Justin Gaethje (+265) vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov (-330)

Weight Class: Lightweight (155 lbs)

The long awaited lightweight title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje takes place this weekend on fight island. The fight is being marketed as one of Khabib’s toughest challenges and a crucial bout for his legacy.

Khabib was of course supposed to fight Tony Ferguson back in April before it was cancelled yet again, this time due to COVID-19. When UFC 249 was patched together, Khabib couldn’t enter the country. There were no guarantees that the champ could get back to Dagestan after the fight. Khabib’s father, who has since passed away, was very ill at the time.

As a result, Justin Gaethje stepped in on short notice and shocked the world. The Trevor Wittman pupil ended Ferguson’s illustrious 12 fight winning-streak with five absolutley grueling rounds. Over roughly four and a half rounds, Gaethje landed 143 significant strikes to Ferguson’s 136. Gaethje was landing with more power, however, as evidenced by Tony Ferguson’s face. This was honestly one of the most violent fights in UFC history and ended up being waved off by Herb Dean after Tony had taken enormous damage.

Prior to the pivotal bout with Ferguson, Gaethje had already established a more than solid UFC resume. “The Highlight” came up just short against Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez in late 2017 and early 2018 respectively. The Elevation product showed that he was more than capable of trading with each fighter, pushing a heavy pace before being finished in the third and fourth rounds respectively.

Following the losses to Alvarez and Poirier, which were the first and only defeats Gaethje has suffered, he has won four straight. Prior to Tony Ferguson, Gaethje KO’d James Vick, Edson Barboza and Cowboy Cerrone all within one round. All told, Justin Gaethje has landed at least 100 significant strikes in all four of his fights that made it outside the first round.

As for Khabib Nurmagomedev, his reputation is well known among hardcore UFC fans and casual observers alike. The pride of Dagestan does what he says he’ll do and “mauls” people, securing submission victories over Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor in his last two championship outings.

Once Khabib gets hold of a limb, he doesn’t let go. It really is that simple. His wrestling dominance is unparalleled in the sport and nobody has been able to stop it to this point.

While Khabib’s wrestling is dominant, it’s not like he’s sloppy with his take down attempts. He is very good at setting them up with his strikes and shoots with lightening speed. He isn’t afraid to take risks in order to create take downs and has demonstrated a solid chin. He traded with McGregor for a round and managed to submit Poirier after being wobbled in the second.

Once on the ground, Khabib will grind down the opponent and sap his power bar. He will quickly transition to a submission attempt if the opportunity presents itself, but Khabib is more than content with patience. His ground and pound isn’t relentless by any stretch, but he usually won’t unleash it until he has great position to land repeated shots.

Now on paper, Justin Gaethje has the tools to defend against a Khabib takedown. Gaethje has excellent muay thai and hits like a truck for the division. He is excellent at getting off concise hooks, which could prove pivotal when it comes to take down defense.

If Gaethje is going to derail the Khabib train, the first take down attempt will be key. If Gaethje can stuff it and make Khabib re-approach, that will be good. However, the big thing to watch will be whether or not Gaethje is able to make the champ pay for a take down attempt. If Gaethje can really crack Khabib on an entry or exit, that could be a huge indicator of success. Few fighters in the division have the power and muay thai combination that Gaethje possesses, which is why people see this potentially happening.

With that said, there’s a lot of “if’s” when crafting Gaethje’s path to victory. The same things I just said about Gaethje have been said about all of Khabib’s opponents. Of course making Khabib pay for a take down will be key, but nobody has ever made Khabib pay for one to the point of changing his tactics. We can talk all day about “what if Khabib leans into an uppercut” or “what if Gaethje lands a nasty elbow on the break”; but in all likelihood, it will be a moot point after round one.

I ultimately expect Khabib to do what he always does and maul. As soon as Khabib is able to ground Gaethje, the momentum bar will be all the way in Khabib’s favor. Over five rounds, it’s tough to bet against a submission. Though Gaethje has never been submitted, Khabib is notorious for wearing fighters out. He will be under grueling top pressure that will start to really mount in the championship rounds.

Gaethje by decision at (+1200) is kind of wild and definitely worth a hedge. If Gaethje wins, it will be because he does enough standing up while fending off Khabib’s take downs. Between the inevitable depletion of Gaethje’s power bar combined with Khabib’s chin and determination, I don’t see the latter getting knocked out. If Gaethje wins, it will be by decision.

Khabib by submission currently sits at (+195). Expect this to trend closer to (+160) as the fight nears, so I’d get in on it now.

Prediction and play: Khabib by submission (+195)

More UFC 254 breakdowns:

Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier

Casey Kenney vs. Nathaniel Wood

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