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It’s hard to appreciate just how difficult it is to be an undefeated Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder. Almost everyone suffers an early defeat that serves as a valuable learning experience, partly because there are just so many ways to lose in mixed martial arts. You can get knocked out by kicks or punches or slams, submitted in any number of ways or suffer stranger fates, like losing via injury stoppage or horrible decision. If you fight at the highest level for long enough, you lose. That’s true of virtually everyone in every weight class.
There is less overall talent at light heavyweight and heavyweight, which may seem like a favorable environment for undefeated dominance, but whatever is lacked in depth is more than made up for in average power; it’s simply easier to get knocked out in heavier weight classes. Still, being undefeated is especially difficult in the stacked divisions between featherweight and welterweight. Those tend to be the best divisions top to bottom because there are more people in the world who are in those height and weight ranges, and there aren’t as many competitive alternatives for the best 145- to 170-pound athletes in the world. The already small population of heavyweight-sized athletes is further diluted by other, often more lucrative competitive options.
That is why current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov’s 28-fight winning spree—12 of those victories have come in the UFC—is one of the most impressive runs any fighter has had in this sport’s short history. Not only has he defeated former champions like Dustin Poirier, Conor McGregor and Rafael dos Anjos, but he has barely dropped any rounds in the process. To make things worse, he has been entirely predictable the whole time, relying on his masterful wrestling and grappling to take down his opponents and comprehensively crush them. There is no secret to his success, and there has yet to be a way to stop it.
The flawlessness of his record is somewhat of a contrast to his style in the cage. For all the praise he has rightly earned, Nurmagomedov is often a janky technician. He continues to look stiff and hittable on the feet, even as he has become a more effective striker, and his takedowns in open space are often awkward divebombs. So far, it hasn’t mattered how many strikes he eats or how many takedowns he attempts before completing one. He’s so good and so strong that once he grabs something, he’ll find a way to take the fight into his world and dominate until the ref pulls him off or the bell rings. He can afford to make mistakes; his opponents cannot.
Yet former World Series of Fighting champion and current interim UFC titleholder Justin Gaethje presents a unique foil for Nurmagomedov’s dominance. He has that wild-man toughness that few in this sport possess, and he appears to be ascending to his peak as a fighter. His most recent win against former interim champion Tony Ferguson was a masterclass of patience and brutality. Gaethje reined in his trademark aggression and applied it judiciously, landing clean counters when Ferguson pressed forward and pouring it on when “El Cucuy” shifted to his back foot. He not only snapped Ferguson’s eight-year, 12-fight winning streak by becoming the first person ever to beat him via technical knockout, but he also came out relatively unscathed.
While Gaethje has been picking up steam, Nurmagomedov has been on the shelf. The reigning champ has fought only three times since 2018, his most recent appearance coming in September 2019. In the same timeframe, Gaethje has fought five times, and his last fight was a few months ago.
Beyond having momentum, Gaethje also has the skill set to potentially foil Nurmagomedov’s monstrous wrestling and suffocating control. He has the footwork and striking to keep the fight at a comfortable distance in the center of the cage, where Nurmagomedov’s takedowns are significantly less effective. Nurmagomedov will still almost certainly get a takedown in the fight, but Gaethje has the wrestling chops to make him work for it and the scrambling ability to keep the fight in motion. More importantly, however, Gaethje has the instinct, crisp timing and heavy hands to do real damage to Nurmagomedov during his takedown daisy chain sequences. He has the tools to make Nurmagomedov pay for his mistakes. Add in his insane cardio and his devastatingly attritive leg kicks and body strikes, and he looks like the only lightweight on the planet right now who can beat Nurmagomedov.
This isn’t to say that Gaethje should win, let alone will. Nurmagomedov will be the deserved favorite entering their UFC 254 showdown on Saturday in the United Arab Emirates. Why? Because in 28 fights, he has yet to provide a reason to doubt him—not since his 2012 encounter with Gleison Tibau anyway. It’s not that Nurmagomedov’s previous opponents didn’t have paths to victory. There were and are ways Poirier, McGregor and, if we’re being charitable, even Al Iaquinta could theoretically win. However, none of them managed to implement a winning game plan because they ultimately had no answers for Nurmagomedov’s pressure. That’s exactly what Gaethje possesses, at least on paper.
No matter who wins, the result of the fight will be imbued with the fascination of seeing something that has never been done before. If Gaethje becomes the first person to defeat Nurmagomedov, it will be one of the most remarkable self-realizations a fighter has undergone in recent memory, from reckless violence-weight legend to a legitimate UFC champion. If Nurmagomedov wins, he will extend his extraordinary undefeated streak to a 29th bout and tie the record for UFC lightweight title defenses along the way—after the tragic setback of losing his father to COVID-19, no less.
Nurmagomedov is a special talent and one of the greatest fighters to ever set foot in the cage. He may end his career without tasting defeat, but if his 0 is destined to go, it will be Gaethje who takes it.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.
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