Few fighters on the face of the planet are equipped to deal with the intangibles that Khabib Nurmagomedov brings into the cage with him. Unfortunately for the Russian UFC champion, Justin Gaethje is one of those men.
Of the 28 victims that Nurmagomedov has defeated to date in his professional mixed martial arts career, no one has yet come up with a definitive blueprint as to how to flummox the Dagestani grappler. Just one fighter, Conor McGregor, has won a round from him – minutes before succumbing to a fourth-round choke, voluntarily ending his hopes of reclaiming the UFC’s 155lbs title and ceding ground in the blood-feud both men have engaged in for much of the past three years.
This weekend, Justin Gaethje gets his opportunity to go one better when he steps into the cage on ‘Fight Island’ in his own bid to hand Nurmagomedov his first career defeat – but does the American standout pose a legitimate threat to the most dominant champion the UFC has ever seen?
Justin Gaethje is in that rarified class of professional prizefighters who shine in pressure situations. Not only that, the American appears to crave them. Prior to establishing himself as the number one contender in the division with his dismantling of Tony Ferguson earlier this year, Gaethje had already mapped out his route to the title.
To paraphrase, he wanted to travel to Brazil to fight their best before doing the same with Ireland’s best and culminating in a trip to enemy territory in Russia to prize the world title from Khabib’s grasp.
“That’s chaos,” Gaethje told the media, including RT Sport, in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. “They wish ill on you. They don’t necessarily want you to die or anything, but that hostility is what I thrive in.
“I can’t wait for there to be people [attending the fights]. If there was 100,000 people in there wanting me to die, it would be fantastic.”
You might not think it by watching his fights, but despite Gaethje having yet to even attempt a takedown to this point in his UFC career he remains perhaps the most robust threat to Khabib’s ground dominance to date.
An NCAA Division I All-American, Gaethje originally entered MMA on the back of his wrestling chops and his early fights were characterized by that most trusted of MMA strategies: get his opponents to the ground, often by way of a slam, and pound them out until the referee sees enough.
Over time that strategy evolved. The wrestling remains a threat but it became backed up with Gaethje’s impressive power on the feet and the scything leg-kicks which rob opponents of their mobility – and often soon after, their will to win.
How Gaethje’s own grappling measures up to Khabib’s remains to be seen but it is something in his back pocket. And perhaps crucially, practically no tape exists on how to combat it should Gaethje delve deeper into his box of tricks.
Gaethje’s most prominent threat, and the one which toppled Tony Ferguson when they met earlier this year, is his ever-developing boxing skills. In his earlier career, Gaethje displayed a strategy which suggested that he wasn’t afraid to get hit so long as he was able to answer it.
It is a very high-stakes game of ‘I hit harder than you’ and let to him winning each of his first 18 fights – 15 of them by TKO or KO. As with any uptick in competition, this changed soon after he joined the UFC and he came up short in firefights with both Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez.
However, rather than continuing to go back to that particular well Gaethje’s subsequent fights displayed a little more nuance. The power is still there, but he is more careful about when he applies it and when he doesn’t.
This game plan proved crucial against Ferguson, whose extended winning streak was ended by a a very mature display of striking from Gaethje before the referee waved off the fight, saving Ferguson’s swollen face from further punishment.
In some ways, fighters are no different to the rest of us. We dislike unfamiliar situations and distance ourselves from scenarios that our intuition tells us might be uncomfortable.
Not so Justin Gaethje. He has repeatedly said over the years that he would rather lose by knockout than win a boring fight and while some may dismiss that as little more than braggadocio, it does seem to be central to Gaethje’s fighting DNA.
He is unafraid of the near-mystic level of Khabib’s recent successes in the cage which can sometimes lead to his opponents being defeated before they even enter the cage but Gaethje, you feel, doesn’t enter the cage with trepidation of what might happen to him, rather he concerns himself wholly with what he intends to do to the other guy.
And more often than not, this is a staring contest that Gaethje wins time and time again.
Gaethje’s pre-fight statements have indicated that he is not overawed by the reputation that Khabib will bring with him to the cage on Saturday night. Sure, his record displays nothing but success but the American will be the first to say that his name isn’t among the Russian’s list of victims – not yet anyway.
And so, as they say, it is all to play for.
Gaethje’s has made no bones of the challenge he faces this weekend but his confidence ahead of the fight isn’t borne from hype or promotion but rather from the evidence he has displayed throughout his fight career until now.
The best man will win, Gaethje suggested in the pre-fight build-up. But as far as the breakdown of the fight goes, he says that it is he – and not the undefeated Russian – who is that better man.