Lightweight Championship Main Event
Our main event of the evening needs no introduction. The undefeated champion, Khabib The Eagle Nurmagomedov, will make his return after over a year off, five cancelled fights with Tony Ferguson, and the passing of his coach and father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. At 28-0 with two successful title defenses, Khabib is looking to further cement his legacy as the greatest lightweight champion of all time.
Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje is looking to seize this moment, the same way he did the moment he was thrust into the spotlight against Tony Ferguson, on the first live American sporting event since the COVID shutdowns. Gaethje is 22-2 and has finished all but one of his wins. He’s riding a four-fight win streak since being knocked out by Dustin Poirier in April 2018, all four wins by knockout.
Khabib is the most dominant wrestler in lightweight history, and there’s no avoiding going to the ground with him. He is extremely dangerous on top, has world class control skills, and gives his opponents no room to breathe. He actively ties his opponents legs up with his own, or slips in leg hooks, completely debilitating opponents from getting to their feet. He’s one of the most intelligent ground strikers in UFC history, damaging everyone he’s fought with elbows and punches from top mount and side control.
His career log is littered with rear naked chokes, triangles and kimuras. There are a plethora of ways he can hurt you on the ground, and the fear of his wrestling is what sets up his standing striking. Khabib is a very good kick boxer, and has shown he can go toe-to-toe with strikers like Connor McGregor and Dustin Poirier when he needs to. He has great footwork and doesn’t absorb a lot of damage.
He generally stays on the outside and looks for opportunities to set up his uppercut with his jab. Everyone who has ever tried to pressure him has gotten clipped, taken down, and abused for the remainder of the fight, however long it lasted. There’s only one thing about Khabib’s game that we find concerning, particularly in regard to this matchup with Gaethje: the early wrestling tends to take a lot out of him if the fight goes into the later rounds.
In the third and fourth rounds against Al Iaquinta, Khabib was unable to get the fight to the ground, and looked to be laboring a bit, though he did largely maintain his striking speed. He was able to out-strike Iaquinta, find a late takedown in the clinch in the fifth round, establish and maintain control and earn a unanimous decision victory. However, with all due respect to Iaquinta, he isn’t the striker that Justin Gaethje is, and he was able to land a lot of strikes on Khabib in the later rounds of their April 2018 fight. If Khabib doesn’t finish this fight by the middle of the third round, he might be in trouble.
Justin Gaethje just fought an absolute masterpiece against Tony Ferguson, and is as confident as he has ever been. Training under Trevor Wittman, Gaethje has become one of the deadliest strikers in the lightweight division, and a dangerous matchup for anyone, let alone an undefeated champion. While Khabib is clearly a dominant wrestler, he has not yet, in his mixed martial arts career, faced an opponent with Gaethje’s wrestling pedigree.
Let’s take his last five for example: Al Iaquinta wrestled in high school and continued his career for two years at Nassau Community College, and Dustin Poirier, Connor McGregor, Edson Barboza and Michael Johnson all have little-to-no wrestling experience prior to the their professional MMA careers. Justin Gaethje was an all-American wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado, placing 7th in the nation his senior year in the 157 lbs. weight class, and currently trains with the best wrestler in the welterweight division, three-time NCAA national champion and current UFC welterweight champion, Kamaru Usman.
Gaethje isn’t an imposing presence with his grappling but, to say the least, he is by far the best-equipped opponent at lightweight to keep a fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov standing. If Gaethje is able to do that, he’s going to win the fight, either by decision or late knockout. Gaethje thrives in chaos, as he always likes to say, he “creates car crashes.” He has no problem eating a jab to land two or three power strikes in the pocket, but he usually only has to eat that first one when he’s at a reach disadvantage.
It’ll be interesting to see if he chooses to work more from the outside given the even reach in this matchup, but we think he’ll stick to what got him here. Namely, the whipping leg kicks, the devastating lead left hooks and the disgusting right hooks and uppercuts in tight. Gaethje has been vocal about his gameplan to attack Khabib with leg kicks, saying he “only needs to land four” and he just might not be wrong about that. If he can land a few good ones early, The Eagle is going to be hesitant to step forward into his shots, and Gaethje can keep the fight standing, where he wants it.
The way Gaethje methodically chopped Tony Ferguson down from his right leg, he’ll also look to do to Khabib, but be more aggressive with the low kicks earlier in the fight. With the exception of, maybe, the few clean shots that McGregor landed, Khabib has never been hit on his chin the way Justin Gaethje is going to hit him. Khabib is 28-0 and one of the greatest mixed martial arts fighters of all time, but Gaethje will be the toughest test of his career so far.
Oddsmakers believe the most likely result of this one is Khabib by submission, we believe that’s his best chance to win the fight. If he’s able to get Gaethje to the ground, as he has every other opponent he has faced, he’ll likely be able to keep him there for a while, land some vicious strikes and hunt for submissions. Every fighter who has pressured Khabib early has been promptly dumped to the canvas and controlled for the rest of the round. Gaethje won’t be putting that pressure on, but rather sitting back and waiting for his opportunities to counter-strike on Khabib’s entries.
Khabib is going to have to work to set up his takedowns, Gaethje isn’t going to move forward into them the way Poirier, McGregor and Iaquinta did. If Khabib does get the fight to the ground in the early rounds, it’s going to take a while to get there and there likely won’t be much of a window for him to sink in a submission. Ultimately, we think Gaethje can extend the standing action, and win this fight over five rounds. We’re not saying it WILL happen, but we actually do lean his way in this fight and the moneyline looks beautiful at +260. The bet we really love is the over at 2.5 rounds -135, and it can’t hurt to hedge your interests with Khabib by submission at +200.
Our official picks for UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gathje will be available this Saturday 10/24 at 9:00 am EST.