At stake are the UFC lightweight championship and the Russian's unbeaten record, but there's more to the fight than meets the eye.
After more than a year, Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) returns to the Octagon against Justin Gaethje (22-2) at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday. At stake are the UFC lightweight championship and the Russian’s unbeaten record, but there’s more to the fight than meets the eye.
Nurmagomedov is an antithesis of the modern brawl-heavy MMA, a grappler supreme with non-stop pressure who shot into the mainstream by dominating superstar Conor McGregor. On Saturday, he will take on the stylistically opposite Gaethje — a hyper-violent puncher being seen as the Russian’s toughest test yet.
Who is Khabib Nurmagomedov?
The first Muslim UFC champion and the most followed Russian on Instagram, Nurmagomedov is arguably the biggest global star in MMA today. The traditional sheepskin headgear Papakha-wearing, bear-wrestling former Sambo world champion has been a great ambassador for the Russian republic of Dagestan.
The mountainous region — located where the Greater Caucasus range and the Caspian Sea meet — has been a steady supplier of wrestling champions, including the Olympic and three-time world champ Abdulrashid Sadulaev. It has become a sought-after destination for athletes including India’s Olympic medal hopeful Bajrang Punia. But it’s Nurmagomedov who’s put Dagestan on the map with his unparalleled dominance.
Nurmagomedov’s game plan is simple: take down opponents early in the round and maul them on the ground for five minutes. The execution is where the Russian excels. Nurmagomedov utilises his training in judo and combat sambo — a fighting style designed for the USSR military — and couples them with neat trips to take the opponent down. On the ground, he flows into position to position, transitioning and advancing till he can mount his enemy. From there, it’s either ground-and-pound bludgeoning or submissions a la chokes or twists. ? Follow Express Explained on Telegram
His top-tier cardio means the pressure is relentless, and Nurmagomedov’s striking is deceptively effective. It is no surprise then that Nurmagomedov holds the record for most takedowns in a fight (21) and has only lost one round in his professional MMA career (the third round against Conor McGregor).
So, is Khabib the GOAT?
By nature of the sport and its numerous weight classes, a pound-for-pound Greatest Of All Time is tough to call. Nurmagomedov’s unblemished record certainly puts him in the conversation. Nobody has amassed a 28-0 streak before.
There are asterisks though. His first 16 wins came on the lowly Eastern European circuit. The 12-0 streak in UFC is still impressive, but Nurmagomedov has defeated only four top five-ranked fighters in Rafael dos Anjos, Edson Barboza, McGregor and Poirier.
He failed to make weight for a fight in 2013 and further struggles with weight cutting forced him to pull out from another.
Saturday’s fight against Gaethje is also his third title defence in 30 months. The number of successful title defences by fellow GOAT contenders are Jon Jones (11), Demetrious Johnson (11), Anderson Silva (10), Georges St-Pierre (9), and Jose Aldo (7).
Earlier this week, Gaethje talked about his opponent’s contention for the GOAT status.
“He’s going to be remembered as one of the greatest of all time because of how he beats people,” Gathje told SportsCenter. “When you say this guy fought 28 times and only lost one round, that’s special. That’s something we’ll talk about forever. He won’t have a normal legacy per se, he’s kind of creating a different one. A different path for other people.”
Who is Justin Gaethje?
Gaethje is a fighter whose videos you show non-MMA fans to convert them.
In three years, over seven fights, Gaethje has become a perennial UFC fan favourite with his hyper-violent stand-up style. None of his seven fights in the promotion has gone the distance. In fact, his last decision win was in 2014. And unlike Nurmagomedov, the majority of Gaethje’s seven fights in the UFC have been against title contenders; each earning him ‘fight of the night’ or ‘performance of the night’ bonuses.
The entertaining meet-in-the-middle-and-trade style turned frustrating after back-to-back knockout losses to former champions Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. His unabashed aggression and willingness to inflict and receive serious damage earned him fans, but also taunts from opponents who claimed Gaethje was “punch drunk”, “chinny” and speculations that the 31-year-old had started to slur his words due to an onset of CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
It was then that coach Trevor Whitman forced a change in mentality. Gaethje remains a pressure fighter, but he picks his shots now. Improved fundamentals, feints and footwork have seen him go on a four-fight win streak. While Gaethje’s significant strikes absorbed per minute remain ridiculously high at 8.37, there’s a lot more focus on counter-striking and head movement.
In May, Gaethje ended fellow fan favourite Tony Ferguson’s 12-fight win streak to get the interim title and a match against Nurmagomedov. Against Ferguson, Gaethje looked his best yet, with sharp movement, heavy, timely hooks and kicks to render his opponent’s lead leg ineffective. His significant striking accuracy rate of 55.6% is the highest in UFC history. Against Ferguson, it bumped up to 72.6%.
How do the two match up?
The breakdown essentially has been the same for all Nurmagomedov’s fights. The Russian is at a disadvantage if it becomes a striking battle; God save the opponent if Nurmagomedov gets a hold of them. ? Follow Express Explained on Telegram
Nurmagomedov’s last two wins have been effortless and over excellent strikers McGregor and Poirier. The belief is that Gaethje’s pressure and heavy strikes can fluster Nurmagomedov, especially if the American goes berserk. And while the champion has shown improvements in his stand-up game, Gaethje can take the punishment and dish out many times more.
Nurmagomedov is expected to dominate once the fight goes to the ground. But here’s the twist, Gaethje is a supreme wrestler in his own right!
Gaethje had a 191-9 record with two championships coming out of Arizona State High School and is an NCAA Division I All-American. Gaethje’s credentials outshine majority of the UFC lightweights and he is the most accomplished wrestler Nurmagomedov has faced in the Octagon. Still, the penchant for entertainment and fisticuffs means Gaethje has only attempted a single takedown in his UFC career, but his takedown defence rate is 80% thanks to effective scrambling,
And while Nurmagomedov has mostly squared up against freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestlers, Gaethje, like several American collegiate wrestlers, is also trained in folkstyle. Unlike the other two disciplines, grapplers don’t lose points for exposing their back and the groundwork is based more on control and looking for a pin. The folklore training means Gaethje will also be looking to roll out of trouble once taken down.
“The thing about folkstyle wrestling, folkstyle wrestling doesn’t happen anywhere else other than the United States,” Gaethje told MMAJunkie. “I only wrestle folkstyle. I very rarely wrestle freestyle. In folkstyle, I think the biggest factor is, you’re allowed to expose your back without giving up points, which means you scramble. So whenever he goes to take me down, I’m going to be flipping and rolling in ways that he’s never felt in his life.
“What he’s done his whole life, these guys could never expose their backs to get out of a takedown because they were giving up points, and that’s the first thing you learn in freestyle is don’t expose your back. So you go straight to your stomach, and you give up a takedown. They also never have to get up.”
Why should you be watching?
It’s cliched, but UFC 254 main event truly is the unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. For Nurmagomedov, it is a big step towards a claim as the MMA GOAT. For Gaethje, it’s a Hollywood climax to what has already been a whirlwind career full of Highlight Reel moments.
It is also a throwback to the old days of MMA when stylistic match-ups added intrigue to big fights. In the modern era, when boos ring out as soon as a fight goes to the ground, Nurmagomedov has made wrestling entertaining with sheer brilliance and dominance. Gaethje meanwhile is the unassuming brawler who will always remain popular. Saturday, however, is a chance for him to step up and dethrone the king.
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