offer him to sign for a McGregor rematch, and perhaps even more interesting, how would the company promote it after such a one-sided fight at UFC 229 in 2018.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail drwrestlingallpro@yahoo.com | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta