UFC 254: Expect Khabib Nurmagomedov to grind down, make Justin Gaethje tap out

Deven Kanal
·6-min read

At first glance, Khabib Nurmagomedov versus Justin Gaethje looks like the easiest fight of the year to break down.

If Nurmagomedov, the undefeated UFC lightweight champion, can get Gaethje on the ground and keep him there, 'The Eagle' should get his hand raised at the end of the night.

If Gaethje, who has perhaps the heaviest hands in the division, can keep the action standing up, he could conceivably hurt and stop Nurmagomedov.

Simple enough. Or maybe not.

Because though Nurmagomedov boasts of an incredible wrestling and takedown game, he is an underrated and unorthodox striker.

And though all the attention is focussed on Gaethje's hands and feet €" among the most potent in the MMA game €" the interim champ has some serious wrestling pedigree to fall back on.

Let's examine both fighters ahead of tonight's battle for lightweight supremacy.

Nurmagomedov: A mauling beast

It is hard to argue that any MMA fighter has had a more dominant run, especially of late, than Nurmagomedov.

Twenty-eight have tried. Twenty-eight have failed.

Twelve of those in the Octagon include big names: Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirer, Al Aiquinta, Edson Barboza, Michael Johnson.

What makes it all the more impressive is that much like a young Mike Tyson, opponents know exactly what Nurmagomedov brings to the table.

The game plan is simple: Back the opponent up (ideally against the fence), take him down, then maul him for the rest of the round. After round. After round.

The stats tell it all: Nurmagomedov is successful in 50 percent of his takedown attempts, he attempts a takedown from the clinch 165 percent more than other lightweights and has a 60 percent success rate in the clinch.

And once Nurmagomedov has you down, he rains down wicked punches and elbows, often from a standing position.

Things are arguably worse when Nurmagomedov gets in closer to do his work. He often looks to trap his opponent's arms to limit return fire, or when against the cage, wraps his legs around his opponent's legs to stop them from using it as leverage to push back onto their feet.

Until the opponent's gas tank is empty. Then it's Khabib time.

But what some overlook is how Nurmagomedov's striking game, rudimentary though it is, compliments his wrestling attacks and makes him an even more dangerous fighter.

Nurmagomedov has played a neat trick on opponents over the past few years. Going for takedown after takedown until they are consumed with defending it and then slipping in strikes that leave them reeling.

A classic example of this came during the second round of the McGregor fight. The Irishman had acquitted himself well defensively while clearly losing the first round and being on the way to losing the second.

McGregor, already hyper aware of the need to stay off his back, dropped his hands when Nurmagomedov dipped.

Nurmagomedov launched a whipping overhand right that put McGregor down and then immediately went back to plan A: beating The Irishman down against the cage.

But perhaps Nurmagomedov's best kept secret is his 'Eagle punch': a crude leaping left hook that goes under his opponent's guard rather than around it.

Nurmagomedov, who the odds-makers favour heavily, has Father's Plan.

But everybody has a plan. Until they get hit.

Gaethje: A symphony of violence

Gathje is perhaps the most entertaining fighter to watch in all of combat sports.

He's either won Performance of the Night or been in the Fight of the Night every time he's stepped in the UFC.

The American, by his own admission, spent his early career looking for the spectacular knockout. Like Cersei Lannister, he chooses violence.

Gaethje's greatest weapon is his elite striking skills.

Gaethje has publicly declared all he needs to do is hit Nurmagomedov eight times before 'The Eagle' is compromised.

In the calves, that is.

While all the attention goes to those heavy hands€" that have weaved a glorious symphony of violence€" it is Gaethje's punishing leg kicks that often leave his opponent hobbling and allow him to set up his hand strikes.

If Gaethje is to have any chance against Nurmagomedov, he needs to tenderise 'The Eagle's' feet often and early.

Gaethje has come a long way successive defeats to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirer in 2017 and 2018.

That version of Gaethje was more of a wild brawler.

Since those defeats, Gaethje has transitioned into something far more terrifying: a cold-blooded assassin.

Which was on ample display in his previous fight against Tony Ferguson, where he dismantled the boogeyman of the lightweight division over five crushing, concussive rounds.

Gaethje went into that bout with the highest significant striking accuracy rate in UFC history (55.6 percent). And landed with 72 percent accuracy against Ferguson.

Gaethje's pedigree as a wrestler €" he made the all-American team in college €" has been consistently overlooked.

The truth is, whenever Gaethje has been taken down in the UFC, he's simply been too good and too explosive for opponents to pin to the mat.

Of his entire UFC career, he's spent 35 seconds on the ground. Seventeen of those on his back. None of his opponents has really been able to test his mettle on the ground.

But he's never faced a grappler the calibre of Nurmagomedov.

Which may be the key.

So, how does a match-up between Nurmagomedov and Gaethje play out?

Prediction: Nurmagomedov submits Gaethje late in round four.

Nurmagomedov is not unbeatable. Unbeatable fighters exist only in the fantasies of teenage boys.

If Nurmagomedov fights enough talented, top-notch fighters, the day will come when he will watch his opponent's hand raised inside the Octagon.

Saturday will likely not be that day.

While Gaethje enjoys the minor advantage of the fight and each subsequent round beginning standing up, the trouble is that his wrestling skills, at this elite level, remain untested.

Skills that remain untested have an awful way of going to seed in the heat of battle. No matter who you bring into training camp, replicating Nurmagomedov's grinding, pounding, wrestling style is a heavy task.

Look for the fight to follow the same old Nurmagomedov script: Takedown, followed by ground and pound. Gaethje's gas tank drains. He huffs, puffs, and gives his back to Nurmagomedov.

And that's all folks.

Back 'The Eagle' to soar in round four.

Watch UFC 254 featuring a Lightweight Title Bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje, LIVE and Exclusive on SONY TEN 2 and SONY TEN 3 (Hindi) channels on 24 October, from 11.30 pm (IST)


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