There’s more than one reason to believe Khabib Nurmagomedov’s undefeated record is under threat against Justin Gaethje in Saturday’s UFC 254 headliner.
Not only does UFC lightweight champion Nurmagomedov (28-0 MMA, 12-0 UFC) face what many consider to be his most dangerous foe to date in Gaethje (22-2 MMA, 5-2 UFC), but the fight comes on the heels of the most tumultuous time of his personal life, and it remains to be seen how that impacts the product he puts on in the cage.
The 155-pound championship unification bout headlines the UFC’s final show in a five-week stretch of events at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, also known as “Fight Island.” The fight card, which also features middleweight contenders Robert Whittaker and Jared Cannonier in the co-main event, is available to stream live on ESPN+. Prelims start at 10:30 a.m. ET and are followed by the main card at 2:00 pm ET. UFC 254 is available exclusively to ESPN+ subscribers via pay-per-view.
Nurmagomedov’s fight with Gaethje will mark his first bout since the death of his father, Abdulmanap, in July. Abdulmanap, who passed away after numerous health complications including COVID-19, wasn’t merely the father of Nurmagomedov. He was also his head coach, helping shape the careers of many high-level Dagestani fighters alongside his son.
Nurmagomedov has never left any questions about the influence his father has had on him as a fighter and a man. When he infamously jumped the cage fence and incited a melee after beating Conor McGregor at UFC 229 in October 2018, Nurmagomedov’s biggest concern wasn’t about legal or career ramifications. He was most worried about his father’s disappointment in his actions.
From the mountains of Dagestan to UFC champion.
Whether in spirit, or in person, Abdulmanap was in Khabib's corner every step of the way.
— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) October 18, 2020
Abdulmanap’s absence ahead of UFC 254 can’t be ignored. Nurmagomedov’s not the first athlete to suffer a tragic loss in the days or months leading up to a significant competition. It’s happened in boxing, football, basketball and many others, and in each scenario the individual channels their emotions differently.
Being the pound-for-pound grappling machine who has conquered 28 consecutive opponents that he is, the world continues to search chinks in Nurmagomedov’s armour ahead of every fight. Could competing less than four months after Abdulmanap’s passing be the misstep that causes Nurmagomedov’s perfect record to fall by the wayside? Or, alternatively, will it cause him to be hyper-focused?
Nurmagomedov has admitted it’s been a “difficult” time. He believes it’s his duty to move forward, and if there’s anything Nurmagomedov has proven throughout his career, it’s that his mind is a vault, and his determination is unflappable.
There has been injuries, poor weight cuts and more personal woes that have hindered Nurmagomedov over the course of his career, but it has never caught up with him on fight night. The constant has been that when he steps in the cage, his style of taking opponents down and battering them with strikes or into submission simply cannot be stopped.
“I’m going to try wrestling with him,” Nurmagomedov said of the fight with Gaethje. “If he’s going to defend my takedown one time, I’m going to try second, third, (all the way to) 100 times. … I’m going to make him tired. This is my goal. Maybe in Round 3 or Round 4, my plan is (to) finish him.”
Even if the grief of his father’s death didn’t exist, the showdown with Gaethje would be viewed as one where a career-best performance is likely necessary. Gaethje is a wrecking ball, and he represents a true hazard to Nurmagomedov’s throne.
After debuting in the UFC in July 2017 with a careless brawling style, Gaethje has refined his approach in a frightening way over his past several fights. He’s found his happy medium between making every fight a slugfest and being overly technical, and the result has been highly effective.
Gaethje’s combination of striking power and accuracy set him up for this opportunity. He’s earned 19 career knockouts, with the most recent being a fifth-round finish of Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 in May to claim the interim title that was implemented with Nurmagomedov unavailable to fight.
Despite holding undeniable knockout power, it’s Gaethje’s wrestling background that will seemingly make the difference between upgrading from interim to undisputed champion or joining the list of Nurmagomedov’s previous victims.
Gaethje’s credentials as an NCAA Division I All-American in wrestling gives him an advantage few Nurmagomedov opponent’s have possessed: The ability to consistently stop takedowns. He’s already accepted that he’s likely to tie up with Nurmagomedov eventually, but has vowed it won’t come without consequence.
“There’s going to be a zone in front of me. It’s not very big. It’s going to be a zone of death, and if I have to represent death every time he enters the zone, that’s what I’m the best (at) – creating carnage, creating car crashes,” Gaethje said. “My only goal when I step in there is to create as many car crashes as possible, whether it be our bodies hitting, our heads hitting, our f*cking shoulders hitting, our fists hitting, my fist hitting his head, his fist hitting my head, it doesn’t matter. I need to create car crashes, because that’s the only way to beat this guy.”
If Gaethje can keep the fight standing long enough to implement his game, his odds of winning go up dramatically. Nurmagomedov has shown time and time again, however, that it’s easier said than done.
There hasn’t been a fight in Nurmagomedov’s career where his aura has had so much vulnerability attached to it, though, and if a moment ever materialized where Nurmagomedov could be caught slipping, UFC 254 would seemingly be it.