An undisputed UFC lightweight champion will be crowned on UFC Fight Island on October 24, when Khabib Nurmagomedov takes on interim title-holder Justin Gaethje in a hugely-intriguing main event of UFC 254. Will Khabib’s dominance of the 155lb division continue, or can Gaethje finally be the man to clip the wings of ‘The Eagle’.
UFC 254 Preview: Road To Khabib Nurmagomedov v Justin Gaethje
Khabib Nurmagomedov has stepped inside the Octagon just four times in the past three years, but in those four outings he has cemented his status as the top dog in the lightweight division. The 31-year-old became a UFC champion for the first time in April 2018 when he dominated Al Iaquinta en route to a unanimous decision win, and several months later he scored the biggest win of his career so far to maintain his place at the summit.
After months of trash talking and some ugly – and in some cases illegal – scenes, Khabib finally stepped into the Octagon with former champion Conor McGregor for one of the biggest bouts in the history of the UFC. McGregor was making his return to MMA competition after a lengthy hiatus that included the boxing match with Floyd Mayweather Kr, but he was more than confident that he would pick up from where he left off by ending the streak of ‘The Eagle’. What happened was the complete opposition. Khabib dominated from start to finish, even knocking down McGregor at one point, and to put a bow on this famous win he forced the Irishman to tap out to a neck crank in round four for only his third stoppage win in over five years.
More ugliness followed after the bout as tensions between the two camps boiled over, and of course that led to immediate chatter about a rematch. That did not happen though, and it would be 11 months before Khabib would step back inside the Octagon. In that time Dustin Poirier had claimed the interim crown with an impressive decision win over Max Holloway, so that made ‘The Diamond’ the frontrunner to face the Russian when he returned. That return happened in Abu Dhabi in September 2019 and once again the champion showed he is a cut above the rest by mauling Poirier before making him submit to a rear-naked choked in the third round.
Khabib’s victory once again put him on a collision course with Tony Ferguson, but this is officially the most snake-bitten contest in the history of the UFC. If you tried to have the two men fight on the UFC video game it would probably crash! Having seen previous attempts to pair the two men together fall apart, the UFC was confident that the bout would finally happen in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of their fight at UFC 249. When Ferguson agreed to face stand-in Justin Gaethje in the main event of the rearranged card, it was potentially taken off the table for good.
Gaethje had got himself back on track following the back-to-back stoppage losses against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier in late 2017/early 2018, reeling off three consecutive first-round stoppage wins to propel himself back into contention. Ferguson represented as substantial step up in quality from the men he had been facing during that win streak though, so many expected his surge to come to a shuddering halt at the hands and kicks of Ferguson. That was not the case though, as Gaethje left ‘El Cucuy’ battered and bloodied when the referee waved off their bout in the fifth round, declaring ‘The Highlight’ the new interim lightweight champion and securing his shot at Khabib.
That shot comes in the main event of UFC 254 on October 24, but can Gaethje complete his rise to the top of the lightweight division or will Khabib send another challenger packing in trademark style? Read on for our free Khabib Nurmagomedov v Justin Gaethje predictions & tips for UFC 254…
Khabib Nurmagomedov v Justin Gaethje UFC 254 Predictions & Tips
Before we get down to breaking down the skillsets of the two fighters, it cannot be overlooked that there has been a major change in Khabib’s preparations for this fight. This will be the first time the Russian has stepped inside the Octagon since his father Abdulmanap passed away from complications caused by COVID-19 earlier this year, and it cannot be underestimated just how big the impact of that will be on the lightweight champion, not just personally but professionally too. Abdulmanap was a heroic figure to his son and played a lead role in the training that turned ‘The Eagle’ into the dominant champion that he is today, so his death could have a hugely negative effect on his son. On the flip side, Khabib is a deeply religious man with a huge amount of discipline, so it is not inconceivable that he puts on another dominant display to pay tribute to his father. This really is a huge unknown factor in the fight, but to help make a decision there are factors we do know about!
Khabib’s gameplan has always been the same – he takes down his opponent and mauls them on the ground for five rounds or until the give up. His striking, while not spectacular, has improved and he is helped in the stand-up by the fear of being taken down that he instils in his opponent. Just look at the McGregor fight – the Irishman appeared so concerned about the takedown that Khabib was able to outstrike him in the stand-up and even drop him at one stage. However, the last thing the Russian wants to be doing here is stand with Gaethje. ‘The Highlight’ was able to batter Ferguson earlier this year and has more than showcased his stopping power with 19 of his 22 professional wins coming via KO/TKO. The longer the two fighters are standing, the more chance he has of scoring the upset.
So can Khabib can get his challenger to the canvas, where he wants this fight to take place? This is a massive question that the fight pretty much hinges on. Gaethje is a very talented wrestler who will not be taken down easily, and if he does get taken to the mat he will be a very difficult man to hold down. He also boasts great cardio that can see him go for five rounds, so unlike previous opponents Gaethje may not be a man that Khabib can take down, hold down, wear down and break mentally with his grinding approach.
It is very risky to go against a man who boasts a perfect 28-0 record and has dominated just about every man he has shared a ring or cage with, but I am going to do that here. If you were to design a fighter specifically to test and potentially beat Khabib then it would be a guy like Gaethje. He seemingly has the tools that can nullify the approach that has made the Khabib so successful since he embarked on his career in MMA. He throws vicious leg kicks that could weaken Khabib’s takedown attempts and make him prone in the stand-up, and we are yet to see how the champion copes when things do not go his way. We do know that he is hittable, so all Gaethje needs is one clear opening and we could see him become the undisputed lightweight champion in highlight-reel fashion. Like I said, it is a big risk, but I believe the lightweight landscape will change on October 24.
Khabib Nurmagomedov v Justin Gaethje Tips: Expert UFC 254 Predictions
Former interim UFC lightweight champion Dustin Poirier: “I’m not really rooting for anybody in that fight, but I do think 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, and definitely hard to hold him in the open space. But will Justin be able to keep his back off the fence and land those shots and make Khabib work for takedowns in the open? That’s the question.”
UFC lightweight Dan Hooker: “If you’re describing a skill set that would give Khabib trouble it is Gaethje’s skill set – an incredibly strong defensive wrestler who’s very handy on his feet and can dish out a lot of damage. [He has] great cardio being five rounds, [and will be] very comfortable being in a main event spot. He has the game you would put together to definitely give Khabib his toughest test. I’m leaning more towards Gaethje in that fight.”
UFC lightweight Al Iaquinta talking to Helen Yee Sports: “I think that’s a really intriguing match-up. Gaethje doesn’t really get held down, [but] Khabib holds everybody down so I think that would be really where the fight is. On the feet, Gaethje is looking scary and on the mat, Khabib is always looking scary. I’ve got to stick with Khabib. I think he has been doing the same thing to pretty much every body so I see him winning again.”