UFC phenom Khamzat Chimaev says that he is expecting Khabib Nurmagomedov to defend his lightweight crown at UFC 254 next week but warns that Justin Gaethje’s power could prove to be crucial.

Next weekend’s main event clash between the undefeated champion and the man considered by most to be his most dangerous challenger yet falls under a familiar narrative to most observers: striker vs. grappler.

Still, mixed martial arts is a far more multi-faceted game today that it was 20, or even 10, years ago. For evidence of this, see Khabib’s successful title defence against Conor McGregor two years ago in which he dominated the Irishman on the ground but also dropped him to his knees with a perfectly timed overhand right in the second round.

Conversely, Gaethje is considered to be among the most powerful pound-for-pound strikers in the UFC. His punches have proven to be enough to end a fight in an instant, while his scything leg kicks have been known to rob opponents of their mobility so he can land square on their chin. But all of this is predicated on one of the more accomplished collegiate grappling resumes in the division. 

So among all of the intangibles which make up next weekend’s hugely-anticipated fight, Khamzat Chimaev says that he expects the championship belt to remain around Khabib’s waist – so long as the Russian champion respects the problems posed in the cage by Gaethje.

I think Khabib [wins],” Chimaev said to the media, including RT Sport, in Abu Dhabi.

However, this prediction comes with a caveat.

Justin, he hits hard,” Chimaev warned. “If he hits, anything can happen in the fight.”

And that, according to most, is this fight in a nutshell. Khabib’s strategy against powerful strikers has usually been to take the fight to the ground as soon as possible. He shot at Conor McGregor’s legs in the opening seconds of their fight and will likely do the same somewhere before the midway point of the first round against Gaethje.

The difference maker, though, could be Gaethje’s own grappling nous. An NCAA Division I All-American, Gaethje was recently announced to be joining the University of Northern Colorado Athletics Hall of Fame for his achievements in collegiate wrestling.

Gaethje has said that he was convinced to enter mixed martial arts because of the success he saw in wrestling sessions with the likes of UFC legend Georges St-Pierre, a man considered as among the greatest MMA wrestlers ever – and if he caused GSP, who fought a division above him, some trouble on the ground, would it be surprising if he was able to do the same to Khabib?

However, Gaethje will likely be more concerned with aiming power punches at Khabib’s chin which, much like Chimaev surmised, could well drastically alter the course of the fight with one swing.