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Can Gaethje Beat Nurmagomedov at UFC 254?

| October 11, 2020 2:31 am PDT
Khabib vs. Gaethje UFC 254

Who can beat Khabib Nurmagomedov? Well, ask Justin Gaethje and he will tell you what the majority of the 28 men that have come before him have uttered at some point — “I can.”

When Khabib steps into the Octagon against Gaethje at UFC 254 on October 24, it will be the first time he does so without the blessings of his legendary father, Abdulmanap. The champion’s mentor and trainer passed away due to complications with pneumonia in July, much to the sadness of the wider martial arts community.

But will the loss of his father affect his performance on the night? After all, Gaethje is a fighter that some are certain has the style to down “The Eagle.” Or will we, yet again, be forced to admit that no lightweight fighter on the planet can overcome MMA’s most dominant kingpin?

What Makes Khabib So Good?

A product of the rough North Caucasus region in Russia, Nurmagomedov first began wrestling at just eight years old under the guidance of his father.

Abdulmanap had wrestled as a child but became highly proficient in both sambo and judo while serving in the military. These were skills that would eventually be passed on to his son, who had, by nine, wrestled a small bear as part of his training regiment. Seriously, a small bear.

Pretty soon, he was involved in wrestling competitions and was participating in combat sambo training. His father, who was the head coach of the Dagestani national team, trained his son with other standout competitors. Khabib also took up judo, which would become a huge part of his game.

The Nurmagomedovs had moved to Makhachkala when Khabib was 12. According to the UFC champion, he frequently got involved in street fights but would make a decision to concentrate entirely on martial arts.

He made his pro debut as a 20-year-old and was smashing through opponents within months. Having put an impressive record of 16-0 together, Nurmagomedov was called up to the UFC, where he slowly edged his way to the championship.

Fast forward to 2020, and Nurmagomedov is considered unbeatable. A major part of his success is that he started so young, and under the tutelage of his father. It’s almost second nature to Russia’s greatest export since vodka to win.

Yes, what Khabib does looks so simple. But his intricate chain wrestling and overall proficiency is anything but bread and butter. The guy literally wrestles heavyweights in training, and, according to a former team member and UFC two-weight world champ Daniel Cormier, he quite often comes through smelling of roses.

The Dagestani legend’s strength is unmatched at 155-pounds. His movement and ability to seemingly find his way through every brick wall makes him so difficult to deal with. You’re talking about a relentless bull that has such a varied arsenal of takedowns, that, if one way doesn’t work, there is Plan B to Z to try after that.

Although his striking isn’t the most celebrated aspect of his game, it is massively important to him. Of course, I’m talking about strikes from the top, and general ground and pound. It just does not stop. He will beat you into submission, or put you out of your misery when you can’t take any more.

Only two men have taken Khabib to the mat in the UFC — Gleison Tibau and Abel Trujillo. And yes, the same Trujillo that the Russian took down a record-breaking 21 times in their fight at UFC 160 in 2013. Since then, Khabib has gone on to defeat the likes of Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier, Rafael dos Anjos, and Edson Barboza.

But questions still surround the quality of the Russian’s resume. Style for style, some believe that Justin Gaethje might have the answer to handing him his first-ever defeat in professional mixed martial arts because he is the best fighter that he has ever faced.

How true is that?

Gaethje’s Journey to Challenging Nurmagomedov

Much has been made of Gaethje’s wrestling whenever this matchup has been brought up.

And quite rightly so. Like Nurmagomedov, the American started wrestling young. In fact, he started younger, at just four years old. By the time he hit high school, he was winning state awards and breaking records.

An NCAA Division I competitor in his sophomore year in college, he would eventually attain All American status and is now part of the University of Northern Colorado Athletics Hall of Fame for his success in wrestling.

But it is MMA that has got the best out of “The Highlight.” An 18-0 run that contained numerous defenses of his WSOF lightweight title was snapped in just his second UFC bout against Eddie Alvarez. In his next fight, he was beaten by Dustin Poirier, and pretty much written off.

It’s incredible to witness just how better he is for those losses. Gaethje is now on a run of four consecutive stoppage wins, with James Vick, Edson Barboza, and Donald Cerrone all ended out in the first round.

But the most impressive victory of his career came against Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 in May. Gaethje didn’t earn an early stoppage, no. He absolutely battered Ferguson, who was initially set to face Khabib, until the fight was stopped.

Picking up the interim lightweight title, Gaethje moved one step closer to achieving his ultimate dream of winning the UFC lightweight title. The man who holds that title is, of course, 28-0 boogeyman, Nurmagomedov. But can the unbeatable “Eagle” be toppled on October 24?

How Can Gaethje Win at UFC 254?

Gaethje comes in at around a +285 underdog for this fight, reinforcing the point that beating Khabib is a huge task, but not one that is completely beyond him.

But how can Gaethje get it done? Are his wrestling skills good enough to neutralize the offensive wrecking ball that is Nurmagmedov? I don’t think so. While Gaethje has excellent takedown defense, his offensive is pretty much non-existent. You might be asking why an NCAA Division I wrestler doesn’t use what should be a massive weapon. The reason is that, well, it drains the tank.

In MMA, Gaethje is regarded for his striking more than his grappling. He has 19 KO/TKOs from 21 wins and is known as a guy that you simply cannot allow to find range. His power is phenomenal, and this is what he is hoping will give him the edge on the night.

That’s not to say that his wrestling won’t help him. Of course, it will. For instance, his takedown defense can buy him time, or even prevent him from being sucked under the water at a crucial point in the fight. There is no doubt that Khabib will take Gaethje down, but what if the American can use his experience on the ground to anticipate the Russian shooting in…

If Gaethje lands on Khabib’s jaw, it has to be game over? Or does the champ have a granite chin, as some think? Look, it’s a fight. Anything can happen. And while Khabib is effectively a fighter that has come as close to being unbeatable as any other I have seen in this sport, he is only human. Well, he’s kind of part bear, too, but he’s mostly human.

If you think otherwise, feel free to let me know in the comments section below. And don’t forget to check out my UFC 254 betting guide for more on this fight and others.

I can’t wait for this fight!

Adam Haynes
Adam Haynes

Adam is a sports writer and tipster with a strong background in MMA, boxing, and combat sports.

When Adam isn't writing about those, as well as politics, rugby, and Gaelic Games, he can be found working on methods and strategies to beat the bookies.

For his troubles, Adam is a fan of Leinster Rugby, Glasgow Celtic, and trusting the process.

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