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A sport as grinding and brutal as MMA demands of its competitors a real mettle to succeed. Anderson Silva at his peak showcased his athletic gifts and technical skills in fight after fight, yet his reign over the middleweight division was perhaps most defined by the way he withstood a prolonged ground-and-pound assault from Chael Sonnen and submitted him in the final round of their UFC 117 main event.
Few fighters have been as powerful and physically dominant as Brock Lesnar. However, his most memorable triumph took place at UFC 116, where he somehow managed to survive Shane Carwin’s brutal punches and then finished his exhausted opponent when once all the punishment he had inflicted upon Lesnar left him completely depleted. When fighters need exemplary grit just to survive at the top level, it’s hard to truly distinguish one’s self in that category without otherworldly levels of mental toughness fighters like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Robbie Lawler possess.
The UFC 254 headliner between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje this Saturday is the juiciest matchup hardcore fight fans have received in years. The unbeaten champion in arguably the sport’s best division is taking on the interim titleholder, who comes into this fight with four straight knockouts over dangerous strikers. Gaethje punctuated his run by ending Tony Ferguson’s eight-year unbeaten streak in violent and dominant fashion. On paper, it’s as compelling a fight as you’re ever going to see.
Even taking into account what a terrific matchup it is on paper, the listing of their resumes doesn’t get at what makes the fight so enticing: It is a battle of wills for the ages. These are two fighters whose careers have been built on uncompromising, relentless grit. They both overwhelm their opponents and take their will away, Nurmagomedov through mauling them on the ground and Gaethje through marching forward with strikes until someone is unconscious. We’ve seen them break world-class fighters with their pressure, and it seems unthinkable that either could be broken. Now, they’ll spend 25 minutes trying to achieve that seemingly impossible goal.
Nurmagomedov’s Iron Will is pretty much central to his very identity. The proud Dagestani famously wrestled a bear as a child. He has spent his entire life competing physically, moving from wrestling to judo to sambo to MMA. In his enlightening autobiography, he wrote about the continual street fights he and his brothers got into as children while reserving his sharpest insults for opponents he does not perceive to have the mental makeup of a true fighter. It feels hard for those who grow up in the decadent west to fully understand the mentality of someone like Nurmagomedov, a man whose life has been fully dedicated to discipline and combat.
Of course, one of the strongest counterexamples you can come up with is Gaethje. This is a man who grew up with the grind of wrestling, focusing for years on refining those skills that are so applicable to MMA. He then entered into MMA and basically discarded them as an offensive tool, instead using his wrestling almost exclusively to prevent takedowns while implementing a style built on unrelenting pressure, brutal leg kicks and nasty hands. It’s a style uniquely unsuited to the goal of self-preservation, something he himself acknowledges in interviews. He wants to win, of course, but fighting a certain way is of crucial importance to him, as well.
No one has been able to put it on Nurmagomedov consistently on the feet. His takedowns are too good, and when forced to stand he has held his own even with striking experts. What if Gaethje can block those takedowns and begin regularly landing his heavy punches and kicks? It’s difficult to imagine Nurmagomedov being able to withstand that barrage, but we’ve never seen anyone be able to have anything resembling that sort of success against him.
On the flipside, no one has been able to consistently ground Gaethje. His takedown defense is strong, but just as importantly, he punishes opponents so much when they try to approach. They’re left in limbo, not liking how things are going at range but not wanting to risk moving in. It’s hard to imagine Gaethje getting taken down and held down without great difficulty and harder still to imagine him being kept down and physically dominated. Yet, that is exactly what Nurmagomedov has done to so many opponents.
Beyond the difficulty each man will have in winning this fight, there’s the conundrum that each man fights with a style built on breaking his opponent and neither man seems breakable himself. That’s a recipe for the sort of war that we rarely see or a result that feels shocking to behold. They’ll be locked in a cage, and their wills will be fundamentally tested. We’ll see if one or the other manages to dominate the indomitable.