Justin Gaethje has admitted that he is motivated by Khabib Nurmagomedov’s ability to “whoop his ass”, adding that his athleticism and “impeccable” timing will cause the unbeaten champion “serious issues” when they meet at UFC 254.

Interim champion Gaethje has been realistic rather than hyperbolic in the build-up to the biggest fight of his career on Fight Island on Saturday, admitting that he cannot predict exactly how his meeting with Nurmagomedov will play out.

‘The Highlight’ had a background as an all-star wrestler on his way to the UFC, which he knows he will need to take full advantage of to become the first man to beat Nurmagomedov, who is fighting for the first time in more than 12 months.

“There is a chance that he could whoop my ass,” Gaethje acknowledged to BT Sport, explaining that he would “never allow false confidence” to disturb his focus.

“I’ve been telling myself that he could whoop my ass for the past 12 weeks, getting up out of bed, motivated to not let that happen. 

“This is the cream of the crop, I’m fighting the best in the world. I can’t wait to take his 0. I’m going to rejoice in taking that from him.”

Gaethje’s honesty has extended to admitting that he was “terrified” at taking a short-notice scrap with Tony Ferguson in April, only to be given more preparation time as the bout was rescheduled for May.

A high-school all-rounder, the 31-year-old Arizonan puts his accuracy and timing down to his early days as a quarterback and pitcher, which inadvertently taught him the same “mechanics” as throwing a punch, he believes.

“My timing is pretty much what sets me apart,” he said, describing pre-fight favorite Ferguson, who he badly beat on the way to a fifth-round win, as “ineffective”.

“[There were] weird things I did when I was a kid. When I was in a car and there was a shadow in the road, I had to blink my eyes any time the shadow was in between our tyres, as stupid as that sounds. I trained myself to fire, fire, fire and never hesitate.”

Despite his reservations about accepting a scrap with a rival noted for his fitness, Gaethje made little secret of the fact that he agreed to the bout with Ferguson for money and to enhance his earning power on pay-per-view.

Aiming to make Nurmagomedov “uncomfortable” by using his defensive wrestling skills, the American criticized Dustin Poirier’s satisfaction at merely winning the interim belt, calling a meeting with Nurmagomedov the true title challenge.

He also said he would have happily taken on Conor McGregor when the former champion had claimed he was looking for an opponent earlier this year.

“I tweeted him in October to call him a sh*t father, husband, human,” recalled Gaethje. “He had every opportunity to fight me and he passed every time.

“He chose [Donald Cerrone]. I’d just knocked [him] out. That was a b*tch move. It will be a b*tch move for the rest of his life.”

With Nurmagomedov’s former victim now in limbo from the UFC title ranks, Gaethje is wisely looking to avoid being taken to the floor by the returning Russian.

“I’m so dangerous,” he warned. “My timing is impeccable…the way my feet work, my athleticism is going to cause him some serious serious issues in there.

“He’s not going to be able to do what he wants, when he wants.

“When he’s on his feet, I will be causing massive damage to his legs, his body and his face. That’s the plan.”