On Saturday, we finally arrive at the title unification fight that’s been brewing since May. When Justin Gaethje steamrolled through top contender Tony Ferguson to win the interim lightweight belt, a future matchup with Khabib Nurmagomedov was all but written in stone. Through his stifling wrestling and commanding top control, the undefeated Nurmagomedov has become one of the, if not the most, dominant MMA fighters of all time. He has never had a bad performance, and except for a fight against Gleison Tibau early in his UFC career, he has always looked on a different level compared to his competition. His opponent, Gaethje, had nothing but good to say of him, and on media day, when Dana White asked the rhetorical question of how many rounds people thought Khabib lost in his career, Gaethje quickly answered, “one, but I would say none.”
When Gaethje was signed to the UFC in 2017, he was considered one of the top fighters outside of the UFC. This respect was shown when he was featured in the main event for his UFC debut. The only other fighter I can think of to also have that honor is Ronda Rousey. Gaethje was undefeated in 16 fights and had defended his belt six times with the World Series of Fighting. In his UFC debut, Gaethje lived up to the hype and knocked out the then No. 5 ranked Michael Johnson.
Gaethje is coached by Trevor Wittman, and trains with the likes of welterweight champ Kamaru Usman and former strawweight champ Rose Namajunas. After his debut, Gaethje suffered back to back stoppage losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. In both of these defeats and in his debut, Gaethje was seen wildly entering exchanges and was more than willing to take a punch to give one. Fans became concerned with his style and analysts wondered if he should retire rather than take additional brain damage. This was not the top tier lightweight that many originally expected would one day face Nurmagomedov.
Wittman and Gaethje will now say that these two losses were due to Gaethje becoming more concerned with entertaining the audience than sticking to his fundamentals. Gaethje has hands that can put anyone out, cardio that will allow him to keep pressure throughout the fight and kicks that have wowed every opponent he has faced. Gaethje made changes to his style that mainly involved better risk management, and so far, this has led to him keeping those two losses as the only setbacks of his career.
This is a matchup that has long been regarded as the perfect pairing for Nurmagomedov, who knows that Gaethje was a Division I All-American wrestler and admits that this means he will likely have to work a lot harder for his takedowns. On the other hand, Gaethje’s kicks compromise his opponents, but he will have to be careful when throwing them against Nurmagomedov, in order to defend against the takedowns. When asked for how they think Nurmagomedov can be beaten, the response of fight fans is usually that it would take an elite striker, but the issue always ends up being that the striker cannot keep the fight standing. Gaethje should be able to defend a significant amount of Nurmagomedov’s takedowns. Nurmagomedov knows this but says he looks forward to showing the world the difference between an American and Dagestani wrestler. Gaethje knows that Nurmagomedov will be able to get the fight to the ground, but hopes to remain composed and bite down on his mouthpiece to keep the fight standing as much as possible.
The two possible outcomes of this Saturday are both historic in nature: Gaethje knocks out Nurmagomedov to end his undefeated reign, or a Nurmagomedov win sets up a fight with George St-Pierre to determine the greatest UFC fighter of all time. The main card will begin at 2:00 p.m. EST and is only available on pay per view.