Justin Gaethje showed his championship mettle not once, but twice on May 9, when he routed Tony Ferguson and stopped him in the waning seconds of their fight, and then during his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan when he removed the belt that Dana White had wrapped around his waist and put it on the canvas.
Gaethje had won the interim lightweight belt, but wanted no part of it. He knew that the real champion, and the real belt, were in Russia. Khabib Nurmagomedov was supposed to fight that night, but he was stuck in Russia as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and couldn’t leave the country.
Gaethje knew full well that beating Ferguson was a massive accomplishment, but it did not make him a champion.
The only way he’d be a champion, and regarded as the best lightweight in the world, was to fight and defeat Nurmagomedov. So he shunned the interim belt, the way NHL players are loathe to touch the conference championship trophies lest they be jinxed in the Stanley Cup Final.
“I respect this man, because he doesn’t want to be an interim champion,” Nurmagomedov told Yahoo Sports. “He wants to be a real champion. Of course, everybody loves the UFC belt and it was a good way to promote this next fight versus me, but anyway, if you’re champion, you don’t want to be interim champ.”
On Saturday, Gaethje will get his wish and will have an opportunity to fight Nurmagomedov in the main event of UFC 254 on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, with the lightweight title at stake.
It is what prizefighting should be: The two best fighters in a division meeting in the cage for supremacy at the weight class.
It’s a contrast in styles, that pits Nurmagomedov’s world-class grappling against Gaethje’s high pace and heavy hands.
It’s also expected to be a massive business hit. Despite the pandemic, UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports there is a chance that 2020 will be the company’s best financial year in its existence.
All indicators are that the Nurmagomedov-Gaethje fight will put up a monster number on pay-per-view. Nurmagomedov’s win over Conor McGregor in 2018 set a UFC record that still stands with 2.4 million PPV sales. His last outing, a submission of Dustin Poirier at UFC 242 on Sept. 7, 2019, sold over 1 million.
“I don’t want to get too cocky here and I still have two weeks left here on Fight Island,” White told Yahoo Sports on Oct. 14, “and let’s not forget that it’s 2020, the craziest [expletive] year on the planet. I got two weeks to go. If we get through these last two weeks and don’t have any problems or don’t have anything crazy happen, this will absolutely, positively be the biggest year in UFC history.”
It’s only going to be boosted by a bout which is expected to be memorable for its action and in which the 28-0 Nurmagomedov, the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world according to Yahoo Sports, isn’t a slam dunk to win.
There are many who believe Gaethje’s style, in which he’s a buzzsaw attacking with perhaps the heaviest hands in the division, will lead him to victory. Yet, the odds widely favor Nurmagomedov, who is a -350 favorite at the MGM Grand. Gaethje is +275.
“The thing that makes this such a great fight is that Justin Gaethje has the perfect style [to defeat Khabib],” White said. “MMA wrestling; not just wrestling, but MMA wrestling. He’s very good with his wrestling as it applies to the sport of mixed martial arts. Then, he has knockout power in both hands. He’s not afraid to go after anybody and mix it up.
“This is by far the most dangerous opponent that Khabib has ever faced. If you’re a gambler, you have to love those odds.”
Gaethje rarely uses his wrestling, other than to prevent takedowns and keep himself on his feet, where he is one of the sport’s most dangerous strikers. Yet, he had never throw a punch until he was a professional fighter. But he said his athletic background helped him. The sports that he played as a child and a teenager prepared him for his professional livelihood.
“My first five fights, I fought without throwing a punch; I’d never been punched,” he said. “I’d never thrown a kick. But the mechanics of what I did: I was on the swim team, I was a pitcher, I was a quarterback, I was a punter, I was a kicker. Throwing a baseball, throwing a fastball, is the exact same mechanics as throwing a punch.”
Gaethje has fought seven times since joining the UFC in 2017. He is 5-2 but has had five Fight of the Night awards and four Performance of the Night awards.
This is one of those fights that, many years later, people will remember where they were when they saw it.
“This is the kind of fight you want, the best guy who is at his [peak],” Nurmagomedov said. “I’m ready. I know he’s ready. Should be great.”
Nurmagomedov is a smart and insightful young man, but those three words hit the nail on the head: Should be great.
This figures to be one for the ages.
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