After beating Tony Ferguson in the summer, the number-one ranked contender of the lightweight division, Justin Gaethje, has just one more obstacle on his path to completing a truly great surge. The obstacle has a name, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and he is unbeaten – though certainly not unbeatable if Gaethje shows the same form that got him in the number one slot.
Tale of the tape
Gaethje seeks only to attack, fighting upright and caring little for takedowns – or anything else that will cause the bout to descend into endless minutes of Greco-Roman wrestling. This is partly because groundwork is not his forte, but mostly due to his nature, with a desire to wear the opposition down through blows.
His most recent victories have certainly reflected this bloodthirsty nature, with his last four all ending via punches, of which three came inside the first round. The most recent, against Tony Ferguson yielded the dual accolade of being Performance of the Night and Fight of the Night, and it would be surprising to see his bout with Nurmagomedov fail to achieve either award.
There is also the cold, hard fact that he would be crushed on the mat against born wrestler Khabib Nurmagomedov, who hails from Dagestan, a region of Russia with a rich tradition of producing great wrestlers. It could well be argued that Nurmagomedov is the greatest product of that region, but the danger facing Gaethje is multi-faceted, with the Russian fighter seeing almost as many knockouts (8) as wins via submission (10).
That versatility is one of several key reasons that only Jon Jones lies above him in the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings, and odds surrounding major fights – as can be seen by those able to place legal wagers on the sportsbook at FOX Bet – will reflect Khabib’s status as a favorite all the way up to the starting klaxon.
Keys to victory
Ultimately, this is not a straightforward ‘punch vs grapple’ affair, such as that infamous UFC 1 bout between Art Jimmerson and Royce Gracie a lifetime ago. Gaethje could just as easily lose at his own game, and find himself stopped by the current favorite.
Overall, Gaethje’s keys to victory are perhaps best summed up by one of Nurmagomedov’s former victims, Dustin Poirier, who is currently the number-two ranked lightweight contender and eighth-best pound-for-pound fighter in the entire UFC franchise. A loser to Nurmagomedov via rear-naked choke hold back in September 2019, Poirier recently said to Gaethje:
“I do think that if Gaethje can keep the fight in the middle of the octagon, he can give Khabib some trouble. I think it’s going to be hard to get him down in the open space. Definitely hard to hold him down in the open space.”
As Nurmagomedov’s most recent opponent, Poirier’s advice is worth more than anyone’s, and makes no illusions as to the challenge facing Gaethje.
In the event that Gaethje pulls off the win, it will almost certainly be close, in which case demands for a rematch would be loud and widespread. Only a decisive and emphatic result can settle what could become a saga that far exceeds its current life expectancy.
If there was to be no rematch, and no attempt to move up into the next weight category, the next task would be to identify a contender with time on his hands and a UFC record as close to perfect as possible. Ideally, that opponent would be one in the same mold as Gaethje, with a preference for striking and the desire to ensure that fights do not go the distance.
Amongst the men who at least partially fit that criteria is Islam Makhachev, for whom Nurmagomedov himself is a compatriot and entrance wingman. If he wins his bout with Rafael dos Anjos in October, he will go 19-1, and put himself in contention to build up momentum for a shot at the title.
While Makhachev’s percentage of decision wins is higher than knockout specialist Gaethje would expect in a worthy opponent, it is the duty of a champion – whether or not his name is Justin Gaethje – to beat all manner of opposition.
After all, nobody can deny that a true champion can beat the conservative and the brash alike, and wear his belt with pride.