UFC 254: Nurmagomedov-Gaethje preview, pick

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·5-min read

In the final several years of his boxing career, Floyd Mayweather put up astounding pay-per-view numbers in fight after fight. Some of it was the opponent, but a lot of it was attached to the zero on Mayweather’s record.

Mayweather cleverly realized that there was a segment of people who would buy his fights to see him win, but there was an even larger group who wanted to see him lose. And so his fights became big events.

On Saturday, the UFC is expecting a big event when Khabib Nurmagomedov defends his lightweight championship in the main event of UFC 254 on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi against interim champion Justin Gaethje, a knockout artist who is the biggest threat to his title reign yet.

This is the MMA version of the classic boxer versus slugger bout, with Gaethje’s punching power and damaging strikes pitted against Nurmagomedov’s Olympic medalist-level wrestling.

Nurmagomedov is 28-0 and has largely been unchallenged in his MMA career. He’s a -340 favorite at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to make Gaethje, who is +270, victim No. 29.

UFC president Dana White said trends show pay-per-view sales that could exceed 2 million and have a shot at breaking the record of 2.4 million set in 2018 when Nurmagomedov submitted Conor McGregor at UFC 228 in Las Vegas.

At its core, this fight will boil down to two points: A.) Can Gaethje get up once Nurmagomedov takes him down and B.) Can Nurmagomedov absorb a clean Gaethje shot and keep fighting?

Few have been able to survive Nurmagomedov’s grappling attack. It requires elite wrestling, which Gaethje has, strength, flexibility and incredible conditioning. Nurmagomedov mauls opponents on the ground, and he wears them down with each takedown even if he doesn’t get a submission.

He Velcros himself to his opponent and forces the opponent to expend extraordinary amounts of energy struggling to get up. Eventually, like an animal fighting a python, it wears them down and they’re submitted.

Gaethje might be the opponent most suited to change that cycle. He was a two-time state champion and a two-time runner-up while in high school. He was also a 2010 NCAA Division I All-American while at Northern Colorado.

He’s like the legendary UFC Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell in that he doesn’t use his wrestling as an offensive weapon, but does use it defensively to keep himself on his feet. He has a takedown defense of 80%, though against admittedly far inferior wrestlers than Nurmagomedov.

Khabib Nurmagomedov faces off with Justin Gaethje.
Opponents Khabib Nurmagomedov of Russia, left, and Justin Gaethje face off during the UFC 254 news conference at Yas Beach on Oct. 21, 2020 on UFC Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Like Liddell, Gaethje has bone-crunching power and can change the course of a fight with one punch, kick, knee or elbow. He doesn’t vary the speed on his shots and throws with high velocity every time, coming in and winging big shots in his opponent’s direction.

He has a very shrewd coach in Trevor Wittman, who was the architect of the game plan that helped Gaethje upset Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 and win the interim title.

Gaethje won his first 18 fights, 17 by KO, but was forced to make some changes after back-to-back defeats to Eddie Alvarez at UFC 218 on Dec. 2, 2017, and to Dustin Poirier on April 14, 2018, on a Fight Night card in Glendale, Arizona.

He was so determined to be the sport’s most exciting fighter that he created openings for high-level opponents to exploit.

He’s still among the most exciting fighters in the sport, as the three Performance of the Night bonuses and two Fight of the Night honors he’s gotten in his last four bouts, all wins, would attest.

He’s stopped James Vick, Edson Barboza and Donald Cerrone in the first round and finished Ferguson late in the fifth.

He could attempt to use some of his wrestling to keep Nurmagomedov off-balance and create openings for himself. What he doesn’t want to do is to remain on the ground for long stretches. That’s where Gaethje will see Nurmagomedov slowly suck the life out of him.

Nurmagomedov’s hands are surprisingly good, as he showed in his win over McGregor. One of his best strikes is one that landed several times against McGregor, where he leans forward as if he’s going to shoot for the takedown but instead fires the overhand right.

If he can land his right hand and make Gaethje defend it, he’ll likely be able to get it to the ground.

Look for Nurmagomedov’s grappling to take command as the fight wears down. Gaethje is physically strong as well as the owner of a high fight IQ, so he’s not going to be surprised by what the champion does.

Still, even when you know what’s coming, there are times that the opponent is simply too good and you succumb to the irresistible force.

I expect Nurmagomedov to grind out a decision. Gaethje is tough, determined, talented and smart, and he’ll find a way to make it to the final bell. But Nurmagomedov will show why some believe he’s the greatest fighter in the history of this sport by outlasting Gaethje and become the undisputed champion.

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