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The need for a six-fight main draw at UFC 254 this Saturday in the United Arab Emirates remains unclear, particularly after some late changes, but it is difficult to complain about any event with a headliner as good as Khabib Nurmagomedov’s lightweight title defense against Justin Gaethje. It might be the single most interesting bout the Ultimate Fighting Championship can put on at the moment, and it has some decent support. Either Robert Whittaker or Jared Cannonier could become the No. 1 contender at 185 pounds, while Top 10 heavyweights Alexander Volkov and Walter Harris look to get back on track. Further down the card, Lauren Murphy gets rewarded for her work with some long-overdue shine, and Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba can finally engage—fingers crossed—in what should be an entertaining rematch.
Now to the preview for the UFC 254 “Khabib vs. Gaethje” main card:
UFC Lightweight ChampionshipKhabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) vs. Justin Gaethje (22-2)
ODDS: Nurmagomedov (-345), Gaethje (+285)
At a time when the UFC’s schedule has started to blend together and individual fighters struggle to transcend the promotion’s brand, Nurmagomedov is one of the few men whose fights feel like an event every time out. However, it is worth revisiting just how tenuous Nurmagomedov’s star status was at one point. “The Eagle” was firmly in the mix for a lightweight title shot after a 2014 win over Rafael dos Anjos, but a cavalcade of injuries and weight-cutting issues mostly left Nurmagomedov on the outside looking in. There was a brief return that saw Nurmagomedov rack up wins over Darrell Horcher and Michael Johnson to keep himself a going concern, but those led to another year-plus layoff until a full-time return at the tail end of 2017. That saw Nurmagomedov inflict 15 minutes of hurt upon Edson Barboza, which set up the Russian for a title fight against Tony Ferguson at UFC 223, as the championship looked to move on into a post-Conor McGregor world. It was somehow Nurmagomedov’s first main event in the UFC, and everything around him descended into chaos. While McGregor’s attack on a fighter bus stole all the headlines, Nurmagomedov was forced to cope with repeated opponent changes, with the roulette wheel eventually landing on Al Iaquinta as his fellow title challenger. The fight itself resulted in a surprisingly flat performance from Nurmagomedov—possibly due to all those late changes—but it ended in a one-sided victory nonetheless, so everything proceeded as planned. Nurmagomedov was now the UFC’s lightweight champion and set up for a fight with McGregor that would fully affirm his global superstar status. That fight was more notable for the goings-on before and after the bout than anything else. McGregor had his moments, but another one-sided Nurmagomedov win was marred by a post-fight melee; and while Dustin Poirier seemingly had all the tools to give Nurmagomedov some trouble in their 2019 confrontation, he came in with the wrong approach once the fight started, allowing himself to get pressed backwards and against the fence, at which point Nurmagomedov was consistently able to take over and enjoy his sort of fight. Now, Nurmagomedov hits the cage for the first time in 2020, and Gaethje might be the lightweight champion’s toughest test yet.
Gaethje has been tabbed as a tough stylistic matchup for Nurmagomedov for the last few years, but the question upon his entry to the UFC was whether or not “The Highlight” would rack up enough wins to get into a title fight. Gaethje made his name as one of the most exciting fighters in the world as he put win after win in the books with the World Series of Fighting, and he continued that streak in his UFC debut against Michael Johnson, which resulted in one of the best fights of 2017. That bout essentially laid bare all the positives and negatives of Gaethje’s game. While the fast-handed Johnson managed to find his way around Gaethje’s relatively simple defenses and repeatedly stun the UFC newcomer, the Safford, Arizona, native just kept recovering and pouring on even more offense until the second-round stoppage. However, Gaethje’s next two bouts raised some worries that the Johnson win would establish his ceiling. Poirier and Eddie Alvarez had to go through hell, but both managed to effectively play matador as Gaethje constantly pressured forward, eventually piling up enough attritional damage to leave the former WSOF champion broken and out of steam. To his credit, the Poirier loss was enough for Gaethje to re-evaluate his approach. While there is normally a period of growing pains as fighters try and round themselves out, Gaethje has seemingly flipped a switch and immediately become a much more effective fighter. Even in quick wins over Barboza, James Vick and Donald Cerrone, Gaethje was much more judicious in picking his spots to attack, and once he obviously damaged his opponent, it was off to the races, with the Trevor Wittman disciple chasing and scoring a finish soon after. That all came to a head against Tony Ferguson in the UFC’s return card in May. What figured to be a war of attrition on paper soon became one-way traffic for Gaethje, who combined patience and a sharp counterstriking game to show off the best form of his career. Gaethje is still every bit the bloodthirsty maniac that he previously was inside the cage, but now, he is a bloodthirsty maniac who fights with intelligence. That makes what already would have been a tantalizing fight one of the best matches possible at the moment.
The champion’s recent fights have hinged on directionality and pressure, which is the dynamic that makes this fight so interesting. This comes with the caveat that it was the rare late-notice opponent for Nurmagomedov with none of the usual game planning that the Russian brings, but the Iaquinta fight shows just how less effective Nurmagomedov can be if his opponent can get him moving backwards. Admittedly, it was still a one-sided win for Nurmagomedov, but he had to rely on some of his worst weapons to do so. He was still a much quicker and more powerful striker than the plodding Long Islander and had some success with some diving takedowns, but one wonders how that set of tools would fare against the elite lightweights that Nurmagomedov now faces every time out. Contrast that to the fight with Poirier, who had success in the brief moments he moved forward but was mostly content to back up and allow Nurmagomedov to pressure. All it took was one or two takedown attempts against the fence and Nurmagomedov would essentially clinch the rest of the round without much trouble. Gaethje has spoken about this fight in the past and made clear that he understands the key is to keep moving forward and not allow Nurmagomedov to pressure. Given that Gaethje’s default is to keep charging forward anyway, those words have weight. If Gaethje can make Nurmagomedov the one to back up, the challenger should be able to win a striking match without much issue. While Nurmagomedov’s underrated speed and quick-twitch athleticism make him surprisingly effective, Gaethje’s increasingly calculated pressure striking should make him the way more powerful and accurate boxer. From there, as always, it comes down to Nurmagomedov’s wrestling and his ability to get this to the mat. Gaethje showed effective takedown defense during his World Series of Fighting days, but it has been surprisingly untested during his run up the UFC ladder. Alvarez had some late success once Gaethje was too battered and exhausted to defend himself, and that is about the extent of it. While Gaethje should be in a position to neutralize many of Nurmagomedov’s most effective entries, the champion may simply be too strong or too good at what he does. Even if Nurmagomedov can just get his hands on his opponent’s ankles, it often feels like an inevitability that he will eventually find a way to drag the fight to the ground. However, for the first time, this feels like a fight where it is likelier than not that Nurmagomedov is the one who has to react and adjust to what his opponent has to offer, rather than for that opponent to have to find a way to win the Russian’s style of fight. Gaethje looks to have the tools and the mentality to do this, and while a stoppage victory would be a shock, he can neutralize a lot of Nurmagomedov’s best weapons early and, as he takes over the fight, leave the champion left trying to press some increasingly ineffective options. The pick is Gaethje via decision.
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